Every so often, a tremendously talented team comes along. A veritable All-Star team onlookers will call it. Whether it's remembered past a given year often depends on whether that club can parlay that talent into a championship.
The 1998 Yankees, for instance, will likely have a long legacy. The 2001 Mariners, not so much.
That's what made the 2005 Jacksonville Suns such a special team. Stacked with perhaps the most legitimate young prospects a Minor League club has ever seen, the Double-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Dodgers lived up to its promise by winning the Southern League title. It's for that reason the Suns have been chosen as the MiLB.com 2005 Overall and Double-A Team of the Year.
Jacksonville beat out some stiff competition for the overall award: the Toledo Mud Hens, winners of the International League title and the MiLB.com Triple-A Team of the Year Award; the Indianapolis Indians, a talent-laden team which saw most of its players get called up to Pittsburgh; the Arkansas Travelers, perhaps the Texas League's equivalent to the Suns talent-wise; the San Jose Giants, winners of the California League championship, and the Midwest League champion South Bend Silver Hawks.
At the Double-A level, the Suns edged out the Travs; the Midland RockHounds, the team that actually won the Texas League title; the Eastern League champion Akron Aeros, the EL runners-up Portland Sea Dogs and the team Jacksonville beat in the Southern League championship, the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx.
"Coming out of Spring Training, the core of the team, we saw the talent we had there, we saw what we could do during the year," Suns first baseman James Loney said. "Most of us were there together throughout the whole year and stayed there for a championship. It was just a fun year overall."
Loney was just one of many young and talented players who contributed to the championship run. Youthfulness seems to have been a team theme: The first baseman is just 21 years old, with shortstop Joel Guzman only 20 and catcher Russ Martin, 22. The Suns started the year with 23-year-old second baseman Delwyn Young, and third baseman Andy LaRoche turned 21 in September. Infielder Tony Abreu's only 20.
With the help of veteran infielders such as Todd Donovan, Jon Weber and Ty Meadows, the Suns offense finished near the top of the Southern League in just about every offensive category.
That's not to say there was no pitching on this club. The staff was anchored by ace Chad Billingsley, who turned 21 in late July, and the ball was given to Luis Gonzalez (22) and Jonathan Broxton (21 in June) in the late innings. The end result? A 3.91 ERA, third in the league, and a league-best 1114 strikeouts.
"We had the speed, the pitching, the defense, the bullpen and the power everywhere we needed it," Loney said. "It was a great feeling."
"Just looking back on the talent we had on that team, it was incredible, with the whole young infield we had and the outfield with the veterans leading the way," LaRoche added. "With the pitching staff, every aspect of our game was phenomenal on that team this year."
And they didn't exactly do it under the radar. Most of these 20-somethings are on top prospects list somewhere, and in August Baseball America named the Suns the "Most Talented Team in Minor League Baseball." That more or less amounted to a big target on Jacksonville's back.
"I think most guys knew that most teams, once the (Baseball America) article came out, were trying to beat us," Loney said. "But we never pressed. We kept playing our game. If somebody didn't do something, the next guy picked him up. It's definitely one of the best teams I've ever played on."
Some teams would find the pressure from such a label too difficult to deal with. But with this Suns team, they believed it. Rather than finding it too difficult to live up to, they used that celebrated talent to make the job easier for each individual.
"For me, it's easier," Martin said sincerely after winning the SL championship. "You know your teammates are going to pick you up. You know they can do the job. It's easier than if you have a couple of prospects and they have to carry the load. We've got a lot of guys who can play. Everybody does their job and it worked out in the end."
Whether or not this championship run is the end for this core remains to be seen. Most of them have been playing together for a few years in the Dodgers system, and this was the first time they were able to carry it all the way through to a title. Martin hopes it's just the beginning. LaRoche would love for it to continue, but knows that baseball doesn't always work that way.
"It's only been a couple of years and it seems like we're really coming together," Martin said. "Hopefully, we can keep this group together all the way up to the big leagues. Hopefully we can carry this attitude up to the big leagues."
"I'll always remember that team," LaRoche said. "Chances are, guys will get separated, whether it's by trade or free agency. I'll always remember it as one of the greatest teams I've ever played on and one of the most talented by far."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.