Coming into the 2015 season most of the excitement about the West Michigan Whitecaps was because of 19 year-old Derek Hill. However, due to some poor statistical performance from Hill and numerous trips to the disabled list others came into the spotlight. Michael Gerber, Ross Kivett, and Zach Shepherd to name a few exploded onto the prospect scene and each solidified themselves as legitimate prospects.
West Michigan also got to see absolutely dominating performances from some very intriguing pitching prospects like Joe Jimenez and Spencer Turnbull. To say this was a very exciting team this year would be an understatement.
With some of the great performances out of some of the Whitecaps this year it is unsurprising that they once again made the playoffs. They finished 42-28 in the second half, good for second place, just 3 games behind Fort Wayne in the Midwest League Eastern Division. In the Midwest League playoffs the Whitecaps made it all the way to the Midwest League Championship series and ended up winning it all
If you look at the team statistics as a whole nothing really stands out about the Whitecaps this year. As a team, the Whitecaps slashed .256/.322/.351, which is a .673 OPS. Ranked by OPS, the Whitecaps had the 11th best OPS in the Midwest League out of 16 teams. As a team on the pitching side they had a 3.48 collective ERA, good for 8th out of 16 teams.
The pitching staff this year was highlighted by Spencer Turnbull, Artie Lewicki, Fernando Perez, Ross Seaton, Jeff Thompson and A.J. Ladwig.
Out of those listed above, Spencer Turnbull proved himself to easily be the top prospect. Turnbull had a 3.01 ERA and a 3.10 FIP in 116 2/3 innings with West Michigan this year. Turnbull’s fastball consistently works in the 95-97 range and even touched 100 once this year. He also showed good ability to maintain this velocity deep into starts. He has below average fastball command, so right now the pitch can be graded as a 7 with 7+ potential. Next, is his slider, which is thrown in the 89-92 range. The slider has 2-plane break with sharp bite. The movement is a little inconsistent and the pitch can be graded as a 5+ right now with 6 potential. Finally is his change-up which is thrown in the 87-88 range with good movement and fade. He showed good feel for his change-up in my viewings, but it is still his worst pitch right now. Currently it can be graded as a 4 with 5 potential. Turnbull’s overall future potential is a #3 starter, but more realistically he is a back end starter.
The only other real prospect in the starting rotation for West Michigan this year was Artie Lewicki. He had a 3.52 ERA and a 3.13 FIP in 79 1/3 innings with West Michigan this year. He throws a fastball that typically works in the 89-92 touching 93 range. With improved command the pitch has 5+ potential. Next is his curveball, which works in the 76-79 range with good 11-5 type movement. He has bad control on it, so currently the pitch is a 4 but if he is able to improve his control it has average potential. Next is his slider, which works in the 83-85 range, with occasional good tilt. It is a little inconsistent, so right now it can be graded as a 3+ with 4 potential. Finally is his changeup in the 84-86 range with good deception, but the pitch lacks movement and he struggles with his control on it. Currently it can be graded as a 3+ pitch and has 4 potential. Lewicki’s overall future potential is a fifth starter, but more realistically it looks like he will be a spot starter type.
The other guys in West Michigan’s rotation aren’t strong prospects, but some of them still had some pretty good seasons statistically speaking. Ross Seaton had a 3.73 ERA and a 3.24 FIP in 132 2/3 innings. Seaton is an org guy and his arsenal is basically a lot of fringe without a carrying pitch. Jeff Thompson had a 3.79 ERA and a 3.90 FIP in 118 2/3 innings. Not that long ago many people thought pretty highly of Thompson as a prospect, but after missing almost all of the 2014 season with an injury, he showed decreased fastball velocity and he struggled with release point/arm slot consistency this year. Fernando Perez had 4.51 ERA and a 4.17 FIP in 101 2/3 of an inning this year. Perez throws a fastball in the 90-92 touching 93 range, and also throws a fringy curveball and change-up. There isn’t much here in terms of Major League upside. Finally, we have A.J. Ladwig, who had a 3.59 ERA and a 3.65 FIP in 138 innings this year. Ladwig is doesn’t have anything that will carry him to the Major Leagues, but was an effective starter for the ‘Caps.
The Whitecaps bullpen this year had a couple of very interesting arms. The headliner of the bullpen was definitely the flame-throwing Joe Jimenez who many fans got a chance to watch during the futures game in July. Jimenez had a 1.47 ERA and a 1.93 FIP in 43 innings this year. Jimenez is absolutely electric and his fastball consistently sits in the 95-97 touching 98 range with movement. His fastball can completely overpower hitters in the lower levels of the minors, but he needs to improve his command on it. The Tigers know this too, and had him throwing his fastball 90-95% of his pitches this year so he could work on his command. Currently it can be graded a 7 pitch with 7+ potential. Jimenez’ other pitch is a slider in the 79-81 range. It is a swing and miss offering with two-plane break. However, he often struggles to find the strike zone with it and as a result it can currently be graded as a 5 pitch with plus potential.
