The West Michigan Whitecaps will have a stacked roster in 2023

Bless You Boys

With gorgeous facilities and a location ideal for Tigers fans in the southwestern portion of the state, the West Michigan Whitecaps have cemented themselves as the fan-facing favorite minor league team in Detroit’s system. During the upcoming season, fans can expect more than the usual fun and games atmosphere the ‘Caps staff works hard to provide to attendees. It seems likely the West Michigan roster will be jam-packed with genuine prospects and minor league depth well-suited to crush High-A competition.

Former Tigers catcher Brayan Peña is slated to make his return to West Michigan for a fourth season as the skipper. His high energy and unabashed joy make him a great fit for the team. Unlike Tigers great Lance Parrish, his predecessor in the role, Peña is considered a genuine managerial prospect, but he also has the perfect temperament for preparing young baseball players for the challenges ahead. Most of the coaching staff is yet to be announced, but for now, we know he’ll be joined by athletic trainer Sean McFarland, bench coach Tim Garland, and pitching coach Dan Ricabal.

Now let’s take a look at some of the more important players who figure to spend time with the ‘Caps, and then give a little love to the lesser known players who I think have a shot at becoming fan favorites.

SS Cristian Santana

We really like Santana. He has a pure approach at the plate and has enough power in the tank to avoid becoming the slappy kind of hitter who tends to get lost in the upper minors. He seized the spotlight with an impressive 80-game campaign in Lakeland in 2022. Producing a monster walk rate of 15.9 percent and swatting 9 home runs in the thick Florida air, wRC+ labelled him as 23 percent better than the average Low-A hitter at only 18 years old.

Santana would be one of the youngest regulars in the Midwest League, but he has resoundingly defeated the lower levels of minor league baseball. The Tigers may opt to start him in Lakeland, though, because there are so many infielders who need playing time at the High-A level. Santana hit for an oddly low average despite having a reputation as a clean hitter who should produce plenty of base hits. A hitter with some natural loft in his swing, Santana simply got too steep at times, resulting in almost a third of his fly balls turning into pop-ups. Some adjustments will be made, and a spot with the Caps will inevitably open due to injury, underperformance, or promotion.

Whether Santana opens the year in West Michigan or gets there a bit more slowly, he’ll be a major force for good in the lineup. His instinctive nature on both sides of the ball make him the best international prospect the Tigers have signed in years and will probably propel him to the high minors before he can legally order a beer.

3B/SS Izaac Pacheco

Despite early evaluations placing him as a first round prospect during the 2021 draft cycle, Pacheco slid to the second round and the Tigers pounced on him there. Entering his age-20 season, Pacheco should be expected to spend most of 2023 in High-A. He spent 18 games with the ‘Caps last season and made a big impression with initial successes, but finished the year with a .183/.274/.367 line, resulting in an anemic 74 wRC+.

Don’t get too caught up in the lackluster stats from last season’s High-A debut. Pacheco is going to be a significant part of the ‘Caps offense next season. His first full season in the minors produced a surprising number of walks and although he has swing-and-miss tendencies, the present power is guaranteed to produce some highlight reel dingers.

Jay Markle – Used with Permission

His big body and mediocre feet led to some skepticism about his defense, but a full year of pro conditioning carried him to improvements in his first step, footwork, and throwing accuracy. Most forecast average defense at the hot corner in his future. The logjam of infield prospects at the middle levels of the Tigers system likely guarantees that his reps at the shortstop position will remain very limited. He got 20 starts at shortstop in 2022, and is unlikely to ever top that mark. However, his versatility will still be an asset as the team mixes and matches players to keep everyone fresh and on track.

OF Roberto Campos

The Tigers signed Campos in 2019 for the biggest international free agency bonus the organization had ever given a player. A Cuban defector to the Dominican Republic at the age of 13, he remained a well-kept secret and even industry professionals were left scrambling for information after news of the signing broke. After his first full season in Lakeland, we have a more well-rounded idea of who he is.

Campos has present physicality despite being a few months shy of 20 years old, and it shows up at the plate. His .258/.326/.385 line was bolstered by 36 extra-base hits in 116 games, including five triples. His top shelf exit velocities confirm at least plus raw power developing. Still, there’s a probable learning curve ahead for Campos at the next level. The step from Low- to High-A means facing pitchers who can consistently spot their stuff for the first time in his life. Additionally, Campos’ swing is can get pretty long at times and he hits way, way too many ground balls to tap into enough of his physical gifts. He’s already working on some adjustments to his swing to help him drive the ball in the air more often.

The Flying Tigers deployed Campos in center field for the majority of his games in 2022, which is bit surprising. He’s already not the fastest player and he’s only going to slow as he ages. If he does have to slide into a corner, he seems suited for right field, where his strong arm would play up. It’s not clear where he’d play the field most often for the ‘Caps, but it seems like a good bet that he’ll split time to some degree between center field and the corner.

RHP Jackson Jobe

In the minds of many Tigers fans, Jobe lives under the spectre of the player drafted immediately after him in 2021. If you look past that, you’ll see some of the filthiest raw stuff to come out of a high school pitcher since MacKenzie Gore in 2017, if not longer. The Tigers’ rapidly improving track record of developing pitching over the past few years makes Detroit a good place for Jobe to hone his arsenal to a razor’s edge.

Jay Markle – Used with Permission

Jobe debuted with the Whitecaps in late 2022, and his sparking ERA in those three starts are undercut a bit by a lack of strikeouts. The filth was sill on tap during his time in Low-A, though, as he was able to pull the rug out from under batters with terrifying regularity over the course of 61 23 innings pitched. He admitted in a media session after his first start for the Whitecaps that his mind wasn’t right during much of the 2022 season, as he and the Tigers worked on a whole host of adjustments to his mechanics, explaining the rough ERA he sported during that time.

