Led by returning manager Joe DePastino, the ‘Caps again have an exciting roster filled with talent. This year's edition is highlighted by youth; and lots of it.
"We have a really young team this year. That's one thing I know for sure. I just need to let them play the game this year."
Any discussion of the roster starts with the pitching staff, and stud right-hander Jacob Turner. The Tigers top pick in last summer's draft, Turner was dazzling during his time in big league spring training, and expectations are flying high heading into the season.
Turner has the potential to develop into a legitimate ace starter, and it could happen very quickly. Having only pitched during the Fall Instructional League and spring training, Turner is set to make his official pro debut with the ‘Caps in the coming days.
"I think [West Michigan] will be a great place to start my professional career. Everything I've heard about both the Whitecaps and the city has been so positive. I can't wait to get started," said Turner after rosters were announced over the weekend.
Despite the hype and his unlimited potential, Turner displays a great amount of poise and maturity in his approach, recognizing there are still areas where he must improve his game to get to the next level.
"My main thing I am focusing on is consistency. Being able to improve that in every aspect, from mechanics to secondary pitches, will allow me to be successful."
There's no doubt the stands will be packed for Turner's debut in West Michigan, but he won't be the only reason the stands are packed this season. The rest of the rotation is loaded with talent as well. Right-handers Ramon Lebron and Trevor Feeney, along with lefties Jade Todd and Giovanni Soto should all see time starting this summer.
Lebron went racing up prospect lists last season, after he showed a powerful fastball and enormous potential. Soto is another youngster with a big following. After being drafted out of Puerto Rico last summer, he set the Gulf Coast League on fire to the tune of a 1.18 ERA in 13 games.
Right-handers Luis Sanz and Nathan Newman could both see some action starting games as well, having started a combined 23 starts last year in Oneonta. Given the youth of the pitching staff, and the restricted pitch counts, you can expect to see more than a few players pick up starts on occasion this summer.
The rotation gives plenty of reason for excitement every time out, and that doesn't go unnoticed by the players themselves.
"We have a lot of young talent, which is always good to see. If everyone keeps progressing, I think we will be very good," said Turner.
The bullpen doesn't lack for its own crop of talented hurlers. Returning to West Michigan this year is right-hander Victor Larez, who looked impressive working with the Double-A squad during spring training.
Though DePastino is hesitant to throw closing duties on the shoulders of youngster Melvin Mercedes, his power fastball and nasty slider make a perfect combination for the back end of games.
"I don't want to throw him right into the closer's role. I want to get him in spots where he feels comfortable, and get him some innings. Then maybe after a while, give him some closing roles to see how he takes to it, and I'm sure he will do well. I just don't want to rush a young kid into that."
Also working in the bullpen will be right-handers Nolan Cain and Jose Ortega, as well as left-hander Kenny Faulk. Faulk is the only lefty in the bullpen to start the year, and he expects to fill a variety of roles for the ‘Caps.
"I'm looking forward to whatever relief role they give me this year. I worked a couple of longer outings in spring training, along with a couple of short ones. Since I'm the only lefty, I am expecting to work in a lot of different situations."
Faulk was very successful last season in Oneonta, and he is looking forward to continuing that success this season, saying "I want to keep pounding the zone and establishing myself. I want to get ahead of hitters, and hopefully keep making a name for myself."
Ortega brings a late inning mentality to the ballpark, and he brings the arsenal to back it up too; with a fastball that can touch the mid-90s, he could become a very reliable option for the West Michigan coaching staff.
Last, but certainly not least, non-drafted free agent Nolan Cain is a versatile reliever with great experience that he can lend to the team as a whole.
One of the biggest hurdles for young players arriving in West Michigan is the weight of expectations from a rabid fan base, as well as it often times being their first exposure to large crowds filling stadiums. These hurdles shouldn't be a huge obstacle to Cain, who is used to pitching in front of ten thousand rowdy fans at LSU, and even more at the College World Series in Omaha.
"When you haven't played in front of a lot of people, you can get too much adrenaline going sometimes. Being at LSU and playing in front of all those people, I know how to deal with it. Sometimes you get in front of all those people and you feel like Superman, but you have to stick to your game plan."
When Joe DePastino looks at his position players, he immediately looks to the middle of his infield.
