In January in Michigan, there is not much going on as far as baseball is concerned. Spring training is still a month away, snow has covered the fields and the smell and sounds of the ballpark are still a distant memory. So when news stations cut in to live coverage of Fifth Third Ballpark in Comstock Park, it was unlikely to be a good sign, and indeed it wasn’t.
Fifth Third’s concourse had caught on fire, and the first base side of the grandstand was engulfed in flames. Later determined to have been started by a space heater that was too much close to a trash can, much of the stadium needed to be rebuilt in just a few months.
Despite a seemingly unlikely task, the park opened as promised by on Opening Day, with concourse fully operable, and the locker rooms and suites that were damaged opening shortly thereafter. It was an impressive feat, and gave the Whitecaps fans a place to watch their club, one that was playoff bound once again after a sizzling first half of the season in which they went 41-29 and won the Midwest League Eastern division, securing a playoff berth.
The Whitecaps finished second in the MWL in ERA at 3.05, and also came in second in strikeouts with 1,207, and WHIP at 1.20.
These impressive stats were led by an impressive rotation that was kept together for much of the season, a group of arms from the 2013 draft class that all brought with them plenty of experience and ability. First rounder RHP Jonathon Crawford, second rounder LHP Kevin Ziomek, fourth rounder RHP Austin Kubitza, and fifth rounder RHP Buck Farmer all were mainstays in the ‘Caps rotation. Third rounder Jeff Thompson likely would have been too as he started the year in West Michigan, but was shelved after just three starts with right shoulder tendonitis.
Even with all their success, it’s almost unheard of for a pitcher to go from Low-A ball to the big leagues in the same season, but that’s exactly what Farmer did. After striking 116 batters in just over 100 innings of work with a 2.60 ERA, Farmer was promoted all the way up to Erie, and just a couple weeks later, when injuries hit the Tigers rotation, he was up in Detroit making his Major League debut.
Farmer was a four year starter for Georgia Tech and likely advanced for the league at age 23, but used his three pitch repertoire well.
As good as Farmer pitched, it’s arguable that Kubitza and Ziomek were even better, as each posted an ERA in the low 2’s, with Ziomek setting a new strikeouts per nine innings record for the ‘Caps, at 11.12 K’s/9 innings.
It was quite the turnaround for Ziomek, who according to many scouts was a completely different pitcher in April compared to July. In April, Ziomek struggled to dial his fastball up to 90 MPH, and while he was still effective, that was likely more due to his developed skill as a member of the Vanderbilt staff in college. On the other hand, in July, he was hitting mid-90’s regularly, dialing his fastball up to 94 even in the 6th inning. It’s likely a big reason why his K/9 rate went from 9.5 in the first half of the season to 13.0 in the second half.
Kubitza meanwhile posted an almost as impressive strikeout rate, while posting an even better strikeout-to-walk ratio. Kubitza brought an impressive slider with him to the organization when he was drafted, and he continued to flash that plus slider for the ‘Caps, potentially making him a great fit as a middle to late inning reliever that can generate plenty of swings-and-misses.
Somewhat disappointingly, the least impressive season of the quartet of high draft pick starters was Crawford, last year’s first rounder. The youngster out of Florida came to the organization as far from a finished product, and it clearly showed as he was no longer able to simply rely on his fastball. Having been drafted with an above average breaking pitch, he wasn’t able to deploy it consistently, struggling with his mechanics. A power fastball isn’t easily duplicated, so fans should by no means write off Crawford just yet, and he still posted a very good 2.85 ERA with a 1.16 WHIP, but only struck out 85 in 123 innings, and will need to show more to continue to be the sort of prospect that projects to be what the Tigers drafted him to be – a middle of the rotation starter or a shutdown late inning reliever.
In the bullpen, a number of relievers got work in late inning roles, with lefty Joe Mantiply averaging more than a strikeout per inning, working both as an occasional closer and also a multi-inning reliever. He eventually earned a call-up to Erie as well. Righty Julio Felix led the club in saves with 13, while Zac Reininger closed 11 games and Montreal Robertson closed eight, all showing potential as future middle or situational relievers.
On the other side of the coin, the story of the season was outfielder Wynton Bernard. Bernard was signed in an open tryout in Lakeland in early March, impressed everyone in camp and fought his way onto the ‘Caps roster, even earning a starting spot. Some speculated that Bernard would cool off, but he never did, hitting .323 with patience and some power, and earning Midwest League MVP honors. Bernard likely still isn’t a major prospect, but he helped power a ‘Caps lineup that was plenty young and needed a steady presence.
Besides the show that Bernard put on, the other story of the season was the breakout year that shortstop Willy Adames had, going from little-known Dominican prospect to one of the top prospects in the Tigers system, and a sought after trade commodity at the deadline. Adames flashed good defense, while hitting .271 with plenty of extra base power, including 19 doubles and 14 triples. Adames was so desired given his offensive prowess and defensive potential as a future big leaguer at shortstop that he became a key piece in the Tigers trade for former Cy Young winner David Price.
Besides Bernard and Adames, the Whitecaps had a couple steadying forces in the lineup like first baseman Dominic Ficociello, outfielder Raph Rhymes and utility man/designated hitter Jeff Holm. Ficociello posted a solid .714 OPS, while Rhymes led the team with 71 RBI and Holm led the club with 11 home runs, despite only playing in 80 games.
The club also got to see snippets of a number of youngsters that continue to carry enormous potential, like infielders Domingo Leyba and Javier Betancourt, outfielder Tyler Gibson, and catcher Grayson Greiner. Leyba especially made noise when he posted a .914 OPS in the final month of the season after the Tigers traded Adames and opened up a hole in the middle infield that he helped fill.
The season didn’t end with a magical cap on it that would have made for a storybook ending, as the Whitecaps fell in the quarterfinals of the Midwest League playoffs. But along the way, they got to see an MVP performance, some bright young position players with plenty of upside, and a spectacular rotation.