Players move up and down so frequently throughout Minor League Baseball that it's very difficult to repeat as champions at any level. Every once in a while, though, in a system deep with talent, a team can pull off the feat -- often thanks to continuity of the coaching staff.
That's what makes West Michigan Whitecaps' 2007 season all the more astounding. Manager Matt Walbeck won Midwest League titles in 2004 and 2006, but was bumped up to Double-A Erie for the 2007 season. It was up to new manager Tom Brookens to guide the Whitecaps toward a second straight championship. That they accomplished it -- and posted the best overall record in the Midwest League -- is the reason they are MiLB.com's 2007 Class A Team of the Year.
"They do seem to have a good tradition of having a pretty good ballclub [in West Michigan]," Brookens said. "Matt's an outstanding manager. What I found, and this is just my third year back in pro ball, everyone who's been involved in the Tigers organization for several years said that the talent level in the system is at its best in a long time. And [winning the championship] reflects that. If you have talented players, they'll usually do the job on the field."
West Michigan went 38-32 in the first half of the season, good enough for second place in the Midwest League's Eastern Division and a Wild-Card spot in the playoffs. The team made that moot by winning the division in the second half with a 45-25 record. The Whitecaps' 83-57 overall record was four games better than the next best mark in the league.
Having the league's best record isn't enough to win this award, though. Just ask the Augusta GreenJackets of the South Atlantic League, who won 89 regular-season games only to get bounced in the first round of the playoffs. The Midwest League's postseason labyrinth is even more difficult to navigate. With first- and second-half division winners and Wild Cards, there are three full playoff rounds.
West Michigan didn't lose a playoff game until Game 3 of the Championship Series against Beloit, winning six straight contests in sweeping Lansing in the first round and South Bend in the second before taking a 2-0 lead in the final. There was no collapse when Beloit battled back to tie the series and force a Game 5: the Whitecaps won, 11-5, for their third crown in four years and fifth in 14 years in the league.
"It really is up for grabs," Brookens said. "It doesn't matter what you did in the regular season in those short series. But we got the job done. Things got real tight. We went to Beloit with a 2-0 lead. To their credit, they rallied. That last game was a real tight one until we scored eight runs in the fifth inning.
"It's a matter of who gets a big hit here and there and how things fall," he added. "We got good pitching and some timely hitting and were able to win on that last day."
Individual West Michigan players took home some postseason hardware as well. Center fielder Gorkys Hernandez was named the Midwest League Player of the Year after hitting .293 with a league-leading 54 steals. Brookens was rewarded for his efforts with Manager of the Year honors. It mirrored the 2006 season, when Walbeck was named the league's top skipper and center fielder Cameron Maybin was tabbed as the Prospect of the Year.
"[Brookens was] just a great manager. He's laid back, but he always made sure we knew what we had to do," left-hander Duane Below said. "He doesn't yell, but if he got on you about something, you knew that you had to step it up."
Hernandez and Brookens obviously weren't the only stars on this team. The Whitecaps led the Midwest League in batting average and were third in runs scored. Their 3.31 ERA was third-lowest in the circuit. James Skelton joined Hernandez in the top 10 for batting average while Brennan Boesch and Ryan Strieby were among the RBI leaders. Below's 13 wins were tied for most in the league while his 2.97 ERA was fourth. Most leads were protected by Brett Jensen, who was third in the league with 23 saves to go along with a stingy 1.79 ERA.
"Top to bottom, the team was great. I mean, with guys like [Brennan] Boesch and [Scott] Sizemore and Gorkys [Hernandez], it's going to be tough to beat a team like that," Below said. "As a pitcher, it was great to not have to worry about the defense behind me. Gorkys and Brennan helped me out a lot with their catches in the outfield."
The key to West Michigan's success may have been that players like Below stayed with the Whitecaps all season. That kind of continuity is rare, but the depth of talent in the Tigers' system probably had something to do with it. That depth also helped when players were promoted because there was another capable player ready to take over.
"We did not lose too many players," Brookens said. "I think we only lost three position players the whole season. We pretty much kept the same core of position players the whole season. I think that means a lot. We did lose seven or eight pitchers throughout the season, but whoever we got did a great job stepping in.
"Our strength was really pitching," he added. "Pitching coach Ray Burriss did a tremendous job working with them and keeping them focused. They stepped up when they needed to."
It remains to be seen if West Michigan can step up again in 2008. Nothing breeds the desire to win like winning. Rest assured, Whitecaps fans will want a third straight title next season. Brookens said he will be on the same page if he's at the helm.
"If I'm back there, I'll be wanting a three-peat myself," Brookens said. "That's our goal. We're in the Minor Leagues to develop players, but if you can teach them to win ballgames, that's developing players to me."