If the minor leagues were constructed solely for wins and losses the Flying Tigers would have had a disappointing 2009 season. Thankfully the minors exist to nurture and develop talent to help the club as a whole. While Lakeland didn't have a Rick Porcello type prospect on their roster, they were able to put together a strong pitching staff.
Duane Below was the star of the staff in April. In his four starts he had a 1.86 ERA with 26 strikeouts and 7 walks in 19 and 2/3 innings of work. With a WHIP of 0.96 and an 11.9 K/9 it was no surprise he was the first starter with a one way ticket to Erie.
One entertaining part of the opening month was the major league rehabbers that appeared in Lakeland. The enigmatic Dontrelle Willis took his first step in his recovery from his anxiety disorder in Lakeland. He wasn't stellar but it was his only start, at any level this season, where he didn't issue a free pass. It didn't quite work out for Willis in the majors but he was a good story.
The Flying Tigers sputtering offense made the pitchers earn every win they could get. The pitching staff held opponents to a mere 3.5 runs a game but the Flying Tigers were only able to squeak out 3.2 runs in their contests. The meager offensive production was why they posted an under .500 start at 9-11.
The one bright spot in the sagging lineup was Andy Dirks. In his 27 games in the Florida State League he led the team with a .330 batting average and put together great at-bats. His discretion at the plate led him to walk 13 times while striking out just 11 times. He also provided a spark on the base paths with 10 stolen bases. He celebrated his FSL player of the week award and was promptly promoted to double A.
The lineup and rotation was trying to find some continuity in May. They were able to brush off the shaky start and post a positive run differential (+4) and an 11-11 record. However the skies opened up at the most imperfect time and washed away five games. The impromptu vacation built up some rust on the team when they were just starting to get in a grove.
In between the rain drops Jordan Newton was promoted to replace the departed Jeff Kunkel behind the plate. Newton quickly became the center piece of the lineup. While Kunkel was great while donning the mask, he was nothing to write home about with the lumber. Newton replicated Dirks heady base running by going after every extra base he could.
It wasn't just the newbies who were the catalyst to an offense that increased their average runs to 4.5 a game. Michael Bertram and Jeremy Laster's return from injury brought some power to Lakeland. The surge led the team to score more than 30 runs in May than in April.
The Flying Tigers started to take flight but in the rotary door that is the lower minors, major roster changes were on the horizon. That's why wins and losses are tough to count on. As soon as a player was starting to show promise they were packing their bags and heading north.
Lakeland started June by winning just two of their first nine games. They were able to finish the month playing .500 baseball but the damage was done and the lull at the start dropped them to last in the Northern division. They finished the first half with a 29-36 record and 11.5 games out of first.
The catastrophic blow occurred when Kody Kaiser broke his wrist colliding with Sarasota's catcher on a play at the plate. Kaiser was the consistent middle of the order bat, an OPS of .823, while playing a solid right field. In his absence the team needed someone else to step up.
Chris Carlson was able to come through in the clutch. Carlson had his most productive month of the season. He batted .277 with .347/.477/.824 splits which were his ceiling for the season. However Kaiser's loss was compounded by the promotions of Roger Tomas, Thad Weber and star of the bullpen Robbie Weinhardt.
Weinhardt was the most dominating pitcher that Lakeland showcased this season. In his 31 2/3 innings he only allowed three earned runs for a microscopic 0.86 ERA. His 4 to 1 strikeout to walk ratio and 11.3 K/9 just dominated the Florida State League.
The silver lining happened down in Fort Myers. Andrew Hess and Thad Weber were selected as FSL All-Stars. Weber came in at the perfect time. By closing out the third inning it gave him the opportunity to win the game since the North scored six runs in the top of the fourth. Not to be out done, Hess recorded a crucial hold when he came on in the fourth inning to clean up after pitcher Ryan Searle (Daytona Cubs) to keep the North ahead and insure Weber would get the win.
From the prospects cultivated in Lakeland the Detroit club was able to acquire key cogs in their playoff push. Losing prospects like Maurucio Robles and Brett Jacobson was hard but Jarrod Washburn and Aubrey Huff might give Detroit enough fire power to hold off the Twins for the division crown.
While Robles first start in Lakeland went about as bad as possible, 2 2/3 innings, five earned runs on nine hits, it could only get better. Robles bounced back in his next six starts. Robles sported a 2.50 ERA with 38 K's and 12 BB's in 32 1/3 innings before heading to the Cal State League. While his presence was missed his starts helped Lakeland right the ship.
With Robles taking over Weber's place in the rotation the Flying Tigers were able to post their best month of the season with a +16 run differential and a 14-13 record. L.J. Gagnier was dazzling opponents. Gagnier seemed to strike out 10 batters during every start. The pitching rotation was a strength for Lakeland. Charlie Furbursh was able to put his Tommy John surgery behind him and win the FSL player of the week for his sublime 2.49 ERA and a 5 to 1 K:BB ratio throughout July.
Even the lineup was starting to come together with Audy Ciriaco's bat finally starting to reach the high level as his glove. After Ciriaco had a cold start to the season, batting just over the Mendoza line for April and May, he started to get a little more luck. Balls started to find holes and he was taking advantage. Ciriaco has always had all the tools you would want from your shortstop. This season he started to put it together.
The success didn't last. August was by far the worst month of the season. The Flying Tigers limped through the month posting just six wins out of 26 games and were outscored by 29 runs. The bullpen, lineup and rotation were depleted from promotions and injuries. Gagnier was promoted to Erie as well as Chris White, Jarred Gayhart and Nolan Cain. Detroit sent closer prospect Brett Jacobson to Baltimore for Aubrey Huff.
Lester Oliveros was the king of the mountain after all the departures. He showed he could find the strike zone as well as light up the radar gun. He didn't have many opportunities to close but once he was able to command his two and four seam fastball as well as his curve he started to become the pitcher that they envisioned.
While there wasn't a lot of wins being posted in the column on the left, there were some positives. Hernan Perez was promoted to Lakeland from the GCL. Perez has been known for his slick glove ever since the Tigers signed him out of Venezuela. However in his time at Lakeland there were glimpses of his bat as well as his extraordinary leather. His .264 batting average probably doesn't excite you but he was batting a combined .224 in his previous stops this season. At just 18 years old Perez is an intriguing player to watch for the future.
The end of the season swoon included appearances from 2009 draft pick Austin Wood. It was shocking to see he was still able pitch after his taxing effort in the College World Series. Wood famously threw 164 pitches in relief in a University of Texas elimination game against Boston College. He didn't allow a run to cross the plate in his five innings as a Flying Tiger while striking out four. He's a crafty lefty that knows how to pitch that will pay dividends next season.
Every season starts with such hope and optimism. You never feel satisfied losing more than you win in a season but the big picture has to stay intact. At the end of the season manager Andy Barkett said, "any time you put this uniform on you are here to play ball and win games." That emphasizes the importance of ending the season on a high note. Barkett also added, "winning is the best feeling in the world, that's why we're here." Hopefully that feeling will happen more often next season.