Minor League Team Of The Year

Two weeks into the 2006 season, Tucson looked much better on paper than it did on the field.

Despite having such prospects as shortstop Stephen Drew, second baseman Alberto Callaspo, outfielders Carlos Quentin and Scott Hairston, first baseman Chris Carter, third baseman Brian Barden and righthander Dustin Nippert, the Sidewinders sputtered early, winning just four of their first 15 games.

But with the addition of outfielder Chris Young, as well as huge years by veterans like catcher Robby Hammock and pitchers Randy Choate, Mike Bacsik, Kevin Jarvis and Mike Koplove—not to mention the occasional prospect callup from Double-A Tennessee—Tucson finished the season with nothing more than a few bumps in the road en route to a 91-53, which was the best record in the minors.

That final record, along with the Sidewinders first Pacific Coast League title in 13 years earns Tucson Baseball America’s 2006 Team of the Year. It was the way they won, too. Tucson lost just once in the divisional series against Salt Lake and swept Round Rock in the finals.

This is just the latest honor for Sidewinders manager Chip Hale and his staff. Hale was named the PCL’s manager of the year after Tucson topped the 90-win plateau for the first time in the franchise’s 39-year history. The Sidewinders became just the third team in Tucson franchise history to win the PCL championship following the Tucson Toros in 1991 and 1993.

“The year was truly remarkable,” Diamondbacks farm director A.J. Hinch said. “When you consider the record, individual statistics, the way they always played the game hard and with an attitude really is a tribute to the job the player-development staff did with that club.

“Chip and his staff did an exceptional job to keep that club grinding along while making everyone on that roster better players. This team never gave up—with everything they accomplished, they also led the PCL in come-from-behind wins, and that’s no accident.”

No Accident Here, Either

A lot of the success Tucson enjoyed this season also came down to good timing. The Diamondbacks have one of the top farm systems in the game today, and many of their upper-tier prospects saw time in Southeastern Arizona in 2006.

While that starts with Drew—Arizona’s No. 1 prospect heading into the year—the catalyst turned out to be Callaspo, who finished among the minor league leaders in average (.337) and hits (165).

Acquired from the Angels for righthander Jason Bulger right before spring training, Callaspo is a contact hitter with exceptional strike zone discipline—making him an ideal leadoff hitter. The 23-year-old Venezuelan infielder carried a 27-56 strikeout-walk ratio, and wound up leading the minors by whiffing once in every 20.52 plate appearances.

But it wasn’t until Callaspo was called up to the big leagues for three weeks in August that the club realized just how much they relied on him setting the tone for the offense.

“You hardly ever talk about a player being an MVP of a team in the minors, but when he went up that club really staggered a little bit,” Hinch said. “You’re getting the daily reports out of there and you start thinking, ‘Maybe this is the guy that drives that train.’ “

There was no questioning who was the conductor of the train when Callaspo returned, when he hit .348 over the last 10 games of the season—including rattling off an eight-game hit streak to close out the year.

And he was just as valuable in the postseason run, leading all PCL hitters in runs scored and finishing third in hits.

Though the Sidewinders benefited from Callaspo’s .404 on-base percentage, they also featured several big-time power hitters. Six players topped double-digits in home runs, with Hairston leading the way with 26. Carter and Barden both flirted with the century mark in RBIs, and totaled 35 homers and 65 doubles between them.

The club also got a further offensive boost when catcher Miguel Montero was promoted from Double-A. Montero, who is solid defensively in his own right, contributed by hitting .321/.396/.515.

“You look at the number of prospects and it really was a situation we were in being flooded with all this talent,” Hinch said. “And then you had veteran leaders helping the younger players along. This team really was the perfect balance of youth and experience.”

Shutting It Down

Offense may have been Tucson’s defining team trait, but the Sidewinders pitching staff was the truly remarkable part of the 2006 season. Led by Nippert and righthander Micah Owings—as well as a deep corps of dependable relievers—Tucson’s staff finished fourth in the league with a 3.88 ERA.

Both were horses, as Nippert tossed 140 innings and Owings added 87 frames after being called up from Tennessee. Combined, the two righthanders went 23-8, 4.42 while the bullpen of Choate, Bacsik, Koplove, Greg Aquino, Jeff Bajenaru, Mike Schultz, Casey Daigle, Tony Pena, Doug Slaten, Jose Valverde, Bill Murphy and newcomer Evan MacLane combined to carry a 3.55 ERA in 545 total innings.

“Micah and Dustin really showed us a lot—especially in the playoffs,” Hinch said. “They had some big game experience coming in, and they definitely hit that next gear.

“And the experience in the bullpen was something that really helped them stay in games consistently, giving them a chance to win. When you have starters like that and a bullpen like that, guys come to the park believing they can win every single night.”

Of course, just with every other aspect of the club, Tucson got a shot in the arm late in the season from yet another prospect landing in the desert from Knoxville, Tenn., when righthander Ross Ohlendorf came to town.

Ohlendorf gave the club five solid innings on the final day of the regular season, then took the mound in the title clincher against the Express. He finished the playoffs with a 2.53 ERA.

“He’s a guy who’s been waiting in the wings in a lot of ways, but he came in and stabilized that rotation,” Hinch said. “But we’ve seen it a lot this year—when you’re surrounded by players on the move, other guys see that and step up their game. They don’t want to be left in the dust.”