2011 West Michigan Whitecaps Preview

BALTIMORE, MD - The 2011 Whitecaps will be full of players hoping to use the level as a springboard as Tiger catcher, Alex Avila did.

This is the last of the previews of the Tigers' minor league teams. The Whitecaps are always one of the more exciting teams to follow for me. One reason for that is they have a history of great success. The other thing is they are usually a first stop for players making the transition to full season ball. The numbers certainly don't guarantee success or failure at this level, but this is the first level where the numbers can start to get you noticed. This is where breakthroughs can happen and phenoms are first made. Let's see this year's candidates.

Rotation

Josue Carreno RH
Antonio Cruz LH
Jeff Ferrell RH
Kyle Ryan LH
Kevin Eichhorn RH

With the other three teams, I had to look at the rosters and guess at who would be in each starting rotation. With the Caps, I would have been way off with that method. Luckily, I found this article at MLive.com, announcing their planned rotation. The one who would have thrown me off was Antonio Cruz. In my defense, the pint-sized (5'11" and 160 pounds) and hard-throwing 19-year-old Cruz didn't make a single start last season. I suspect his ultimate role will be a reliever, but having guys start in the lower levels only to transition later has been something of an M.O. for the Tigers. I like the idea, as that fourth and fifth inning likely forces them to work more than just their explosive fastballs and learn some pitching IQ.

Next we'll move to the team's Opening Day starter, Kyle Ryan. Another teenager at 19, Ryan was the Tigers' first high school pitcher taken in last year's draft, going in the 12th round and earning a $100,000 bonus. I plead ignorance for the most part on Ryan, but he did make a showcase game in Florida last may where Baseball America had him throwing in the high 80s with what they called a "slurvy" breaking ball. Of course, at 6'5" and only 180 pounds, there is probably room for some projection in terms of adding velocity. It seems something could have changed because he seemed to outperform what that less than shining report would have predicted when he was in the GCL. In 54 innings, he struck out 46 and walked just 13. Beware GCL numbers, but the Tigers clearly liked what they saw to give him the Opening Day nod.

Perhaps the best prospect on this team is the squad's third teenage starter, Josue Carreno. Signed by the Tigers in October of 2007 when he was 16, he spent last season in Connecticut and struck out 59 hitters in 64.1 innings. Not bad considering he would have been facing mostly college juniors and seniors. He did walk 33, though, and gave up plenty of hits (64) and runs (4.76 ERA). Those numbers don't show that he seems to be something of an advance pitcher for his age. Baseball America named him the NY-Penn League's 19th best prospect last year and talked about him complementing a low 90s four-seamer with a curveball, an improving changeup and a promising two-seamer.

In contrast to the three teenagers, the elder statesman of the rotation will be Eichhorn. Despite being 21, though, he's spent all but 11.2 of his 105 professional innings in the rookie level Pioneer League. That's a little deceptive, though, because he signed late after being taken in the 3rd round of the 2008 draft and missed most of 2009 after elbow surgery. He's not a huge prospect, but he commands a fastball with average velocity well. It also sounds like his curveball could develop into being a fine secondary pitch. Those two offerings sound as if they could serve him well in the Midwest League.

Rounding out the rotation, we have Jeff Ferrell. Last year's 26th round pick pitched very well (57.1 IP, 52 H, 2 HR, 12 BB, 57 K) in the GCL after coming out of a North Carolina Community College. He was rewarded with being able to close out the season in Connecticut and this assignment would seem to suggest the Tigers see a little promise here. He is, after all, just 20 years old this season.

Bullpen

Steve Crnkovich RH
Patrick Cooper RH
Ramon Lebron RH
Clemente Mendoza
Jordan Pratt RH
Bruce Rondon RH
Michael Torrealba RH

Candidate for the late innings in this bullpen are likely Bruce Rondon, Michael Torrealba and I would also throw in Patrick Cooper and Jordan Pratt. Rondon throws in the low 90s and as high as 96 despite going from almost a sidearm slot. Add in a plus slider and he's going to give Midwest League hitters fits if he can hit the strike zone. Torrealba is another hard-throwing Latino pitcher whose arm impressed in the instructional league. Of course, he also had a good season in 2010, splitting it between Connecticut and Lakeland and enjoying success at both (41.2 IP, 36 H, 2 HR, 11 BB, 44 K combined).

Cooper and Pratt both come to the organization via the draft, Cooper in the 14th round and Pratt in the 16th. Cooper struggled in his final college season after making the Cape Cod All Star team the previous summer, but probably both his team and draft status by moving to a closer role when it was needed. He has a decent fastball, a slider and a changeup, and while he was known for throwing strikes he walked 23 in 39.1 innings in his time with West Michigan last year. Pratt enjoyed better success with the Whitecaps last season despite being the slightly lower draft selection. In his 27.1 innings, he struck out 26 and walked just nine without giving up a homer. He was a reliable arm in the Caps' bullpen as they surged to the playoffs in the 2010 second half.

Of course, just because I've picked those four as the most likely high leverage relievers, that doesn't mean there aren't other promising arms. Lebron has a big fastball, but he's never been able to find success higher than the GCL level. That's a bit of a contrast to one of the other remaining arms in the pen, Steve Crnkovich. He went undrafted last year, but pitched remarkably well for the GCL Tigers (45.2 IP, 26 H, 1 HR, 7 BB, 51 K). It earned him a return to the organization this year, but it's hard to garner much attention as a 22-year-old in the GCL. I expect him to being a multiple inning guy and a spot starter. Finally, there's Clemente Mendoza. He's probably another candidate for both long relief and swingman duties since he started 15 games and threw 84 innings in Connecticut last season. This season, though, he seems to be giving way to a wave of slightly younger arms with presumably more upside.

