PHOENIX—When the Diamondbacks plotted the possible rosters for the 2011 minor league season last winter, they suspected that they might have something special at Double-A Mobile, a likely landing spot for many of their top prospects.
They could not been more right.
Fortified by a roster that included a stacked pitching staff and one of the best power-hitting prospects in the minor leagues, Mobile won the Southern League championship under first-year manager Turner Ward to become Baseball America’s Minor League Team of the Year. The BayBears won 48 of their final 70 games (a .686 winning percentage), beginning with the final two games of the first half and beat Birmingham and Tennessee to win the league title—Mobile’s first outright crown since 1998.
“It’s a thrill that the group gets that type of notoriety. We’re proud as an organization, and we all took a great deal of pleasure in watching that group come together, the way they played and really the quality of the people involved, from Turner Ward through the staff and the players on the field,” said former Diamondbacks vice president of scouting and player development Jerry Dipoto, before he left the team after the season to become the Angels’ general manager.
The BayBears, who finished 84-54, featured at least a dozen players expected to reach the majors soon, including five who already have tasted the big time: first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, lefthander Wade Miley, righthander Jarrod Parker and righthanded relievers Bryan Shaw and Ryan Cook.
Goldschmidt was leading the minor leagues in home runs (30) and RBIs (94) at the time of his recall Aug. 1, and all he did after that was hit eight more home runs in the final two months of the regular season and two more in the National League Division Series against the Brewers. Cy Young Award winners were not immune to Goldschmidt’s power. He hit two homers off Tim Lincecum, including his first career blast, and another off Cliff Lee.
Miley, Parker, Shaw and Cook also were contributors as the parent Diamondbacks won the National League West, with Parker and Shaw making the playoff roster in the bullpen.
The BayBears’ bounty did not stop there. Lefthander Tyler Skaggs, obtained in a package for Dan Haren from the Angels at the 2010 trading deadline, was named the high Class A California League’s top prospect and the No. 2 prospect in the Southern League after earning a midseason promotion. In between, Skaggs took time out to start for the U.S. team in the Futures Game in his likely future home, Chase Field in Phoenix.
Perhaps the biggest key to Mobile’s success was its ability to put a quality starter on the mound virtually every night. Parker, Miley, lefthander Patrick Corbin and righthander Charles Brewer opened the season in the rotation, and Skaggs joined the group when Miley was promoted to Triple-A Reno before moving up to Arizona. Righthander Trevor Bauer, the Diamondbacks’ 2011 first-round pick out of UCLA, only added to the riches when he joined the team in August.
Skaggs and Corbin, who was also obtained from the Angels in the deal that will always keep the organization beholden to Dipoto (who was the interim general manager at the time), continued their advancement. Parker, a first-round pick in 2007, showed no ill effects of the Tommy John surgery that caused him to miss all of 2010, and Brewer also made strides despite missing time with a concussion and a broken finger on his pitching hand.
Parker went 11-8, 3.79, leading the BayBears in wins, and he got stronger as the season progressed. The Diamondbacks limited his outings early in his return from surgery, but his ability to learn a two-seam fastball enabled him to decrease his pitch counts while seemingly having no adverse effects. He will definitely be expected to be a big league contributor in 2012.
Skaggs was 9-6, 2.96 in two stops, going 4-1, 2.50 in 10 starts at Mobile, where he had 73 strikeouts in 58 innings. Corbin was 9-8, 4.21. Parker and Corbin are 22. Skaggs is 20.
“When you have the opportunity to run out prospects like that in one rotation at one level, it’s pretty extraordinary,” Dipoto said. “When (Brewer) is your fifth starter at Double-A, that’s a mother of a rotation. I think this is the first time in since I have been in Arizona that I can honestly say that the pitching was as significant as the offensive prospects, and that’s what made this team pretty special.”
Not only was Parker healthy, but so was center fielder A.J. Pollock. After missing 2010 with a fractured growth plate in his left elbow, Pollock showed why he was a first-round pick out of Notre Dame in 2009, setting a franchise record with 169 hits and tying a record with 41 doubles. He had 36 stolen bases in 43 attempts. Goldschmidt’s 30 homers also set a franchise record.
Like Pollock, third baseman Ryan Wheeler, a 2009 fifth-round pick, had a career year offensively, hitting hit .294/.358/.465 with career highs in doubles (30), home runs (18) and RBIs (89). When Goldschmidt left, Wheeler assumed more responsibility in the middle of the order and continued that in the playoffs, driving in three runs in a clinching Game Five victory over Birmingham in the semifinals and adding a three-run homer in the first game of the final series.
It was a magical ride for Ward, a former major league outfielder and native son of Mobile who spent the previous three seasons as the team’s hitting coach. The BayBears were 46-22 in the second half, had an 11-game winning streak in July and lost as many as two straight games just twice over the final seven weeks. Joining Ward were pitching coach Dan Carlson and first-year hitting coach Alan Zinter.
“A team is so much better when each of the 24 guys on a minor league club wants to go play for their manager, and I think that’s the situation that Turner created there,” Dipoto said. “The players respond to Turner. He’s been where they’ve been. He’s walked a day in their shoes. He’s a fantastic leader. He has transitioned into the coaching ranks as well as you could transition.
“To appeal and grab the ears of a bunch of guys the way he has, whether it be the hitting prospects that have come through Mobile the last couple of years or as the manager . . . They play their tails off. They play the right way, and I think that’s the extension of the coaching staff.”