Well, this is like Deja Vu all over again, as the Detroit Tigers organization has traded away one of my favorite prospects and former West Michigan Whitecap Javier Betancourt. I went through this a year ago when the Tigers shipped Devon Travis off to Toronto for Anthony Gose. I know this is a business, and the organization is making deals to better itself and be competitive for the 2016 season, but I’ve seen many of my favorite Whitecaps get traded away over the years. As a fan, it’s simply easier to invest in players that you’ve met and seen play live many times. Also, as a former second-baseman myself, they tend to be my favorites to track up through the system. Players like Scott Sizemore, Justin Henry, Brandon Douglas, Betancourt, and most recently Joey Pankake, have patrolled second base at Fifth Third Ballpark, and I’d hope to see do the same at Comerica Park in TV. Sizemore had his chance, but was dealt after the fact, and many don’t even make it that far. Henry has come back to the organization as a scout, so I guess that could be considered a victory, right?
As for Betancourt, he’s now with the Milwaukee Brewers organization, and in return the Tigers received a much needed closer in RHP Francisco Rodriquez (K-Rod). The Brewers will also receive a player-to-be-named-later, as will the Tigers, possibly, well, that’s not guaranteed, I guess. Detroit signed Betancourt as non-drafted free-agent in 2011. With the Whitecaps in 2014, he hit .269, with 18 doubles and 54 RBIs, and was a Midwest League All-Star as the youngest player in the league. This past season with the Lakeland Flying Tigers, he hit .263, with 17 doubles and 48 RBIs. Known for his above-average defense, he was also considered a hard worker by coaches, and a good teammate by his peers. We wish him all the best in Milwaukee, and say ‘hi’ to former Whitecaps Hernan Perez and Corey Knebel for us…
Toledo Mud Hens vs. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (International League)
Fifth Third Field-Toledo, OH: Well, it’s been about seven years since our last trip to Toledo to see the Mud Hens, so it was about time we made it back to Mudville. We stayed in Findlay, so it was a fairly brief drive into Toledo. With any downtown stadium, parking can be tough, but we got there early enough to make it into the lot across the street. The weather was perfect, even though it had rained the night before. I was hoping for maybe a double-header, but the Hens finished five innings the night before to make it a complete game. We had plenty of time to get a beer and a dog for lunch, and get some shopping in. I was hoping to get Brian a Muddy mascot, but they didn’t have any for some reason. He was happy I picked him up a Ghostbusters night t-shirt, though, as he loves that movie. There was a pretty decent crowd, and, as many mid-week day games go, catered to kids and seniors. I really do love seeing kids at ball games, but when they’re brought in for groups, the counselors really need to set some rules for them. The kids next to us were in and out of their seats every inning, which can be distracting, and inconvenient for my elderly father. Before the game we also got to see Tigers’ prospect Robbie Ray getting some extra work in. He didn’t pitch on this day, but always cool to see a top prospect. The mascot Muddy also paraded some kids from a youth group around the field.
As the Mud Hens are a Tigers affiliate, I was pretty familiar with most of the players, and had seen many of them in West Michigan. The RailRiders even had former Whitecap Scott Sizemore on their roster, who was one of my favorite players from the ‘Caps 2007 Midwest League championship team. Others we’ve seen before included first baseman Jordon Lennerton, second baseman Brandon Douglas, third baseman Wade Gaynor, catcher James McCann, and Duane Below who was on the mound for Toledo. The game got off to a good start, with the Hens scoring twice in the first inning on Tyler Collins sacrifice fly, and a home run by Trevor Crowe. Gaynor hit an RBI double in the second inning to take a 3-0 lead.
With the Mud Hens doing well, I took the opportunity to explore the ballpark a little bit more. I love the full wrap-around concourses, and used it to get some nice shots, including a panoramic of the stadium.
The ‘Roost’ is a set of seats connected to a neighboring building, with a great view of the game. We couldn’t buy these unfortunately, because they are always saved for a group outing. The usher, or ‘guard’, at the stairs to the Roost let me sneak up there and take a few pics, even though he made it clear he wasn’t supposed to.
We were also able to see the RailRiders ambidextrous pitcher Pat Venditte for a few innings. He took the loss for Scranton/WB, though. I remember watching him throw back in 2009 when he was playing for the Charleston River Dogs.
The Hens gave up three runs in the sixth inning, but got those three right back. Both teams ended up trading runs in the eighth inning, also. Ezequiel Carrera went 1-4 on the day with two runs scored and a stolen base, while Gaynor ended up 2-3. Below earned the win, pitching 6.2 innings, giving up the three runs, with one strike out and Kevin Whelan earned the save. Carrera also made a wicked catch in the outfield. In all, this was just a great day watching a great game, and I got a game ball to top it all off. I really love Fifth Third Field, and need to make it there much more often. Final: Mud Hens 7, RailRiders 4.
