This is the fourth installment in which I look at each of the Tigers' minor league teams. It's the last of the midseason reviews, but I will also be taking a look at the rosters of both Connecticut and the GCL Tigers in the coming days (or more likely, weeks).
After serving as the system's golden boys for the past few years, the Whitecaps have fallen on a bit of hard times in 2011. Their first half record of 32-37 landed them in sixth place, 8 1/2 games out of first and 7 games out of a playoff berth. The season's second is shaping up better so far, with a 9-7 record, but the Caps will be in for a tight race if they want to make a nearly annual trip to the postseason.
Regardless of how the second half plays out, I'm sure they're none too excited about their overall record of 41-44. Possessing one of the league's younger lineups seems to have come at a price, as the Caps have scored the third fewest runs in the Midwest League. Their youth may reveal itself in the fact that despite having a team batting average ten points higher than league average, they're lagging behind the league standard in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
That doesn't mean they're without their positives, however. We'll talk about them in more detail below, but the team's bright spots include Nick Castellanos, Hernan Perez and Rob Brantly, all of whom could eventually present solutions to roster issues at the major league level.
On the run prevention side of things, the Caps have had more success. The fact that they are giving up fewer runs per game than the rest of the league and have still given up nine more runs than they've scored shows just how much the offense has scuffled. The pitching staff has seen a good deal of flux in the rotation, and has not had a standout top prospect this season. Still, with the current five being Kyle Ryan, Alex Burgos, Josue Carreno, Brian Flynn and Kevin Eichhorn they have settled in with a nice mix of performance and promise. As for the bullpen, it's seen its share of struggles but has had power arms Michael Torrealba, Bruce Rondon and Ramon Lebron lead the way.
Let's look at the performances of the players who have led the Caps to this point. (Stats are from fangraphs.com and were pulled Sunday afternoon.)
Alex Burgos, LHP, 12/1/90
It's hard to imagine last year's fifth round pick wasn't disappointed to not make a full season roster in April. Given the chance now, though, he's seized the opportunity. We've certainly learned not to get too excited about the performance of Whitecap lefties in the Midwest League. Especially when projecting future success from their stuff is difficult as it is in Burgos's case. His fastball velocity is pretty much average and he doesn't have the kind of body (5'11", 180 lbs) the Tigers like in their starters.
Josue Carreno, RHP, 6/26/91
Our eyes tend to settle too quickly on ERA when it comes to looking at pitchers, and that would be a mistake in Carreno's case. He just turned 20 and the peripherals shown above are very close to league average. His major crime, it would seem, is giving up a few too many once he lets runners on base. With his slight frame, it will be a struggle for him to convince the Tigers to keep him in the rotation but keep an eye on Carreno.
Antonio Cruz, LHP, 10/7/91
Cruz started the season in the rotation, but it was predictable that his ultimate role would be as a bullpen arm. Ever since he first came out of the bullpen back on June 8th, that's been his role. Early returns on him as a reliever have been promising, too. He's cut down on his walks, bumped up his strikeouts and has yet to give up a homer in relief. As a hard-throwing lefty reliever, it would be wise to remember his name because he could move quickly.
Kevin Eichhorn, RHP, 2/6/90
Eichhorn was one of the pitchers the Tigers received in return for Galarraga and he's been the most reliable part of the rotation. He's taken the ball for each of his turns and given the Caps solid production. Taking his turns is no sidenote either. He's already hit a career high in innings pitched. His success is also intriguing because the injuries that have limited his innings have also kept him in short season ball. Having both good success and health could make 2011 a turning point for him.
Brian Flynn, LHP, 4/19/90
The Tigers' conservative approach to this year's draft has left a surprising shortage of 2011 draftees in their full season rosters. The enormous (6'8", 239 lbs) Flynn is one of the few. He's been hit or miss in four starts, and it sounds like the Tigers' first pitcher selected this year has a lot to work on (secondary pitches, control) but being able to throw as hard as 95 mph from such a tall frame leaves him with a good base to build upon.
Ramon Lebron, RHP, 2/1/89
Lebron just went on the disabled list and those who follow my transaction posts may remember this is the second time. We'll just have to hope it's not a problem that's going to turn serious, but if you get frustrated with the timing of future promotions, don't forget the injury problems. Of course, even if he were totally healthy, his walk rates could keep him toiling at the lower levels as well. That's a big problem, but his other numbers have been so impressive it's almost forgivable. What you have to wonder, though, is whether improved control will bring command with it. Will hitters figure out his fastball if they can count on it being in the strike zone?
