State of the Bulls Address

Tim Beckham

Photo by Kate Joyce.

Can you believe how cold it is? May 26, 2013, and I had to wear three layers when I left the house yesterday morning—and I was still cold. How can the boys of summer play baseball if summer never comes?

Let us not be deterred. Let us insist that summer is upon us. It must be: a full third of the Durham Bulls’ season is already over. So, taking after Joyce Carol Oates (who was taking after Bob Dylan), where are they going, where have they been?

As of yesterday, the Bulls were 29-19. That’s an excellent .604 winning percentage, third-best in the International League. Indianapolis, which leads the West Division, is the best, with a ludicrous 34-15 mark that includes an astonishing 20-5 record at home. (The Bulls go to Indianapolis very soon, to start their next road trip.) Norfolk has the second-best record, two games ahead of the Bulls in the South Division, which is sharply bifurcated: the Bulls and Tides are two of the league’s three top teams; the other two South Division clubs, Gwinnett and Charlotte, are two of the three worst, both nearly out of contention although it’s not yet June. The G-Braves and Knights are tied for last place at 19-30, 12.5 games out of first place.

Unless either of these teams gets red-hot, which seems unlikely—though certainly not impossible in the mercurial world of Triple-A—the Bulls and Tides will fight it out for the South Division title. So far, Durham has handled Norfolk, with a 7-4 record against their Virginia rivals. Because of the bizarre league schedule (it’s bizarre in some way every year), the two teams play just two more games against one another (July 4-5 in Durham) until August 22—and then they play seven of their final 12 games head-to-head. If they’re still running close at that point, the final two weeks of the regular season could be quite scintillating. And if they both continue to play as well as they have, they could both wind up in the playoffs: one as the division champion, the other as the wild-card team.

So, will the Bulls keep playing this well? To guess at that, we need to look at how they have played so far. It’s easy to know where to begin: As manager Charlie Montoyo likes to say, “If your starting pitching gives you a chance …” and then he trails off, because the conclusion goes without saying. In each category, I’ll assess the overall picture and then point to one player to keep a particular eye on.

Starting Pitching. This has been a strength. The Bulls’ five principal starters—Chris Archer, Alex Colome, J. D. Martin, Jake Odorizzi and Alex Torres—boast a combined 3.32 ERA. Four of them are among the league’s top seven in strikeouts (Colome is no. 1). The five starters will change, of course. Mike Montgomery, the left-hander acquired in the deal that brought Wil Myers over from Kansas City, made just one appearance (on April 7) before experiencing arm soreness, and was shut down immediately afterwards. He returned on Thursday, though, and went five innings at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, getting his first International League win. Montgomery is currently filling in for Odorizzi, who is up with the Tampa Bay Rays place-holding for reigning Cy Young-winner David Price. We’ll see what happens if and when Odorizzi returns to Triple-A, which he is likely to do soon. Still, it’s probable that, at any given moment, at least three members of the current rotation will be in Durham. That means, or should mean, that Charlie Montoyo should feel like he’s “got a chance” in most games.

One to watch: The 2013 Bulls are the rare minor-league team whose entire starting rotation is made up of legitimate young pitching prospects from no. 1 to no. 5, so choosing just one of the quintet is tough to do. But so far this year, the one who has most intrigued me is Alex Colome. Before the season started, Colome, at the suggestion of pitching coach Neil Allen, radically altered what you would call his “stance” were he a hitter. He used to come set facing the plate, but the right-hander now sets up in profile, facing third base. This adjustment was made, he said, to straighten him out and remove some of the spine-tilt from his delivery. The result is very close to pitching from the stretch, which gives him a quicker move to the plate (that helps him keep baserunners from stealing as easily) and a more consistent release point—the sine qua non of pitching mechanics.

