For those local baseball fans who don't require a Coors Field visit to enjoy the summer game, this might be your lucky year.
Might. Can't say it for certain, but if the early signs pan out, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox could be a fascinating team to watch in 2009.
Too many years have passed since the local franchise's two Pacific Coast League championships (1992 and 1995). Granted, those memories don't match up to, say, the Colorado Rockies making the World Series in 2007. But for the fans who can remember when the Sky Sox ruled the PCL, those were definitely good times. Like when Charlie Manuel was the manager of that '92 team, which also included a guy who could hit a little, named Jim Thome. He now has 541 career home runs in the majors.
Predicting any kind of success for a team in the minor leagues is pure folly. Colorado Springs isn't the only baseball town that has had plenty to cheer about at times in April and May, even into June, only to see the hottest hitters and pitchers suddenly promoted in midseason. And then the dreams go away.
If you ask me, the best Sky Sox team in its 20-year history here didn't even win the PCL. That was in 1989, when Colorado Springs managed by Mike Hargrove went 44-26 and easily won the first-half division title. Outside observers suggested those Sox were better than several major-league teams. But suddenly the parent Cleveland Indians needed help, then more and more help, and eventually the depleted Sky Sox faded to 34-38 in the second half, and subsequently lost in the first playoff round.
So we won't be making any title predictions here. But the measure of enjoyment at this level often is more about having the chance to see gifted players on the rise, trying to make that final jump to the majors. In that category, this Colorado Springs team could be better than usual.
Especially in the outfield. The word out of spring training is that arguably the Rockies' best two non-pitching prospects could be here.
Carlos Gonzalez, obtained in the offseason trade that sent Matt Holliday to Oakland, looks great defensively, though his inconsistent bat likely will mean playing left field for the Sky Sox. That would probably put him beside Dexter Fowler, the lanky speedster who already has been labeled as Colorado's centerfielder of the future.
At second base, don't be surprised to see a name that's all too familiar for the state's baseball fanatics. Eric Young Jr., son of the Rockies' second baseman at their birth in 1993 who hit that unforgettable first homer at Mile High Stadium, has moved up through the farm system and could start this season in Colorado Springs. Even if Young stays at the Double-A level in April, he should be here sooner than later.
And we haven't even mentioned first baseman Joe Koshansky, who has nothing more to prove in Triple-A after his 31 home runs and 121 runs batted in last year. Koshansky, who turns 27 this summer, should be playing every day in the majors, but he still has to wait here as the insurance policy behind Colorado star Todd Helton. If Helton's back problems return, Koshansky would go up to the Rockies. But nobody, not even Koshansky, wants it to happen that way.
Some of the other positions here will depend on who makes Colorado's season-opening roster and who doesn't and for those who come up short, whether they're released or start the year in the Springs. Omar Quintanilla has proven useful for the Rockies but still could begin the season playing second or shortstop here. Same with outfielders Matt Miller, Dan Ortmeier and Chris Frey, who went to Arizona early as non-roster spring invitees. There's also Christian Colonel, who could be the Sox' everyday third baseman (.308 in 117 games last year).
Then there's the starting rotation, which we discussed here going into spring training. Based on early indications, Greg Reynolds could be the Opening Day starter for the Sky Sox, after a disappointing 2008 when he probably was pushed too far, too fast. Jason Hirsh, who was injured much of last summer, also might get the chance to build confidence here. But the rotation could become even more formidable if 23-year-old Franklin Morales, who had 10 wins here in 2008 and is making a strong case this month to stick with the big club, comes back for just a little more seasoning.
Kid to watch
Other veteran pitchers, such as Greg Smith, Randy Flores and/or Glendon Rusch, could easily be asked to help fill out the pitching staff here and to be ready when opportunities arise.
But any of them could be pushed aside, perhaps as soon as April, in favor of a 21-year-old Venezuelan named Jhoulys Chacin, who was no less than phenomenal with an 18-3 record in Class A last year and has filled out to an impressive 6-foot-2, 218 pounds. Chacin's scenario and his potential remind me of seeing a kid who was similarly dominant three years ago, at 20, in the Class A Florida State League. That was Yovani Gallardo, now the Milwaukee Brewers' No. 1 starter at 23.
The inevitable conclusion here is that the Rockies' front office has many difficult decisions to make. With so much pressure on Colorado to have a strong start, that might mean stockpiling the Sky Sox with more veterans than usual, particularly outfielders and starting pitchers. But nobody in the organization sounds afraid of having a lot of rising prospects in Colorado Springs, either.
Some of the roster choices will come in the next week. Others might wait until the end of spring training.
Regardless, it's easy to imagine the Sky Sox having ... wait, not too fast.