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Season preview: The West Michigan Whitecaps could be a Midwest League force in 2015

After a surprising 82-58 record last season, the Whitecaps head into 2015 with some intriguing new prospects on their roster.

Emily Waldon / Bless You Boys

There usually isn't a lot of buzz surrounding the minor league teams in the Detroit Tigers' system. After years of trading away their top prospects to acquire major league talent, the Tigers have repeatedly been left with a farm system that ranks among the worst in baseball according to various prospect analysts. The 2015 season is no different, as the Tigers' system was ranked dead last by Baseball Prospectus, Keith Law, and Baseball America.

Don't tell that to the West Michigan Whitecaps, though. The Whitecaps pitched their way to a first half division title and 82-58 record last year, riding strong performances from all five starters: Buck Farmer, Kevin Ziomek, Austin Kubitza, Jonathon Crawford, and Chad Green. All of those players have moved up the ranks in 2015 -- except Crawford, who was traded to Cincinnati -- leaving a new quintet of starters. Spencer Turnbull, a 2014 second round pick, will lead the staff, which also consists of 2013 draft pick Jeff Thompson, righthanders Artie Lewicki and A.J. Ladwig, and young lefthander Gabe Speier.

While the starting pitching was a big draw for the Whitecaps last year, the position players are the reason to head over to Comstock Park this season. Outfielder Derek Hill, last year's first round draft pick and one of the top prospects in the system, is one of several interesting players on the roster. He is joined by outfielders Rashad Brown, Ross Kivett and Michael Gerber, forming what could be one of the strongest outfields in the Midwest League. Infielders Joey Pankake and Zach Shepherd are also worth keeping an eye on. Both are natural third basemen, so Pankake has been playing second base in the team's first few games. Giancarlo Brugnoni may be a familiar name to some fans after playing at Grand Valley State University.

There are several high-powered arms in the Whitecaps' bullpen, but Joe Jimenez should receive the most attention. A talented Puerto Rican who went undrafted in 2013, Jimenez has the arsenal of a top-100 draft pick. The 20-year-old has struck out 36 percent of the batters he has faced in two years of short season ball, and has been so dominant that many believe the Midwest League won't be enough of a challenge for him. Johan Belisario, Josh Heddinger, Adam Ravenelle, and Paul Voelker can all reach the mid-90s as well.

While the Tigers don't possess the high-upside talent of some other organizations, they are finally starting to show some depth in the lower minors. This should be one of the better teams in the Midwest League, and an exciting club to watch throughout the 2015 season.


No. Name Pos. Acquired
29 Johan Belisario RHP 2010 - Amateur free agent (Venezuela)
30 Josh Heddinger RHP 2014 - Draft (14th round)
36 Gabe Hemmer RHP 2014 - Draft (24th round)
27 Joe Jimenez RHP 2013 - Non-drafted free agent (Puerto Rico)
23 A.J. Ladwig RHP 2014 - Draft (11th round)
- Will LaMarche RHP 2013 - Draft (9th round)
24 Artie Lewicki RHP 2014 - Draft (8th round)
33 Fernando Perez RHP 2011 - Amateur free agent (Dominican Republic)
19 Adam Ravenelle RHP 2014 - Draft (4th round)
8 Gabe Speier LHP 2014 - Trade with Boston Red Sox
15 Trent Szkutnik LHP 2014 - Draft (20th round)
44 Jeff Thompson RHP 2013 - Draft (3rd round)
32 Spencer Turnbull RHP 2014 - Draft (2nd round)
16 Paul Voelker RHP 2014 - Draft (10th round)
Position Players
No. Player Pos. Bat/Throw Acquired
25 Rashad Brown OF L/L 2012 - Draft (26th round)
14 Giancarlo Brugnoni 1B R/R 2014 - Non-drafted free agent (U.S.)
13 Michael Gerber OF L/R 2014 - Draft (15th round)
10 David Gonzalez 2B S/R 2011 - Non-drafted free agent (U.S.)
21 Derek Hill OF R/R 2014 - Draft (1st round)
28 Ross Kivett OF R/R 2014 - Draft (6th round)
11 Will Maddox 1B L/R 2014 - Draft (18th round)
7 Garrett Mattlage SS S/R 2014 - Draft (12th round)
12 Franklin Navarro C S/R 2011 - Amateur free agent (Venezuela)
20 Joey Pankake 3B R/R 2014 - Draft (7th round)
9 Arvicent Perez C R/R 2011 - Amateur free agent (Venezuela)
18 Zach Shepherd 3B R/R 2012 - Amateur free agent (Australia)
- Shane Zeile C R/R 2014 - Draft (5th round)

Players to Watch

Derek Hill - CF

For the first time since obtaining Nick Castellanos in 2010, Detroit again chose to break the proverbial mold in 2014 with the acquisition of outfielder Derek Hill out of Elk Grove High School. One look over the achievements of the 19-year-old and the resume speaks for itself. Following in the footsteps of his father, Orsino Hill, a first round pick of the Cincinnati Reds in the 1982 draft, Hill has been grabbing the attention of scouts for a great deal of time. Standing at 6-foot-2, he possesses a compact swing and though not an exceptional amount of power, his speed on the bases could make up for that in a hurry. Yes, this kid is fast; clocking a 60-yard dash in 6.44 seconds, making him one of the fastest members of his draft class. He has already served notice to Midwest League catchers, setting his season-long goal for 60 stolen bases. During his stint with the Gulf Coast League Tigers last season, Hill collected 22 hits and 11 RBI in 27 games. The combination of his versatility, speed and intellect give the Tigers plenty to work with going into this season.

Joey Pankake - 2B/3B

Aside from singlehandedly producing more headline material with his last name alone than all his teammates combined, the seventh round pick for Detroit hopes to outshine any connections to a plate of flapjacks with a level of skill that speaks for itself. Although the shortstop-turned-third-baseman was named All-SEC as a defenseman at the infield corner, Pankake developed a name for himself at the plate and hopes to build momentum through his offensive contribution. Appearing in 64 games with the Connecticut Tigers, Pankake batted .292 with 20 extra base hits and 22 walks. A fluid swing, reminiscent of the left-handed hitting Joe Mauer, combined with above average bat speed could make up for an average defensive showing at the professional level.

And yes, there will be pancake puns.

Joe Jimenez - RHP

When you can claim the ability to strike triple digits on the pitching radar gun before the age of 21, it won't take long to create a buzz around the league. After signing with the Tigers as an undrafted free agent out of Puerto Rico in 2013, Joe Jimenez could easily draw comparison to the newest member of the Tigers bullpen, Angel Nesbitt. Standing at 6-foot-3, the 220-pound righty gave up only one run in his debut with the Gulf Coast League during his 18 innings of work in 2013. Jimenez has since developed a reputation for consistently attacking hitters with expert placement of his fastball both inside and outside and maintaining a consistent speed resting in the mid-90s.

Outside of his power qualifications, the Single-A level could prove to be a perfect cultivation ground for refining pitch placement and building on an already impressive pitching arsenal. Oh, and did we mentioned he has only surrendered 12 walks in two seasons as a professional? While Comerica may still be a few years away, don't expect the Jimenez to slow down any time soon.