The strength of this year’s club appears to be on the mound, where they’ll work with a six-man rotation featuring three right-handers, three southpaws, two members of the TigsTown Top Ten, two 2016 draft picks, and two pitchers who made at least a dozen starts for the Whitecaps last year. The headliner is Kyle Funkhouser, TigsTown’s number eight prospect, who at one point was in consideration to be the top overall pick in the 2015 draft, but fell to the Tigers in the fourth round last year due to inconsistent performances in college. He’s joined by TigsTown’s number nine prospect Anthony Castro, who is making his full-season debut after missing the 2015 season and throwing 50 innings in the Gulf Coast League last year. Both righties show flashes of premium stuff and have the chance to be mid-rotation MLB starters some day.
Joining the top ten arms is a trio of lefties, led by TigsTown’s 33rd ranked prospect Gregory Soto, who posted a 3.03 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 71 innings for Connecticut last year, and shows a fastball that can reach the mid-90s. Last year’s seventh-round pick Austin Sodders and 2012 international free agent signing Eudis Idrogo can’t quite match Soto’s velocity, but both show solid command of a three-pitch mix. Idrogo made 16 starts for the Whitecaps last year, while the final member of the rotation, Spenser Watkins, made 12 starts. Watkins is a solid organizational arm who brings leadership and experience to the squad. Noticeably absent from the rotation is last year’s first-round pick Matt Manning. He may make it up to West Michigan at some point in 2017, but for now he’ll stick behind in Florida to get further instruction.
The Whitecaps also boast a prospect-laden bullpen, with four members of the TigsTown Top 50 represented, including two 2016 draft picks who saw time in West Michigan last year. Zac Houston was terrific in his short stint, posting a miniscule 0.46 ERA and striking out 30 in 19 2/3 innings, while sixth-rounder Bryan Garcia got into one regular season game and one playoff game for the Whitecaps last season. Houston and Garcia can both close games, as can the hard-throwing Eduardo Jimenez, who closed out all five of his save opportunities in Connecticut last season. Undrafted free agent Jason Foley has just over seven pro innings to his name, but TigsTown’s 45th ranked prospect owns a solid fastball/splitter mix that could find him also getting outs late in games. Adding more depth to the bullpen are West Michigan vets Fernando Perez and Trent Szkutnik, as well as the 21-year-old Venezuelan Alfred Gutierrez, and 2016 draftee Joe Navilhon.
There aren’t as many position player prospects ticketed to take the field at Fifth Third Ballpark, but there’s a solid mix of young talent and veteran experience. The highest ranked position player is middle infielder Anthony Pereira, who owns promising offensive tools and the ability to stay up the middle on defense. He’ll be joined by a pair of 2016 draft picks, possibly splitting reps at the keystone with speedy 16th-rounder Will Savage, or sharing shortstop duties with the towering ninth-round-pick Daniel Pinero. The lefty hitting Josh Lester has spent parts of his first two pro seasons manning the hot corner in West Michigan, and he’ll begin there again in 2017. All the infielders will be throwing the ball to the hulking first baseman Blaise Salter, while catching duties will be split between organization vet Drew Longley and last year’s 14th rounder Austin Athman. All three players have a chance to hit for solid power.
The 2017 Whitecaps outfield probably won’t be able to match the incredible speed and defense of last year’s crew, but they’re no slouches. In addition to owning the nickname The Maple Hammer, eighth-round pick Jacob Robson boasts above-average speed and defense, as well as ideal leadoff skills, and he’s joined by the impressively athletic Cam Gibson, who returns to West Michigan after cracking 24 extra-base hits and stealing 26 bases for the Whitecaps in 2016. The final two members of the outfield are 2015 tenth-rounder Cole Bauml, who, like Robson, is a native Canadian, and Elvis Rubio, a 22-year-old Dominican who the Tigers selected from the Brewers in the minor-league portion of last year’s Rule 5 Draft.
Juggling the roster will be Mike Rabelo, who played 52 games for the Detroit Tigers between 2006 and 2007, was a part of the franchise-altering Miguel Cabrera trade, and spent the last three seasons managing the Connecticut Tigers in the New York-Penn League, where he led his team to a 118-107 record and one playoff appearance. His pitching coach will be Jorge Cordova, who had a chance to join the ill-fated 2003 Tigers, but never made it because he broke his hand after punching a wall in anger after a particularly rough outing in double-A ball. He found a new career in coaching, however, and has been working with pitchers in the Tigers system since 2006. And West Michigan’s new hitting coach in none other than Mike Hessman, who spent last year coaching hitters in Connecticut, and who happens to be something of a folk hero because he holds the minor-league record with 433 career home runs.
As long as the weather cooperates, fans can get their first look at the new Whitecaps squad during an open workout from 6:00 to 7:30 PM on Wednesday, April 5, and they can see the team in action the following day at 6:35 PM when West Michigan begins their regular season with a two-game series against the South Bend Cubs.