The West Michigan Whitecaps are the new home of the High-A Detroit Tigers. Here’s a breakdown.
After plenty of speculation, Major League Baseball finally confirmed their list of the 120 teams to comprise the new look of the minor leagues. MCB’s Chris Brown also gave us a comprehensive rundown which can be found here. After initially being left on the list of the 42 teams projected to lose its affiliation to a big-league team, the Double-A Erie Seawolves made the cut, giving the Detroit Tigers the following three organizations to comprise its minor league system once players graduate from playing within the Lakeland complex, which will now occupy its Low-A classification:
High-A: West Michigan
No changes at the top. Toledo has been the Tigers Triple-A affiliate since 1987, and with its geographical advantages, it’s a perfect spot for Detroit to grab a player at a moment’s notice.
Meanwhile, the most significant ramification comes with West Michigan. A new-look Midwest League has entered the fold. Down to 12 teams from its previous 16, the Whitecaps have moved from a Low-A to High-A classification. While it might seem as important as when Dwight Schrute used white-out on his business cards after promotion from “Assistant to the Regional Manager” to “Assistant Regional Manager” on the surface, it will provide one enormous benefit to Tigers fans.
What do Justin Verlander, Andrew Miller, Rick Porcello, and Casey Mize have in common? Each of those highly-touted prospects was considered ready for Advanced Class-A baseball’s challenge upon being drafted. Each of them bypassed West Michigan on their way to begin their professional careers in Lakeland. Another player who would’ve likely missed the chance to play for the Whitecaps is infielder Spencer Torkelson, the first overall selection in the 2020 MLB Draft. The facilities at newly-named Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium have improved dramatically over the past five years. Still, nothing has changed the fact that most Tigers prospects typically go from playing in front of around 6,000 fans per night in West Michigan, only to get promoted to play in front of 600 in Lakeland. It’s always felt like backward logic.
Now, Lakeland will serve as the training ground, full of all the necessary facilities players will need to be sent out and, on their way, up-the-ladder with advanced competition and bigger audiences awaiting them in West Michigan.
It should be a fascinating development for Tigers fans. Gone should be the days when a prospect like Mize gets drafted first overall, and the only way we can see his professional debut is by watching a version of ‘Gamecast’ on our smartphones. Not only will we have the ability to see every moment of their games, but fans will have the option to take a road trip to suburban Grand Rapids and see that prospect live and in-person. With this new configuration, players like Verlander, Torkelson, and Mize will virtually always come through West Michigan on their way to Erie and Toledo. The process will rival how Detroit Red Wings fans have made the same trip to watch top prospects like Dylan Larkin, Anthony Mantha, and Filip Zadina play for the Grand Rapids Griffins on their way to the National Hockey League.
The Whitecaps, who have perennially placed in the top-quarter of attendance throughout Minor League Baseball, have an incredible fanbase. This group will fully embrace the changes ahead. I’m delighted that their experience will be enhanced even further with the best of the best Tigers prospects heading their way in the future.
Meanwhile, it’s sad for 42 different local communities who no longer have professional affiliated baseball. The Midwest League alone has lost teams in suburban Chicago (Kane County), and two in Iowa (Burlington and Clinton). I’m saddened for all of them and hope they have success in whatever way they plan to move forward.
West Michigan has always been a wildly enjoyable experience for a Tigers prospect. The changes made official by Major League Baseball should give all Tigers fans a sneak peek at their future stars.
What else could you see happening because of West Michigan switching to High-A? What are you hoping to see going forward? Leave a comment below and find Dan on Twitter at @ThatDanHasty!