The Tigers have no need to hurry Jobe along in his development. He’s only entering his age-20 season, and even if he never sniffs Erie this year, he’s right on schedule for high school pitchers. In the long term, his athleticism and ultra-high spin are marks in his favor for overcoming control and command issues. In the short term, he’ll wear a shiner or two, but his highlights are going to be tremendously fun. He’s also good friends with Pacheco, which could lead to some fun on-field moments.

SS Peyton Graham

Like Pacheco, Graham was on the first/second round draft bubble and the Tigers took advantage when he fell. The high-end outcomes for Graham’s career path are sky-high, but the potential for him to wash out due to contact issues are just as strong. With significant raw power in his swing, good defensive instincts up the middle, a strong arm, and an aggressive approach on the basepaths, it’s not hard to see the appeal.

Graham performed as expected in the low minors during his pro debut in 2022. He brought the juice at the plate, but he also struck out over a quarter of the time, which is pushing the upper limits of acceptability for a real prospect. It’s never a good idea to draw conclusions from a small sample post-draft at the end of a long season, but Graham’s introduction to pro ball made him seem like exactly the player we thought he was on draft day.

Some evaluators think that Graham’s long body may eventually force him to third base, where he could be an outstanding defenseman. In the short term, Graham is likely to see time at second and third base in addition to his natural position at shortstop. It’s hard to predict exactly how well he’ll adapt to pro pitching because the concerns with his hit tool are very real, but those speed bumps are more likely to come once he reaches Double-A. The thesis that Graham’s long swing will benefit from muscle added to his lithe frame, thereby improving his batspeed, will eventually be tested in the upper minors. With the ‘Caps, he’s expected to be a solid contributor on both sides of the ball, giving a Javier Baez-esque swing-out-of-your-shoes rip at a low slider every now and again.

2B Jace Jung

Jung is the Tigers’ latest top pick. He comes packing an impressive pedigree and a track record of hitting the tar out of the ball. He only makes this list because his initial performance in pro ball left a lot to be desired. The Tigers may want to start him in High-A to allow him to adapt and build up his confidence with a hot stretch against low level pitchers.

The former Tigers leadership group fell in love with Jung and reportedly overruled the scouting department to select him. The infielder has an oddball setup at the plate, but it works for him. He’s developed a reputation of a total hitter who isn’t fooled by much and can drive balls out to any part of the field without much trouble. If he can produce anywhere near his collegiate levels in pro ball, he’s a probable major leaguer in some capacity.

Jay Markle – Used with Permission

Defensively, some believe that Jung is capable of manning the hot corner and first base, but he was deployed mostly as a second baseman during his time with the Whitecaps last season. The Tigers are preaching versatility all over the system, but Jung’s arm and first step don’t give us any confidence he can play third base. Getting his defense to average levels at second base would be plenty. He’s yet another player to add to the heap who need reps on the infield, but if all goes well, he’ll be taken out of the equation with an early-season promotion to Erie. In fact, there’s a chance he is moved to that level outright and ‘Caps fans won’t see him play in West Michigan at all this year.

SS Manuel Sequera

I’ve been beating the drum for Sequera since the day he signed with the Tigers in 2019. His star has finally risen among Tigers die-hards thanks to a 2022 season that saw him lift 19 home runs in the famously pitcher-friendly Florida State League. He also hit for better average than one might expect from a power-first teenager in full season ball.

Like Campos, Sequera is physically mature for his age. While that eliminates some doubt about his offense upside, it also raises some questions about his eventual defensive home. He mostly played shortstop in 2022, but also spent a little time at send base. Splitting time with Graham and Santana will be a challenge, as all three have legitimate upside as a shortstop, and Sequera might be the first to get bumped to second base on a more regular basis.

Additionally, like Santana, Sequera may not even enter the picture for the Whitecaps until the season is already underway. His vanishingly low walk rate last season left him with a slightly below-average 97wRC+, and with so many mouths to feed, it may be better to let him simmer in Lakeland for a few months more. As we know, a lack of plate discipline in the low minors does not bode well for success against advanced pitching, so perhaps a little more seasoning would be wise.

Other players of note

That just about rounds out the most important prospects who will take the field at some point for the Whitecaps during the 2022 season. There’s honestly so many well known prospects that some others who may have grabbed attention in other circumstances fall under the radar. And of course, there’s always a depth player or two who finds a home in the hearts of ‘Caps fans with gritty gameplay or high production.

Let’s take a look at a few players who could fit that bill.

Luke Gold is the best player who didn’t make this list. He’s a fifth round draftee who profiles like a poor man’s Jace Jung and should dominate in the low minors.

Dom Johnson is a high energy player who hits like a madman and can fill in anywhere in the outfield.

Tyler Mattison is a hard-throwing reliever who boasts one of the best fastballs in the Tigers system. There’s a good chance he’s closing games for the ‘Caps this year.

Patrick Pridgen sports a high spin curveball and racked up a ton of strikeouts in his final season at FIU.

Jose de la Cruz earned a big signing bonus thanks to ability to turn baseballs into dust, but relentless strikeouts have led to a decline in his value as a prospect.

Wilkel Hernandez has been significantly derailed by injury and the timing of the pandemic, but he was once a top-30 prospect with a notable fastball/changeup combination.

Joe Miller is a touch and feel pitcher who gets the most out of his middling stuff and should be a low-drama rotation option for the ‘Caps.

Andrew Jenkins has glorious hair and hits equally glorious dingers, but is a first base only defender who has major trouble with breaking balls.

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