Bruce Rondon, RHP, 12/9/90
The Caps' closer has had a season similar to Lebron's, but without the injury concerns, and more extreme versions of both the good and bad. He's been nearly unhittable for Midwest League hitters (just 3 XBH allowed) and has struck out exactly one of every three batters, but walks have been an issue to say the least. To be blunt, you simply can't walk that many batters and be successful in the long term. However, he's made significant changes to his delivery and hopefully will find some consistency with time.
Kyle Ryan, LHP, 9/25/91
Ryan is obviously a very different pitcher from what we just saw in Rondon and Lebron. Where they are very difficult to hit but wild, he is able to keep his walks very low but has given up too many hits and doesn't strike out a lot of batters. Be that as it may, though, he's well on his way to turning in a serviceable season as a teenager in full season ball. That's something to build on.
Michael Torrealba, RHP, 11/19/89
Torrealba is another important piece of the Caps' bullpen, representing a somewhat less extreme version of Rondon and Lebron. What I mean by that is he still has good hit, strikeout and homer rates while walking too many batters, he just does each to a lesser degree than his flame-throwing brethren. It's taken Torrealba a while to find his traction since coming to the States in 2009, but aside from a regression in his control I would certainly view 2011 as a step in the right direction.
Rob Brantly, C, 6/14/89, Bats: Left
Brantly may have stepped forward as the system's top catching prospect unless you immediately give the nod to this year's second round pick, James McCann. Most of the players ahead of him on the depth chart have stumbled and whether you disagree about his placement in the system may depend on what you think of Julio Rodriguez in Lakeland. Brantly, though, is a solid backstop who received across the board high marks for his defense. So, handling himself well at the plate from the left side certainly isn't going to dim his future.
Nick Castellanos, 3B, 3/4/92, Bats: Right
Castellanos has been on a torrid pace since a very slow April that had some concerned. He hit two home runs on Saturday and last week enjoyed a five-game stretch where he was good for a double per game. It would obviously be nice to see him make strides in controlling the strike zone better, but considering he's one of the youngest hitters in the league we'll certainly take what we see above.
At 6'4" and 195 pounds at such a young age, my main concern for him at this point is the possibility of growing to large for a future at the hot corner. Then again, Scott Rolen is 6'4" and 240 pounds and he's made a fantastic career out of being an excellent third basemen. Regardless, his recent hot streak and boost in power will do nothing but push him further ahead as the system's top hitting prospect.
Dixon Machado, SS, 2/22/92, Bats: Right
Stop me if you've heard this before. The Tigers have a gifted young Latino shortstop. He is challenged with an aggressive assignment and he faces what could conservatively be called adversity at the plate. At least Machado is a little different in that he doesn't seem to be clueless in terms of what's a ball and strike. He's been a good contact hitter, but that contact almost literally could not be weaker. His ground ball rate is well over sixty percent and that's led to just three of his hits going for extra bases and a .019 isolated power. Actually, even that meager ISO is misleading in terms of displaying power because two of the three extra base hits were triples. Triples are typically doubles with better placement and faster baserunners.
Steven Moya, OF, 9/8/91, Bats: Left
Moya's numbers might be the least surprising of any we've seen yet. The tall lefty showed very little knowledge of the strike zone last season in the GCL and predictably, that's carried over to this more challenging level. Let's not despair quite yet, though. Common knowledge (which may need fact-checked) says taller hitters can take longer to develop. The numbers above are alarming, but he is hitting for a good deal of power when he makes contact. Of his measly 32 hits, 13 have been for extra bases. If he can find that power when he makes the necessary adjustments to either his swing or his approach to the strike zone, there might be hope.
Hernan Perez, 2B, 3/26/91, Bats: Left
Perez's numbers are predictably being second-guessed because it's his second full turn in the Midwest League. What's lost in that assessment, though, is he's still only 20 and as a good defensive middle infielder, is proving he might be an asset at the plate. I would be curious to find out what's behind his improvement this season. The numbers show an increase in power and BABIP and a decline in strikeouts. Can that all just be a more discerning approach at the plate or has he also put some extra meat on his young frame?
These are players I'm not all that comfortable calling prospects, but down this farm in the system the line between a prospect and an organization player can be pretty blurry. To be honest, if I did this list again next week it would probably have some players switch places between the two.
Patrick Cooper, RHP, 8/25/89
The Tigers' 14th round pick last year has been another valuable bullpen arm, serving as a long reliever and spot starter with good numbers. He's struggled with his control for about a month now, and that's certainly worth watching, but he's also been keeping the ball down and in the yard. I didn't include him as a prospect, but I wouldn't write him off yet either.
