The starting rotation should look very familiar to followers of the SeaWolves, as it will feature four returning players from 2009. Right-handers Thad Weber and LJ Gagnier, and left-handers Jon Kibler and Duane Below are back for another go in the Eastern League.
Weber turned in a solid, if uninspiring campaign in 2010, one that earned him a trip to the Arizona Fall League to garner more innings and gain more experience. He has a solid three-pitch mix that he can use to keep hitters off balance and helps him profile as a back of the rotation starter or swingman.
Gagnier has a similar profile, though he is the owner of a slightly deeper arsenal. Gagnier is a durable workhorse that should be relied upon this year to keep his team in ball games and work consistently into the later innings.
Kibler offers a similar profile to Gagnier, only from the left-side of the rubber. He doesn't have the fastball that once made him the Tigers Pitcher of the Year, but he still has the ability to mix speeds and battle deep into games.
Rounding out the returnees to the rotation is Duane Below. After an electric start to the 2009 season at Lakeland, Below was showing well in a brief trial with Erie before being sidelined with an arm injury; one that ultimately required Tommy John surgery. Below's rehab went off without a hitch, and one scout said this spring "I couldn't even tell he had surgery, and it hasn't even been a year yet."
Below could be in for a breakout season working in the Erie rotation, though his command may take some time to come around to pre-injury form.
The last member of the starting rotation in left-hander Andrew Oliver. The Tigers second round pick last summer, Oliver signed too late to make his official debut, but showed well in the Arizona Fall League, and was given an aggressive first assignment to Erie.
When asked how he changes his approach to adjust for the fact that he's facing more advanced hitters right off the bat, Oliver said "I just have to stay with my same game plan, and keep the same mentality. I have to mix my stuff up and keep the hitters off balance. Whether I was at Double-A or High-A, my mindset would have been the same."
Oliver has the raw stuff – a mid-90s fastball potentially plus slider and change-up – to move quickly through the system. If the Tigers are in need of a starter at some point this year, it is not inconceivable that Oliver may get a call for a spot start or two. His arrival in Erie should be an exciting one for fans, and each of his starts will bear watching intently.
Though Marte has worked in the rotation before, his durability has come into question over the past two years, and a move to the bullpen may help him stay on the field. When he is right, Marte can be a dominating force with two outstanding pitches and an aggressive mound mentality. The move to the bullpen could mean he doesn't stick around in Erie too long if he is successful. One player that made a meteoric rise through the organization last year was right-hander Jared Gayhart. After starting the year in the West Michigan bullpen, his dominating relief stints forced not only a promotion to Lakeland, but a subsequent promotion to Double-A before season's end.
Gayhart is still relatively new to pitching, having played primarily outfield while at Rice University, but he has taken to the short relief role quickly. He is an outstanding athlete with exceptional makeup, and numerous scouts are excited to see what he can do with added experience.
Brendan Wise returns to Erie, hopefully this time to stay for the full season. He is still the same pitcher with a solid sinker-slider mix, but he has to refine his ability to throw quality strikes on a regular basis.
The surprise return of Zach Simons to Erie was a bit discouraging for him at first, but he says he is now ready to move past that and get on with the season.
"I thought I pitched well enough to go to Toledo, but it's not about where you start, but where you finish. I want to come back and have a year like I had last year, or better, and end up in a better spot."
With the injury to Cody Satterwhite, Simons could be in a position to mix in as the team's closer on occasion, where the high leverage experience would be valuable as he tries to get himself back on the big league map after being removed from the 40-man roster in the off-season.
Newcomer Jay Voss also joins the bullpen, after arriving with the organization as part of the Nate Robertson deal with Florida. Voss has a fastball that can work in the low-90s, and a solid breaking ball. His youth and the Tigers need to evaluate him could mean he works as Erie's primary lefty reliever this year.
The other lefty in the bullpen is veteran minor league Ryan Ketchner. His name has been in the news in the past because he is largely deaf, but that hasn't hampered his ability to pitch effectively. Injuries slowed him prior to signing with the Tigers last summer, but healthy now, he is poised to get back on the prospect map.
Also spending some time in the bullpen, though also potentially mixing in some starts, right-hander Brooks Brown comes down a rung from Erie to see if his pitch-to-contact mentality can get back on a track of success in Double-A.
Behind the plate, the returning pitchers will have a familiar face, as defensive whiz Jeff Kunkel returns to split time with veteran Max St. Pierre.
