"Most Talented Team" demonstrates just that

One of the ways to define a good team- or individual player, for that matter- is how they perform in a pressure situation. By that or any other definition, this year's edition of the Jacksonville Suns was a very good team.

They had been dubbed "the most talented team" in the minors by Baseball America. That might well have been a kiss of death, rather like being featured on a Sports Illustrated cover. Yet,. they kept right on winning. They swept their divisional playoff series, only to get ripped in the opening game of the championship set, a best-of-5 affair. That's more than a little pressure. All they did was win the next three, two of those in their opponent's park and they're the Southern League champions.

You can't find much to quarrel about with this year's Suns skillfully managed by John Shoemaker, a 28-year veteran of the Dodger system. His club contained some of the Dodger organization's prime prospects nicely blended with a few seasoned players who brought the needed experience factor. When the first half was in doubt, they won the big games to take the title with a 39-32 mark. They then proceeded to win even more games over the second, 41 to be exact and though this didn't allow them a sweep of both halves, it showed their overall improvement. Then came that 6-1 playoff performance to remove any doubt.

The infield was certainly loaded. At the beginning, it was James Loney at first, Delwyn Young at second, Joel Guzman at short and Brian Sprout at third. Before it was over, the depth in the Dodger system was to be demonstrated for when Sprout went down with a season-ending injury, Andy LaRoche came up to play third and provide power. When Young was promoted to Las Vegas, on came Tony Abreu.

The outfield was where the veterans were and Jon Weber, Tydus Meadows, Nick Alvarez and the minors' stolen base king, Todd Donovan all more than contributed not only leadership but on-field performance. And here, too, a newcomer crowded his way in for the unheralded Justin Ruggiano arrived from Vero to hit .342. The catcher was Russell Martin, a picture of all-around excellence.

Martin and Guzman, who demonstrated his burgeoning power, were named league All-Stars. Loney came from a slow beginning to a solid finish; what's more he played more games than any other, thus shaking his "injury-prone" label.

The pitching was led by righthander Chad Billingsley, truly one of the best in all the minors. Jonathan Broxton was a strong starter in the first half only to be moved to the closer's roll where he truly was brilliant. When Eric Stultz went up to Vegas, Justin Orenduff arrived from Vero Beach to more than fill his slot. William Juarez switched places with Broxton to become a strong starter and was never better than in the playoffs. Eric Hull was dependable while Joel Hanrahan gradually worked back toward his old form.

The bullpen was reliable as well, particularly so set-up lefthander Luis Gonzalez. Richard Bartlett did well while diminutive lefthander Carlos Alvarez leapt all the way from low A Columbus to go 4-0. Beltran Perez was another mid-season acquisition who performed more than capably while two leftthanders coming back from rehab, Hong-Chi Kuo and Greg Miller were assets also. Kuo did so well, in fact, they he's in L.A. now.

The pleasant surprise of the season would be Gonzalez, a returnee who was only 1-3, 4.73 in 2004 but who came on this time to go 7-2, 2.21. The biggest disappointment would be Hanrahan, the league's Pitcher of the Year in 2003 but a so-so 9-8, 4.92 this year. He wasn't even used in the playoffs.

The only complaint that L.A. could have is that this group is only in AA so some will still need a year of seasoning before helping materially up on top. Maybe they won't be ranked with the great Dodger farm teams of the past like 1946 Montreal, 1960 Spokane or 1980 Albuquerque; still, there was a stamp of excellence on this club for sure.
Team leaders in key departments:

Games- Loney 138
Runs- Donovan 89
Hits-Loney 143
2B- Guzman, Loney 31
3B- Donovan 10
HR- Guzman 16
RBI- Guzman 75
SB- Donovan 62
Ave.- Martin .311
OBP- Martin .430
Slug- Meadows .495

Innings- Billingsley 146
Wins- Billingsley 13
ERA- Gonzalez 2.21
Saves- Gonzalez 7
SO- Billingsley 162
OBA- Gonzalez .165