Repeating as champions is extraordinarily difficult in any sport, but it’s next to impossible in minor league baseball, because teams see nearly complete roster turnover. And true to form, the 2016 version of the Whitecaps features just 11 players who saw time with the 2015 squad. They even lost their hitting coach from last season, as Phil Clark moved on to the Double-A Erie SeaWolves, and the club brought in Edgar Alfonzo as his replacement. That doesn’t mean the Whitecaps are without talent this year, however, as they boast ten members of the TigsTown Top 50, including the Tigers’ first round picks from each of the last two seasons.
Headlining the offense is 2014 first-rounder Derek Hill, who hit .238 and stole 25 bases for the Whitecaps last year, but only managed to play 53 games due to lingering quad issues that sent him to the disabled list three times. Hill is joined in the outfield by an interesting trio of players in Jose Azocar, Rashad Brown, and Cam Gibson. Brown acquitted himself nicely in a 56-game stint in West Michigan last year, hitting .298 and stealing 11 bases in 12 tries, but he also missed the end of the season with injury. Just 19, Azocar is the second youngest member of the team, and one of the organization’s more exciting young prospects, as a potential above-average defender who hit .325 in 51 Gulf Coast League games last season. Son of Tigers legend Kirk, Gibson was drafted out of Michigan State in the fifth round last year, and he brings plenty of speed and intensity to the team.
The infield boasts fewer prospects than the outfield, but brings with it plenty of experience. David Gonzalez returns to West Michigan for the third time, where he will likely split time between shortstop and second base. Once thought to be a very promising prospect, shortstop/third baseman Steven Fuentes will have a lot of work to do to regain his status after hitting just .154 in 51 games last year, including a 16-game stretch in West Michigan. Brett Pirtle, a 2014 23rd-round pick out of Mississippi State, hit .287 in 44 games between two levels last year, and he figures to see a fair amount of time at second base.
The Tigers took third baseman Josh Lester in the 13th round last year, and he offers an intriguing bat at the hot corner, while first-base duties will be a battle of Wills. Will Maddox began 2015 as the starter in West Michigan, but an injury just 13 games into the season cost him the rest of the year, while Will Allen was drafted as a catcher in 2014, but has moved to first because to allow his promising right-handed bat to develop.
The Whitecaps will carry two backstops to begin the year, both of whom saw time in West Michigan last season. Arvicent Perez has long been lauded for his defensive ability, and he has also shown some promise with the bat, but in four years in the organization he has never played more than 48 games in a season. He’ll be joined behind the dish by 2014 5th-rounder Shane Zeile, the nephew of 16-year MLB veteran Todd Zeile. Zeile struggled to post a .530 OPS in 36 games for the Whitecaps last year, but he turned things around a bit after being sent down to short-season Connecticut, hitting .252 and connecting for six homers in 35 games, and he’ll look to build on that this year.
Throwing to Perez and Zeile will be a six-man rotation featuring two veterans and a quartet of newcomers, headlined by the Tigers’ 2015 first-round pick Beau Burrows. The youngest member of the team, Burrows is a classic Texas fireballer whose fastball has reached the high 90s in the past, and he complements that with a promising breaking ball and a developing changeup. Fellow 2015 draft pick Matt Hall (6th round) can’t compete with Burrows’ fastball, but that didn’t keep the lefty from leading all of Division I baseball in strikeouts in 2015.
Fernando Perez is the wily veteran of this staff, as he spent all of 2015 pitching for the Whitecaps, though this year he’ll certainly look to improve on last season’s rough 2-12 record and 4.51 ERA. Spenser Watkins also saw action in West Michigan, but he spent more time in short-season Connecticut, where he posted a 2.23 ERA in 12 starts. The rotation is rounded out by promising young arms Eudis Idrogo and Sandy Baez. Idrogo doesn’t light up the radar gun, but he offers an interesting three-pitch mix and posted impressive numbers (6-3, 2.15) as a 20-year-old in 2015. Baez is a classic Tigers prospect, offering a heavy fastball that can hit the mid-90s and a power curveball, but leaving scouts questioning whether his future is as a starter or as a reliever.
West Michigan’s bullpen was consistently terrific in 2015, but almost all of the big arms have moved on, so the 2016 relief corps will be interesting to watch. The big name from this group is probably Gerson Moreno, a 20-year-old Dominican with an electric right arm who can reportedly hit triple digits on the radar gun. He only threw 9 1/3 regular season innings for the Whitecaps last year, but he was a key part of the playoff run, and he figures to be the club’s closer to begin the season. Another interesting name in the bullpen is Josh Laxer, a high-school teammate of Tigers prospect Spencer Turnbull, who closed games for Mississippi in 2014, and had a solid pro debut later that year. He missed all of last season with an injury, but when healthy he threw in the mid-90s and showed flashes of an above-average slider.
The rest of the bullpen is made up of veteran college arms. Former Wolverine Trent Szkutnik returns to West Michigan for the third consecutive year, and last year’s 22nd-round pick Toller Boardman will join him as the team’s other lefty reliever. Jonathan Maciel spent 2014 with the Whitecaps, mostly as a starter, and returns in a relief role to begin 2016. Rounding out the bullpen are undrafted free agent Jordan Smith, who threw 33 innings for Connecticut in 2015, and last year’s 11th-round pick Jake Shull, who picked up eight saves in nine chances in his pro debut. Drew Smith and Trey Teakell, two potential members of the bullpen this season, will begin the year on the disabled list, and it’s still unknown when they may be able to return.
There’s no shortage of talent in West Michigan this season, and Whitecaps fans should be treated to some exciting young prospects, but it’s impossible to say if this year’s team will be able to match the magic of last year’s squad. There will be one more chance to celebrate that championship team, however, as the first 1,000 fans through the gates for Saturday’s home opener will receive a replica of the team’s championship ring.