The West Michigan Whitecaps’ Opening Day roster features five players ranked by Baseball America among the top 30 prospects in the Tigers organization, including Detroit’s top draft pick from each of the last two years.
Whitecaps RHP Beau Burrows — Detroit’s top pick last year, selected 22nd overall — is ranked second in the Tigers organization, behind Michael Fulmer, the Double-A pitcher obtained from the New York Mets in last year’s deadline deal involving outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. Though he is ranked after Fulmer, Burrows is the highest-ceiling pitching prospect the Tigers have, according to Baseball America.
Burrows made nine starts and one relief appearance for Detroit’s rookie-level team in the Gulf Coast League last year. He posted a 1.61 ERA with 33 strikeouts and 11 walks in 28 innings.
Outfielder Derek Hill — Detroit’s top pick in 2014, selected 23rd overall — returns to the Whitecaps after his 2015 stint with the team was limited to 53 games because of a left quadriceps injury he suffered in April and re-aggravated in July. Ranked No. 10 among Tigers prospects, he batted .238 with 16 RBI and 25 SB for West Michigan last year.
Jose Azocar (No. 15), a 19-year-old outfielder from Venezuela, will play for a full-season team for the first time this year. Baseball America says he is “an athletic centerfielder who draws praise for his defense, with plus speed, good range and an above-average arm.” At the plate, BA says, Azocar needs to be more selective but has a quick bat that results in him hitting into line drives more than translating into power. He batted .325 in 51 games last year.
RHP Gerson Moreno (No. 20) returns to West Michigan after pitching only nine innings for the Whitecaps last year. He spent most of the 2015 season with the short-season Connecticut Tigers, for whom he posted a 3.86 ERA with 29 strikeouts and 12 walks in 28 innings. He struck out nine and walked three in his nine innings with the Whitecaps.
Moreno, a 20-year-old from the Dominican Republic, was used strictly as a reliever last year, as is expected to continue being used in that role. He has a fastball that has reached 100 mph but typically is in the mid-to-upper 90s. It is his best pitch.
Baseball America called Whitecaps RHP Sandy Baez (No. 26) “one of the system’s more intriguing starting pitchers beneath full-season ball” in its preseason prospect handbook. West Michigan is Baez’s first full-season assignment. He went 3-4 with a 4.13 ERA, 52 strikeouts and 22 walks in 65 innings (14 starts) in the New York-Penn League last year. His best pitch is a curveball.
There is a notable name on the Whitecaps roster who isn’t a top-30 prospect, but certainly bears watching due to his lineage. Cam Gibson, son of former MLB player and manager Kirk Gibson, draws his first full-season assignment with West Michigan. The outfielder played 36 games last season (mostly for Class A- Connecticut), batting .252 with 6 HR and 27 RBI. He is described as “intense,” which isn’t surprising when you consider his father was the same way on the field.
The Whitecaps will be managed by Andrew Graham again this year. He led the team to the Midwest League championship title in 2015. He also won a Midwest League title as a player with the Whitecaps in 2004.