Of all the managing jobs in minor-league baseball this season, Tom Runnells might have the toughest challenge.
He also might have the Pacific Coast League's best team, from the looks of his season-opening roster.
On one hand, the Colorado Springs Sky Sox's third-year manager can look at his team and feel highly encouraged. Runnells starts the 2008 PCL season on April 3 at Tucson with a lot of familiar faces in his lineup, guys who already have made themselves known here at the Triple-A level.
A handful of those players actually spent time last season, including the final month, helping the Colorado Rockies on their historic finishing run into the National League playoffs.
Therein lies part of the task now for Runnells.
As hard as those and other players tried during this spring training to use last year as a springboard to make the Rockies' 2008 season-opening roster, they didn't quite make it. And so, with varying levels of frustration and determination, those players have to "settle" for coming to the Sky Sox, with the first home series starting at 6 p.m., Friday, April 11 against Tacoma. They opened with an eight-game road trip, starting Thursday at Tucson.
Those who just missed the Rockies have no choice but to suck it up, push themselves harder to excel and wait for the next big-league opportunity that might come their way.
Runnells' task is to keep them motivated, along with some of the younger prospects who have just made it to Triple-A for the first time and realize they're still further back in line.
If you look at the Sky Sox roster, you can see the makings of a PCL contender this season, starting with outfielders Cory Sullivan and Seth Smith, both of whom were still with the Rockies into the 2007 postseason. They went into spring planning on returning to the majors, but with tougher competition in Colorado's outfield, Sullivan and Smith wound up losing out. The one consolation is that they'll play regularly here, though they would trade that for backup roles with the Rockies any day.
Joe Koshansky is a different story. Even after a solid 2007 season as the Sky Sox first baseman, hitting .295 with 21 homers and 99 RBIs, Koshansky is back here because Todd Helton still has the job with the Rockies. And the Colorado front office would rather have Koshansky playing every day here than sitting on the bench as Helton's backup.
Then there's Ian Stewart, who played third base here last year but was part of the Rockies' spring battle to replace Kaz Matsui at second base. That job eventually went to Jayson Nix, who was the regular second baseman in Colorado Springs a year ago. Stewart returns, still highly regarded by the organization, and don't be surprised if he plays second and third here to show his versatility.
The rest of the infield here will include Omar Quintanilla, another utility-type player, and shortstop Doug Bernier, who played in nearly 100 games for the Sky Sox last season.
Returning at catcher is Edwin Bellorin, along with Humberto Cota.
The pitching rotation adds to this team's promise. Josh Towers, who just missed out on the Rockies' final starting spot, has several years of major-league experience, along with Victor Zambrano and >Jose Capellan. Then there's Greg Reynolds, the former Stanford star and first-round draft pick in 2006, who is being pushed quickly.
In the Colorado Springs bullpen, Ryan Speier made a strong case for himself with 33 saves last year, and he'll resume the closer role this year. Also in the bullpen are others who have either pitched in the majors (like Valerio de los Santos ) or have shown their promise here (Juan Morillo, Josh Newman).
Predicting minor-league division winners is difficult, to say the least, mainly because a few injuries or slow starts on the big-league club can mean some fast roster-shuffling. And as Sky Sox general manager Tony Ensor was discussing a few weeks ago, "We know we have two priorities here: to win, and to develop players so they can make it with the Rockies."
Still, this has the makings of Colorado Springs' best team since 1995. That PCL-winning group included Craig Counsell, Alan Cockrell (now the Rockies' hitting coach), Quinton McCracken, Trenidad Hubbard and pitchers John Burke and A.J. Sager plus such minor-league veterans as Harvey Pulliam, Webster Garrison and Albert Bustillos (who still lives in the area). Managed by Brad Mills, now bench coach for the Boston Red Sox, they went 77-66 and then won two playoff series for the league title.
Season on ice: Air Force hockey deserves applause for taking Miami (Ohio) to overtime in the NCAA Tournament and nearly pulling off the huge upset. But it's hard to explain how quickly and totally Colorado College unraveled, first at the league tournament and then against Michigan State in the NCAA opening round.
It was an ideal setup for CC to make the Frozen Four and have a shot at the national title. Instead, another case of March Badness will surely lead to some soul-searching among the Tigers and head coach Scott Owens. CC simply didn't seem mentally ready for the grinding style of play that comes with the playoffs. Both the Tigers and Falcons will be strong again next season, but they'll have psychological hurdles to clear at the end.