From the evidence, Colome’s release point must be farther out in front, because his fastball gets up on hitters very quickly (he generates lots of swings-and-misses); he has also found a dangerous new weapon with his cut-fastball, which he learned last year. In 2012, it was his third pitch; now it’s his second offering, and in tandem with his mid-90s, four-seam fastball, already makes him dangerous with just those two pitches (especially if the Rays decide to turn him into a reliever at some point, which his new near-stretch setup encourages). Charlie Montoyo marveled at Colome’s cutter not long ago, comparing it to the great Mariano Rivera’s. (Colome laughed modestly when informed of the comparison.) The cutter has lots of dive when he throws it around 90 miles per hour, but he can also ease off on it and throw it in the mid- to upper-80s for strikes. His curve ball, once a pet breaking pitch, he now uses sparingly. He has a fondness for dropping it in for a called third strike to get the final out of an inning. When it works, batters walk away toward the dugout quietly aggrieved, almost offended that they finally geared themselves up for one of Colome’s two different fastballs only to be frozen by the curve he was hiding. He is a delight to watch when he’s on his game.

Colome is also great to interview. He’s articulate and detailed in his commentary, and he speaks with equal parts confidence and modesty. Listening to him talk about his recent success with his cutter is like listening to a proud father talk about one of his kids who has only just now started to blossom. He’s still seeking efficiency, regularly getting up near his 100-pitch limit by the fifth inning, but it tells you something about a prospect that he can have what sounds like a somewhat difficult night, without his best command—as happened at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre on Friday night—and still throw five innings of scoreless, two-hit baseball. Surely this is a pitcher who can help the Rays this season.

Relief Pitching. It’s dodgier than the starting pitching. Josh Lueke came correct this season, mowing down late-inning hitters, saving games for Durham starters, posting a 0.95 ERA and earning a quick promotion to the majors when Brandon Gomes went down with a lat injury. (See this for more on Lueke’s transformation.) The Tampa Bay bullpen has struggled this season, and unless Lueke totally falters, he’s likely to stay in the big leagues. The relief corps he leaves behind in Durham is a bit of a motley crew. Will Inman and Jim Paduch have been absolutely dreadful in absolutely different ways: Inman has walked 21 batters in 26 innings (with only 18 strikeouts) and is lucky that his ERA is “only” 5.54; Paduch has failed to surmount his poor strikeout-to-walk rate by allowing 40 hits in just 28 innings, including six home runs. His ERA is a horrific 8.13, and he has given up at least one run in every single appearance he has made this year since his very first one. The former independent-league toiler is in danger of pitching his way out of Durham, in the wrong direction, with a few more poor showings.

That leaves four viable setup men for now: Jeff Beliveau, Steve Geltz, Adam Liberatore and Cory Wade: two left-handers and two right-handers. Geltz leads the Bulls in relief innings pitched, which you would probably not have predicted—not least because he was acquired just before the season began in a last-minute trade with the Angels. (Last year’s closer for the Bulls, Dane De La Rosa, went west and is now in Anaheim’s bullpen.) Geltz’s high-fastball routine generates many strikeouts, as do Beliveau and Liberatore (Beliveau has fanned an astonishing 29 hitters in just 13 innings)—and here is a good place to point out that the Bulls pitching staff leads the league in strikeouts, while the hitters have struck out the fewest times. The former is no fluke. The Bulls pitching staff struck out the most batters in 2012, too, finished third in both 2010 and 2011, and led the league in 2009. An organizational predilection on the part of Tampa Bay is plainly evident. As for Cory Wade, he was just recently signed off waivers to shore up a thinned-out bullpen. This is Wade’s second stint in Durham. He started the 2011 season with the club but opted out of his contract in June. Soon after, he latched on with the Yankees, a fateful move that eventually resulted, on the last day of the regular season, in Wade allowing Dan Johnson’s now-famous, dramatic, season-saving, Game-162 home run. Wade is basically Joe Bateman, a reference that will make sense to seasoned Bulls followers: you know what you’re getting (soft-thrower), use at will (rubber arm), accept the flaws (very hittable; Bateman walked a lot of batters), value the savvy (intelligent approach), hope the savvy surpasses the flaws.

