Several players, along with Manager Andy Barkett, return to the Lakeland roster for the upcoming season, including outfielders Kody Kaiser, Chris White, and Josh Workman, as well as starting pitchers Charlie Furbush and Mark Sorensen, and relievers Lester Oliveros and Matt Hoffman.
Kaiser is returning to the field after a major shoulder injury last year, but he was strong and playing full time in spring training. Kaiser's size paints an inaccurate portrait of him as a player, as he brings speed, defense, and surprising pop to the table. His experience in the Florida State League should be a boost to the Lakeland lineup.
Fellow outfielders Chris White and Josh Workman both spent some time in Lakeland last year, and they should provide solid depth and a good approach at the plate.
Ben Guez will be one of the newcomers to the Flying Tigers' outfield, and after the way he finished the 2009 season at West Michigan, he could provide some offensive firepower to the lineup.
"I think I definitely sorted a lot of things out [in the second half last year]. I'm looking forward to carrying that into this season, and I'm confident that I will. This game always tests you, but hopefully I can pick up where I left off. If can start off and have a first half like I had in the second half last year, I'll be in a good spot."
Despite hit results last season, Guez doesn't ignore the fact that there are still areas where he can improve, citing his plate discipline as a perfect example.
"One of the big criticisms of me has always been my plate discipline. I think I've made leaps and bounds in that area this spring, and I think I can really improve."
Barkett could utilize two other players to roam the outfield, as both Brent Wyatt and Billy Nowlin come to Lakeland after strong years with West Michigan. Nowlin was one of the Whitecaps top hitters in 2009, and his bat is a legit tool. One scout I spoke with this spring succinctly said "[He] can really, really hit."
Wyatt was seen around spring training sporting both an infielder's and an outfielder's glove. After playing shortstop and center field both in college, he has served primarily as an outfielder since joining the Tigers. When asked about his role this season, Wyatt admitted things were still a little up in the air.
"I haven't talked to them about that yet. I was planning on just seeing how the first week or so goes, and then talking to them. Whatever they want me to do, I'll do. I feel comfortable playing either place."
The infield should also provide an exciting group of players, headlined by one of the Tigers hottest prospects, shortstop Gustavo Nunez. Nunez brings blazing speed, and a true top of the order bat to the team; something any manager truly loves. Nunez was brilliant for the Whitecaps last year, ranking among the league leaders in batting average and steals.
After an excellent learning experience in big league camp, some scouts are expecting Nunez to start this year with increased focus and maturity. Flanking Nunez on the left side of the infield this season, will again be third-year pro Bryan Pounds. Pounds was sidelined with a foot problem for a large chunk of last season, but all signs point in the right direction to start this year.
"I'm good to go now! I took some time off after the season to get it heeled up, and now I'm ready to go. I need to get treatment every once in a while, but nothing too serious."
Turning double plays up the middle with Nunez will be Alden Carrithers. Another speedy player with a solid stick, Carrithers is a solid player, with a determined and focused style of play. He should provide a solid average, good on-base skills, and some extra-base hits due to his speed.
Working in at both second base and shortstop this season will be Carmelo Jaime. Jaime jumps all the way from Oneonta to start this season in Lakeland; on the heels of a season in which he forced his way into the lineup with the O-Tigers.
Oneonta manager Howard Bushong said last year that "Jaime wasn't supposed to be in our everyday lineup, but every time he got a chance, he performed. He hit. He picked it. He just made us put him in the lineup."
That type of effort and solid play should win over many fans in Lakeland, and give the coaching staff another solid player upon which they can rely this season.
Also skipping from Oneonta to Lakeland is first baseman Rawley Bishop. Bishop was a standout for the Tigers last year, after being selected in the 19th round out of Middle Tennessee State. Bishop posted a .282/.378/.439 line in 71 games, playing all but one game at first base.
Billly Nowlin could also mix in at first base for the Flying Tigers, while Bishop has experience playing across the diamond at the hot corner, and could see some innings backing up Bryan Pounds.
Like Bishop, Murrian was a standout in Oneonta last year, hitting .296 with 22 extra-base hits and outstanding leadership skills. Though the assignment to Lakeland is aggressive, Murrian doesn't believe it will change his approach to the season.
"I don't think it will change what I do. I still have to go out and play. [West Michigan and Lakeland] are both great places to play. I'm just looking forward to getting started."
Bouchie was a seventh round pick of the Brewers in 2006, but was released prior to the 2009 season. He has played at the High-A level in the past, struggling to a .197 average in 73 games with Brevard County in 2008. Playing in the independent Golden League last year after his release, Bouchie hit .290 with seven home runs and 42 runs driven home.
While the Flying Tigers have plenty of exciting and experienced players on offense, the pitching staff may be even more renowned.
"Headlined by TigsTown's #1 rated prospect, left-hander Casey Crosby, the rotation is stocked with talented arms. Unfortunately, Crosby will start the season on the disabled list as he has come down with a tender left elbow; the same elbow he had surgically repaired in the fall of 2007.
