Some teams squeak into the Midwest League playoffs by putting together a couple good months of baseball (in the MWL, you can qualify for the playoffs just for winning your division in the first half or second half). The Whitecaps didn't sneak in that way though – as they led the way in their division all season long.
That was likely in large part due to the impressive roster the ‘Caps had, starting with centerfielder Cameron Maybin. While just 19 years old, and having no professional experience, Maybin was the offensive force for the club (except for the few weeks he missed in May with an injured finger). Maybin led the team in batting average and was second in RBI. His power numbers were a bit low, but that's to be expected for a first year player still developing in a pitcher's park.
If Maybin was the centrepiece of the offense, Mike Hollimon was the guy that showed up everyday and made the offense click. Leading the team in OPS at .887, he also led the club in home runs and walks. It was a huge help to the ‘Caps in their postseason run that Hollimon remained in West Michigan for the duration of the season. Whether or not that move was good for Hollimon's long term future remains to be seen, as a 24 year old should be dominating the competition at this level.
One player that often was overlooked but was nonetheless a key to the ‘Caps success was outfielder Matt Joyce. Despite being overshadowed by Maybin and Hollimon, Joyce led the team with 86 runs driven in, which was good for third in the entire MWL. Being the big run generator that he was helped push the ‘Caps to their spot as 5th in runs scored in the Midwest League.
But, as is customary in West Michigan, the team goes the way of the pitching staff, and the Whitecaps once again had a stellar group on the mound. The ‘Caps had three starters reach double digit win totals, and a fourth (Erik Averill) pitched well enough to reach that plateau.
Unfortunately, possibly the best starter of the group saw his season come to an end back in June, when Ramon Garcia was placed on the disabled list. The organization was hopeful he'd be able to return after a couple weeks of rest, but that never materialized, and Garcia eventually had surgery, shutting him down for the remainder of the year. That didn't change the fact that Garcia was the ace of the ballclub for the first half of the season, compiling a 7-2 record with a sub-2 ERA.
Meanwhile, the back end of the bullpen helped West Michigan hold onto every close lead they had, with Orlando Perdomo closing things out, and Anthony Claggett setting up (and eventually taking the ball in the 9th when Perdomo went down). Perdomo's 28 saves left him as the Midwest League leader in saves, while Claggett was virtually unhittable all season long, closing the year out with a 0.91 ERA.
The Whitecaps success over the past three years has been incredible, and is likely due in large part to the managerial abilities of Matt Walbeck, who has been the skipper over the past three seasons. Unfortunately for West Michigan fans, the time has likely come for Walbeck to move up the ladder as he hopes to eventually get an opportunity as a big league manager.
With both the managerial positions at Lakeland and Erie open, it's a good bet that Walbeck will find himself advancing to one of those levels. If not, Walbeck will certainly find plenty of opportunities outside the Tiger organization. In any case, he'll be sorely missed at Fifth Third Ballpark.
But he'll be valued for his 2006 contributions, as will the rest of the players, who brought the Midwest League crown back to West Michigan.