GCL Tigers 2009 Season in Review

The GCL Tigers made the best of several tough situations this summer, to finish the year strong and prove that with development, winning can come eventually. The Tigers started the year off with a strong come from behind win over the Braves, only to lose their next four games, amidst five rainouts.

The rain would be a continuing problem through the early part of the summer, and losing a frequent occurrence through about mid-July. The Tigers won seven of eight to close out July, and continued winning with their strongest stretch coming in the final weeks of the season as they made a push for a .500 record.

Over the final nine games of the season, The GCL Tigers pitching staff was the true story, firing five shutouts and carrying the team along the way. With a pitching staff comprised of young, raw talent, and non-drafted free agency, it was "nice to see them come together and finish strong," said Tigers Pitching Coach Greg Sabat.

Leading the way on the mound was TigsTown GCL Pitcher of the Year Giovanni Soto. Soto won the league ERA title at 1.18, while finishing with a perfect 4-0 record.

Challenging Soto for the honors of top GCL pitcher this year was fellow left-hander Rayni Guichardo. Prior to a late season promotion to Lakeland for one start, Guichardo was sporting a 1.73 ERA and 1.09 WHIP in eleven starts, including one complete game. "Rayni is very mature. He can change speeds, command his pitches, and he competes very well," said Sabat.

Also standing out on the Tigers roster was hard-throwing righty Ramon Lebron. Lebron finished the summer with 55 strikeouts in 50 2/3 innings, though he walked 37 as he tried to learn to harness his massive arm strength.

A strong crop of senior signs as non-drafted free agents also made a big difference for the Tigers this summer. "There really should be a lot of kudos for our scouting department. They identified some strong pitchers and went out and got them," said Sabat.

Led by Zach Samuels, Sabat indicated "we loved him." With a 2.56 ERA in ten starts and only 17 walks in 56 1/3 innings, he exhibited exactly what the staff discuses when his name comes up; "He keeps you in the game every time out. He's not afraid to challenge inside, and he's just a great competitor," said one staff member.

Though they were there for a much shorter period of time, three other signings showed promising stuff. Drew Graham, Nolan Cain, and Miguel Mejia all made strong impressions in a short amount of time.

"That power sinker can get him outs at Double-A. His slider flashes as a plus pitch but it needs to get more consistent," said Sabat when speaking of Cain.

Both Graham and Mejia have potential going forward. Graham showed poise on the mound and a three-pitch mix highlighted by a four-seam fastball that can get to the 91-92 range with ease. Mejia is more of a potential guy, but according to Sabat, once he learns to "let it fly" his four-pitch arsenal could make him someone worth watching.

Rounding out the pitching discussion, and in fitting fashion considering how many games he finished for the Tigers this summer, Melvin Mercedes was a dominating force at the back of the bullpen. Dubbed a "wild pony" before the season because of his struggles commanding his power fastball, Mercedes was sparkling in 26 appearances. With 16 saves, he led the Gulf Coast League in the category, and finished with a 1.82 ERA and only 19 hits allowed in 24 2/3 innings.

On the offensive side of the ledger, the Tigers were led largely by two players; outfielder Jordan Cruz, and TigsTown's GCL Player of the Year, infielder Alexander Nunez.

Signed out of Kansas State, Cruz was a polished hitter that was able to step in and start hitting in a rookie level league.

"I have no clue how that kid wend undrafted. He's got enough tools to play in the minor leagues for quite a while. It's a mystery to me," said one NL scout when asked about Cruz. Cruz finished the summer with a strong .265/.371/.500 line that included 15 doubles, good for fifth in the GCL.

Nunez – making his first appearances stateside – came right in and started hitting with more authority than anyone could have imagined. The young middle infielder finished the season with a well-rounded and powerful .308/.353/.531 line that sported seven doubles, five home runs, and even five triples.

The offense also received a boost from two late additions to the roster; outfielder Chao-Ting Tang and first baseman James Robbins.

Tang joined the roster after extensive recovery from facial fractures that were caused by a double-play throw hitting him in West Michigan. "I saw a guy that wasn't afraid to get back in there and compete," said an AL scout who saw Tang late in the summer. In just 22 games for the Tigers, Tang posted a .307/.373/.413 line that helped put a charge in a lineup searching for additional help.

Robbins stepped in after signing on August 17th, and immediately started raking. In only nine games on the roster, Robbins smoked the ball, ripping a triple and two home runs; finishing with an absurd .361/.410/.583 start to his career.

One player that was expected to be a significant contributor heading into the season was third baseman Francisco Martinez. It was a slow go for the 18-year old (now 19) Martinez, hitting only .182/.231/.273 in June. Things only got marginally better, but one bright spot was his performance away from the very unfriendly confines on the back fields at TigerTown. Martinez posted a solid .284/.322/.395 line away from home, showing the type of skills many believe he will continue to show in 2010.

In the end, the Tigers took a raw roster and made a strong push down the stretch, falling just one game short of a .500 record, and finishing only 3.5 games out of first place in their division. That kind of progress in one summer is a testament to the work ethic of both the players and the staff in TigerTown. Another successful season is in the books for the GCL crew, with development in hand, a strong finish to the season, and plenty of promise heading to 2010.

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