Rabelo was drafted in the fourth round of the 2001 MLB Draft by the Detroit Tigers and spent the 2002 and 2003 seasons in the Midwest League with the Whitecaps, in which he was mainstay in the lineup, playing in 123 games each of the two seasons and playing stellar defensively. The 2003 season was Rabelo’s strongest offensively, when he hit .274 with a .681 OPS, including 21 extra-base hits. Following five seasons in minor league baseball, Rabelo broke into MLB briefly with the Tigers until he was dealt to the Florida Marlins in December of 2007 as a main piece of the Miguel Cabrera deal.
After playing with the Marlins in the MLB in 2008, Rabelo played the next two seasons in their minor league system before retiring in 2010. After stepping away from the game as a player, the former backstop joined the Tigers organization on the coaching side, first serving as hitting coach at a couple of minor league stops before being named the Connecticut Tigers manager in 2014. On October 20, 2016, Rabelo was promoted as the manager of the West Michigan Whitecaps, getting his shot to manage a full-season ballclub for the first time.
Rabelo, known for his stellar defense and arm behind the plate, has built the 2017 Whitecaps on pitching and defense. In fact, West Michigan has been atop the Midwest League East Division standings nearly all season in Rabelo’s first year at the helm.
“There’s been two constants really all year for us,” Rabelo said on the team’s success, “We’ve pitched and we’ve caught the ball. Once we started hitting, that’s the third element. I say this all the time, look at the (San Francisco) Giants in 2010, 2012 and 2014, they pitched, played defense, and hit just enough to win. I know it looks good when you look at those gawdy hitting numbers, but I’d rather take the pitching and defense.”
The Whitecaps currently lead the Midwest League with a 2.57 team ERA, over a half a run better than second-place Kane County. West Michigan also leads the league with in shutouts (12), walks (157) and team WHIP (1.12). Meanwhile, the ‘Caps have also played in 20 one-run games, in which they hold a 14-6 record, something that Rabelo really likes about his team.
“We are battled tested and I think that’s important if you want to be a good team or a team in the upper echelon of the standings,” Rabelo said. “You have to win one-run games, sometimes when you don’t have your closer or don’t have a setup guy, we’ve been through a lot.”
In the business of minor league baseball, managers deal with constant roster turnover as players are promoted and demoted. For Rabelo, he’s had to deal with two one of his top arms, Kyle Funkhouser and Bryan Garcia, being promoted to High-A Lakeland after blistering starts to the season.
Meanwhile, the Whitecaps have had to deal with some things that other teams haven’t. On May 29, the Whitecaps were involved in a bench-clearing ‘brawl’ so-to-speak after Whitecaps shortstop Daniel Pinero stepped on a baserunner’s ankle after a stolen base. Pinero would be suspended for five games while right-handed reliever, Eduardo Jimenez was handed thirty games for firing a baseball into the scrum.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Rabelo said on the recent suspensions, “Our schedule is a little bit tougher than it has been coming up and we’re going to be a position player short for a number of games. Obviously, (Eduardo) Jimenez was throwing the ball well but we had a little talk recently about next man up. We’ll find a way to compete and that’s what we do,” Rabelo added.
From a player’s perspective, the Whitecaps continue to play and fight for each other, just like they did in Dayton after the benches cleared. At the time, the game between Dayton and West Michigan, two top teams in the Midwest League’s Eastern Division, was tied at one in the bottom of the sixth. However, West Michigan would win the game 2-1 in ten innings, rallying the roster.
“A lot of us played together last season in Connecticut,” Whitecaps first baseman Blaise Salter told us, “A lot of our current coaches were with us there too. I think that makes for an easy clubhouse. We’ve got a lot of guys that are really unselfish and are willing to give each other’s at-bats up. We just play hard for each other, we’ve been down a lot and we fight our way back.”
Current West Michigan hitting coach Mike Hessman is another coach aside from Rabelo who was familiar with the roster before the season. Hessman became a baseball legend after hitting home run number 433 of his Minor League career on August 3rd, 2015, setting a new MiLB record for home runs in a career which broke a record that stood since 1937.
“(Mike) is one of the best,” Rabelo told us, “I played with him and he’s just a true pro. It’s good to see him in pro ball working with some of these younger hitters. He’s a great person and he played for 20 years, which is amazing. He’s as humble as they get, he’s a great friend of mine, and I’m just thrilled to be around him,” he added.
The Whitecaps are nearing in on locking up a playoff spot as the first half of the season draws to a close. West Michigan has won six Midwest League championships with the most recent coming two years ago in 2015. One thing is for certain, Mike Rabelo and his coaching staff has set the expectations high for the rest of the season as the Whitecaps continue to overcome adversity.