TigsTown Preview: West Michigan Whitecaps

Pitching coach Mark Johnson returns to the ‘Caps staff in 2011, but both the manager and hitting coach will be new as Ernie Young and Ben Oglivie take over those roles, respectively. The revamped coaching staff will be handed to the keys to an interesting machine powered by 2010 top pick Nick Castellanos.

One of the hottest names on the managerial scene, Ernie Young, will be put to the test with a fiercely loyal fan base that expects teams to contend for the Midwest League playoffs.

"I just need to continue to grow and learn about the game of baseball," said Young on his way north to Grand Rapids. "I don't think that I know everything that there is to know, which is a plus because I'm always learning, always trying to get better on the field. If I can do that on the field, then that's going to help carry over to whatever life has in store for me."

His prized player this season will be TigsTown's number two prospect Nick Castellanos. Castellanos is an outstanding offensive prospect with a quick bat and the ability to hit for both average and power. West Michigan fans should be sure to get out to the park and catch him early; he's good enough that he might not stick around long.

"Nick's going to be a very good player," said Young. "As long as he's a better player on September 7th than he is on April 7th, then that's all we can ask for, and I've done my job."

Other top prospects on the roster include catcher Rob Brantly (8th), Josue Carreno (17th), Dixon Machado (26th), Kevin Eichhorn (30th), Bruce Rondon (43rd), Jeff Ferrell (46th), and Ramon Lebron (48th).

Brantly is the organization's top catching prospect and he should be at least somewhat familiar to Whitecaps fans, having spent 52 games with the club after signing in 2010. A third round pick of the Tigers, Brantly posted a solid .255/.352/.335 line with more walks than strikeouts last year.

He will be joined behind the dish by another familiar face in catcher Luis Alberto Sanz. Sanz saw action in 21 games for the ‘Caps last year and his defense first approach and solid strike zone judgment pushed him to a .254/.338/.269 line while nabbing 25% of would be base stealers as a 19-year old.

At first base, fans will probably see a rotation of three different players throughout the season. The best prospect of the group will be 2009 over slot signee James Robbins. Loaded with power potential, Robbins is still raw in terms of his approach.

James Meador – another 2010 draftee – will also be on the Opening Day roster as a corner infielder. Meador missed most of last summer with a broken arm, but reports out of spring training are that he was healthy and ready to play.

A few weeks from now, the ‘Caps may see a familiar face receiving infield throws, as first baseman Clay Jones will be slated to return from a broken hand that has him starting the year on the 7-day DL.

This trio of first sackers won't lack for pop at the plate, but fans may have to be patient as all three adjust to the rigors of the pro game.

Up the middle, ‘Caps followers will have the joy of watching a slick set of fielders in Hernan Perez and Dixon Machado. Perez returns to West Michigan after a lackluster 2010 season with the bat, but his glove remains a plus tool.

He will slide over to second base in 2011, clearing room for Venezuelan shortstop Dixon Machado. Machado hit .261 with 12 steals last year for the GCL Tigers, but his premium glovework will gain him more recognition in 2011.

"Those two can do some magic in the middle," said an AL scout fondly. "They're both so smooth in their actions. Their hands are great. They have great range. They're a pleasure to watch; even worth the price of admission."

Backing up all over the infield will be utility man Jimmy Gulliver. Gulliver spent 42 games with the Whitecaps in 2010, hitting at a .255 clip with a good glove.

The outfield in West Michigan should be full of speed and exciting players, though many of them remain raw.

Three speed demons stand out on the roster, including center fielders PJ Polk, Jeff Rowland, and Luis Castillo. Castillo has long been considered an excellent defender in center, turning in highlight reel catches as a matter of routine.

Both Polk and Rowland showed flashes with the glove last year after the draft, and they both also showed potential with the bat and on the bases as well.

Polk's pro debut was hampered by lingering hamstring issues but he still managed a .267/.343/.356 line in an awful hitter's park, with 29 stolen bases and 24 walks in 64 games. There's reason to believe he could be a sleeper for a big year in 2011.

"I've been doing a lot more preventative stuff and rehab on my hamstrings," said Polk. "I feel great right now. I'm ready to go wreak some havoc."

Also in the outfield will be non-drafted free agent Ryan Enos out of Dallas Baptist University, and 2009 fourth round pick Edwin Gomez. Though Gomez hit only .226/.273/.262 last year in the GCL, some in the organization have cited this spring as a bit of a breakout for him; noting an improved approach and more authoritative contact.

The Whitecaps Opening Day pitching staff has multiple arms capable of starting, but as of now they are prepared to send right-handers Jeff Ferrell, Kevin Eichhorn, and Josue Carreno, along with left-handers Antonio Cruz and Kyle Ryan to the hill.

Ferrell was originally slotted in the bullpen, but a last minute promotion of left-hander Shawn Teufel opened up a rotation spot for the young righty. Ferrell impressed throughout last summer and the Fall Instructional League, flashing an above-average fastball and breaking ball.

Eichhorn came over as the primary piece in the Armando Galarraga trade last winter. The son for former big leaguer Mark Eichhorn, Kevin has an exceptional feel for pitching which helps him overcome his lack of raw stuff.

Carreno is a long time TigsTown favorite, and as his progression continues, he looks poised for his best season yet. The owner of a much larger frame than when he broke onto the scene in Venezuela, Carreno is still harnessing his newfound velocity. When he's right, he works from 91-93 mph and has touch 95 this spring, with a curveball and change-up that both show as at least average pitches at times.

"I really like what Carreno showed last year," said one New York-Penn League manager. "Going to that league, with his raw stuff, and his intelligence, he could do some good things."

Cruz made a brief stop in West Michigan last year as an 18-year old lefty reliever, striking out 13 in 19 1/3 innings of work, though he did walk ten. He will try his hand in the rotation this year, as the Tigers hope his potential plus fastball and plus curveball can be put to better use than just a few innings out of the ‘pen.

Kyle Ryan May be the sleeper in the group, as a pitcher who few know a lot about, but he could turn in a great season and force the Tigers to consider promoting him. Ryan was a 12th round pick last summer, and his entire arsenal took a step forward after an intense off-season of workouts in Lakeland.

"I matured a lot this off-season," said Ryan. "I know my pitches a lot better at this point. I changed my mechanics up a little bit and I'm stronger, and hopefully those things really help me come out strong this year."

Three other pitchers capable of starting games will be stashed in the bullpen, as Clemente Mendoza, Patrick Cooper, and Steve Crnkovich have all started games as professionals. All three pitchers are likely to start some games this summer.

At the back end of games, the ‘Caps coaching staff will most often choose between right-handers Jordan Pratt and Bruce Rondon. Pratt is armed with a wicked sinker that draws some interesting comparisons from opposing hitters.

"I had him all lined up," said one Midwest League opponent in 2010. "I had his fastball in my sights and it just disappeared. My bat shattered like I just swung at a bowling ball. It was filthy."

Combining Pratt's heavy sinking fastball with Rondon's 93-94 mph heater from a true side-arm angle, the Whitecaps will have some deadly options when looking for someone to close out games in 2011.

Rounding out the bullpen will be two more hard throwing right-handers. Ramon Lebron and Michael Torrealba have both flashed plus to plus-plus velocity at times, but their ability to command the fastball remains in question.

As is seemingly always the case, Tiger fans looking to see those guys that could be the future in Detroit, just need to head over to the Grand Rapids area to check out a Whitecaps team that has first year manager Ernie Young understandably excited.

"You're going to see some excitement out of this team," said Young in closing. "You're going to see toughness, effort, and just flat out hard-nosed baseball. That's what we're going to be about."

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