The ‘Caps return seven players who saw time with the club last season, and all seven will be looking to improve and contribute in a big way. Behind the dish, Jordan Newton and Joe Bowen both saw some time in Grand Rapids last year, and they could be key pieces to the team as they look to help a young and talented pitching staff. Pitching Coach Mark Johnson believes they have a lot to offer, stating "They're going to give a little bit of leadership, they've been there before. They should be able to call a timeout in the middle of the game without me or Joe having to go out there. They should be able to relax the pitcher and give them some comfort."
Newton looks to establish himself as the everyday backstop for West Michigan, and his potent bat will be something the team needs to have going from day one. Playing nearly every day in the second half last year, Newton capped his season with a .286 average and .510 slugging percentage in August. "He has every tool possible to be a big league catcher," said Manager Joe DePastino, who continued by saying "He can hit, he can steal bases, he's going to be a big guy at the top of our lineup."
Bowen brings three years of experience in the Tigers organization, as well as some exposure to a rabid fan base in West Michigan, early in the 2008 season. Though he lacks the bat of Newton, his defensive abilities make him an excellent backup catcher and player capable of providing leadership and depth behind the plate.
The Whitecaps will also have the luxury of a quick team capable of making fine defensive plays in support of their pitching staff. With the slick fielding Gustavo Nunez, and the solid and gritty Brandon Douglas up the middle, balls hit in that area of the field will be in good hands. Nunez should also be a spark at the top of the lineup for the ‘Caps, with his contact ability, concept of the strike zone, and blazing speed. After a season in which West Michigan fans were treated to the speedy Kyle Peter at the top of the order, Gustavo Nunez will gave them more early game excitement in 2008.
Douglas rode the promotion-demotion rollercoaster after being drafted last June, spending time in Oneonta, West Michigan and Erie, as organizational needs trumped the need for him to establish himself early in his career. He handled the situation well last year, and his bat could be a key middle of the order component in DePastino's lineup. With his polished approach, good bat speed, and keen batting eye, Douglas could be one of the league's better offensive second basemen right out of the gate. Though he moved to the keystone late in spring training, DePastino was impressed with his ability to make the transition, "[He] made adjustments quickly, and played like he's been there his whole life."
On the infield corners, some combination of Bryan Pounds, Ronnie Bourquin, Jordan Lennerton, and Billy Nowlin will look to fill in the gaps in the lineup and provide enough on both sides of the ball to help push this team over the top. Nowlin, Lennerton, and Bourquin are likely to rotate through the first base and designated hitter slots, and all three bring something different to the table. Nowlin's power bat has the potential to be a huge threat in the middle of the lineup, and if you get to the park early, ‘Caps fans might just be in store for some monstrous batting practice displays.
Lennerton and Bourquin both bring patient, polished approaches to the plate that should help with a relatively young team. They could be good models for younger players to learn from in terms of how to approach at-bats and studying pitchers. Lennerton could see the bulk of the time at first base with his above-average defensive ability. Don't be surprised to see Bourquin mix in at third base as well, spelling gamer Bryan Pounds. DePastino referred to Pounds as a "hard-nosed player" and he may well become a fan favorite with his work ethic and desire to play. In the outfield, the ‘Caps will have an excellent combination of polish, raw talent, and guys that love to play the game. Brent Wyatt brings additional versatility to the table; having played both infield and outfield as a pro, though most of his time is likely to be spent roaming an outfield corner. Fellow-2008 draftee Ben Guez will also see time on the corners, and his quick bat and solid defense will be assets that play well in the expansive dimensions of Fifth Third Ballpark.
Chao-Ting Tang and Luis Salas are both long on potential and short on experience, but West Michigan fans should get plenty of excitement out of watching them this season. Salas has tools galore, and a body that scouts can dream on. As a 20-year old he impressed DePastino this spring with his ability to make adjustments quickly and a ‘smoothness' that many players lack early in their careers.
