2012 West Michigan Whitecaps Season Preview

Whitecaps fans have grown accustomed to seeing winning teams on the field in Grand Rapids at Fifth Third Ballpark, and the Tigers may have handed them yet another roster that can contend in the Midwest League, highlighted by star prospect Danry Vasquez.

Headed by second-year manager Ernie Young, the Whitecaps will feature several players returning for their second tour through the circuit. Outfielder Steven Moya, starters Josue Carreno, Kyle Ryan and Luis Sanz, and relievers Michael Torrealba, Jade Todd and Daniel Bennett will all get a second crack at Midwest League opponents.

The rotation blends talent and polish, featuring three top pitching prospects in Ryan, Carreno and right-hander Tommy Collier.

Ryan succeeded as a teenager in the Midwest League last year, and his assignment back to the league was slightly surprising. At just 20-years old, Ryan still has some things to work on and he could be a leader on this year's pitching staff.

"I need to work on the little things to help keep the team in the game," said Ryan. "I'm the only lefty starter. I can take somewhat of a leadership role and show guys how to handle themselves in this league."

Collier is an intriguing arm out of last year's draft. After coming back from Tommy John surgery in 2010, Collier shocked scouts by showing surprising raw stuff and pitchability in the New York-Penn League last summer. With his combination of stuff, poise and polish, Collier could emerge as the ace of the Whitecaps' staff.

Rounding out the rotation will be righties Luis Sanz and Brennan Smith. Both guys are organizational favorites that have enough stuff to succeed at this level if their consistency matches their potential.

"I worked a lot on my off-speed stuff," said Smith. "I also worked on having better command of all my stuff. I'm going to be starting the home opener, and that's a big honor."

The ‘Caps bullpen will have several promising young arms, including Torrealba and fellow right-handers Ryan Woolley and Wilsen Palacios. Torrealba packs a punch in a small package, running his fastball up to 94 mph.

Both Woolley and Palacios can match and exceed that velocity in short stints and they could both flourish in brief outings out of the bullpen. Woolley is a pitcher scouts are interested in seeing this year, after he flashed occasional 96 mph heat after signing last summer.

Also in the bullpen will be command and control guys Nick Avila and Tim Kelley, who should both fill a variety of roles for Young and his pitching coach Mark Johnson.

Closing down games will likely be side-arming right-hander Daniel Bennett who was highly successful with the ‘Caps last summer. While he rarely gets out of the mid-80s with his fastball, he has plenty of deception and should be able to lock down the late innings.

The pitching staff as a whole offers plenty of talent and should be among the best in the Midwest League to start the year. "I want a group of guys that are going to go out and compete," said Young. "I think these guys can do that. I think they can be very good for us this year."

On the offensive side of things, the Whitecaps will be extremely exciting. The middle of this year's lineup will feature three of the biggest guys in the Tigers system with first baseman Aaron Westlake and Dean Green and outfielder Steven Moya expected to make up the heart of the order.

"It's going to be a really interesting year," said Green on Tuesday night. "We've been joking that we have an offensive line as the heart of our lineup. Westlake can put on a show. Moya is really impressive at times, and I'm feeling great coming off surgery.

Green and Westlake should split time at first base and designated hitter, and they could be among the top sluggers in the Midwest League this summer.

The rest of the infield will feature Brandon Loy at second base, Eugenio Suarez at shortstop and Collin Kaline at third base.

Loy's move to the keystone may be somewhat surprising for Tiger fans, but Suarez's glove is legitimately that good. The Tigers are excited by the potential of Suarez after his New York-Penn League season in 2011. He has surprising pop, improving hitting instincts and the potential to be a special defender up the middle.

Kaline was a spring training revelation for the Tigers. Beyond his famous name, Kaline came into camp stronger and more capable of playing at the professional level. He legitimately earned his spot on the ‘Caps roster and his seeing his name in the box scores should be a thrill for fans.

Around the outfield will be the aforementioned beast of a young man, Steven Moya, along with uber-prospect Danry Vasquez and solid college products Jason Krizan and Chad Wright.

Vasquez ranked third in the TigsTown Top 50 this off-season and fans should be excited to see him make his full-season debut at just 18-years old.

"His numbers may not be pretty this year, but you could see some huge strides out of him," said an AL scout. "He's added some strength already and he's such a natural hitter. It's just a matter of time for him."

Rounding out the roster will be catchers Curt Casali and Patrick Leyland who will be expected to split the catching duties down the middle.

The two players could be more opposite of each other with Casali taking on the role of the polished college backstop with excellent defensive skills, and Leyland representing the extremely raw high school product that has a long way to go. Their split behind the plate should be interesting to watch as the year unfolds.

While Whitecaps fans have expectations of winning in Grand Rapids, they aren't the only ones with such lofty goals.

"We played very well during spring training," said manager Ernie Young in closing. "We did a lot of things the right way and I think we'll be very competitive this year."

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