A year ago, the Arkansas Travelers reached the Texas League
Championship Series with a roster that included -- at various points of the season -- Howie Kendrick, Kendry Morales, Erick Aybar, Mike Napoli, Ervin Santana and Jered Weaver.
So the folks around Little Rock think it'll be a long time
before another Texas League team matches the quality and
quantity of talent that came through the Travelers in 2005.
How about one year?
The Tulsa Drillers appear set to start the 2006 season with an infield that boasts a bona fide Major League prospect at every position. The outfield's loaded, there's a top prospect, another in the starting rotation and at least one more in the bullpen.
"I'll match these guys up with anybody," said Drillers first-year manager Stu Cole. "These guys are a special group. I'll put them up against anybody on any day of the week."
"These guys" include third baseman Ian Stewart, shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, second baseman Matt Macri and first baseman Joe Koshansky. Cole expects Joe Gaetti and Seth Smith to be part of his outfield, while catcher Chris Iannetta will be flashing signs to starter Ubaldo Jimenez and potential closers Jim Miller and Manuel Corpas.
Stewart and Tulowitzki are among the game's top 25 prospects, according to Baseball America. Koshansky led the South Atlantic League last season with 36 homers before a late 12-game stint with the Drillers. Gaetti, the son of former big leaguer Gary Gaetti, was third in the California League in batting at .332, adding 21 homers and 87 RBIs. The Rockies already like Iannetta's work behind the plate.
"He's a leader," Rockies director of player development Marc
Gustafson told MLB.com. "He's not afraid to go out to the mound and talk to the pitcher, settle him down if needed. He has all the makings of the quarterback on the field, a leader on the field."
Jimenez missed much of the 2004 season due to a shoulder injury, but Gustafson said his velocity is back in the mid- to high-90s. And before the World Baseball Classic, Team Panama manager Ramon Webster whispered that Corpas "could be the next Mariano Rivera."
What makes this group even more special is that Cole managed
many of the players last year at Class A Advanced Modesto.
"I am excited," Cole said. "I've seen them play, I know what they can and can't do."
Cole also knows there's a pretty good chance that the group won't stay together long.
"My job is to prepare them, get them ready in case that phone call comes," he said.
There are other big names in the Texas League who could get that call during the year. Travelers shortstop Brandon Wood led all of Minor League baseball with 43 home runs last season, one that included four games in the Pacific Coast League. Third baseman Alex Gordon was taken by the Kansas City Royals with the second overall pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft. He'll start the season with the Wichita Wranglers, but the University of Nebraska product could find his way to Triple-A Omaha sooner rather than
Corpus Christi Hooks shortstop Ben Zobrist has never hit below .300 in two professional seasons and played for Team USA at last year's World Cup in The Netherlands. Outfielder Javier Herrera was slated to start the year in Class A, but an impressive Spring Training could mean a bump to Double-A on his way through the Oakland A's system.
Right-hander Chris Lambert is expected begin a second season with the Springfield Cardinals but could end it in Memphis. And if the Mariners send outfielder Adam Jones back to the San Antonio Missions, it shouldn't be a long stay.
Whether those prospects spend all or part of the season in the Texas League, one thing is certain. This will be the final summer for Ray Winder Field, which has been the Travelers' home for 74 years. Next season, Arkansas moves into Dickey-Stephens Park.
The Texas League will ring out the venerable facility by holding the All-Star Game there on June 20. The Travelers have their own plans for the final season at the old ballpark, culminating with the return of Roscoe P. Stidman.
Shorter than Eddie Gaedel, Stidman led off for Arkansas in the 1976 season opener, which marked the first game under colorful general manager Bill Valentine. Stidman will be back, batting leadoff, at the season finale against Springfield on Sept. 3.
"As far as professional baseball goes, Ray Winder Field is
Arkansas' park," Elson said. "People have grown up here. There's a sadness behind that, the nostalgia, that is going to go away pretty quickly once they go to the first few games at the new park."