The West Michigan Whitecaps enter the 2008 season under the direction of their third manager in as many seasons, while also looking for their third Midwest League title in as many seasons. Manager Joe DePastino came to the Tigers highly recommended from Lakeland Manager Andy Barkett, and his enthusiastic approach to the game should play well with his young players. Joining ‘DePas' in Grand Rapids will be former Oneonta Pitching Coach Mark Johnson, and returning as hitting instructor will be Benny DiStefano.
The ‘Caps opening rotation has a mix of old faces, local products, and new prospects, and is led by left-hander Ramon Garcia. After battling back from arm trouble over the last two years, Garcia returns to the site of his greatest professional success. In 2006, Ramon took home back-to-back TigsTown Pitcher of the Month awards to start the season, before being shut down in June with a 1.92 ERA and 7-2 record in twelve starts. Joining Garcia in his return to West Michigan will be 2007 Whitecaps pitcher Lauren Gagnier. A 2006 draftee out of Cal State Fullerton, Gagnier will be looking to improve upon his 5-11 mark of last season.
Two additional left-handers that will work in the ‘Caps rotation will be Michigan State product Jon Kibler, and University of Miami product Manny Miguelez. Both pitchers have excelled at times in the past, and both will be looking to take advantage of the pitcher-friendly environment found throughout the Midwest League. The final slot in the rotation has not been finalized at this time, but early indications have Kalamazoo native and University of Michigan product Andrew Hess logging the bulk of these starts.
The West Michigan bullpen offers a nice blend of experience and youth, but will be more renowned for lighting up radar guns. Dominican right-handers Alfredo Figaro and Wilton Garcia can both bring it in the mid-90s, while pitchers like Santos Mieses, Noah Krol, and Kelvin Cedano can all sit in the low-90s with ease. Krol is likely to hold down the stopper role for the ‘Caps, and given his track record with Wichita State and last year with Oneonta, it is reasonable to expect the late innings to be in safe hands. Rounding out the pitching staff will be side-arm slinger Rudy Darrow and right-hander Paul Nardozzi. Both pitchers will fill an abundance of roles for the ‘Caps in 2008.
Working as the primary battery mates for the pitching staff will be third-year pros Jordan Newton and Joe Bowen. Newton has long been praised for his promising bat, and for the first time in his career, he should receive enough playing time to get in a groove and really let his talent shine through. Bowen put together his second straight impressive spring training, and the organization will look for him to take the next step both at the plate, and in his ability to handle the pitching staff.
Moving around the infield, first base and designated hitter duties will be split between Chris Carlson and Ronnie Bourquin. Carlson enters the 2008 season looking to continue his torrid hitting, having posted a whopping .299/.375/.533 line in two pro seasons. Bourquin began to make the switch from third base (where he is still likely to see some time) to first base this spring, and he will be looking to put his dismal start to the 2007 season, even further in his rear view mirror. Both players have the potential to help carry the Whitecaps' offense, and could rack up some lofty RBI totals in the process.
The middle infield will see a return to Grand Rapids by shortstop Audy Ciriaco, and the arrival of college products Roger Tomas and Justin Henry. Tomas makes the jump from the GCL after a strong spring, while Henry joins the ‘Caps on the heels of a 2007 campaign that some him finish third in the New York-Penn League in hitting with a .340 average. Ciriaco remains one of the organization's most talented players, and rumblings throughout baseball circles indicate he could be on the verge of a major breakout in 2008.
Third base will be primarily handled by Joe Tucker, a former four-year standout at Kent State who posted a .261/.303/.328 line in 35 games as a reserve for the ‘Caps in 2007. Working in a utility role will be the speedy Kody Kaiser. Don't let his size fool you when you see him on the field, Kaiser brings a complete skill set to the table, along with the ability to adequately handle shortstop, second base, and all three outfield slots.
Around the outfield, DePastino will have plenty of speed to work with, starting with the blazing speed of Kyle Peter, who Andy Barkett timed at 3.9 second from home-to-first (3.49 second on a drag bunt) while with Oneonta last season. Peter is a slap hitter with excellent bunting skills, and he should be able to cause havoc on the bases this season. Joining Peter in the outfield will be Cory Middleton, Marc McBratney, and Casper Wells. Middleton returns for his second tour through the Midwest League, after struggling in 80 games for the ‘Caps in 2006. His move to the outfield was successful last season, and there are lingering hopes that the promise his bat has shown, will begin to come to fruition this year.
It has taken a while for Casper Wells to reach West Michigan, but fans in Grand Rapids should enjoy watching him perform. Wells brings an exciting style to the field, including a very strong arm from the outfield, and tremendous power potential at the plate. Rounding out the outfield, McBratney comes in after signing as an undrafted free agent last summer. Look for him to continue applying his patient approach at the plate and solid outfield defense.
Expectations are high in Grand Rapids – both within the team and the fan base – and the drive for a third straight championship, will hinge on the development of a raw offensive group. There could be plenty of pitching help on the way if need be, but the offense will be the critical factor in 2008.