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San Jose knew the way to crown

San Jose knew the way to crown

It's not often a Minor League team has expectations to win placed on it, both internally and externally, before a season begins. With everything that happens over the course of a season in the Minors, from injuries to promotions, it's even rarer for a team to live up to those expectations.

That's exactly what the San Jose Giants did in 2009, winning the California League title and making them the easy choice to earn a MiLBY for Best Class A Advanced Team.

With one of the most talent-laden teams heading into the season, the Giants affiliate was supposed to be successful, at least at the start of the year. After all, much of the roster was on the 2008 Augusta GreenJackets club that won the South Atlantic League championship and the MiLBY for Best Class A and Overall Team. In 2007, some were a part of the Salem-Keizer squad that doubled up by winning the Northwest League crown and receiving the MiLBY as Short-Season Team of the Year.

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"We're trying to develop winning players, players who will help you win a World Series in the big leagues," said Andy Skeels, who managed San Jose one year after sitting in the Augusta dugout. "These kids are winners. These guys expect it, and it helps in the clubhouse. That expectation level, it's really helped. Let's face it, winning is a lot more fun and makes it easier to come to the ballpark."

Coming to the ballpark in San Jose must've been a hoot then. The Giants won division titles in both halves of the season, playing .729 ball in the second half to finish with 93 regular season wins. They then fought through a five-game series against Bakersfield (Rangers) in the second round of the playoffs before sweeping High Desert (Mariners) for the team's fourth crown this decade.

There may not have been a more prospect-laden team when the 2009 season began. There was 2008 first-round pick Buster Posey, top pitching prospects Madison Bumgarner and Tim Alderson, shortstop Brandon Crawford and first baseman Angel Villalona. Conor Gillaspie, Nick Noonan, Roger Kieschnick and Thomas Neal helped anchor the lineup.

"The team was loaded," Crawford told SJGiants.com. "It was kind of easy for me to just sneak in there as just another guy. I liked hitting in the two-hole. I'd hit behind [Darren] Ford and when he'd get on first, I would get some fastballs to hit. And then obviously with Buster and Thomas and [Nick] Noonan and Roger hitting behind me, it was fun. I got a lot of good pitches to hit because they didn't want to put me on base in front of all of those guys."

But Bumgarner was gone after a month as he and Alderson moved up to Double-A Connecticut in the beginning of May. Crawford joined them as well, while Posey stuck around until July. Villalona got hurt and got shut down at that time too.

"We went through about four different teams," Skeels said. "The team with us the first month, that team was gone by the All-Star break. The credit goes to the players, who stepped up and accepted the responsibility of the standards we have. I was the beneficiary of a lot of things this year. Whenever we lost someone, someone stepped up."

Kieschnick stuck around all year and finished second in the league with 110 RBIs and fifth with 23 homers. Neal really emerged as a prospect by hitting .337/.431/.579, landing him second with a 1.010 OPS. He began the year as the team's ninth-place hitter, but finished it in the three- or four-hole. Then there was someone like speedy outfielder Darren Ford, who hit .207 in the first half but may have saved his career by hitting .354/.414/.563 and stealing 27 of his 35 bases in the second half of the season. Francisco Peguero started the year in short-season Salem-Keizer, but ended up as the California League Championship Series MVP.

On the mound, guys such as Craig Clark and Clayton Tanner picked up the slack after Bumgarner and Alderson were gone. Clark went 16-2 with a 2.86 ERA while Tanner was 12-6 with a 3.17 ERA to finish two-three in the ERA race. Tanner won two playoff games to boot. Dan Runzler dominated in the 'pen for a while during his sprint to the big leagues, but once he was gone, Daniel Turpen and Rafael Cova stepped in and got the job done.

This is becoming the norm for Skeels in his managing career. He's won back-to-back league titles and a total of 181 games in 2008 and 2009. There's a reason why he's likely headed to manage up a level, for Double-A Richmond, in 2010.

"I got a call from a radio station last week and they said, 'You're the winningest manager in baseball the last two years,'" Skeels said. "That and $1.50 will get you a cup of coffee."

"You sort of develop a shorthand with a lot of your players," Skeels added about the continuity of following many of the Giants' players up the ladder. "From the coaching and development side of things, the better you can communicate with your players, it's better all the way around. I was definitely the beneficiary of that this year."

The ultimate goal, of course, is for the parent club in San Francisco to be the beneficiary. Skeels takes pride in the fact that three players who spent time in San Jose this year -- Bumgarner, Posey and Runzler -- made it to San Francisco. And when they get there, they arrive with a certain expectation, which is exactly the point.

"I think there has to be a feeling when you take the field, you're going to win," Skeels said. "There's nothing that's more powerful than when the other team recognizes you're there for business. The Giants have done a good job over the years, and I've tried to instill it as a fundamental part of development, you have to learn how to win.

"The name of the game is getting those kids ready to go. You feel you helped these kids move in the right direction. Winning is an ancillary benefit, but I do think it's important in developing. Our kids have learned to play championship baseball and it augurs well for our future."

Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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