On the heels of one of the club’s best seasons in recent memory, finishing 82-58 and winning a first-half division title, the West Michigan Whitecaps will return to the field with second-year manager Andrew Graham at the helm once again.
Highlighting the Whitecaps roster will be the Tigers top two picks from the 2014 draft, outfielder Derek Hill and right-handed pitcher Spencer Turnbull. Both players were hit or miss in their time with the Connecticut Tigers during their debut summer, but the talent the pair brings to the table makes them much-watch players for the ‘Caps in 2015.
Turnbull will headline a starting rotation that will likely include fellow 2014 draftee Artie Lewicki, as well as off-season acquisition Gabe Speier. Acquired from the Red Sox in the deal that shipped Rick Porcello out of town and brought Yoenis Cespedes to the Motor City, Speier is an intriguing young arm that is continuing to work his way back from injury, but could be a fascinating boost to the rotation.
Backing up these newcomers, Whitecaps fans should enjoy seeing 2013 draftee Jeff Thompson and international signee Fernando Perez. Thompson missed most of last season with West Michigan as a result of injury, but he has the potential to punish Midwest League hitters with his heavy fastball and quality slider.
The ‘Caps rotation should be strong enough to give the lineup a chance to put up some runs and win games in Graham’s second season at the helm.
“I’m curious what the rotation can do over the course of the first half,” said an AL scout that covers many Midwest League teams. “There’s some upside with guys like Turnbull and the new kid from Boston (Speier), and then guys like Lewicki and Thompson strike me as the type that could move out of town quickly if they find success.”
Backing up the starting rotation, West Michigan will have a bundle of relievers that can bring heat and mow through lineups in the late innings. Highlighted by hard-throwing right-hander Joe Jimenez, the bullpen should be able to slam the door. Jimenez brings a high-octane fastball and improving slider to the table, along with a growing ability to remain confident and attack hitters. His complete package profiles like that of a dominating Midwest League closer.
“Jimenez is going to torch that league,” said another AL scout. “I would be surprised he was there for the entire summer, unless they just want to keep him on the roster to help keep high-end prospects in West Michigan. His stuff is just too good for that league.”
In addition to Jimenez’s big fastball, the coaching staff will have the option to turn to pitchers like Johan Belisario, Josh Heddinger, Adam Ravenelle, and Paul Voelker, all of whom run their fastballs anywhere from 91-95 mph in short bursts.
Belisario impressed some scouts while with Connecticut in 2014 and he could be a guy that helps bridge the gap from the starters. Ravenelle and Voelker have tons of college experience that they can rely on to help them handle MWL hitters, and that should give the West Michigan coaching staff plenty of comfort when they need to pull a starter and hand things over to the bullpen.
At the plate, West Michigan should be able to rely on more than just the organization’s top prospect, Derek Hill. Hill will likely hit at the top of the order and could provide hitting ability, gap power, and tremendous speed that is a catalyst for the rest of the lineup.
“[Hill’s] a dynamic talent,” noted a veteran NL amateur evaluator. “There’s raw hitting ability there and outstanding speed that plays well with his instincts and style of play. His defense is outstanding and will save some runs for that club right out of the gate. Fans are going to like watching him develop.”
Also in the West Michigan outfield will be speedster Rashad Brown, power hitting 2014 draftee Michael Gerber, and polished college bat Ross Kivett. Gerber put on an intriguing power display early on last summer following the draft, but his power comes with swing-and-miss that could derail his season. Kivett is the most likely of the trio to experience success in 2015, given his natural bat-to-ball skills, extensive collegiate experience, and polished approach.
Around the infield the Whitecaps will feature Giancarlo Brugnoni at first base, Zac Shepherd and Francisco Contreras at third base, Garrett Mattlage at shortstop. The second base duties could fall to Joey Pankake after he saw time there in spring training and considering he still lacks a long term defensive home. 2014 draftee Will Maddux could see time at several positions as he works in a bit of a utility role.
Pankake offers the highest upside of the infielders, bringing a potentially potent bat to the table that includes both a solid approach, good contact ability, and solid raw power. His offensive ceiling is just a touch greater than third baseman Zach Shepherd who has a knack for getting the barrel on the ball with good gap power.
Giancarlo Burgnoni is a local product having raked at Grand Valley State University prior to signing with the Tigers and while he lacks an MLB projection, he could provide some thump in the middle of the Whitecaps lineup.
Rounding out the position players, the Whitecaps will have three catchers on the roster, all with some potential to develop into viable prospects. Franklin Navarro, Shane Zeile, and Arvicent Perez all have solid skills that could push them through the system. Navarro’s ceiling exceeds that of Zeile and Perez, but he is also the rawest player of the three, needing to refine both his offensive and defensive game to avoid prolonged struggles in his full-season debut.
In total, the Tigers have yet again stocked the Whitecaps roster with several top prospects on both sides of the ball, and augmented the roster with plenty of polished college players that should be able to handle the rigors of full season ball. That combination should provide the club with plenty of chances to win games and possibly head back to the playoffs in 2015.