Tigers affiliate West Michigan’s early romp based on some booming bats

Detroit News

It’s good to be a West Michigan Whitecaps ally in April, 2023.

Fans, players, even a manager — this is a talented high-Single A team pleasing about everyone as it rolled into Sunday’s game at Lansing with a 6-2 record in the season’s first week-plus.

Jace Jung: Last year’s first-round Tigers draft pick was batting .308, with an .840 OPS.

Izaac Pacheco: a 20-year-old third baseman who might be the best prospect in the Tigers system had homered in three consecutive games and had an OPS of .929 — this, with a cruel batted-balls-in-play average of .150.

Roberto Campos: A young man all of 19 was playing center field and doing fine, with a home run and on-base average of .355 fueling his .762 OPS.

Danny Serretti: A sixth-round pick last July, Serretti was playing deftly at shortstop and batting .320 (.894 OPS).

Ben Malgeri: Oh, my: seven games, three homers, four doubles, .458 batting average, 1.533 OPS for an all-around outfielder who a year ago was playing at Northeastern University, all before the Tigers snagged this right-handed batter with an 18th-round pick.

Asked about his somewhat wondrous Whitecaps, manager Brayan Pena said during a Saturday phone conversation that the early returns were all part of an organization that, yes, is bringing aboard fresh talent, but equally important, is doing all the right stuff, developmentally.

One example: assigning a team nutritionist to each of the Tigers farm teams, which is changing habits, and bodies.

“Making sure we get rest and nutrition — it’s something we’re really focusing on,” Pena said, speaking about the Tigers’ overall developmental approach in 2023. “Making sure our guys are well-fed. Understanding the necessity of being strong. There’s a plan for our guys. And it’s making a huge difference.”

Also, there was that January catchers-camp, conducted at Lakeland, Florida, by minor-league catching guru Ryan Sienko, which Pena — a one-time catcher with the Tigers — says has improved greatly communication and during-game strategies with Tigers pitchers.

Still, for hitters, what matters is guys squaring-up pitches. And that has been the early-April script.

Pena detailed:

Jung, second base, left-handed batter: “I’ve been very impressed by his ability to control the strike zone and in his ability to understand what they (pitchers) are trying to do against him,” Pena said. “He’s making sure he sticks to the game plan and not getting out of that game plan.

“It’s been impressive, doing all of that at a younger age, being disciplined and focused. It says a lot about his maturity at home plate.”

Pacheco, third base, left-handed hitter: “I’ve had a chance to be around some great hitters,” Pena said, “but I’ve never seen a 20-year-old hitting the ball the way Pacheco has. It’s one of those moments where, every time he goes to the plate, you know something great’s going to happen.”

Pacheco also has been hanging in at third base. There have been a couple of throwing errors, but as the Tigers scope the farm terrain and search for that potential everyday third baseman, Pacheco looms as a possible organizational prize.

“His defense is going to improve,” Pena said. “He’s going to get better the more comfortable he gets there. He’ll make adjustments.”

▶ Malgeri, outfield: “Kenny Graham (Tigers player development director) built an offseason plan for him, and he’s carrying through in these early stages,” Pena said.

The plan was basic: Malgeri, the Tigers believed, needed to unleash that 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame and put some sting in the balls he was hitting. He had extra-base potential and, perhaps, more of a singles approach that was leaving doubles and home runs on the table.

That gaudy 1.000% slugging percentage through seven games suggests Malgeri aced his autumn-winter homework. He’s also playing well anywhere in the outfield Pena needs him.

“He’s definitely one of the best defensive players we have in the entire organization,” the Whitecaps skipper said. “He’s playing center field and both corners. We want our guys to be versatile. I’m super-excited about his future.”

▶ Campos, outfield, right-handed batter: Campos, of course, was the Brinks-truck recipient four years ago when the Tigers handed him $2.8 million, the most money then ever awarded to a Tigers international signee.

He’s yet a teenager as he works at West Michigan. The Tigers rather like what they’re seeing from a lad 6-3, 200.

“Man, he’s a sponge,” Pena said, bowing to the way Campos absorbs instruction. “He’s a smart hitter, a good hitter. He’s been hammering some stuff. That ball he hit last night (Friday homer at Lansing) — that thing was at the top of the zone, and away, and he hammered it to right-center.”

▶ Serretti, shortstop: He’s a switch-hitter, which the Tigers find handy in a system crying for two-way batters. Pena likens Serretti’s offseason to that of Malgeri’s. A plan was in place to get stronger and put more sock into a plate-approach that already has delivered a pair of doubles and a triple.

It hasn’t been a matter of offense, only, as West Michigan has found some early 2023 steam.

Pitchers have been helping, with a couple of relievers, particularly shining:

Blake Holub, a 6-6, 240-pound, right-handed slinger, had pitched in four games heading into Sunday, had a 1.69 ERA, and had whiffed seven batters in 5.1 innings, with four of those punch-outs coming in two innings Saturday at Lansing.

Tyler Mattison, too, has been sharp, which is little surprise given Mattison two years ago was a fourth-round pick (Bryant University).

“He goes out there and is not ashamed of his No. 1 pitch, his fastball,” Pena said, speaking of a right-hander who is 6-4, 235, and throws his heater as hot as 98 mph.

“He really attacks hitters,” Pena said. “And he has a slider, a powerful slider, which is a very good pitch for him.”

Throw them all together on a given game day, and it’s a cast which also happens to be very good for the West Michigan crowd.

Their manager thinks they’ll only get better. A certain big-league team in Detroit very much hopes so.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and retired Detroit News sports reporter.

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