By Andrew Johnson
COMSTOCK PARK – Every year the West Michigan Whitecaps start out with a lot of eager new faces on the roster.
Some of them are pretty highly-touted, like pitcher Kyle Funkhouser, who will take the mound on Thursday when the Whitecaps open their 2017 season at Fifth Third Ballpark against South Bend at 6:35 p.m.
Funkhouser, who played college baseball at the University of Louisville, was the Tigers’ fourth selection in the 2016 Major League Baseball draft.
The Tigers are reportedly very excited about his potential, and Whitecaps fans will get a sneak-peak at a pitcher who could be wearing a big-league uniform one of these years.
“He’s got good stuff,” Mike Rabelo, the new Whitecaps manager, said about Funkhouser during the team’s preseason media session on Wednesday. “He’s a highly-touted draft pick and has played all over the country and world. All you have to do is watch him throw and you’ll get it.”
“It’s a great honor,” Funkhouser said about getting the opening-day assignment. “We have a lot of great pitchers here.”
Talented young pitching should be an overall strength for the Whitecaps. They have five promising young arms on the roster who were selected by the Tigers in last year’s draft.
Besides Funkhouser, they are Bryan Garcia (sixth round), Austin Sodders (seventh round), Zac Houston (11th round), and Joe Navilhon (21st round).
One of those draft picks – Sodders – will join Funkhouser in the six-man starting pitching rotation. Rabelo mentioned three other starters on Wednesday – Spenser Watkins (who returns from last season), Anthony Castro and Gregory Soto.
Strong pitching and defense will be crucial for the Whitecaps, because they expect to be similar to last season, when they did not have much power in the lineup and had to manufacture a lot of runs.
“I think it’ll be about the same,” said Rabelo about the Whitecaps’ offense. “We’re going to go first to third and steal a base when we can.”
That doesn’t mean there will the Whitecaps’ lineup will be completely barren of offensive threats.
Outfielder Cam Gibson returns to the team after slugging six home runs last year, a significant number for the Midwest League.
Gibson, the son of former Tiger great Kirk Gibson, was hoping for a promotion to the Lakeland (Florida) Flying Tigers in the Detroit minor league system this spring. But he says he enjoyed playing in West Michigan last year and will do his best to improve his output.
“Everybody knows baseball is a game of adjustments,” said Gibson, who only hit .221 last season. “It’s not an easy game. It’s a humbling game. Some things don’t go how you want.
“I thought I’d be in Lakeland. I didn’t end up in Lakeland. I’m in West Michigan. I love West Michigan. If I can’t give 100% there, I’ll give 100% here. I’ll give 100% wherever I am.”
Gibson said he hopes to have more patience at the plate this season, something he worked on with his father in the offseason.
“I think I would try too much at the plate (last year) and didn’t let the game come to me,” he said. “This year I’m going to let the game come to me and just do my job.”
A new offensive weapon for West Michigan will be first baseman Blaise Salter, who was drafted by the Tigers out of Michigan State University in 2015.
He hit three homers and 11 doubles while playing 60 games for Connecticut, a Tigers’ rookie league team, last summer.
“It’s really cool,” said Salter about playing close to home professionally. “Just to be here in my home state with guys I grew up with like Cam, it’s come full circle.
“I’m just going to try and square up balls as much as I can. If they leave the yard, they leave the yard. I’m just trying to hit the ball hard.”
Gibson is one of eight players returning from last year’s Whitecaps squad, which qualified for the Midwest League playoffs and lost to Great Lakes in the Eastern Division championship series.
The other returnees are Watkins (the starting pitcher), Trent Szkutnik, Fernando Perez, Eudis Idrogo, Zac Houston, Anthony Pereira and Josh Lester.
If history is any indication, the Whitecaps should do fine again this season. They have only finished below .500 in seven of their 23 seasons, and have made the league playoffs 14 times.
The Whitecaps have won six Midwest League championships, with their most recent coming in 2015.