However, Joe Jimenez was far from the only arm out of the bullpen that stood out to me as I watched this team this year. Johan Belisario is a small guy, listed at 5’11” 165, but he definitely has a major league ceiling. He had an impressive 1.79 ERA and a 2.98 FIP in 55 1/3 innings this year. He works 90-92 touching 93 with some run on his fastball. The fastball is a current 5 pitch with 5+ potential. However, it is his curveball that really makes him stand out. His curveball is thrown in the low-to-mid 70’s and has a lot of 11-5 movement. The curveball has plus potential and he will be able to use it as a legitimate out pitch at the major league level. I can see Belisario becoming a set-up guy for a major league team one day.
Trey Teakell joined West Michigan mid-season after he was drafted in the 9th round of this June’s draft out of TCU. He pitched in 47 innings for West Michigan this year and had an impressive 2.06 ERA and a 2.62 FIP. It’s a thin frame and his fastball works in the 89-91 touching 92 range with very good sinking movement. His change-up is thrown in the 82-84 range with good movement and fade. The change-up has average major league potential. The slider is thrown in the high 70’s to low 80’s with good movement. The slider is another potential average major league offering. Teakell has the potential to become a back-end starter at the major league level.
There are a couple of the other bullpen guys that spent the season in West Michigan to keep an eye on prospect wise. Adam Ravenelle was the Tigers 4th round pick in the 2014 draft. His stock has taken a little bit of a hit this year as he struggled with injuries, lost fastball velocity and lost some movement on his slider and changeup. Many thought he could be a set-up guy heading into this year, but now he realistically looks like more of a middle-relief type. Drew Smith is another guy that spent the tail end of the season with West Michigan after being drafted in the 3rd round of by the Tigers out of Dallas Baptist. Drew Smith has shown very good control in the past, combine that with a mid to high 90’s fastball and a very good curveball. It is pretty easy to pretty easy to project Smith as a high leverage power arm reliever at this point.
There were also a number of big time hitting prospects playing for West Michigan this summer. The clear headliner of this group was Derek Hill. Hill battled injuries and poor performance all year, but it was very easy to see why many project him as a high upside prospect. Currently Hill’s swing mechanics need work, and that causes him to not be able to hit the ball with much leverage. This explains his .619 OPS this year, but with improved mechanics it is easy to see Hill turning into a .255-.265 hitter at the major league level one day with 12-15 home runs. However, the bat is far from Hill’s strong point right now. I had Hill clocked as a fast as 3.94 home to first at one point this year, that’s an 80 grade time for a right-handed hitter. The speed Hill possesses also helps his ability in centerfield, where his good range and good route taking ability give him a 6+ glove right now with 7 potential. Hill also possesses an average major league arm that will play as a centerfielder long term. This mixture of tools and the solid make-up Hill showed at times this year give him the potential of a first division regular, but more realistically it looks like he will be a second-division regular.
Even though Hill was the most hyped hitting prospect on West Michigan coming into the year, many others came out and proved themselves as legitimate prospects. One of the most notable break-out offensive prospects this year was Zach Shepherd. This was Shepherd’s 19-year old season and he hit .245/.327/.339 this year, but those numbers were much more impressive before he started to slow down in the second half. With Shepherd the bat will pretty much play anywhere, it’s just a question of where he will end up defensively. For me he profiles as more of a corner outfielder long term because of how bad he looked defensively at third this year. If Shepherd is converted to an outfielder it is very easy to see him become a fourth outfielder down the road.
One of the other players that exploded onto the prospect scene this year was Michael Gerber. Gerber was the tigers 15th round draft pick out of Creighton in 2014. He hit a very impressive .292/.355/.468 in 135 games this year. Like Zach Shepherd, Gerber showed very impressive ability with the bat this year. He showed a short, compact swing and the ability to hit for home run power. Once again it’s just a question of his defensive ability, but Gerber is another guy that could become a solid fourth outfielder on a major league team.
Ross Kivett also solidified himself as a prospect in West Michigan this year. He hit a modest .267/.330/.357 in 133 games this year, but really impressed evaluators with his glove this year. His bigger frame should limit him to corner outfield duties, but he has a very solid glove for a corner outfielder. Kivett looks like a guy that could turn into a Andy Dirks type major leaguer, which might not seem very exciting but that’s major league upside in a system still pretty thin on talent.
Another draft pick from this years draft that came to West Michigan mid-season and really impressed was Christin Stewart. He was the Tigers’ supplemental first round draft pick in June and he hit .286/.375/.492 in 51 games with West Michigan this year. He has the potential to be have a 5 hit tool, and most of that depends on his ability to help his over-aggressive approach. He also has 20 home run potential, due to some natural loft in his swing, good bat speed and natural strength. His arm will mostly limit him to being a left fielder, but his realistic role looks like that of a second division regular.
Even though the tigers system is still thought of as relatively weak, there were a number of interesting players in West Michigan this year. With all this prospect star power it is easy to see why this was the team that was able to go home the Midwest League Champions.