Tang struggled in his adjustment to the pro game last season, but his potential is too hard to ignore. The 21-year old left-handed hitter has tremendous bat control and outstanding outfield instincts. His defensive play alone could leave fans in Grand Rapids in awe of some of the plays he makes this season, and his savvy and knowledge of the game will make you believe he's been around a lot longer than he really has.
One of the strengths of the Whitecaps over the years has always been their pitching staff in a very pitcher friendly ballpark and league. That should be no different in 2009, as the ‘Caps will feature a very young, but also very talented staff that should excite scouts and fans alike. Starting Opening Day will be TigsTown's number four prospect, left-hander Casey Crosby. With a big time fastball and improving off-speed stuff, it is finally time for everyone to see what the hype has been about. He was the talk of the fall instructional league last October, and he could be the talk of the Midwest League in short order. Don't miss your chance to see him in action, you won't be disappointed.
Backing him up in the rotation will be newcomers Jade Todd and Luke Putkonen. Putkonen struggled as he tried to return from minor shoulder surgery last year, but he was throwing well in spring training and has tons of raw potential. Look for him to be a guy that logs plenty of innings this year, and he could be a candidate for promotion if he pitches well. After a dominating campaign in the Gulf Coast League last year from Jade Todd, he was pushed to West Michigan where Mark Johnson sees someone that could be a nice contributor to the pitching staff; "He's a competitor. He's going to go out there and have his ups and downs, but hopefully he can go out there, enjoy it, and learn in the process."
Rounding out the rotation are two guys that both saw Grand Rapids in 2008, right-hander Brandon Hamilton and left-hander Mauricio Robles. Hamilton has been one of the Tigers better prospects in recent seasons, and if he can control the ball better this time around, he should light up radar guns and give opposing hitters fits all season.
Robles really exploded for the ‘Caps last year, holding opposing hitters to a 0.173 batting average against and striking out nearly eight hitters per nine innings as a 19-year old. Johnson cited two things that they are looking for from Robles in 2009, with ‘consistently working down in the zone and continuing to compete hard' being the keys to his success. With a rotation full of guys capable of dialing it up into the low-90s, and several even capable of reaching the upper-90s, Midwest League hitters could be in for a tough summer when the ‘Caps are on the schedule. Johnson indicated that though the rotation was young, if they could ‘get the ball in the strike zone and then progress from there,' they had a chance to be successful.
Rounding things out on the pitching staff, the bullpen has another collection of power arms worth watching. Though Victor Larez, Brayan Villareal, and Matt Hoffman have all started in the past, they will begin the season working in a relief role. "They can cover some innings in the bullpen and help keep our bullpen staff fresh, plus if one of our starters falters or we need a spot start, they're going to be able to step right in," said Johnson.
Joining them in the bullpen will be three 2008 draftees, right-handers Anthony Shawler, Tyler Stohr, and Jared Gayhart. Stohr has the biggest arm of the three, pumping his fastball up into the mid-90s, and his bulldog mentality may earn him some late inning assignments, though the staff has yet to designate any roles for late game situations, indicating that multiple pitchers could get the ball at the end of games.
Shawler and Gayhart are both still raw despite three years of college experience, having played two ways as amateurs. Both players have the stuff to be excellent relievers, and they could be critical components of a strong bullpen in West Michigan, with attacking styles, good raw stuff, and durable arms.
The last reliever is 2007 draftee Erik Crichton, who is returning to the mound after missing last season due to Tommy John surgery. He looked fantastic in spring training, and with a fastball that can reach the mid-90s, he could also factor into late game situations.
Overall, this West Michigan squad should be able to pitch with the best of them, and unlike last year's squad, they should be able to score some runs too. They may not lead the league in home runs or put on monster power displays, but they should be an entertaining team to watch. If there is one thing Manager Joe DePastino promised, it was that this team will "play hard every night." "I just let ‘em go out and play, that's my style." With a talented crew coming through Grand Rapids this summer, just letting them play may be a great way to approach the season.