'Riders a clear choice for Best Team MiLBY
Managing a Triple-A team is unlike anything else in baseball.
Where a Major League team is focused on winning games and winning championships, a Triple-A club has to make sure that, above all else, its players are available to help support the parent club. Where the lower levels are focused primarily on player development, players in Triple-A are for the most part ready for the Majors.
Due to parent-club injuries, a Triple-A team's best players are constantly shuttling back and forth between the Majors and Triple-A -- and may not be too happy to return, even if they accept the assignment.
For all these reasons, the accomplishments of this year's Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders team -- winners of both the staff and fan vote for the 2016 Best Team MiLBY Award -- are remarkable. The RailRiders' 91 wins were the most in Minor League Baseball. Their .636 winning percentage was tops among all full-season Minor League clubs (and would translate to 103 wins in a full 162-game schedule). And they won both the Governors' Cup as International League champions and the Triple-A National Championship.
"It all starts with getting the coaching staff on the same page in understanding our goals," said RailRiders skipper Al Pedrique from his native Venezuela, where he's managing the Leones del Caracas in the Venezuelan Winter League.
Pedrique would know. He's managed in nine different domestic Minor Leagues in four different organizations and served as interim manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks for 83 games in 2004.
With Triple-A's mix of players at different stages in their careers, a big part of Pedrique's job is finding a way to keep everybody happy. Nevertheless, he says, he always manages to win.
"We had prospects on the way up, like Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge, who were mostly ready but needed to work out some kinks. And we had guys who have been in the Majors and come back disappointed. The daily job of communication is huge at the Triple-A level," Pedrique said.
"When someone comes back down, the first thing we do is meet with the player and tell them, 'You'll be fine -- you're still valued. Let's work on this so you can get back there.'"
Despite the inevitable roster turnover -- only seven hitters played in at least half of the team's games, and 16 different pitchers made at least two starts -- the RailRiders proved consistently good at nearly every facet of the game in 2016. Their pitching staff led the International League in ERA (2.98) and strikeouts (1198). Their hitters were tops in batting (.266), on-base percentage (.333) and runs scored (654). They were 8-3 in extra innings and 8-2 in doubleheaders. They shut out their opponents in 24 games and were blanked only eight times.
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre went 6-1 -- with four shutouts -- in the International League playoffs while outscoring its opponents, 32-11, before snapping the Pacific Coast League's four-year winning streak with a 3-1 win over El Paso in the Triple-A National Championship in Memphis on Sept. 20.
Players of all prospect pedigrees turned in breakout seasons for Pedrique and the RailRiders. Outfielder Ben Gamel, a 10th-round Draft pick in 2010 who was dealt to the Mariners at the end of August, earned Most Valuable Player honors in the International League. Joining Gamel on the IL's postseason All-Star squad were catcher Gary Sanchez (also a candidate for AL Rookie of the Year Award), 28-year-old second baseman Donovan Solano (who led the league in hits) and outfielder Aaron Judge. Pedrique was named the circuit's Manager of the Year.
For Pedrique, a big part of the team's success was the skill and professionalism of its veterans.
"We had so many key players," he said. "Nick Swisher was with us for a while and did a great job of helping the younger players -- showing them how to prepare for games and how to handle adversity. He's a fun guy and created a great chemistry.
"Phil Coke was outstanding with the young arms. He particularly helped Luis Severino, who had struggled early in the season. Pete Kozma worked so well with [infielders] Solano and [Jonathan] Diaz. Eddie Rodriguez really helped Sanchez behind the plate. All our players just had great attitudes and went about things the right way."
Pedrique's stress on communication allowed his players to flourish.
"It's a pleasure to play for him, and I really do mean that," first baseman Greg Bird, who played for Pedrique three straight seasons, told the Times of Trenton last year. "I feel like I've kind of grown up with him as a player. He's everything you want in a manager: A quality leader; he takes care of his players. He has our back.
"He does what a good manager does: He brings the right attitude and work ethic, and that's contagious to the players."
For the first time in decades, the Yankees system is legitimately loaded, particularly after the midseason acquisitions of top-100 prospects Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield (for Andrew Miller) and Gleyber Torres (for Aroldis Chapman). Indeed, it was the fans' selection for Best Farm System this season. Turning that talent into a cohesive winning team isn't simply a matter of adding talent, however. It takes an environment where players are put in a position to be successful.
The RailRiders and their manager had exactly that in 2016.
John Parker is an editor for MiLB.com.