The oft-quoted and widely accepted axiom about player development in the Minor Leagues is that the jump from A-ball to Double-A is the toughest one to make.
It's what can separate future stars from the average Minor League player. This year's Eastern League season -- No. 83 for those counting -- will be no different in separating the men from the boys.
"It's the same game from high school all the way to the big leagues," said Portland Sea Dogs manager Todd Claus, who'll try to pilot his club back to the Eastern League championship, which the Sea Dogs lost to the Akron Aeros last year. "You have to remind them the game is the same. A lot of guys want to do more than they're capable of, they try to do a little bit more than they did in A-ball. Sometimes it takes them out of their element. You have to tell them to just do what got you here and be consistent."
The 2006 version of the EL will be hard-pressed to top 2005 in terms of the consistency of talent throughout the league. The two first-round matchups proved how deep the league was, with both the Akron-Altoona and Portland-Trenton series going the full five games.
Fans certainly enjoyed the action, coming out in record numbers for the second consecutive season. Seven teams upped their season's attendance from 2004 and will be looking to continue riding the crest of Minor League Baseball's popularity.
The Aeros, who have won two of the last three league championships, could again be the team to beat. Akron should be the home, at least temporarily, of some of the deep Cleveland Indians' premier prospects, many of whom will move up one rung from last year's Kinston club, which reached the Carolina League championship series.
The Curve always seem to be in the hunt as well. Altoona has made the playoffs in each of the last three seasons.
The Reading Phillies haven't made the playoffs since 2001. They could break that schneid with arguably one of the best rotations in Minor League Baseball that should include Cole Hamels, Gio Gonzalez and Scott Mathieson.
The Aeros and Curve will try to return to the promised land with new skippers. With Torey Lovullo, the 2005 EL Manager of the Year, moved up to Triple-A Buffalo, former big leaguer Tim Bogar comes over to the Indians after two successful seasons of managing in the Astros system.
While Portland's Claus and Trenton's Billy Masse return for another playoff run, the Curve will be in the same boat as the team that beat them in the postseason last year. Tony Beasley is gone and has been replaced by Tim Leiper. Like many of his players, Leiper makes the jump from Lynchburg in the Carolina League, where the Hillcats went 78-62 and made the playoffs in his first season as a skipper in the Pirates system.
Akron and Altoona will be joined by Binghamton (Juan Samuel), Harrisburg (John Stearns), New Britain (Riccardo Ingram), New Hampshire (Doug Davis) and Reading (P.J. Forbes) as clubs with new managers in 2006.
The big news in Altoona, with all due respect to Leiper, is not that there's a new skipper in town. Plans are already well underway at Blair County Ballpark to host the 2006 All-Star Game on July 12. Come out on the 11th and be a part of the All-Star Gala and FanFest. Altoona is lovely that time of year.
A look at the 2006 standings may leave some believing there is a new franchise in the circuit. That isn't entirely accurate. The team formerly known as the Norwich Navigators is now the Connecticut Defenders, with new owner Lou DiBella helping to bring in a new look and logo to the team. But it's still the San Francisco Giants' Double-A affiliate and you can still check them out at Dodd Stadium. You just won't be able to find that alligator anywhere.