Coming off a season in which the DSL Tigers finished with a solid 37-32 record, and a fourth place finish in the Boca Chica Baseball City Division, this year's squad may be poised for another strong showing.
They will have some things to overcome this year, including the loss of several of their top offensive performers from the 2009 season; starting with highly thought of prospects Javier Azcona and Steven Moya. Also gone from last year's squad are outfielder Samire Rijo, first baseman Juaner Aguasvivas, and pitchers Ariel Medina, Yadiel Polanco and Wilsen Palacios. Filling in some of those gaping holes will be a crop of newcomers with a lot of talent, but who remain short on experience. Leading the DSL rookies will be outfielder Confesor Lara, Sandy Acevedo, and Javier Romero, infielders Alwin Delgado, Samuel Crafort, Carlos de los Santos, Victor Ovalles, and Francisco Contreras, and hurlers Gregorio Solano, Luis Hidalgo, Benny Paulino, and Walter Lachapel.
Much like the Tigers Venezuelan squad, the pitching staff in the DSL will be handled in a pseudo-tandem starter fashion. Of the pitchers currently on the roster, the only a handful are not expected to see any time as ‘starters,' and they include Sandy de la Cruz, Yinio Calderon, Victor Dionisio, and Jose Valdez.
An athletic and strong armed left-hander, Dionisio is continuing his conversion to the pitcher's mound. After a successful – albeit brief debut in 2009, in which he posted a 3.27 ERA in eleven innings, more should be expected of him this year.
"[We] have to be really patient with him. He is learning and coming along," said Tom Moore, the Tigers Director of International Operations. "You never know when it's going to click, and we see progress, so we just have to keep working with him."
Though a veteran arm could still be signed to fill the late innings of ball games this summer, Jose Valdez could also fit in that role throughout the year. With a fastball that sits in the low-90s, Valdez has the stuff to dominate the often inexperienced hitters of the DSL.
In the rotation, two familiar names to those that have followed the Tigers minor leagus closely in recent years are Darlyn Duran and Robert Diaz. Both players have pitched stateside, with Duran pitching as high as the New York-Penn League. Both pitchers are back in the DSL where the organization feels they can get more consistent innings and more experience.
"Both guys need innings to continue developing," said Moore. "We think both guys will get more innings and ultimately this will be better for their development, if they pitch in the DSL this year."
Despite the loss of one of their key starters in Ariel Medina, the Tigers bring back two outstanding young arms in Edgar De La Rosa and Emmanuel Del Orbe. Both players have tons of projection remaining and they could begin to tap into that this summer.
Del Orbe finished last year with a 5-3 record at just 18-years old, with a 2.44 ERA and 51 strikeouts in 59 innings of work. His powerful sinking fastball could put him in a position for an even more impressive season this time around. "[He] has a really good arm with some physicality," indicated Moore. "He's got a ton of movement on his fastball, and he's more of a sinker-slider guy. I think he could be in line for another good year this year."
Two new pitchers that should slot in the rotation are Walter Lachapel and Gregorio Solano. Lachapel is an interesting teenage signing that brings a four-pitch mix to the table. He has raw arm strength and can run his fastball up to the 89-91 range on occasion, despite his youth. Backing up his heater, Walter mixes in a curveball – his second best pitch, a slider, and a change-up that resembles a splitter.
Solano also has a good arm, with quickness and strength in his delivery, to go along with a curveball and change-up that both offer some projection.
Both players are high on Tom Moore's radar as the season draws near; "Both of these guys have a lot of talent, and we are really excited about them. By the end of the season or the beginning of next season, they have a chance to be opening some eyes with the arm strength that we project on them."
One final pitcher of note is right-hander Greg Morillo; one of the Tigers more high profile signings from the 2008 international signing period. The tools are still there for Morillo, and it is just a matter of continuing to make progress, which Moore believes he is doing.
"He's continued to develop as both a pitcher and a professional in general. He understands the program better, and understands what he needs to do to keep getting better. He's on the right track now, and he's showing the improvement he needs to show."
