The Detroit Tigers were a busy bunch at the Winter Meetings in San Diego. Tigers’ GM Dave Dombrowski traded away a few more West Michigan Whitecaps alumni, trying to build a team to win the World Series in 2015. The price was steep, and we fans had to say goodbye to some solid young ballplayers. Before the meetings even began, the Tigers traded away middle-infielder Domingo Leyba, along with pitcher Robbie Ray, to the Arizona Diamondbacks in three-way deal that brought starting pitcher Shane Greene from the New York Yankees. The 19-year-old prospect hit .397 in 30 games for the Whitecaps this season, after being promoted from Class-A SS Connecticut Tigers when short-stop Willy Adames was traded late last season to the Tampa Bay Rays.
The second trade involving some West Michigan alumni, had another middle-infielder in Eugenio Suarez and starting pitcher Jonathan Crawford shipped to the Cincinnati Reds for pitcher Alfredo Simon. As a rookie, Suarez hit .242 with four home runs, and 23 RBI’s last season in 85 games with Detroit. In 2012 with the Whitecaps, Suarez batted .288 with 34 doubles and 67 RBI’s. His .947 fielding percentage helped him win a Minor League Baseball Gold Glove at short-stop (.971 at short, and his fielding percentage was 1.000 at second base). Crawford was a first round draft pick by Detroit in 2013. He pitched for the ‘Caps this season, going 8-3 with a 2.85 ERA, and was the starting pitcher for the East at the Midwest League All-Star Classic played at Fifth Third Ballpark.
The Tigers also lost former Whitecaps pitcher Alex Burgos in the Triple-A/Double-A phase of the Rule 5 Draft. The 24-year-old hurler saw action in Lakeland, Erie, and Toledo, but mostly with the Flying Tigers earning a 4.26 ERA. He suited up for the ‘Caps in 2011, pitching to a 6-5 record and a 2.19 ERA. We were able to see him pitch on Star Wars night that season. Two other former ‘Cap pitchers, Edgar De La Rosa and Montreal Robertson were spared in the Major League portion of the draft. We wish the best of luck to all of the players we were lucky enough to watch in West Michigan.
20th Winter Baseball Banquet: The Whitecaps have announced that their annual winter banquet will be held on January 23 at the DeVos Place in downtown Grand Rapids. Attending this years ceremony will be the Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer, winner of this seasons Cy Young award. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski will also be in attendance, as well as 20 other ball players, including newly acquired Joba Chamberlain and Steve Lambardozzi. Whitecaps’ co-owners Lew Chamblerlin and Denny Baxter will also be on hand to discuss the recent fire at Fifth Third Ballpark, and the renovation plans. Dombrowski and the players will be speaking and taking questions at the event, also. The proceeds from the banquet go to the Whitecaps Community Foundation, that donates the funds to the YMCA Inner-City Youth Baseball and Softball Program, and the Detroit Tigers Foundation (affiliate with Ilitch Charities). Very positive things to look forward to this month, and throughout the constructions process.
Connolly HOF Induction: Pitcher Jon Connolly will be inducted into the Whitecaps Hall of Fame at the winter banquet, also. He played in West Michigan in 2003, earning a 16-3 record in 25 starts. Connolly’s ERA of 1.41 is the lowest for a starter in the history of the Whitecaps. He was drafted in the 28th round of the 2001 Draft, out of Oneonta (NY) High School. Connolly was probably familiar with the organization, as Detroit’s short-season single-A team was the Oneonta Tigers at the time, and where he played in 2001-02. He bounced around all levels of the minor with both the Tigers and Cubs organizations until 2008, when he ended his career with the Newark Bears of the Independent Atlantic League.
Spring Training Invites: The Detroit Tigers have invited 16 minor league players to their major league camp, come February. The list includes some former Whitecaps, like Duane Below, Devon Travis, and James McCann. Below is back with the organization after spending the last season with Miami and the Kia Tigers of the Korean Baseball Organization. Below was 12-3 with West Michigan in 2007, and carried a 2.97 ERA. McCann spent last season with the Erie SeaWolves last season, hitting .277, with 54 RBI, and a .731 OPS. He suited up for the Whitecaps for only nine games back in 2011. Travis was awesome last season, hitting .351, with 16 home runs, and 76 RBI’s between the ‘Caps and Lakeland Flying Tigers. He was the MVP of the Midwest League All-Star game, post season All-Star, Tigers Minor League Player of the Year, and won a MiLBY for Offensive Player of the Year. Here’s wishing these guys luck this spring!
