In their first year in the new park, the Tigers should have an interesting blend of system veterans and newly signed prospects. Several players will be returning to the New York-Penn League, though to a new home stadium, and those include catcher Eric Roof, outfielder Matt Mansilla, starting pitchers Clemente Mendoza and Luis Sanz, and relievers Michael Torrealba and Kevan Hess.
Mendoza and Sanz will give second-year manager Howard Bushong two familiar faces to rely on in the rotation, as both were solid starters for the club last year in Oneonta. Mendoza has been plugging along in extended spring training this year, waiting for his next shot, while Sanz struggled to a 4.97 ERA in 13 outings for West Michigan before his demotion to extended spring.
"The biggest thing is we have an idea what we're going to get from them," said Bushong. "They are both stretched out and they should be able to get us deep into games. They both did a great job for us last year, and we expect the same this year."
Joining Mendoza and Sanz in the rotation will be two teenagers, left-hander Rayni Guichardo and right-hander Josue Carreno. Guichardo made a big splash last year with a 1.73 ERA in 11 Gulf Coast League starts, and at just 18 years old, he will still be one of the younger starters in the NYPL.
Carreno will be making his stateside debut after two outstanding seasons in the Venezuelan Summer League. A polished pitcher who is about to turn 19, Carreno notched a career 2.61 ERA in two seasons (100 innings) in the VSL.
The fifth and final member of the rotation will be non-drafted free agent Lance Baxter out of the University of South Alabama. The Tigers inked Baxter to a one-year deal after he went undrafted in last week's entry draft.
"They are a little more unknown than [Mendoza and Sanz], but we will see what we get from them. Guichardo is a strike thrower that we're going to have to play defense behind," noted the club's manager. "Carreno is a young kid but I've seen some talent, and Baxter is a bit more of an unknown. He is brand spankin' new and we'll see what we get from him."
Backing up these starting arms, Bushong and his coaching staff should have two familiar faces working in the later innings in Hess and Torrealba. Hess, the younger brother of former Tigers prospect Andrew Hess, posted a 4.30 ERA in 20 appearances for Oneonta last summer, and he is rumored to have been improving his command during extended spring training.
"[He] has made an awful lot of progress from last year," said Bushong. "He has really improved his command, and he had a good extended spring training."
Torrealba provides a powerful right arm, and one many fans have been hoping to see with a full-season club this year. Torrealba put up a sparkling 2.78 ERA in 23 games last summer in the NYPL, while striking out an impressive 4 in just 35 2/3 innings of work.
Several recent draftees will also be working in the Connecticut bullpen this summer, including collegiate lefties Logan Hoch and Shawn Teufel. Hoch is a Wichita State product that started to show his true stuff late in the college season, as he continued his recovery from a torn labrum suffered in 2008. Hoch, combined with Teufel should provide the Tigers with a solid duo of left-handers in the bullpen, providing them flexibility when games are tight and innings are running short.
Also working in the bullpen will be right-handers Brennan Smith and Matt Little; two experienced college products with some intrigue and raw stuff to offer. Smith, a Bowling Green alum, has drawn some comparisons to former BGSU standout and Major Leaguer, Burke Badenhop. He should be able to provide regular innings to the team, and could be a viable option to start on occasion.
The catching duties will be handled by a pair of youngsters, including Tyson Kendrick, a late round draft pick out of Tabor College. He has a solid reputation for handling a pitching staff and may provide enough with the bat to help on occasion.
Eric Roof will be the primary catcher for the Tigers, as he is back for a second tour through the NYPL. After a quality job splitting time with John Murrian last year, he brings a level of comfort to Bushong's lineup every day.
"He's going to be my everyday guy," said Howard. "He can handle the staff, and he got some great experience up in West Michigan. He can be real big for us, and the fact that he gets to play every day is real big for him too."
At first base, Connecticut fans will have the pleasure of watching one of the Tigers more intriguing young talents in lefty swinging James Robbins. Drafted out of a Washington high school last summer, Robbins was pulled away from a commitment to Washington State University with a six-figure signing bonus, and made an immediate impact in the Gulf Coast League. Though still raw, Robbins brings a wealth of offensive talent to the table.
