The Detroit Tigers are used to playoff baseball by now. After four consecutive AL Central Division titles and five playoff appearances in the past decade, it just isn't October without the Tigers. Unfortunately, the major league club didn't make it to the postseason this year, but someone in the organization did.
That would be the West Michigan Whitecaps, the Tigers' Single-A affiliate. West Michigan shook off a subpar 33-36 record in the first half, blazing to a 42-28 record in the second half and a postseason berth, where they knocked off the Fort Wayne TinCaps, Lansing Lugnuts, and Cedar Rapids Kernels for their sixth Midwest League title.
How did the Whitecaps get there? There were year-long contributions from players like Michael Gerber, Ross Kivett, Spencer Turnbull, and Joe Jimenez. Midseason additions like Christin Stewart, Kade Scivicque, and A.J. Simcox chipped in down the stretch. Even young talents like Gerson Moreno and Zach Shepherd showed some promise, putting up solid numbers as teenagers. It was a true team effort from a club that didn't rank particularly well in any major statistical categories relative to the rest of the league.
In the end, however, you couldn't have scripted a more storybook ending.
Pitcher of the Year: Joe Jimenez
If Tigers fans weren't familiar with the name of Joe Jimenez prior to the 2015 season, the pop to the catcher's mitt in his season debut outing was enough to launch his name into every prospect conversation for miles around. Since first coming on the scene in 2013, the teenage flamethrower has dominated hitters left and right. He tallied a whopping 65 strikeouts in 45 2/3 innings in 2013 and 2014, leading to his first taste of full-season ball with West Michigan in 2015.
No stranger to high velocity, Jimenez flirted with 100 miles per hour on multiple occasions throughout the year. He concluded 2015 with 17 saves in 20 opportunities, 61 strikeouts and seven earned runs allowed over 43 innings. The dominant production earned the now 20-year-old a slot in the Midwest League All-Star Game, as well an appearance in the MLB Futures Game. Jimenez was also named the Tigers' Minor League Pitcher of the Year. MLB Pipeline lists Jimenez as the Tigers' No. 13 prospect.
Player of the Year: Michael Gerber
It was a tough act to follow, for sure. In 2014, Wynton Bernard took the Midwest League by storm, hitting .323/.394/.442 with 42 extra base hits and 45 stolen bases, winning the league's MVP award. Michael Gerber didn't bring home the same hardware that his teammate did in 2015, but the 23-year-old Illinois native had a monster year of his own, hitting .292/.355/.468 with 13 home runs in 583 plate appearances.
In 2015, anything that could go right at the plate for Gerber seemingly did. The Tigers No. 18 prospect (per MLB Pipeline) took command of almost every offensive category on the team leaderboard, matching stride for stride with lineup mate Ross Kivett. Gerber's list of achievements include an appearance with the Midwest League All-Star team and the Tigers' Minor League Player of the Year award. Gerber concluded the year with team-highs in hits (150), doubles (31), triples (10), home runs (13) and RBI (76).
Breakout Player: A.J. Ladwig
The 2015 season brought a fresh set of challenges for former 11th round draft pick A.J. Ladwig. After a subpar professional debut with the Connecticut Tigers in 2014, Ladwig entered the Whitecaps' rotation under pitching coach Mark Johnson. With a fastball sitting comfortably in the mid-90's, Ladwig didn't experience an overnight adjustment, instead, working methodically throughout the year to solidify himself as a legitimate force in the West Michigan rotation.
His dedication earned himself a team-high 12 wins on the year, finishing with a 1.24 WHIP, 85 strikeouts and 55 earned runs allowed over 138 innings. He walked a total of 18 batters on the year, and never more than three in a single game. Just as manager Andrew Graham would have hoped, the big righty proved a dependable force in West Michigan's second consecutive postseason appearance as he was perfect, finishing the postseason at 2-0 in an unforgettable playoff run.
Biggest Disappointment: Fernando Perez
Entering 2015, Dominican righthander Fernando Perez earned a starting rotation slot with Whitecaps. The 6'3" lefthander had progressed slowly through the Tigers' minor league ranks prior to this season, spending two years in the Gulf Coast League before a mundane performance in the New York-Penn League in 2014. Unfortunately, the puzzling results continued this year. Respectable speed and technique left a few scratching their heads as Perez just couldn't seem to find his groove. It took two full months before he notched his first win of the season, only after dropping his first six consecutive decisions.
West Michigan manager Andrew Graham continued to invest in the 21-year-old, allowing more opportunities on the hill, but Perez would only secure one more win in August to conclude his season with a team-high 12 losses. Perez wrapped his first year of full-season baseball at 2-12 with 72 strikeouts and 119 hits over 101 2/3 innings through 21 games. His 4.51 ERA and 1.49 WHIP were also unimpressive, but don't expect the Tigers to cash out on the Perez just yet. He should be back with Graham and the Whitecaps in 2016.