The Promise In West Michigan

While much of the focus on Al Avila’s tenure as general manager has been on the performance of the Tigers, he has also been busy trying to implement the organization-wide “Tigers Way” philosophy in order to improve the way the franchise develops talent at the minor-league level.

Over the weekend, I had a chance to speak to some of the young arms for the class Low-A West Michigan Whitecaps, whose 20-8 record in May was one the best in franchise history, and who as a pitching staff lead the Midwest League in strikeouts, shutouts, and overall team WHIP. We talked about life in the minor leagues, and about how much this particular group enjoys playing together.

Anthony Castro:
Following Tommy John surgery in which he missed all of 2015, Castro is coming into his own. Castro spoke about the importance of throwing his secondary pitches early in the count and attacking the hitters. He was named the Midwest League pitcher of the week for the week of May 25th, and in his last two starts has allowed just six hits and one run while walking three and striking out 24 over 13 innings pitched. On the year, batters are just hitting .198 against him. He said wants to continue to build his arm strength as the season goes on.

Gregory Soto:
I spoke to him briefly and how he wanted to develop better command of his change up. This past Friday, he threw seven shutout innings against the Lansing Lugnuts, who boast the best offense in the Midwest League. Soto did not allow a run in his first five starts of the season. He continues to work on cutting down his walks, and has 52 strikeouts in 48 innings.

Austin Sodders:
Another lefty in the rotation, Sodders was drafted in the 7th round in the 2016 draft, and he has been mowing down hitters in the Midwest League. He hasn’t given up more than two runs in any start, and hitters are batting just .203 against him.

Alfred Gutierrez:

Another product from Venezuela, the 21-year-old right-hander has been solid in his first year in West Michigan, where he began the year in the bullpen before being moved to the rotation. He is striking out 9.95 batters per 9 innings, but the number that stands out most is he has surrendered just three walks in over 44 innings pitched.

 

Bullpen:
The Whitecaps have a history of great bullpen arms, including Jason Frasor, Fernando Rodney, Charlie Furbush, and Burke Badenhop, and this year’s club has continued that trend.

Bryan Garcia, who was called up to Lakeland last month, overpowered Midwest League hitters with 27 strikeouts in 14 innings pitched and picked up nine saves, and the club has had a few promising arms step up in his absence.

Jason Foley:
Picking up where Garcia left off, Foley is the team’s primary closer with starter’s stuff. He is hitting triple digits with his fastball. He also employs secondary pitches in a slider and a splitter.

“I feel more comfortable out of the bullpen than as a starter,” Foley said on Saturday. Standing at 6-foot-4, he has a commanding presence for the Whitecaps, and fits the mold of the overpowering closer well. He has issued just five walks and struck out 32 in 26 innings, and he has been showing promising command.

Zac Houston:

 

Teammate of the “Maple Hammer”, Jake Robson at Mississippi State, Houston continues to focus on pounding the strike zone.

“Just getting to the bottom of the zone and filling it up. If I can do that, I’ll have success,” he said.  He has recorded 29 strikeouts in 22 innings pitched, and he is is working on cutting his walks.

 

What is clear is that this pitching staff was a team that loved playing together. A few of players I spoke with admitted this season has been the best experience they’ve had in baseball. The Whitecaps have the best record in the minors, and one of the best in all of baseball, and that’s largely because of this tight-knit pitching staff, some of whom have the talent to make it to Detroit in the near future.

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