It's going to be hard for the International League to top last year.
It nearly set an attendance record, finishing just 10,000 fans shy of the all-time mark. Nearly 6.7 million fans attended IL games in 2005, the second-best attendance mark in the league's 122-year history. It was the third straight season attendance has gone up in the Triple-A league.
"I'll be honest with you, 2005 was pretty darn good for us," IL president Randy Mobley said. "We're going to try to duplicate what we did last year and try to give it a little bump."
It certainly helped that the Toledo Mud Hens won their first Governors' Cup in 15 years. The city of Toledo has really embraced the Mud Hens, especially since they moved into their new downtown stadium in 2002.
In baseball, it's common to have a player who made a great defensive play in the field to lead off the following inning. The IL team version of this is Toledo, which gets to host the Triple-A All-Star Game pitting the IL's best against the Pacific Coast League's All-Stars on July 12.
"For them to be able to finish with the best regular season record and then draw throughout the playoffs as they did and ultimately finish with the Governors' Cup, it was something very special for them," Mobley said. "We'll be headed up there in July for the All-Star Game, and we'll see if they can make that just as exciting."
Perusing the probable rosters of the 14-team league makes it pretty clear, barring promotion to the big leagues, the IL's All-Star squad should be able to hold up its end. You'd be hard-pressed to find another year with so many elite prospects in the league, often known more for veterans than young kids on the way up.
The depth of talent makes it very difficult to figure out a front-runner to replace Toledo as champions. As usual, the Buffalo Bisons have to be mentioned in any conversation of this ilk. The Bisons won it all in 2004 and have made the playoffs in five of the past six seasons thanks to a deep Cleveland Indians system. This year should be no different, and it'll be difficult for any other team to have the balance on the mound (Fausto Carmona, Jeremy Sowers, Jeremy Guthrie) and at the plate (Ryan Garko, Andy Marte, Franklin Gutierrez) the Bisons will have to start the season.
Not that other teams won't try. The Durham Bulls will have No. 1 prospect Delmon Young along with B.J. Upton, Wes Bankston and Elijah Dukes to produce plenty of runs. A pitching staff that should include Chris Seddon, Edwin Jackson and Jamie Shields should make plenty of leads hold up.
Don't forget about Pawtucket when picking which horse to back. The PawSox will have just as deep a pitching staff as Buffalo, perhaps a tick better, with a rotation including Jon Lester, Abe Alvarez and David Pauley and a bullpen featuring Craig Hansen, Cla Meredith and Manny Delcarmen. Offensively, they may not be quite as deep, but Dustin Pedroia, Brandon Moss and David Murphy certainly aren't slouches.
That, in the end, is how the IL can top itself in 2006. It's pretty simple, really. Just send out that collection of talent as often as you can, for as long as you can. Chances are, people are going to want to come out in record numbers to see all these future stars before they make that final step to the big leagues.