By Andrew Johnson

COMSTOCK PARK – When the West Michigan Whitecaps open their 2018 season, a new but very familiar face will be managing the team.

Calling the shots from the dugout will be former Detroit Tigers star catcher Lance Parrish, who spent the past four seasons managing the Erie Seawolves, the Tigers’ Class AA farm team.

Now he’s taken two steps down in the Tigers system to manage the Class A Whitecaps, who will kick off the new season on Thursday against South Bend at 6:30 p.m. at Fifth Third Ballpark in Comstock Park.

In some ways Parrish’s new assignment may be more important than his last, because the rebuilding Tigers are focusing on their farm system to develop the players they hope will lead them back into contention.

Many of the most promising young farmhands are currently in the lower minors, including several with the Whitecaps.

“There is a lot of emphasis on the minor leagues,” Parrish told reporters during the Whitecaps’ annual media day on Wednesday. “We’re an organization that is building from within now. The days of the big free agents are gone for now. They’ve made a commitment to build from within.”

Parrish played a very big role the last time the Tigers relied on their farm system to produce a winner.

He was the catcher for the 1984 world champion Tigers, with teammates like Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson, Jack Morris and Lou Whitaker.

They all came up through the Detroit farm system, and formed the nucleus of the last Tiger team to go all the way.

In his 10 seasons with the Tigers, between 1977 and 1986, Parrish posted a .263 batting average with 212 home runs, 201 doubles and 700 RBIs.

“I think there is a whole lot more emphasis (within the Tigers organization) on developing our players and trying to hang on to them until they can help the Detroit Tigers at the big league level,” Parrish said.

“I’m excited because that’s the way we did things when I came through the system. Our nucleus, which was a part of that 1984 championship team, was all developed in our system, and I think we have the talent here to be able to create that sort of nucleus again.”

Parrish has developed a long coaching and managing resume since retiring as a player in 1996.

He was a roving catching instructor for the Kansas City Royals before managing the San Antonio Missions, a Los Angeles Dodgers Double-A affiliate, in 1997 and 1998.

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Eudis Idrogo, one of nine Whitecaps returning from last year’s team.

Parrish worked for the Tigers from 1999-2001, serving as a third base coach, bullpen coach, and bench coach over three seasons.

In 2002 he spent a season broadcasting Tiger games. But he was back in uniform as a Detroit coach in 2003 when Trammell became the manager. He remained on the coaching staff through 2005, when Trammell was fired.

He managed two more low minor league teams in 2006 and 2007, including a season with the Midwest League’s Great Lakes Loons.

He didn’t manage again until he returned to the Tigers’ organization and took over in Erie in 2014.

After four years of working with more developed players at the Class AA level, Parrish will try to bring along a less experienced group of youngsters this summer.

But he said he doesn’t know if he will do anything differently.

“Honestly I don’t,” said Parrish, who posted a 264-303 record in Erie. “I’ve always tried to manage the way that I appreciated being managed as a player.”

On paper, Parrish will be inheriting a first-place team with the Whitecaps, who won a league-high 91 games last season before bowing out in the first round of the Midwest League playoffs.

But in reality it will be a much different team, since only nine players return from the 2017 roster.

But there is plenty of young talent ready to carry on West Michigan’s winning tradition.

The Whitecaps will have seven of the Tigers’ top 10 picks from the 2017 Major League draft. The list includes second-round pick Reynoldo Rivera, an outfielder, and third-round selection Joey Morgan, a catcher.

Morgan batted .250 with one home run and 10 RBIs in 34 games for short-season Connecticut last season. Rivera struggled, batting .187 with two home runs and nine doubles in 52 games for the same team.

The returning Whitecaps include pitcher Matt Manning, the Tigers’ first selection in the 2016 draft. He is expected to join the West Michigan rotation when he recovers from an oblique strain.

Also returning to the pitching rotation will be Eudis Idrogo, who posted a 7-7 record with a 3.01 ERA and 100 strikeouts last season.

Other pitching returnees include Clate Schmidt, Brandyn Sittinger, Burris Warner and Wladimir Pinto.

The lone position players returning to the Whitecaps are Jose Quero and Zac Shepherd, who have both been with the club since 2015.

Parrish is excited to see his young team hit the field, but admits it will take some time to sort out the roster and learn more about the players.

The Tigers just announced the Whitecaps roster a few days ago, when the minor-leaguers ended their spring training in Lakeland, Florida.

“To be quite honest I don’t know what to expect,” Parrish said. “I watched them all play in spring training and they all played very well. I’m excited about the makeup of this team.”