Here’s a video of the game from my YouTube channel:
All photos and video property of Minoring In Baseball
As a former second-baseman myself, I tend to pay more attention to that position while watching the games, and tracking players. Especially when it comes to the West Michigan Whitecaps, and tracking them through the Detroit Tigers’ system. I’ve had the luxury of seeing some pretty good players over the years, with the number four printed next to their name on the lineup card, with the likes of Wil Rhymes, Scott Sizemore, Justin Henry, Brandon Douglas, Hernan Perez, and last season’s sensation Devon Travis. This season patrolling the infield of Fifth Third Ballpark is 18-year old Javier Betancourt, who is ranked as the Tigers 14th best prospect by Baseball America. Last season he played split time between the Venezuelan Summer League and the Gulf Coast League Tigers, hitting for an impressive .333 average. The Tigers were impressed also, and assigned him to West Michigan this spring.
“I was surprised when they told me I was going to spend the year here and that I would be in long-season,” Betancourt stated to MiLB.com. “But I’m looking forward to playing here and getting 500 at-bats. It’ll be hard, but baseball is what I love to do. I thank God for the opportunity.”
Betancourt doesn’t seem to have missed a beat so far this season, as his 34 hits are second in the Midwest League. He also is second on the Whitecaps in batting average with .304, and leads his team with 17 runs scored. The 5’10”, 155 pounder, also has hit five doubles and knocked in 14 RBI’s in the first month of the season. He has also seen time at short-stop and third base in West Michigan, and it would be nice if he was able to compete in the MWL All-Star in June, hosted by the Whitecaps.
“You always want to do your best, whether it’s batting .300 or hitting 20 homers,” he stated. “I just want to play for the team, get better and help win a championship. I’ll do what I know how to do.”
The West Michigan Whitecaps are competing in their 20th season in the Midwest League. To celebrate this event, the team is having the fans vote on the best players they’ve seen in each position for the last two decades. Even three managers are up for the vote, in Bruce Fields, Matt Walbeck, and Tom Brookens. All three won the Midwest League Championship in West Michigan. Catchers such as Brandon Inge, current Tiger Alex Avila, and Miami Marlin Rob Brantley are all up for the best behind the plate. At first base, I think that Robert Fick has the inside edge. He was voted into the first Whitecaps Hall of Fame, and has the honor of hitting the last home run in Tiger Stadium. That’s just my vote, though. Second base is my favorite position, so I’ve followed the players there pretty closely. It will be tough for me to choose only one of my favorites such as Scott Sizemore, Justin Henry, and Brandon Douglas. At short stop, in my opinion, the vote might come down to current Tiger Ramon Santiago, or last’s years MiLB Gold Glove winner Eugenio Suarez, which is a tough call. At the hot corner, top prospect Nick Castellanos may be the favorite despite being moved to the outfield last season with Lakeland and Erie. He may get a push from guys like Wade Gaynor and Wilkin Ramirez, though. Fans are allowed three choices for outfielders, and there are plenty. While players like Matt Joyce, Cameron Maybin, Cody Ross, and Brent Clevlen have all seen action at the MLB level, Gorkys Hernandez had a great season in West Michigan in 2007. He was also named the Tigers Minor League Player of the Year that year. Fans are also allowed to vote for three pitchers. Players like Andy Van Hekken, Casey Crosby, Duane Below, and Joel Zumaya all found success on the hill in West Michigan. Rounding out the relief pitchers, fans can vote for two, including Michael Torrealba and Anthony Claggett. This is another great way the Whitecaps are celebrating so much success the last 20 years. VOTE NOW!
As for the readers who’ve read some of my other posts, I’ve stated that I’m a former second baseman when I played the wonderful game of baseball. As such, I really follow that position when I watch live games. As a fan of the West Michigan Whitecaps, I also follow that position, and the personnel assigned there, with great interest. From Will Rhymes, Scott Sizemore, Justin Henry, to Brandon Douglas, I’ve done my best to keep track of them all as they make their way through the system, even after a trade or two. This season, second base has mostly been occupied by first year player Brandon Loy. Loy has played a little short-stop as well, but defense wasn’t much of an issue with him early on, as much as his hitting. Getting off to a rough start in professional baseball, he went 0-10 with four strike-outs to start the season. With some hard work, Loy has been hitting well recently, though, and is on a 13-game hitting streak. He has six multi-hit games, is now batting .390, and has four steals.
“For me it was just a matter of getting started and getting accustomed to this atmosphere,” Loy told MLive.com. “When you strike out a few times, you tend to start swinging at bad pitches. So I just told myself to relax and I’m just seeing the ball much better now.”