"It hasn't all shown through yet, but he certainly has the potential for some decent power," said Bushong. "I like the fact that we're going with a young guy over there. He has the talent to really help us."
Up the middle, the Tigers will rely on two organizational veterans in second baseman Alexander Nunez and shortstop Brett Anderson. Nunez has done nothing but hit since entering the organization, and the hope is he can continue that trend this summer in the NYPL.
After a few years in the rookie level Gulf Coast League, Anderson gets his first chance to plan at a higher level, and the opportunity comes with playing in front of the home state crowd. A Connecticut high school product, Anderson has moved back to shortstop after playing primarily third base over the last couple of seasons.
The opportunity to play in front of family and friends on a regular basis is something Anderson is really looking forward to; "It is really exciting. The chance to play in front of everyone is great. I'm much more confident now, and I am in a good spot with my swing. I am really excited for the season."
The primary third base responsibilities will fall to Josh Ashtenbrenner, an infielder out of Lewis and Clark State. Ashtenbrenner has a nice blend of offensive and defensive skills, and some believe he could surprise like another product from his school; infielder turned outfielder Brent Wyatt.
Handling the backup infield duties will be college products Ryan Soars (George Mason) and Matt Perry (Holy Cross). Soares will handle most of the up the middle responsibilities, playing both shortstop and second base, while offering spectacular defense and an ability to make contact on a variety of pitches.
Perry has been described as the type of guy that you can just plug into the lineup and expect him to give you something offensively, and he will be looked upon to do just that when he's on the field. He should see action at both first and third base, and also at designated hitter.
"Ashtenbrenner is going to get the first shot at playing every day," commented Bushong. "I think he is a little further along, and while third base is new for him, he has a chance for a quality bat and should help us."
The outfield projects to be a little crowded this summer, with organizational veterans Matt Mansilla, Londell Taylor, and Chao-Ting Tang mixing in with newcomers Jeff Rowland, Ryan Enos, and PJ Polk. The challenge for Bushong and his staff will be finding at-bats and regular time for everyone; "Jeff and PJ are going to be in the lineup almost all the time. We have to see what we've got with them."
Mansilla, a 22nd round pick of the Tigers in 2009, will look to rebound after an abysmal pro debut with Oneonta last summer where he hit just .175 in 42 games; playing primarily left field.
He won't be the only veteran looking to put together some positive numbers and secure their spot in the organization, as both Tang and Taylor will be looking to put together their first truly positive stretches as professionals. Tang is a solid defender who could help the club in a variety of ways off the bench, while Taylor has long been more athlete than baseball player, and he will be looking to finally put the pieces together and contribute on a daily basis.
"We need to give Taylor a shot early in the year too and really evaluate him," said Bushong. "The key is just going to be getting everyone on the field. We're not going to mix and match too much, at least not early on. We just need to get people at-bats."
Rowland and Polk should both be regulars in the Connecticut outfield this summer, with Polk providing the true center field defense and possibly the top of the order presence that many coaches crave. Rowland is a versatile outfielder that can play both corners and contribute with the bat. The Georgia Tech product has a chance to be one of the clubs top offensive contributors this year.
The last outfielder, Dallas Baptist's Ryan Enos was a non-drafted free agent signing this week, and he is coming off an electric season in the Division I college ranks. Rated as one of the top non-drafted players, Bushong likes what he's seen early on from the young outfielder.
"[He's] going to get his at-bats, whether in the outfield or at designated hitter," said Bushong. "He is supposed to be a guy that can swing it, and he looks good in BP. We just have to see if he can do it with an arm on the mound."
Overall, the Connecticut Tigers roster provides a vast array of stories, talents, and backgrounds that could meld together to give the new fans in Norwich some good baseball to watch. If Bushong has his way, Connecticut Tiger fans should get a quality product and a team that always competes and plays hard; "We just want to play the game the right way, the way the Tigers expect it to be played. Ultimately, our hope is to develop some kids to eventually play in the big leagues."