When talking with one veteran NL scout this spring, he gushed over Kunkel's defense, saying "If I'm throwing to him as a pitcher, then I'm one really happy dude! He is a huge safety net for that pitching staff."
That type of defense should strike fear in the hearts of opposing running games, while also providing supreme confidence to the pitching staff.
The rest of the lineup has a solid mixture of returning players and some newcomers. First base will be held down by a split in duties between Michael Bertram (who will also see time at third) and Cesar Nicolas.
Nicolas, a free agent acquisition, turned in an outstanding spring and truly earned his spot on this roster. He has some thunder in his bat and he is a solid defender at first base. Combined with Bertram, these two should provide some value to the middle of the SeaWolves' order this season.
Across the diamond at third base, Santo De Leon returns after becoming a free agent for a short time, and as many Erie fans already know, he can play a little defense and hold his own at the plate.
De Leon may just be holding the hot corner down temporarily, as the Tigers await the return of Audy Ciriaco, whose wrist is ailing him. The injury is not serious, and Ciriaco is expected to return soon, and should see plenty of time at third base as he tries to get the at-bats he needs to continue his development.
What appears to be a move to third base for Ciriaco is prompted by the return of Cale Iorg to man shortstop. After being hyped by Dave Dombrowski prior to last season, Iorg's offensive struggles left many fans to wonder if they had been sold a bill of goods. Though the bat never came around in 2009, the defense was outstanding, as most scouts considered him the premier defender in the Eastern league, and one of the best in the minor leagues.
Iorg worked diligently during the AFL and the off-season to simplify his approach and his mechanics at the plate, in hopes of allowing his athleticism, power, and speed to take over.
Fans expectations' for Iorg may be low this year, but they would be wise to watch him closely, as he still profiles as a big league shortstop, and he could be exciting to watch this summer.
Justin Henry will be the primary second baseman for new manager Phil Nevin this year, and though the numbers weren't pretty in Lakeland last year, he still showed promise and turned in a solid spring, and believes he might be on track for a rebound.
"Last year was definitely a bit of a rough year. I didn't play as well as I would have liked, but I thought I did some things well. I worked hard this off-season to improve some of the things I needed to work on, and I'm looking forward to getting off to a good start this year." Backing up around the diamond will be returning utility man Shawn Roof. Roof has actually managed to play just about every position on the diamond, and he should be a valuable asset in Erie this year, and he provides flexibility anywhere he is needed.
The outfield has an interesting mix, led by the surprising presence of former SeaWolves star Wilkin Ramirez. With a crowded outfield in Toledo, thanks to a host of the 2009 ‘Wolves, Ramirez was forced down to Double-A to get the at-bats and defensive reps he needs to continue his development.
When the news came down of his assignment, it was also noted that he would be spending most of his time patrolling center field, a position he began playing during the Dominican Winter League.
At that time, Tigers' field coordinator Mike Rojas felt Ramirez might be on to something in center; "He gets to see a different angle of the bat and the ball in the hitting zone. For me, it's a better position for him in center and right field where he can see the ball a little bit better off the bat, than he can in left field. He needs to learn all three really, and I think he can play all three."
Either way, Ramirez will provide the big time offensive threat in the middle of the Erie lineup, something that is sorely needed on this team.
Also capable of providing some punch in the heart of the order is Deik Scram. Scram burst out last year, setting a career best in home runs, while further refining his offensive game. His return to Erie should help the club in many ways.
Also returning in the outfield will be the gritty Andy Dirks. He was moved aggressively after getting off to a red-hot start in Lakeland last year, and he was a solid addition to the club throughout the remainder of the season. Dirks does a lot of things pretty well, but doesn't stand out in any facet of the game, but he should be a fan favorite thanks to his style of play.
Rounding out the position players is newcomer Josh Burrus. After being released by the Braves prior to last season, he spent the year playing independent ball, and is now back in the affiliated game. He provides an element of speed to the team that could be very useful throughout the long season.
While the lineup lacks the raw power that existed last year with the likes of Casper Wells, Brennan Boesch, and Ryan Strieby, this year's team has a solid blend of players that have both experience and ability.
The pitching staff, led by potential stud Andrew Oliver, should keep the team in most games, and they could be in the mix come the end of the year.
Justin Henry definitely thinks this Erie team can stay in the hunt, "Everybody seems excited about playing for Phil, and he seems like the kind of guy we're all going to enjoy playing for. We have a lot of guys that have been here before, and we are very talented. I think we are going to be capable of doing some great things this year.