A professional baseball team’s lifeblood is often in its player development prowess. Ultimately, a minor league club is meant to be a pipeline to the parent club.
But it doesn’t always have to be that way. Beyond the professional development, it can serve as home to life-changing memories for players and coaches, and it has certainly done so at times for the Skeeters and manager Mickey Storey.
One of Storey’s favorite memories of the season came when he told 26-year-old outfielder Jose Siri – a lifelong minor leaguer who is on his second MLB organization – in early September that he was getting the call he had always dreamed of.
“(Siri’s) reaction is one of the tops over the years I’ve gotten to do it," he said. "It just always brings me back to the big picture of the game. It’s humbling…when he got the news, he completely melted down.”
Storey, who pitched in parts of two MLB seasons with the Astros in 2012 and 2013, got to oversee the first-time call-ups of Siri, outfielder Jake Meyers and pitcher Seth Martinez during the 2021 season. And the reaction of someone getting that news, he said, will stick with him beyond the baseball field.
“There’s a lot of years of building up and struggles and some sacrifices made,” he said. “To deliver that news is one of those things where you wait to see a players’ reaction, and you bookmark it in your memory for each player. It’s always one of the best things about the job.”
Despite all of that upheaval, Storey and the Skeeters delivered resounding success in their first season as the Houston Astros’ Triple-A affiliate. They wrapped up their season with a 14-4 loss to the Round Rock Express on Sunday capping a stellar season which included a Triple-A West East division title despite the loss.
Sugar Land went 75-55 during the 2021 season, a season during which several of its primary contributors were shipped off to Houston to help the MLB team in its chase for a World Series championship. Primary outfielders in Siri and Meyers – who tied for the team lead in homers with 16 – were both called up to the majors during the latter stages of the 2021 season, while first baseman Taylor Jones and his 1.009 OPS was usually one of the first call-ups in case of an injury to the MLB team.
“It means everything, because it’s a testament to the work that’s put in by the staff and players and the buy-in the players have had to the culture that I’ve tried to create,” Story said. “I try to make it a place where you come to work and you play the game – and when you play, you play to win.”
In 2019, Storey led Round Rock – then the Astros’ Triple-A affiliate – to the most wins in the Pacific Coast League en route to a championship game appearance. He and the Skeeters nearly replicated that feat this season, winning Triple-A West’s East division despite the moving pieces.
And while he acknowledged that losing Siri (.921 OPS) and Meyers (1.006) threw a wrench in things, he also said the Skeeters took a next-man-up mentality.
“(Meyers and Siri) did carry a ton of the workload throughout the year, but we’ve got guys beyond that who are more than capable,” he said. “They all came in and did a really nice job. We were a complete team this year, in every facet of the game.”
Double-A call-ups like Marty Costes (.851 OPS) and J.J. Matijevic (16 homers), among others, were key in contributing to Sugar Land’s success. Established players such as Lance McCullers Jr., Zack Greinke, Alex Bregman, Framber Valdez, and Jason Castro also played rehab stints at Constellation Field in helping the cause.
Over the course of the season, Sugar Land fans also got to see the Triple-A debuts of catcher Korey Lee, infielder/outfielder Pedro Leon and pitcher Hunter Brown – the Astros’ top three prospects according to MLB Pipeline’s midseason rankings.
“It was pound-for-pound one of the thickest rosters I’ve had as far as getting things done,” Storey said. “It’s maybe not the big prospect names that you saw (in 2019) that I had, but definitely a roster full of talented players that played very well together.”
Never a given
One of the things Storey and the team will take from this season, he said, is to never take a season for granted again. When the 2020 minor league season was cancelled amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, he said it took a toll on him as well as the players.
“Getting back on the field and playing a somewhat normal schedule and season was the biggest win of the year,” he said. “I think that’s something that we appreciate to this very day, and we’ll appreciate for the rest of our lives.”
Once the season got rolling, it was business as usual. The Skeeters got off to a 16-6 start in May, and the rest fell into place.Sugar Land was roughly even throughout the season, going 37-28 in the first half of the season and a slightly better 38-27 during the second half to finish with a 75-55 record and division title.
Storey and the franchise will look to continue the success next season, and believes the talent level he will likely have coming back could mean another season of success in Sugar Land.
“It’s us having guys that are never out of it and sharing playing time from Day 1," he said. "That way, guys are playing often enough that they’re not out of their element when they play. And it’s a testament to their work.”