The Minor Leagues is about developing players who will make an impact at some point in the Major Leagues more than anything else, and winning championships along the way is certainly part of that process.
The Astros had two Minor League clubs clinch playoff berths in the last few days, when Double-A Corpus Christi qualified for the postseason in the Texas League and short-season Tri-City clinched a playoff spot in the New York-Penn League. Class A Lancaster is still in the playoff chase entering the final week of California League play.
"It's exciting to at least clinch," Corpus Christi manager Keith Bodie said. "The club has really done a nice job throughout multiple changes that have been made throughout the season. It's really a testament to all the players coming through here and the way they jelled and continued to go out and play every day and play solid baseball."
The Hooks entered play Monday leading first-half champion Frisco by six games in the South Division second-half race, and the teams will open a four-game series against each other Tuesday, with home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs on the line.
The teams are set to open the first round of the playoffs with two games in Frisco, followed by two in Corpus Christi. If the Hooks win the second half, they would host Games 3-5 of a playoff series. If Frisco wins the second half, it would host the first two games and Game 5.
"My personal belief is you can't develop players unless you win," Bodie said. "Any time you have meaningful games, it brings out certain nuances of baseball that are important and conducive to winning at the Major League level. There's a little extra pressure in situations, like getting a bunt down or hitting the cutoff man, that's probably lost over a 140-game season. But when you get down to the crux of it, every game is magnified."
Tri-City, where several of the college players the Astros drafted this year got their professional careers under way, entered Monday at 48-18, which was the best record in the league. The ValleyCats have clinched the Stedler Division title but are only two games ahead of Hudson Valley for home-field advantage in the playoffs.
Stubby Clapp, in his second season managing at Tri-City, said he stressed to his players to soak in every experience that comes with reaching the playoffs. Combined with pitching coach Rick Aponte and hitting coach Mark Bailey, Clapp said the field staff at Tri-City has only seven career playoff appearances between them as players.
"As we were going throughout the year, we were trying to explain to them how special a season like this can be and what it will mean for them down the road in their careers," he said. "When you learn how to win the right way and learn to compete the right way, it's irreplaceable. Now you know what to expect the rest of your career. You might not get another opportunity to play in the playoffs."
Lancaster (68-64 entering Monday) has a two-game lead on Lake Elsinore for the South Division Wild Card berth out of the California League. The Rookie League Greeneville Astros were eliminated from postseason play in a 3-2 loss to Bluefield on Sunday night.
Down on the farm
With eight regular-season games remaining entering Monday, Lancaster second baseman Delino DeShields Jr. is four stolen bases away from becoming the first player in the history of the Astros' organization to swipe 100 bags in a season.
DeShields stole three bases Friday for the JetHawks, bringing his total at Lancaster to 13 in 15 tries. He stole 83 bases in 97 attempts for Class A Lexington, which is where he spent most of the season before getting promoted about a month ago.
Astros director of player development Fred Nelson said the club is finalizing its instructional league roster, which has been complicated by a number of Minor League clubs either making the playoffs or still competing for a playoff spot -- a good problem to have.
Nelson said the Astros will bring 35 Minor League players to the team's Spring Training complex in Kissimmee, Fla., beginning Sept. 18. The players will finish in Kissimmee on Oct. 10. Teams usually bring in younger, less-experienced players to Florida following the season for more intensive training.
It's also a landing spot for players making position changes -- DeShields made a wholesale change from the outfield to second base in the instructional league -- as well as some players who would be rehabbing from injuries.