Working as the collective battery mate for the pitching staff will be a three headed monster behind the plate.
Veteran backstop Raul Leiva will be transferring over from the VSL after opening the season there a couple of weeks ago, and he should see time at catcher, first base, and designated hitter for the DSL club.
The primary catcher is likely to be the now healthy Ricardo Olivo. Olivo missed the entire 2009 season with a wrist injury, but all reports are that he is healthy and ready for to make progress this season.
"With Olivo healthy, he's a guy that is very talented skill wise, and he could be a big part of the club this year," said Moore.
The third catcher likely to see time in the DSL this summer is Raynolds Guzman. Guzman saw action in 60 games last summer, posting a .249 average with one home run and twenty RBI.
Mixing in at first base with the catchers as they move around, will be Ernesto Martes; another player that missed significant time last year. After just one plate appearance in 2009, Martes was lost with a knee injury for the remainder of the season. Though his prospect status is limited, he provides the DSL club with a solid role player capable of filling both infield corners.
The primary third basemen will be a mixture of newcomers Victor Ovalles and Francisco Contreras. Both players offer plenty of potential as first-year players, though their profiles are markedly different.
"[Contreras] has a really good swing. He could have some power down the line, and while he doesn't compare to the raw power that Ovalles has right now, and he moves [at third] pretty well.
Up the middle, the DSL Tigers are expected to be extremely young; with new three new signings seeing significant action. One of last summer's key July 2nd signings, Alwin Delgado has the raw tools to impress nearly any onlooker.
"He's more of a premium guy for us," said Moore. "[He] is a guy that is a little smoother defensively than someone like Javier Azcona was last year, and while he projects for the offense to come around, he's not quite there yet." Carlos de los Santos and Samuel Crafort are both likely to mix in at shortstop and second base this year, as they work to get at-bats and gain experience.
Crafort brings plus speed and tons of arm strength to the table, with some defensive projection, and his share of scouts that like his wiry strength at the plate. De los Santos on the other hand offers plus defense all around, including his hands, arm, and range. His plus speed translates well to the field and gives him range to both sides. Offensively, he remains a bit raw, but there is potential in the bat.
Roaming the outfield in the DSL will be a crop of youngsters worth watching. Three of the primary outfielders will be first year guys, headlined by six-figure bonus baby Confesor Lara. Lara was signed by the Tigers after serving a one-year suspension for irregularities in his background check.
Scouts still love the athletic body, fast twitch muscles, and plus power and arm that Lara brings to the table, and believe with his above-average speed, he could be a dynamic center field threat.
"Lara is going to be the main center fielder this year, and we're really excited to see what he can do this year," noted Moore. "His tools are off the charts, and we really think he could show something."
Javier Romero and Sandy Acevedo are also first year players with the skills to contribute right away. Romero is a strong player with some power and arm strength, and he could see time on either corner, though he profiles better in right field. Acevedo is a left-handed winger with a great body that projects more power in the future.
Also seeing time in the outfield will be veterans Aldo Navia and Robinson Figueroa. Figueroa scuffled through the 2009 season, hitting just .171 in 43 games. He does bring solid defense and a gritty style of play to the table, that could get him some action in the late innings.
The 19-year old Navia may have one year of professional experience under his belt, but he is a newcomer to the DSL. Navia debuted last year in the VSL, and posted a .206/.266/.269 line in 47 games for the VSL Tigers. He should combine with Figueroa to provide ample rest for the new guys as they work to grind through their first professional season.
Overall, this DSL Tigers squad promises to again be very young and very inexperienced. That youth could cause them to struggle early in the year, but there are many that expect them to improve dramatically as the season progresses. From an organizational perspective, Tom Moore and his staff have high hopes for the club as the season approaches.
"This is one of the more purely talented teams that we've had in the DSL right off the bat," said Moore in closing. "We may have trouble finding playing time for everyone, but that's a good problem to have. These guys have a chance to have a very nice season, and really perform well in the league this year."
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.