Luis Castillo, OF, 5/15/89, Bats: Right
Castillo is serving as one of the better bats in the Caps' lineup and their starting center fielder. He makes good contact and is the team's leader in walks. At 22, these descriptions could be the lead-in to stating he's still a prospect but he's very small and I'm going to need more than half a season to be a believer. Can we just agree he's been one of the most valuable assets on this West Michigan squad?
Jason Krizan, OF, 6/28/89, Bats: Left
Krizan is the only other player from the 2011 draft on the Caps' roster and he's struggling, obviously. Regardless of early struggles, between the assignment straight to the Midwest League and a relatively high draft position (8th), I usually would give him the benefit of the doubt as a prospect. His draft reports weren't glowing though, even if his senior stats were impressive.
Billy Nowlin, DH, 12/16/86
I wasn't going to include Nowlin, who is in the Pittsburgh system now after being released, but I thought people might want to know why he was released. He went from looking like he might at least be a middle-of-the-order bat in Erie or Toledo to not being able to cut it as a designated hitter in the Midwest League. When all you have is your bat, your job can be lost in a hurry.
James Robbins, 1B, 9/26/90, Bats: Left
Robbins is flashing some decent power and even doing pretty well at hitting for average. I'm just pessimistic about both of those attributes carrying over at the higher levels if he continues to strikeout nearly ten times as often as he walks.
Jeff Rowland, OF, 4/1/88, Bats: Left
Rowland is the team's player most willing to take a walk, but going deep in the count is coming at a steep price as he strikes out well over a quarter of the time. A high BABIP is keeping his batting average up, but there isn't a lot of power here when those start to level off. He's valuable right now despite the strikeouts, but he'll need to make a pretty big change to maintain that value.
Midwest League Averages:
2011 Season Outlook
The Whitecaps find themselves squarely within the playoff picture in the second half, and it will be interesting to find out if some of the changes that have been made on the roster will allow them to grab one of the spots up for grabs. Their second half rotation has been led by Burgos and Eichhorn, but the other pitchers' ability to keep pace may be the make or break aspect of this team. If Carreno, Flynn and Ryan can give them a chance in most of their starts, a strong bullpen may let the team scratch out enough wins.
That's only half of the game, of course. The offense certainly hasn't set the world on fine to this point of the season, but it has been bad enough that it could see marked improvement if a couple of the struggling players figure things out to some degree. Say, for example, two of Krizan, Moya and Machado can find a hot streak down the stretch. The impact that would have on this offense might be surprising. Don't forget, though, that change can be a two way street and some of the pleasant surprises above could have their fortune turn as well.
June and July Transactions
My vacation interrupted my transaction series and what follows is a late attempt to try to catch everybody up. Chances are good that if you care, you already knew about these moves, so logging them is more about having the information on the site should somebody want to do future research.
Released Jimmy Gulliver (2B)
Re-assigned Ryan Soares (SS) to West Michigan from Lakeland
Activated Nate Newman (RHP) from the disabled list (Tim Mowry sent back to extended spring training)
Re-assigned Alex Burgos (LHP) to West Michigan from extended spring training
This move corresponded with Dan Gentzler's promotion to Lakeland
Placed Ryan Soares (SS) on the disabled list
Re-assigned Javier Azcona (2B) to West Michigan from extended spring training
Soares suffered a broken right ulna in his second game with the Caps and hasn't played since.
Re-assigned Josh Ashenbrenner (IF) to West Michigan from extended spring training (Azcona sent down to Connecticut)
Assigned Brian Flynn (RHP) to West Michigan after signing him (Brennan Smith (RHP) sent down to Connecticut)
Assigned Jason Krizan (OF) to West Michigan after signing him (P.J. Polk (OF) sent down to Connecticut)
Krizan an Flynn might be the extent of the annual adjusting of the roster for West Michigan. It's unfortunate they haven't been able to get more of the high round draft picks signed and in uniform.
Activated Clay Jones (DH) from the disabled list
Released Billy Nowlin (DH)
Re-assigned Kevan Hess (RHP) to West Michigan from Connecticut (Nate Newman (RHP) was called up to Lakeland)
This was the fall of Nowlin, but Jones hasn't been an improvement in the early going since.
Placed Ramon Lebron (RHP) on the disabled list
Re-assigned Jade Todd (LHP) to West Michigan from the GCL Tigers
The Caps probably can't afford to have many more injuries to the key members of their bullpen.
Re-assigned Clemente Mendoza (RHP) to West Michigan from Connecticut
No word on whether this move corresponds with another move.