Travis photo property of Minoring In Baseball
Although no players were inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame this season, the West Michigan Whitecaps will be. Holland, Michigan native, and former ‘Caps and Tigers pitcher Andy Van Hekken will be inducted during the Whitecaps Winter Banquet ceremonies on January, 23. Van Hekken pitched in West Michigan during the 2000 season, winning 16 games that is still tied for a team record. He still ranks in the top ten in team records for winning percentage at .727 (8th), ERA with 2.45 (8th), and the strikeouts to walk ratio at 3.41 (10th). Van Hekken made his major league debut for the Tigers in 2002, pitching a complete game shutout victory against the Cleveland Indians. He went 1-3 that season in five appearances, with a 3.00 ERA. He then spent the next two seasons in the Tigers farm system, as well as the systems for the Reds, Braves, Astros, and Royals in the following seasons. His latest stop is in Korea last season, playing for the Nexan Heroes of the Korean Baseball Organization. Van Hekken will report back to the Heroes after the Banquet.
The Whitecaps Winter Banquet not only features the HOF induction, but dinner, a live auction, and guest speakers. This year, the guests will include Tigers President/CEO/General Manager Dave Dombrowski, outfielders Quintin Berry and Andy Dirks, and pitcher Drew Smyly. The proceeds from the banquet and auctions go to the Whitecaps Community Foundation, which in turn donates the funds to the YMCA Inner-City Youth Baseball and Softball Program and the Detroit Tigers Foundation. The YMCA program, that is funded by the Whitecaps and Fifth Third Bank, provides about 1,900 children the chance to participate in a structured activity that provides guidance in their lives, per year. I would love to make it to this event at some point, but at $80 a ticket, it’s just to rich for my blood when you have three kids to bring along. This is a great event, though, for a great cause.
Photo courtesy of the West Michigan Whitecaps
The Detroit Tigers need a closer. GM Dave Dombrowski stated in a news conference that the won’t be pursuing former closer Jose Valverde, for very apparent reasons. In the same breath he also mentioned West Michigan Whitecaps alumni Bruce Rondon for a candidate for the role. After all, free-agent closers are in short supply this off-season, and in this Borus-esque world, the most routine pitchers will be wearing high-end price tags. So, it would make sence for the Tigers to look into their farm system, and why not look at a kid who can hit 103 on the radar gun. The 21-year-old from Venezuela takes care of opposing batters with quick innings, and the GM in Detroit is taking notice.
“He’s a rare talent”, Dombrowski told the Detroit News. “You would not believe the number of clubs that have called me about Bruce Rondon to trade him. This guy is a closer, with the makeup of a closer. Normally, you’re not going to thrust that (job) in a young guy’s hands and say, automatically, ‘It’s your job’. But it would not surprise me if he earned that job.”
What DD means in the ‘makeup of a closer’, is that Rondon simply overpowers hitters. A closer needs to intimidate the opposition and deny them any chance of a rally. Throwing fastballs at 100 mph usually does that, but he also has an effective slider, and can thow in the change-up. He’s impressed his pitching coach at Double-A Erie, too, former ‘Caps coach Ray Burris.
“The average is 99-100”, Burris also told the News. “It’s a comfortable velocity for him. But, he’ll also throw 103, and then maybe back off to 95 or 96. He’ll throw that slider at 91 and his change-up is up at 88-89. If you look at the discrepancies in velocities, what you see is that he knows what pitching is all about. He knows when to back off. And he knows when to get the strikeout. It just shows this young man, at his age, has a great feel for pitching.”
He spent the 2011 season with the Whitecaps, where he walked 34 batters in 40 innings of 41 games. He did, however, have 61 strikeouts and only 22 hits against him. In 2012, he played High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A ball. At Lakeland, he gave up only 12 hits and struck out 34, and only walked nine in 23+ innings. At Erie in 21+ innings, he also had nine walks, with 23 strikeouts and gave up five hits. He did struggle a bit in Toledo, though. He gave up six walks and five hits, while striking out nine. The Tigers drafted him in 2007 when he was only 16 years-old. Rondon is currently pitching for Navegantes del Magallanes in the Venezuelen Winter League pitching in three games, six innings, while striking out five and walking five. The opposition is only hitting .158 against him. Hopefully this success will carry over to spring training, and a spot on the Tigers roster.
Photo courtesy of MLive.com