"It's a touchy situation," said Tiger Town Pitching Coordinator Greg Sabat. "He's going to be shut down for a couple of weeks with no throwing, and then we'll try to get him back going on a throwing program."
Getting the Opening Day start will be Luke Putkonen. The enormous right-hander is coming off a fantastic season at West Michigan, one in which he finally began to deliver on the talent promised by his loft draft status (third round).
Mark Sorensen and Charlie Furbush return to Lakeland for another go this season, and both will look to improve on their 2009 numbers. Sorensen struggled a bit after his promotion from West Michigan, but his sinker-slider combination has the potential to induce ground balls and hopefully easy outs with the strong infield defense behind him.
Furbush was expected by many to be promoted to Double-A Erie to start the season, but a crowded rotation pushed him back to Lakeland. In his second season after Tommy John surgery prior to the 2008 campaign, Furbush should be expected to take a significant leap forward. It won't be shocking to many observers if Furbush improves on both his walk rate (2.6 per nine innings) and strikeout rate (7.5 per nine innings) in 2010.
Rounding out the rotation will be two West Michigan graduates, with right-hander Brayan Villarreal and left-hander Adam Wilk getting regular starts.
Villarreal was a force for the Whitecaps last season, and he really began to open eyes with his plus fastball and solid breaking ball. Despite his slender frame, Brayan is another in the long line of hard-throwing starters throughout the system.
Though just drafted last summer, Wilk blew through Oneonta and West Michigan last year, serving as a key piece to the Whitecaps rotation down the stretch. After such a blazing start to his career, Wilk still recognizes that there are things he needs to do to improve this year.
"The kind of pitcher I am, I have to work on keeping my pitches down in the zone, and throwing all of my pitches for strikes. I'm more of a contact pitcher, and those are important things. I have to try and get deeper into games and manage my pitch counts more."
While Wilk may be new to the organization, he still recognizes the potential that exists for this rotation; "Our starting rotation is really strong. We've got some starters in the bullpen now, just because we are so deep. I think we can have a good year, and I think if we keep to the fundamentals of pitching, we could be really strong."
The talent doesn't stop with the rotation, as the bullpen features returning arms like Matt Hoffman (who could also start this year) and Lester Oliveros. Hoffman had a rocky road after his promotion to Lakeland last season, but there is little doubting the talent inside the left-hander.
Oliveros should team with fellow hard-throwing righty Tyler Stohr, to lock down the late innings. While the roles aren't clearly defined at this time, Barkett was leaning towards these two at the back end of games, saying "Both of those guys can do it. Lester has the nod from me right now based on his experience. Stohr had a lot of saves last year, but he's still learning. I wouldn't say either are set in that role right now though. They're going to have to earn it."
A group of additional arms from West Michigan will be in line to help during the middle to late innings as well, as right-handers Anthony Shawler and Erik Crichton, and left-hander Tyler Conn have all shown an ability to get professional hitters out. Rounding out the bullpen will be experienced left-hander Ramon Garcia, who will take Crosby's place on the roster to start the season.
While raw talent is definitely present on the roster, this Lakeland club may have the advantage of chemistry as well. A large chunk of this team has played together over the last two years, and they know what to expect out of each other.
"The chemistry stands out to me," said Barkett when asked about his team's biggest asset.
"That's not what you would normally expect to hear, but we have the potential to have a group of guys with great makeup, and a group of men that know what their purpose of what they're doing is. They care about each other. They're in the fox hole together and really care about the person next to them. Team's can do special things when that happens."
"I think we're already gelling as a team," said Guez. "We've got a lot of the same starters or same guys in the lineup. We've got a lot of familiar faces. That really helps out with team chemistry."
When asked of the impact of chemistry, Bryan Pounds mirrored Guez's thoughts; "I've been playing with most of the guys since we were drafted. Any time you're playing with a bunch of guys you have good chemistry with; it carries over onto the field. You're playing as a team when that happens. The camaraderie we have on and off the field definitely has an impact on our confidence and performance."
When asked of expectations, Barkett didn't hide his enthusiasm for the upcoming season. "I like this club, I really do! I think we can win the first half. I can't really set expectations beyond that, but I really think we can win the first half. That's my goal and my focus as we get started."
The lofty hopes and goals didn't end there, as Barkett's players followed his lead and exuded confidence and hope in their upcoming season.
"I think we can have an incredible offense," said the hot hitting Ben Guez. "We can really hit! I really think we can be a strong club this year."
"Based on last year and this spring, we really hit the ball well and put up a lot of runs," added Wyatt. "We had a great team last year, and with a lot of that team here, I think that can carry over to Lakeland. I go out there thinking we can win every game."
Though it's been a lean few years for the Flying Tigers faithful, it might be time for them to follow the lead of their manager and players heading into the 2010 season, and let optimism reign supreme.