• Chart: Breaking down the top teams in minor league baseball
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They have arguably the best baseball player who isn't currently in the major leagues.
Three other players have been named to the Pacific Coast League's all-star team, and another player was a PCL all-star last year.
A division title is practically wrapped up with two months left in the season.
Comparing teams and leagues is never easy, but it's entirely possible that — right now — the Omaha Storm Chasers are the best team in minor league baseball.
“I can't say we're the best, but we're very talented,” second baseman Johnny Giavotella said.
Of the 120 teams that play full minor league seasons, the Storm Chasers, at 51-31, have the sixth-best winning percentage. They have the best winning percentage in Class AAA, which is one level below the major leagues, and the only teams winning at a higher rate than Omaha's .622 are in Class A, and are thus much less experienced.
“It's a little hard to compare us to other teams because there's so many of them, but we've got a good group,” first baseman Clint Robinson said. “When it comes down to going out and doing what you have to do to win a ballgame, we've done a really good job of that this year.”
Wil Myers, the 21-year-old phenom and minor league player of the year candidate, is batting .306 with 13 homers and 38 RBIs since being promoted from Class AA, but the Chasers were already in control of the PCL's American Conference North when Myers joined the team in mid-May.
Promoted along with Myers was pitcher Jake Odorizzi, who is 5-0 with a 2.95 ERA since joining the club. Both Myers and Odorizzi are set to play in the Futures Game on July 8, an all-star event featuring the most talented minor league prospects.
Myers has also been named to the PCL team for the Triple A All-Star Game on July 11. His teammates there will include Robinson and Omaha pitchers Ryan Verdugo and Tommy Hottovy. Giavotella played in the game last year.
Kansas City General Manager Dayton Moore assembled the front office that has stocked the Royals' farm system with top-tier talent, and that group of players has begun arriving in Class AAA the past few seasons, first as a trickle of talent and now as a tidal wave.
“There's great stability with the coaching staff, it's a great place to play and the environment is very strong,” Moore said. “And the players are professional. For the most part these guys are home-grown, and they play with a lot of pride. ... They're very good baseball players and mentally tough kids.”
Last year, of course, Omaha won the Pacific Coast League title. But, although the season started with top-level prospects like Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Danny Duffy on the roster, they were all soon promoted to Kansas City.
Still Omaha won the division, then cruised through the playoffs.
This year, Myers and Odorizzi joined a team that already had key contributors back from last year in Robinson, Giavotella and outfielder David Lough.
“Overall, we've got more talent on our club now than we did at the end of last year,” Omaha manager Mike Jirschele said.
Omaha, which never led the division by more than six games last year, has an almost insurmountable 17-game lead over second-place Iowa that seems to grow every couple of days.
The Chasers' magic number — the total of Omaha wins and Iowa losses needed to clinch the division title — is only 46, even though each team has 61 games left.
If the teams continue at their current win rate, Omaha would wrap up the division title on Aug. 10 — with 24 games left in the season — a full three weeks earlier than last year's club clinched.
And team-wide complacency isn't really an issue at the Class AAA level, so the Chasers will likely continue full-speed ahead.
“Winning is important, but in the big picture, everyone is still trying to get to the big leagues,” Robinson said. “So you can't really afford to get complacent just because you're winning your Triple-A division. Everybody wants to keep playing well so that when a move needs to be made at the big-league level, they're at their best.”
This doesn't make the rest of the American North feel any better.
Iowa, Memphis and Nashville haven't been able to keep pace, though they've managed to go a somewhat respectable 13-18 in head-to-head matchups with Omaha. The four teams in the American Conference South are 9-25 against the Chasers. Omaha plays its fellow conference foes for 112 of its 144 games.
Omaha's record might look different if it were in the Pacific Conference, particularly in the Pacific South, which includes Sacramento (50-32), Fresno (47-34) and Las Vegas (46-35). Omaha went 3-5 in a road trip to Sacramento and Fresno this season.
Omaha, on pace to surpass the 1990 Omaha team's franchise-record 86 wins and the 1969 team's .607 winning percentage, has the league's best pitching staff (3.97 ERA) and an offense that ranks fifth in batting average (.289) and runs (454) as well as fourth in homers (83).
“I think offensively, we're better this year,” Robinson said. “That's saying a lot, but last year we only had Hosmer for a month ... this year we've had pretty much the same core group of guys in the lineup the entire season. And the pitching staff, for as much movement as has happened, has been fantastic.”
Player movement is the one major unpredictable element of Class AAA baseball. Kansas City has cycled a number of pitchers back and forth to the majors. Robinson and Giavotella have spent time in the majors, too.
But for every potential move Kansas City might make, there appears to be enough depth to ensure that Omaha stays reasonably competitive.
“You don't know what's going to happen down the road,” Jirschele said. “You could lose pitching. The trade deadline is coming up and you could lose players there. You just never know. At this level, you could look good one day, and two days later you've lost three or four of your guys and you're battling to put a real good team out there.”
But, for right now, this team is really good.
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