The Tigers have typically fielded one of the youngest teams in the VSL, with an average age just under 18-years old in 2009, and that looks to be the case again in 2010. The Tigers will debut ten new players that have signed over the last year, and the VSL roster should be an exciting one to watch by year's end.
"We're certainly very young on both sides of the game, with our position players and our pitchers," said Director of International Operations Tom Moore. "At the same time, I think we're as talented as we have been in the past, if not more so."
When working through the roster, that youth will be evident at every stop around the field, starting behind the plate at catcher. With Gabriel Purroy and Luis Sanz now stateside, the only returning catcher in the VSL is third-year man Wilfredo Hoyer. After two nearly identical seasons at the plate, Hoyer will be looked upon to provide depth at the game's most grueling position.
The primary catcher for the Tigers this summer will likely be 17-year old Gabriel Tenia. Tenia has power and arm strength and the Tigers see a player they feel has quite a bit of promise.
"He's a converted guy, having played third base as an amateur," said Moore. "But he's taken to the position well, and he can swing the bat with some power."
Also backing up Tenia will be the newly signed Omar Oses from Panama. Scouts describe Oses as a wiry strong athlete with the potential to hit for some power, and the ability to be a quality defender. He is still very ‘green' as a baseball player, so patience may be required throughout the year.
As in years past, the Tigers won't be afraid to move some of their catching surplus around to other positions to get at-bats, with a fair likelihood of all three backstops seeing time at first base throughout the summer.
Two other players with the potential to see some time at first base are Oscar Gomez and Jose Soledad. Gomez will be returning for his third year in the league, while Soledad is back for his second. After playing most of last season as a 16-year old, Soledad will be looking to deliver on some of the offensive promise scouts have seen in him in the past.
Without a regular first baseman on the roster, the position will provide the Tigers coaching staff with an opportunity to get more guys into the lineup on a regular basis.
Second base should be a position of depth for the Tigers this summer, with numerous players likely to see action at the position. The primary guy is likely to be second-year man Luis Cortez. One year after hitting just .212/.292/.313, Cortez is back and could be in for a big year as an 18-year old.
"[He's] a lot stronger right now," said Tiger Minor League Field Coordinator Mike Rojas. "He is really comfortable at second base. His glove is really good there, and I think he's going to hit more this year."
Tom Moore has also seen the improvements in Cortez, "When we signed him, we always thought he was going to be a kid that could swing the bat, and we think that is starting to come."
Players like Gomez, Soledad, and Eugenio Suarez could also see some time at second base as players move around and gain experience at other positions.
The two primary shortstops are likely to be first-year players David Lizardo and Erick Soto. Both player could also see some time at the keystone, but they should spend the bulk of the summer working on their defense at short.
"[Lizardo] has really good actions at shortstop," said Rojas. "He reminds me a little of a young Carlos Guillen."
In talking about the shortstop position recently, Moore exuded confidence in both young players, indicating that they may be a good complement to each other this year. Lizardo is the more advanced defender of the two, while Soto should be expected to provide a bit more offense out of the position.
At the hot corner, Jesus Ustariz is looking like the everyday guy, and he could be a nice all-around player as the season moves along. "When we signed him, we felt we could project him on both sides of the ball," said Moore.
The VSL Tigers' outfield may have one of the most intriguing players in the lower level of the minor league system, with Daniel Carranza making the move out there after signing last summer as a shortstop. Carranza was one of the team's priority signings during the July 2nd signing period in 2009, and there are high expectations of him heading into this season.
A 6-foot-2, 180 pound 17-year old, Carranza is a physical specimen, "When you see this guy in a baseball uniform, you don't have to wonder why he's a baseball player," quipped Moore. "It's a great body; really athletic. We think this kid just needs everyday at-bats. He has speed, power potential, he just needs to play."
In his recent visit to Venezuela, Rojas came away glowing about Carranza, "His body and athleticism are unbelievable! The ball just jumps off his bat. He could be really good."
