COMSTOCK PARK — The West Michigan Whitecaps have moved one spot closer to the Detroit Tigers within a shifting hierarchy of Minor League Baseball.
The Tigers announced its new structure of minor league affiliates on Wednesday, moving up the Whitecaps as the team’s High Single A affiliate after spending its previous 27 years as a Low Single A organization.
The Whitecaps, which belong to the Midwest League, swap roles with the Lakeland Flying Tigers of the Florida State League, which will drop down to Low Single A status.
The Toledo Mud Hens will continue as the team’s Triple A affiliate, just one step down from Major League Baseball. The Erie SeaWolves also remain the organization’s Double A affiliate.
Tigers Vice President of Player Development Dave Littlefield said in a Wednesday afternoon press conference that the overall player experience provided by the Whitecaps was a major reason for bumping the team up the food chain.
“I think the first thing is the fantastic set up in West Michigan in regards to the fan support, the way the league is structured, the tremendous front office that has been highly successful for a lot of years,” Littlefield said. “We just think that experience is a real, real good one that our players will benefit from in particular as they leave hopefully into Double A.”
The change follows weeks of speculation circulating around the Tigers organization, and amid significant shifts within Minor League Baseball, which is ailing after canceling its entire season this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Major League Baseball has whittled down the number of Minor League affiliates from 160 to 120.
In an interview last week with MiBiz, Whitecaps CEO Joe Chamberlin was not able to confirm the changes in structure, but did voice his excitement at the prospect of moving up.
“I think in a lot of ways (moving up) would be a recognition of all the success we’ve had over the last 27 years,” Chamberlin said. “We could kind of say to our fans and the community that we’re going up the ladder and we’re one stop closer to Detroit. That would be a great message to send and would come out of a year with a lot of bad news. It would be some welcome, inviting news.”
Casual baseball fans may not notice much of a difference in their game day experience. The onfield product will feature more seasoned baseball players as the brand new prospects will traditionally begin their careers in Lakeland or with the Gulf Coast League (GCL) Tigers, a rookie organization also based in Florida.
In terms of facilities and attendance, the Whitecaps have long been considered a top tier organization among its Low Single A counterparts.
“We’ve kind of acted like a Triple A organization since day one,” Chamberlin said. “We draw like a Triple A market and compare very favorably to a lot of teams at that level. We feel really good about what we’re able to do at any level of play.”
Meanwhile, Littlefield did not rule out the potential for shake-ups among each team’s coaching staff.
“As far as staff changes, nothing is set in stone,” Littlefield said. “That’s something we’re talking about internally as all this is unfolding.”