This is the third post in a series where I am looking at each of the Tigers' domestic farm teams to see how it has been used during the Dave Dombrowski regime. The first post was about the GCL Tigers. The second was about the Tigers' NY-Penn affilliates, most recently the Connecticut Tigers. Today, we move to their first full season squad, the West Michigan Whitecaps.
In the Whitecaps, we see the Tigers' first affiliate with continued success. From 2003 to 2010, the Whitecaps have gone 596-516, for a winning percentage of .536. They have had only three losing seasons: 2003, 2004 and 2010. If you follow the Caps, you know they made the playoffs with a strong second half in 2010. If you really follow the Caps, you may also know they won the league championship in 2004. As you can see, the Caps tend to give their fans something to cheer about even in their down years.
The players are rewarded with an average attendance of over 5,000 fans a night and what seemed to be great facilities when I visited. The Tigers get a minor league affiliate that is close enough to be an option for rehab assignments when one of their big leaguers need one. You may recall that Brandon Inge, Carlos Guillen, Curtis Granderson, Jeremy Bonderman, Kenny Rogers and Magglio Ordonez have all rehabbed there in the last few years. It's clearly an arrangement that's working out well for both parties.
So how do the Tigers keep fielding winners in Grand Rapids -- well, technically Comstock Park? I have a couple theories, but we're going to see better evidence in looking at the personnel. To see that, let's move on to another indicator I've used in this series. That's how often eventual big leaguers are assigned to the level. In the last three years, the Tigers have had 35 different players who I'd call home-grown reach Detroit. Of those 35 players, 25 had assignments in West Michigan. Compare that with 11 for the GCL Tigers and 18 for the Oneonta/Connecticut Tigers.
Perhaps even more telling than that percentage are the 10 players who are the exceptions. They are: Curtis Granderson, Jeff Larish, Justin Verlander, Jeremy Bonderman, Rick Porcello, Ryan Perry, Fu-Te Ni, Danny Worth, Robbie Weinhardt and Andrew Oliver. To a man, those are either elite prospects or players who were pretty advanced when they hit the system.
If you make the trek through the Tigers' system all the way to Detroit, there's a pretty good chance you're familiar with the spacious Fifth Third Ballpark. We're also not just talking about fast climbers who make pit stops at this level, either. Players who land in West Michigan typically play out the season there. There was a little more roster volatility last year, but players who are promoted from West Michigan midseason tend to be completely dominating or a little old for the level.
The Tigers' preference for seeing what their top players can do in the Midwest League also seems to show itself when we look at their top prospects during the Dombrowski era. From 2003 to 2010, the Tigers have had 54 different players show up on Baseball America's Top Ten Tiger Prospects lists. Of those 54 players, 31 played either most of or all of a season in West Michigan.
For the first time, we see the Tigers' very top prospects showing up a few times. In the GCL and NY-Penn League, we saw a decent sample, but we never saw the top dogs. None of Baseball America's No. 1 Tiger prospects had made a stop at either of those levels. It's still not common for the Tigers' No. 1 prospect to roll through Grand Rapids, but in the recent past we've seen Cameron Maybin and Jacob Turner taking the field for the Caps. I mentioned before how prospects can get noticed at this level. Well, it's also where future superstars can start to prove they're worth the hype.
I think we've seen ample evidence that the Tigers view West Michigan as an important part of most players' path to the big leagues. I think we also see the first evidence of a team where the Tigers take steps to field a good team and keep a good relationship going with an affiliate. With the GCL and the NY-Penn League, the Tigers are limited to what the draft provides and the players left over in extended spring training. With West Michigan being a full season league, I think getting an assignment here is more of an active decision. For whatever reason, the Tigers seem to make sure those decisions leave the Caps in good shape.
The 2010 season provides a good example. The Caps' first half team was brutal, putting up one of the worst records in the minor leagues. Before the half was over, the Tigers made significant changes to the roster to replace players who simply weren't performing. In the second half, the roster was further boosted by an infusion of talent from the draft and, eventually, promotions from Connecticut. By the season's end, you had yet another Whitecap team in the playoffs.
I really think it's difficult to argue against the idea the Tigers take care of their Grand Rapids affiliate. We see it's an assignment for a vast majority of their prospects who end up in the majors. Far more than half of their top prospects get assigned there at some point in their minor league careers. Perhaps most convincingly, the team has won three championships in the Dombrowski era and is a perennial participant in the postseason. I just don't see how the Tigers would provide them with that kind of track record by coincidence.