New faces, talent highlight 2021 Whitecaps

PLAINFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — For sports fans in West Michigan, summertime means West Michigan Whitecaps baseball.

Now for over 25 years, the Whitecaps have been a staple to the community for not just watching the boys of summer, but a place for family and friends to get together and enjoy entertainment.

Last year due to COVID-19, all of that was taken away. 

There was no minor league baseball to limit the amount of exposure to coronavirus with taxi squads being made for MLB teams.

Now as the calendar flips to May 3, 2021, there is one thing that is normal again for the first time since 2019: baseball is returning to Comstock Park.

There won’t be full crowds, masks will still be worn and the ballpark has changed its name from Fifth Third Ballpark to LMCU Ballpark. But one thing is guaranteed starting Tuesday, and that is the Whitecaps will be playing baseball.

The West Michigan Whitecaps practice at LMCU Ballpark on May 3, 2021.

“I love all of the time I got to spend with my family, but I also love baseball,” new manager Brayan Pena said. “I’m ready to work with our guys and hopefully, we can go out there and stay healthy and put together a strong season. These guys have to get used to playing every day again, but they are hungry. They want to get to the next step toward becoming an MLB player.

“I believe in what this organization is doing.”

Pena, of course, is speaking on the rebuild the Detroit Tigers have been doing and how much effort they have put into trading for and drafting talented young prospects.

According to the MLB pipeline, the Whitecaps, which now is considered high Class A ball, have four of Detroit’s top-10 prospects here in West Michigan: No. 8 Parker Meadows, No. 6 Daniel Cabrera, No. 5 Dillon Dingler and No. 1 Spencer Torkelson, who was drafted No. 1 in the 2020 MLB draft and is ranked No. 3 nationally.

On top of that, the Whitecaps will showcase eight of the Tigers top-30 prospects on the opening day roster.

With all of this talent, Pena has been tasked in his first season as Whitecaps manager with getting this group on the right track early in their professional careers. He is excited to have the opportunity.

“There is a good plan in place for these guys, we believe in the talent and I want to take advantage of this opportunity,” Pena said. “I have to thank the scouting department with the Tigers because they did a great job. All of these guys are coachable, want to get better and really just want to go out there and compete.”

The West Michigan Whitecaps practice at LMCU Ballpark on May 3, 2021.

Of those top four prospects, Meadows is the only returning player from the 2019 team. He was a part of the taxi squad for the Tigers last season, so he was still able to play baseball there and learn from more experienced players in the Tigers’ system.

“Even with a team full of newcomers, I think we have the chance to be really good in this league,” Meadows said. “I’m looking forward to winning a Midwest League Championship.”

For Torkelson, who struggled in spring training in Lakeland with the Tigers, this is a chance for him to regroup and show why he was the first pick.

So far, this team is helping him along the way.

“Spring training is called spring training for a reason,” Torkelson said. “It prepared me for the season. I’m most looking forward to playing with a team again that has a common goal of winning because that brings out the best in me and all of my teammates. Spring training is fun, but the stats don’t count and it doesn’t matter as much if you win or lose.

“Now, it means something.”

Whitecaps baseball started in 1994 and this is the first time it will debut a No. 1 overall pick from the MLB draft in Torkelson. 

Due to the team being full of mostly new faces, the team’s latest record is mostly irrelevant. Still, the Whitecaps will look to rebound from what was a tough 2019 season finishing 49-90.

The Whitecaps will open the season on the road against Fort Wayne on May 4 for the new six-game series that will take place to help with traveling and coronavirus.

Catcher Dingler says the team will have to pack a little more clothing when on the road, but it is a grind the team will get through together.

“Everyone has to go through the same thing and we are ready to take this on together,” Dingler said. “It gives us more time as a team to be together, so that is one positive about it.

“Right now, for the first time in a while, I think we are just ready to play.”