Minor league teams that cycle through 77 players during a season—watching as one top prospect after another gets promoted to the next level—do not tend to end their season on a championship stage.
The Triple-A Reno Aces in 2022 were a different story. People connected to the team point to manager Gil Velazquez as a big reason why.
Velazquez’s easygoing personality, open-door managerial style and ability to maintain stability despite a revolving clubhouse door helped the Aces pull off a sort of organizational double whammy. They not only developed players for the parent D-backs, but they also won the Pacific Coast League championship.
For his efforts, Velazquez is the Baseball America Minor League Manager of the Year.
“Of course, I’m honored,” said Velazquez, 43. “For me, to get an honor like that, it comes down to having a good group of guys—players and coaches—and having a good atmosphere, a good clubhouse, with everyone wanting to come to the ballpark on a daily basis.
“That’s kind of what we created as a team.”
Velazquez wasn’t even supposed to be in the position in the first place. As of mid January, he was slated to return as Arizona’s minor league infield coordinator, a position he held the previous five seasons. But when Chris Cron left to join manager Mark Kotsay’s staff with the Athletics, the D-backs had a job to fill—and not much time to fill it.
Arizona farm director Josh Barfield said the organization immediately thought of Velazquez. Not only did he have experience managing, but Barfield thought Velazquez had the sort of demeanor and ability to command a staff that would play well in the job.
Plus, he was already familiar with most of the players in the system and had relationships with many of them.
Velazquez, who had not managed since 2016 with Great Lakes in the Midwest League, made a seamless transition even though he had little time to prepare, Barfield said.
“He’s almost like that father figure or brother-type presence with a lot of the guys,” Barfield said. “He cares. I think that’s what they ultimately know is that he cares a lot about them. That’s how he’s able to gain their trust and be able to help them so much.”
The Aces hovered around .500 for most of the first half but took off in July. They went 46-27 over the final three months and defeated El Paso for the PCL title before falling to Durham in the one-game Triple-A National Championship. The Aces’ 85 wins set a franchise record.
They did all that despite regularly having their roster plundered by the parent club. Aside from the challenges every Triple-A club has to deal with in managing a pitching staff, the Aces steadily graduated many of their most productive hitters, several of whom never returned.
At various points, Reno lost Corbin Carroll, Alek Thomas, Jake McCarthy and Stone Garrett, among others, and the pitching staff lost starters Tommy Henry, Ryne Nelson and Drey Jameson over the final two months.
Henry was stunned to learn the Aces had 77 players pass through. He credited Velazquez and the coaching staff for making it seem like business as usual.
“There was never any frustration expressed or concern about having a new lineup every day or having to play guys who he had just met,” Henry said. “It just seemed normal to him, so it seemed normal to me. I think that’s kind of the culture that he built.”
“We were losing players for the right reasons,” Reno co-hitting coach Mark Reed said. “We were losing players because they were going to the big leagues. That is more important than us winning a PCL championship, but we were able to do both. Gil made everybody feel like the promotions didn’t faze us.”
Velazquez thought the players’ reaction to the roster moves mirrored their handling of other tough situations. He recalled spending some 14 hours at the ballpark in Tacoma due to a long rain delay. Another time, their flight was delayed seven hours en route to Salt Lake City. Both times, they responded with victories.
“Those are the moments, for me, that when they’re all in it together and they give each other those messages, that’s what creates a team,” Velazquez said. “It creates character. It creates the fight in them. We had a couple of moments like that where the guys battled for each other.”
Players appreciated the fact that Velazquez did not bog them down with rules but instead gave the clubhouse room to breathe and police itself.
Velazquez, who was voted Best Manager Prospect by his PCL peers in Best Tools voting in 2022, said his goals as a coach are the same as anyone else’s.
“It’s to get to the big leagues to put my family in the best living situation,” Velazquez said. “I love helping players. Titles are nice and I wouldn’t shy away from any opportunity, but any time I do get one, I’d like to be ready for it. I still have a lot to learn and improve.”