Monday Oct. 27, 2008
Augusta, Ga--The San Francisco Giants made a decision the past few years to be more aggressive in their farm system, bringing in a lot of young talent and challenging them by pushing them quickly.
That's not supposed to equate to success in terms of wins and losses, at least not right away. Someone forgot to tell the Augusta GreenJackets, San Francisco's South Atlantic League affiliate. With a roster dotted with teenagers, the GreenJackets were dominant all season and swept their way to the league title. For that reason, they are the recipients of the 2008 MiLBY for both Class A and overall Team of the Year. "I'm very happy you're doing that," Augusta first-year manager Andy Skeels said. "I think it's well-deserved, and it's nice to know that someone is paying attention."
It's hard not to, not after what the GreenJackets accomplished. After posting a .594 winning percentage in the first half, they turned it up a few notches to win the second-half title, winning at a .681 clip. That gave Augusta a .638 winning percentage overall, the best mark of any full-season team in the Minor Leagues.
That they did it with teenagers at shortstop (Charlie Culberson), second base (Nick Noonan), first base (Angel Villalona) and on the mound (Madison Bumgarner) for much of the season. The group as a whole shortened the learning curve tremendously, showing that no only did they belong at the level, they could dominate it.
"We opened with young prospects and they flourished," Skeels said. "The amount of preparation and hard work, at that level you're never quite sure it's not going to go in the other direction. They really thrived under the challenges that we presented to them. I was proud of the work our staff and players put in. A lot of hard work and talent goes a long way. I'm just happy I didn't screw it all up."
More than anyone else, Bumgarner and Villalona exemplified what this team accomplished in 2008. Bumgarner was Minor League Baseball's Most Spectacular Pitcher for recording the lowest ERA in the Minors. He did it pitching at age 18 for almost the entire season, shaking off a couple of rough early starts to have one of the best seasons any pitcher at any level had. Villalona didn't turn 18 until mid-August, yet didn't get discouraged with a slow start and improved each month, finishing strong with a .308 average and .529 slugging percentage in August.
"You come out of Spring Training and they're so young and never experienced a full season, so you don't know what you're going to get. For someone that young, it's a testament that our staff did and a testament to the kind of kid Angel is. He's a tremendous talent and he dedicated himself much better to becoming a professional.
"The results weren't accidental. That was the biggest lesson you try to teach kids at this level. The game is difficult. When you don't have a large reservoir of experience, you have to put the work in. The payoff was they understood this stuff really works. We're trying to build winning players, players that will help us win championships at the big-league level, so that foundation is important."
The payoff wouldn't have been as rewarding if they had fallen short of winning the South Atlantic League title. That they did it without dropping a single game made them an even clearer choice for their pair of MiLBYs. Augusta's pitching staff, which led the Minors in team ERA during the regular season, had a miniscule 1.00 ERA in its five-game sweep of Asheville and then West Virginia. Not surprisingly, Bumgarner, played a large part, winning two starts and allowing just one unearned run while striking out 16 (vs. just two walks) over 14 innings.
Sometimes, though, a team needs a little help during a title run and at this level, it often comes from the most recent draft. The Giants took St. John's pitcher Scott Barnes in the eighth round in June and after quick stops in the Arizona and Northwest Leagues, Barnes spent the last month of the season -- and the postseason -- with the GreenJackets. The lefty had a 1.38 ERA in six regular-season starts down the stretch, then won both clinching games in the two playoff rounds.
"I felt fortunate to get the chance to go to Augusta and help them win a championship," Barnes said. "It was something I wasn't really expecting, but I loved getting the opportunity. It was a great playoff run. You couldn't have asked for a better [postseason].
"Anywhere we go, if we're the Minor League team of the year, we'll be expected to do well next year, of course. You can't pay attention to expectations. We'll probably have a pretty similar team in San Jose as we had in Augusta. If we stay focused on doing our jobs the way we can and work toward winning another championship, I'm sure it's not out of our reach."