Carranza should see a fair amount of his time roaming the expanses of center field this summer, but returning outfielder Jesus Alvarado could also get some time out there. Alvarado isn't going to wow anyone with his tools, but with his baseball intelligence, he can be an asset in the outfield.
Though the Tigers only have two full-time outfielders on the roster to start the season, other players like Gomez and Suarez could see time on the outfield corners as the situation dictates.
On the mound, the Tigers will again be utilizing a modified tandem starter system, with a litany of pitchers looking to get innings on the hill to continue advancing their stuff and developing as starters.
Three pitchers that are unlikely to see time in starting situations are returning pitchers Manuel Morandi, Yonny Mosquera, and Angel Nesbitt. All three hurlers were exclusively relievers last year, and they are expected to fill a similar role in 2010.
In the late innings, the VSL coaches may look to the likes of Mosquera or even Leonel Vasquez to close out games, simply because of their experience and their velocity. Both players have been working consistently in the 90-92 range, and they project to add more as their bodies fill out and mature.
Of the pitchers expected to see more innings this year, one name to watch is right-hander Gino Aguirre. With a nice pitchers body and an advanced feel for pitching, Aguirre could be poised for a big year; even being tabbed by Moore as one of his ‘picks to click' for the upcoming season.
"He is one of the guys we are looking at to continue building and growing," said Moore. "We are hoping for him to have a good year and really put himself in position to possibly travel to the States next year."
The Tigers will break in a number of new youngsters on the mound, including a couple of higher priority signings like Johan Belisario and Jose Mendoza. Both players were signed early on in the July 2nd signing period, and both are guys that Moore highlighted when speaking of the new pitchers to watch this summer.
Belisario and Mendoza both provide raw ability with a quick arm and some potential on the mound. Another arm to keep an eye on as he debuts is left-hander Angel Carreno, who has some potential as a solid lefty arm with some projection for the future.
When pressed to identify some potential breakout players, Moore was quick to anoint his dark horse as 6-foot-4 right-hander Endrys Briceno.
"He's a very interesting looking kid," said Moore. "[He has] a great frame, and he just needed some strength. His arm works really good for his size. He's one of those guys you see out there and you see how good the arm works, and he's just not throwing hard because he needs to add strength."
Moore also tabbed big right-hander Manuel Morandi as a pitcher to watch this summer, and one NL scout that saw him in the Parallel League last fall, saw a guy that might be ready to take off, saying "That frame is fantastic. He's getting there. I really think he could explode next year, and he could be a name to keep an eye on if he keeps improving like he did this fall."
The Tigers could still add a few pitchers to the mix over the next few weeks, as they try to fill out their roster a bit more and provide the depth they like to have on the staff.
With only one player on the entire roster that has already turned 20-years old, the VSL Tigers are poised to be young and entertaining to watch. The growing pains are to be expected, but there are plenty of reasons to remain excited about this team in 2010; just ask Mike Rojas.
"Honestly, I really like everybody I saw down there," said Rojas in closing. "They are really young guys, but they have a lot of potential, and they are a very impressive group of players."
Having seen the likes of Francisco Martinez, Lester Oliveros, Alexis Espinoza, and Avisail Garcia already come through the VSL program, there is hope that this crop of youngsters can begin to show similar skills by the end of the year.
"I would expect by the end of the year, these guys will really be showing off their skills," said Moore in closing. "Hopefully these guys can show that they have really improved over the course of the season."
As is always the case, the VSL Tigers will be a fun bunch to track throughout the summer. Though young and inexperienced, their dreams are the same as any other player in the Detroit system; to one day play in Comerica Park. Make sure to keep tabs on these guys throughout the summer, and check back with TigsTown.com for all the updates on their progress, all season long.
Mark Anderson is TigsTown.com's Managing Editor and feature minor league writer. You can follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/TigsTownMark for updates on all the Tigers prospects.