"The two guys I'm counting on to be leaders this year are my middle guys; Hernan Perez and Luis Palacios. I know those guys are 19 or 20-years old, but to me, it doesn't matter your age. Hernan and Palacios have the makeup to be leaders, and I really want them to step up this year."
Perez has been drawing rave reviews the last two years from the development staff in Lakeland, and his slick fielding, hard-hitting style of play should go over well with the fans. After bouncing between teams the last two years, Perez will have a chance to settle in with the ‘Caps this season, and the results could be fun to watch.
At the keystone, Luis Palacios provides a steady defender and a guy with offensive potential that has yet to be realized. He also provides versatility, with the ability to play any of the infield positions with relative ease.
Also up the middle, the ‘Caps will have third year second baseman Mike Gosse. Gosse is of small stature, but he packs a punch with the stick, and should be a very solid reserve infielder in 2010.
The infield corners will be held down by the return of Jordan Lennerton, who is coming off a fine season with the Whitecaps in 2009; hitting .282 with 30 doubles and 12 home runs in the tough offensive environment of the Midwest League.
Lennerton will be backed up at first base by Dominican slugger Elvin Soto. Soto was a late addition to the GCL roster last summer, and while the numbers were sparkling, he showed his raw power and some offensive skill. He also has experience playing third base in the past, but it is unlikely he will see much time there this year.
The primary third baseman for the Whitecaps will be the Tigers 2009 3rd round pick Wade Gaynor. Gaynor struggled in his pro debut last year at Oneonta, but he is an amazing athlete for a player his size, and he offers power, speed, arm strength and defensive ability. He remains quite raw, but he has identified the areas where he thinks he needs to improve this year, to make sure Whitecaps fans see his true talent.
"In the off-season I really worked on getting more agile at third base. I also spent a lot of time working at the plate, trying to get in a consistent hitting position, which has always been an Achilles heel of mine. In spring training I had great success with that."
Behind the plate, the ‘Caps will split time between second year players Billy Alvino and Eric Roof. Roof is a local product, having played his college ball at Michigan State, and he will be a solid defender with some pop this summer.
Alvino was a non-drafted free agent out of High Point last summer, and before going down with a minor wrist injury, he saw time at a variety of levels.
Despite working with several different teams this spring, Alvino was impressed with the pitching staff he will be handling this year, and looks forward to getting the season started.
"I got to work some sides with Turner here and there, and I worked with Feeney and some of the other guys this spring and last year. I think we have a really solid pitching staff this year, and we have high expectations. I'm looking for them to get out there and pump the strike zone, get ahead of hitters, and get some wins early in the year."
Outside of the starting rotation, the outfield could be one of the most exciting spots on the roster. Anchored by 7th round pick Jamie Johnson in center field, ‘Caps fans will also be given a second look at toolsy players like Avisail Garcia and Luis Salas. Rounding out the outfielders are Michael Rockett and the powerful Alexis Espinoza.
Johnson embodies one of the attributes that the Tigers have been stressing the last six months, and that is an ability to control the strike zone. After successfully working counts last year in Oneonta, the coaching staff spent the latter part of spring training, encouraging Johnson to tweak his approach slightly.
"Early on in spring training they wanted me to see a lot of pitches, like I always try to do, and not to worry about taking that first pitch strike. This last week, right before we left, they wanted me to start jumping on that first pitch fastball to try and get my aggressive side going."
Salas and Garcia both bring a world of talent to the table, and fans should be excited to see what they can do this year. Garcia is one of the fastest rising Tigers' prospects, with tons of power in his bat and what Lakeland manager Andy Barkett calls "that champions look in his eye." Many scouts and observers believe Garcia could be in for a monster season in his return to Grand Rapids.
Salas struggled in his full-season debut last year, but with tools galore, things may have started to click this spring. He looked fantastic toward the end of camp, and could be an offensive force once the season gets rolling.
Rockett and Espinoza teamed up on the outfield corners in Oneonta last year, and while they offer very different skill sets (speed versus power, respectively), both players should be exciting additions to the West Michigan roster.
With expectations soaring around the West Michigan team, and a greeting filled with fans, camera crews, and mascots, there may be some pressure on the young ‘Caps to start the season. That pressure may not last long though, as this talented group of youngsters could put on quite a show in very short order.
"With the young roster we have this year, if they struggle, I need to be there for them," said DePastino. "That said, we've got to just let these guys play this year, and let them learn. Hopefully we can get them going early on, and in a perfect world, maybe get them out of here."