Whenever the subject is minor-league baseball, especially at the Triple-A level, any intelligent conversation has to begin with a disclaimer.
No matter what the parent major-league organization might say, the farm system's wins and losses are not vital. Certainly the record and standings matter to the Colorado Rockies, but in the minors, winning games isn't the top priority.
It's all about developing and preparing players for the majors. It's about rectifying whatever problems have kept each individual from making it to — or staying at — the top. This philosophy, of course, wasn't born in just the past few years. I first saw it as a kid in 1964.
That year, the Arkansas Travelers (in Little Rock) were playing in the Pacific Coast League as the top minor-league affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies. That Arkansas team had a handful of prospects, led by pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, outfielders Alex Johnson and Adolfo Phillips, shortstop Lee Elia, first baseman Costen Shockley and catcher Pat Corrales.
Arkansas went 95-61 that season and was headed for the PCL title. Then, in the playoffs, the team had the "misfortune" of running into the Phillies in an airport. That Philadelphia team was in the middle of a history-making collapse. With a 6½-game lead over the National League (before divisions) and 12 games to play, the Phils lost 10 straight games and blew the pennant to St. Louis.
In that West Coast airport during the Phillies' losing streak, their management grabbed a handful of Arkansas players and promoted them to the big-league roster. Arkansas wound up losing the PCL title series to San Diego, and the Phillies didn't make the World Series.
But that was how baseball worked, then as it does now.
So the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, in the same PCL today, find themselves with a roster that reminds me of the group that spent the summer of 1964 in Little Rock. Because the Colorado Rockies are in a rebuilding mode, following turnover in the front office and a new manager in Walt Weiss, they had serious competition for almost every roster spot during spring training.
Thanks to all that uncertainty last month in Arizona, the Sky Sox have inherited a roster that could be as exciting — and successful — as the Springs has seen in a while.
The group here includes several prospects who didn't make it to the Rockies: third baseman Nolan Arenado, middle fielder DJ LeMahieu, outfielder Charlie Blackmon and utility player Matt McBride. Then the Sky Sox have a cluster who already have tasted the majors but faltered in the spring: outfielder Tyler Colvin, starting pitchers Drew Pomeranz, Christian Friedrich and Tyler Chatwood, and reliever Josh Outman.
On top of all that, Colorado Springs begins 2013 with two players familiar to Rockies fans from previous years, starting pitcher Aaron Cook and reliever Manny Corpas, plus new manager Glenallen Hill.
Put it all together, along with a few others from the Colorado farm system — outfielders Corey Dickerson and Tim Wheeler, infielders Charlie Culberson and Tommy Manzella, first baseman Ben Paulsen and catcher Lars Davis, among others — and you have the makings of a winning team in Colorado Springs.
Can they be as good as the best Sky Sox teams of the past 25 years? Nobody knew the 1992 team would win the PCL, just as nobody knew first baseman Jim Thome would go on to a possible Hall of Fame career and manager Charlie Manuel would lead Philadelphia to a World Series title.
And nobody expected Colorado Springs to take another PCL title in 1995, guided by Brad Mills, who has two World Series rings from being bench coach for the Boston Red Sox before he managed the Houston Astros in recent seasons. Mills did a superb job with that 1995 team, which included outfielders Trent Hubbard and Quinton McCracken, shortstop Craig Counsell and pitchers Ryan Hawblitzel, A.J. Sager and John Burke, among others.
This year's Sky Sox have a chance to create their own place in history, just like 1992 and 1995. But no matter how good they might be, it still comes down to what the Rockies need, and when they need it.
Such is life in baseball, just as it's always been.
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