He’s also getting help from outfielder Steven Moya, who’s on a 12-game hitting streak of his own, and now leading all ‘A’ ball players with a .436 batting average. Batting in front of Moya is giving Loy some decent pitches to hit.
“That helps out a lot because I’m seeing a few extra fastballs because he’s (Moya) hitting the ball so well,” Loy stated.
Brandon was a fifth round draft pick of the Tigers last June. It will be fun to watch him play this season, and move up through the Tigers system. Detroit doesn’t really have a number one at that position, so maybe in a few years he can fill that role.
Recently MiLB.com released the Detroit Tigers organizational All-Stars. Basically they honor the players who had the best seasons in their organization, regardless of age or prospect status. The Whitecaps are highly represented here, in players from the 2011 season, and alumni from previous seasons. Plenty of players here that we’ve seen and met, and hoping to see at Comerica Park someday.
Catcher-Rob Brantly. Brantly was hitting .303 with seven homers in 75 games with the Whitecaps before being promoted to Lakeland. He totaled a .274 average, 10 long balls, and 62 RBI’s between the two leagues.
First Base-Ryan Strieby. Spending the whole Minor League season in Toledo, he led all Minor-Leaguers in home runs with 19, and second with 76 RBI’s.
Second Base-Brandon Douglas. I remember Douglas well from his time in West Michigan. He spent the entire 2011 campaign in Double-A Erie. He hit .281, had a career-high 46 RBI’s, nailed 30 doubles, and scored 72 runs.
Third Base-Nick Castellanos. We saw Castallanos play plenty of times this season, and had the opportunity to see him progress. After a very slow start, he ended up hitting .312, had 76 RBI’s, 36 doubles, and 156 total hits. Tigers are banking on him, but he’s still a few years away.
Short Stop-Audy Ciriaco. Played most of the season with Erie (101 games), but also saw some time in Toledo (14 games). Between the two levels he batted .255, with 58 runs, and 57 RBI’s. This is the third season in a row that he’s seen a little action in Triple-A, so he needs to make the jump for good next season.
Outfield-Justin Henry. Believe it or not, I’ve been sitting on this pic of Henry since 2008 when he was with the Whitecaps, and playing second base. Not sure why they moved him to outfield with the Tigers needing infield help, but maybe Douglas playing the position so well could have something to do with that. All said, Henry split time with Erie and Toledo also. He hit .314 between the two, and stole 23 bases. He drove in 47 runs for Erie to be named to the Eastern League Midseason All-Star Team.
Outfield-Jamie Johnson. In only his third season as a pro, he spent the entire season with Erie, setting personal highs in RBI’s with 51, doubles with 33, and stolen bases with 14. His 93 runs scored was tops in the Eastern League.
Outfield-Timo Perez. Perez is 36, a former World Series Champion, and still going strong. Playing in Toledo, he hit .304 and stole 16 bases. He also pounded out six homers and 32 doubles. Most impressive, though, is that he only struck out 41 times in 473 at bats.
Utiliy-Tony Plagman. Plagman spent the season with the Lakeland Flying Tigers, scoring 97 runs that led the organization. He hit .257, with 18 homers, 32 doubles, and 62 RBI’s. Good turn around for him, as he only hit five homers last season for the Whitecaps.
RHP/Starter-Brennan Smith. Smith played 14 games in Connecticut, and nine games in West Michigan. He was 4-3 with a league leading ERA of 1.53 in the NY-Penn. He had an impressive scoreless streak through 34 2/3 innings.
RHP/Starter-Jacob Turner. Turner played in Detroit this season, but before that he split time between Erie and Toledo, posting a 4-5 record with a 3.44 ERA and 110 strikeouts. Kevin Eichhorn was also mentioned, after an impressive season in West Michigan where he went 11-5 with a 3.61 ERA.
LHP/Starter-Drew Smyly. Smyly pitched 14 games for Lakeland and eight for Erie in 2011. His 2.07 ERA is the lowest in the organization, and went 7-3 in Erie, and with Toledo posted a 1.18 ERA with 53 strikeouts.
LHP/Starter-Jay Voss. Between Lakeland and Erie, he won 12 games and struck out 131 batters. While with Lakeland, he won an organizational best 15 wins.
Relief Pitcher-Chance Ruffin. Ruffin played in both Erie and Toledo before swept up by Seattle as the ‘player to be named later’ in the deal that brought Doug Fister and David Pauley to the Tigers. While with Erie, he made 10 saves in 14 attempts, with a 2.12 ERA and 3-3 record. In Toledo, he saved nine games in 10 tries with a 1.84 ERA.