Follow the Colorado Springs Sky Sox long enough, and you'll probably figure out what makes a minor-league baseball team succeed at the Triple-A level.
It's not just about being stocked with great prospects, though having a few "stars of tomorrow" never hurts. And it's not about having a handful with big-league experience who just missed making the Rockies, unless those guys come down with a good attitude, determined to prove themselves worthy when the next chance comes.
This week we'll discuss my unofficial formula for putting together a solid Triple-A roster in any given season. Unfortunately, the Colorado Rockies have followed that blueprint only sporadically in their two decades as the Sky Sox' parent organization.
And that's why, more often than not, Colorado Springs has come up far short in the standings. Last season was painfully typical: great crowds at Security Service Field, some players worth watching, but a 64-80 record, after 64-79 in 2010. In fact, the Sky Sox have compiled only one winning season since 2004.
So why should this year be any different? After all, minor-league baseball's first mission is to develop players for the majors, right?
True, but other organizations have done much better at making sure they have a solid, stable Triple-A team at the same time they're cultivating prospects and fill-ins for their big-time opportunity.
The winning differences can be subtle. But that "formula" usually holds true. Let's see how the 2012 Sky Sox roster stacks up in those areas.
• At least one workhorse pitcher. Doesn't have to be a major-league veteran, but can be. The answer might be piecemeal here. Early on, you'd have to figure that prospect Alex White will flourish, perhaps earning his way to the Rockies. Or veteran Guillermo Moscoso, who spent most of last year in the bigs with Oakland. Then there are Christian Friedrich and Rob Scahill, making their Triple-A debuts and targeted as potential big-league starters someday. But they can't carry the load here until late summer. Outlook: promising.
• Speed, in abundance. The best Triple-A teams usually have several capable of 10 or more stolen bases, and fleet defenders are crucial in Colorado Springs' spacious outfield. This year's Sky Sox might not have any burners. Outlook: shaky.
• Dependable bullpen. Usually there's uncertainty in the starting rotation, so having decent relievers can matter. Edgmer Escalona and Zach Putnam give the Springs a nice start. Outlook: good.
• Triple-A veterans. It's the real secret if these Sky Sox want to escape mediocrity — journeymen who are close to breaking through, but either haven't or couldn't stay when they had their shots. Usually, they're not on the parent club's 40-man roster, meaning they are here as insurance. But if they bring good intangibles, play hard and get along, they can lift a team to unexpected heights.
This Springs roster has more of those players than usual, almost all in the 26-to-28 age range. (Sky Sox manager Stu Cole was one for Colorado Springs' last championship team in 1995.) They include infielders Brandon Wood and Hernan Iribarren (both 27), first baseman Chad Tracy (26, son of Rockies manager Jim Tracy), catchers Wil Nieves (34) and Wilkin Castillo (27), catcher-outfielder Matt McBride (26) and outfielders Andrew Brown (27) and Brandon Roberts (27). That leaves three prospects among position players: second baseman DJ LeMahieu (23), outfielder Tim Wheeler (24) and shortstop Tommy Field (25). Outlook: excellent.
One other factor will influence this year: Colorado Springs has a humidor to keep the baseballs from drying out, and the Rockies are interested to see whether it will give pitchers a better chance, as it has for the past 10 years in Denver.
But first, the Sky Sox play 28 of their first 40 games on the road, which means having a stable roster matters most for now. So let's see how that formula works.