1996-Edmonton/Pacific Coast (Athletics)
1997-West Michigan/Midwest (Tigers)
1999-Trenton/Eastern (Red Sox)
2000-Round Rock/Texas (Astros)
2001-Lake Elsinore/California (Padres)
2003-Sacramento/Pacific Coast (Athletics)
But just being the most prospect-laden group in recent history is not why Jacksonville is Baseball America's Minor League Team of the Year. The Suns also managed to harness their young talent and win their third Southern League title since joining the league in 1970.
"This team was ballyhooed as being the most talented minor league team, but you just didn't know if they could hold it together to win the championship," Suns owner Peter Bragan told the Florida Times-Union. "I think this is the most talented team I've been associated with in the past 20 years. We've had some teams before that have had three or four great position prospects or maybe three or four outstanding pitchers, but we've never had a team that had three or four of each on the same team. And that's what this team really has."
Getting the most out of a collection of players for whom the game comes naturally--like gifted hitters Joel Guzman, Andy LaRoche, Russ Martin, James Loney and Delwyn Young--is more difficult than it sounds. Even something as simple as batting practice becomes more complicated.
â€œWe donâ€™t take as much (BP) as youâ€™d think because with all these guys, it can become a home run derby," said Suns outfielder Todd Donovan, a 26-year-old veteran who led the minor leagues with 62 stolen bases. "We do more in the (indoor) cages where there are no fences involved. It works better for us.â€�
Despite their offensive firepower, pitching was an even more important ingredient in the Suns' run to the SL championship. It took some time for young pitchers like Chad Billingsley, Jonathan Broxton, Justin Orenduff and Hong-Chih Kuo to gel, but the Dodgers were determined to keep them together and let them learn in Double-A, rather than expose them to harsh pitching conditions at Triple-A Las Vegas.
"At Las Vegas, where the wind's blowing out at 25-30 (mph), you could be Tom Seaver, and if you give up a routine fly ball, it could get out of there. Every time I go to Las Vegas, I kind of cringe," minor league pitching coordinator Rick Honeycutt said. "This staff had a very healthy competition. We put the talent together and let them grow together."
After posting staff ERAs above 4.00 during May, June and July, Jacksonville clicked in August, recording a 3.01 ERA and running off a 12-game winning streak.
"Early in the year, it was a talented group, but I had to talk to them like they were in low A," Honeycutt said. "It was a very young staff at Double-A. They were afraid to throw strikes, and if you're afraid to throw strikes then you're in the wrong place. They're still way up in the league in walks, but they improved and learned to attack the zone."
The Jacksonville coaching staff certainly had something to do with the success of the pitchers. Former phenom Edwin Jackson, whose prospect star had faded somewhat after struggling at higher levels in 2004, returned to Jacksonville this year and rediscovered himself, thanks largely to the tutelage of pitching coach Ken Howell.
"When he joined us, I don't think that his way of thinking or his pitching mechanics were up to Triple-A standards," Suns manager John Shoemaker said. "With Edwin, keeping things on a simple scale, you've got a power arm, use your power arm. You've got to be able to locate these pitches, not just throw hard, but Kenny Howell did a tremendous job getting this guy motivated again and on the right track physically and mentally."
By the postseason, the entire staff was on the right track. Billingsley and Broxton combined on a no-hitter against a potent Birmingham offense in the Suns' first-round sweep, during which they allowed just two runs in three games. Then, after West Tenn scored six runs in two innings against Billingsley in the opener of the championship series, the Suns yielded just two more runs in the final three games--all Jacksonville wins.
"Jacksonville's pitching was excellent this series," West Tenn manager Bobby Dickerson told the Jackson Sun. "That's all you can say."
Contributing: John Manuel