Pitching Summary:

The Caps' rotation is quite young for this level. Teenagers aren't all that common in the Midwest League and the Caps will be starting one most nights. That suggests a lot of talent, but it could also come with some growing pains as guys face hitters more advanced than what they've ever seen (and two or three years older). The bullpen, though, seems like a good complement to the young rotation.

The four I identified as the high leverage guys are both talented and relatively experienced. Among the others, you never know if and when Lebron will put it together but Crnkovich and Mendoza offer some depth in case one of the young guys in the rotation struggle.

Catchers

Rob Brantly
Luis Sanz

Brantly was the Tigers' 3rd round pick last season and went straight to West Michigan after signing. He handled the strike zone well in that time (22 BB, 21 K) but didn't hit with a lot of authority. Scouting reports seems to suggest we can expect a higher average in his future even if his power will usually only get balls into the gaps rather than over the fence. Mix that in with what sound like very good defensive skills and you have one of the players bolstering the Tigers once pathetic minor league catching squadron. This will be Sanz's second season as a backup at this level and he'll try to improve on last year's line of .254/.338/.269. He's probably unlikely to move past a backup role, though.

Infielders

James Robbins 1B
Hernan Perez IF
Nick Castellanos 3B
Dixon Machado SS
Jimmy Gulliver IF

Clay Jones 1B (DL)
Billy Nowlin DH (DL)

I'll be curious to see if Robbins remains the team's first baseman once Clay Jones and Billy Nowlin come off the disabled list. He's probably the better prospect of the three - Nowlin being at this level suggests an end to any prospect status - so performance will likely drive the decision. He certainly did not perform in Connecticut last year, though, hitting just .251/.293/.351 with 12 walks and 91 strikeouts.

Another player who struggled last season was Hernan Perez. He was one of the teenagers on the 2010 Caps and like most of the other youngsters at this level, struggled badly (.235/.273/.298 with 25 BB and 98 K). He'll get another shot at Midwest League pitchers this year, though, but most likely will spend most of his time as a second baseman.

The big story on this team is obviously Castellanos. He's the Tigers' top position prospect and will be looking to live up to that billing. He is supposed to have legitimate star power with a good bat full of potential. There has to be a lot of pressure when you're the only position prospect in the system people point to and say "that kid could be an All Star" and it will be interesting to see how he handles it.

The final starter on the Caps' infield will be the talented youngster, Machado. Yes, he's another teenager and yes he's another Tiger shortstop prospect who's hailed as a defensive wiz. Fans will be forgiven for being skeptical, but that doesn't mean it won't be exciting to see what the kid can do.

Gulliver will probably bouncing around the infield a bit, but most of his time would likely come at the expense of Perez. At 24, such a utility role is likely all we can expect from him.

Outfielders 

Luis Castillo
Ryan Enos
Edwin Gomez
James Meador
P.J. Polk
Jeff Rowland

It's pretty interesting to see all these outfielders when the infield has just the one backup. I'm curious to see how they split their time. Rowland was impressive in West Michigan last season as the team's primary center fielder. I would expect him to come back in that role and hopeful to improve on his .281/.383/.367 line from last year. I would also assume that Polk will be helping him to patrol that big Fifth Third outfield most games as the team's left fielder (perhaps center on Rowland's days off). Polk is a burner who stole 29 bases in 35 attempts at Connecticut last year. It's good to see he was also willing to take some walks to put him on base as much as possible.

I also expect Meador to be playing most days. Some of that may come at first base and designated hitter in addition to a corner spot, but he's reported to have a good bat and this lineup could use some power. I assume another candidate for one of the primary roles is Gomez. He's not hit well since being drafted in the 4th round of the 2009 draft but the Tigers must want to see what he can do to put him in Grand Rapids. I also just don't see these guys losing a whole lot of time to Castillo and Enos. Castillo certainly didn't take much playing time last year, getting into just 35 games in the GCL and FSL. Enos might be a better candidate for helping to lift the lineup. He's not a prospect at 23, but he showed some speed and hit pretty well for Connecticut last year.

Position Player Summary:

This team is likely going to be counting on getting on base, taking extra bases and timely extra base hits. There just doesn't seem to be a lot of power unless Meador and Castellanos provide it or until Jones and Nowlin come off the disabled list. In guys like Brantly, Polk and Rowland, there are on-base skills, though, and that should prove helpful. Especially since Polk and Rowland should be able to create some havoc once they're on.

A major obstacle, though, could be trying to overcome all the outs that are likely to come from Machado, Perez/Gulliver, Robbins and the third outfielder, be it Castillo, Enos or Gomez. That group just doesn't figure to post a high OBP and that will put a lot of the run-scoring weight on the others' shoulders. Defensively, there seems to be some promise. They should be strong up the middle, behind the plate and in the outfield. If Castellanos holds down the hot corner, run prevention could get a major boost from these gloves.

Overall Summary:

As I alluded to in the intro, I'm a bit of a sucker for all the promise on these Whitecap squads. For the second year in a row, this team is loaded with teenagers and we'll just have to hope they fare much better than last year's class. Of course, last year I don't think any of the young talent could match Castellanos or even Machado.

I'm actually more nervous about how such a young rotation will do. As I said above, it seems like they will have a solid D behind them but three 19-year-olds at this level are likely to have their rough waters. They will just have to hope what could be a talented bullpen will be able to smooth things over on those nights.

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