Lefty relief prospect Frank De Los Santos is on the disabled list with “forearm tightness,” a common but vague ailment that can mean anything from early-season lack of strength to possibly serious problems to come. His ugly 6.39 ERA is really just the result of two terrible outings, the second of them his last (he was removed after three batters and no outs, begging injury) before he was shut down. De Los Santos is potentially a valuable lefty setup man when healthy, but don’t count on him returning soon. It’s only too bad that the Rays didn’t also sign and send to the Bulls Wade’s 2011 bullpen teammate in Durham, Chris Bootcheck, who is pitching very well for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre as a starter but has been an excellent reliever in the past. He, like Wade, opted out of his contract midway through 2011 and spent some time pitching in Korea.

One to watch: The Bulls’ closer is now Kirby Yates. Yates had that role in Double-A Montgomery last year, so it is familiar to him, but this is his first exposure to Triple-A. He’s been very, very good so far, however, with a 1.77 ERA and astounding peripherals: His strikeout-to-walk ratio is an unheard-of 7:1, a virtual video-game figure. Yates worked with Neil Allen in spring training to direct his momentum more toward the plate when pitching. He had been falling off toward the side, resulting in iffy control. This year he’s showing a dramatically improved walk rate. His fastball is not overpowering—it tops out at 94 miles per hour but is usually 92-93—but Yates’ unorthodox delivery makes it seem faster. He “flips” the ball from right behind his ear—“like a Q-Tip,” his bullpen-pal Liberatore said—and hitters don’t pick it up until he has virtually already released it. If Yates can continue the way he has started, the loss of Lueke won’t hurt much.

Hitters. The Bulls are a puzzling bunch of batters. They draw a goodly amount of walks (Vince Belnome and Chris Gimenez are fourth and sixth in the league, respectively, in walk rate); they don’t strike out much; and they make good contact: They’re second in the league in batting average and on-base percentage. But they hit for very, very little power. Durham is last in the league in home runs, having hit just 24 (the rest of the league averages 39), which is just one every other game. I would have expected more, especially with the addition of Wil Myers and the return of Brandon Guyer, who missed most of last season with a shoulder injury. But those two have combined to hit just nine home runs so far—and two of Guyer’s four came in a single inning in a game in April. The current team leader is Leslie Anderson, with only six. Anderson led the Bulls last year, too, when he hit 14 homers, but he isn’t really a power hitter.

No Durham Bull has hit 20 homers since 2010. This trend of scant power, like the strikeout-happy pitching, shows organizational tendencies. In this case, the Rays simply don’t have the money to afford big-time boppers, which is why Wil Myers’ lack of power so far is a bit worrisome—Tampa Bay gave up a lot to get him. Myers has looked immature and often been outfoxed in his at-bats this year, but he’s young and his talent is undeniable. He’ll catch up as the year goes on. Meanwhile, veteran Shelley Duncan, the International League MVP in 2009, was outrighted to Durham not long ago and, after a slow start, hit his first home run of the year on Friday. If he gets going, he’ll add thump and provide better protection for Myers, who has been hitting cleanup lately after starting the year mostly hitting third.

One to watch: Vince Belnome was an under-the-radar acquisition, picked up late last fall in a trade with San Diego. The Rays gave up a low-level, unheralded relief pitcher for him, so Belnome (himself only a 28-rounder in 2009) didn’t seem like a choice prospect. Plus, he had just had shoulder surgery after missing much of 2012—he was totally shocked that the Rays traded for him, given his health picture. But Belnome has been the Bulls’ most productive hitter so far this year—by far, among active players (topped only by the lamented, out-for-the-year Hak-Ju Lee). Belnome leads the team in batting average, on-base and slugging percentage, doubles, and walks drawn. Always a patient hitter throughout his career—“I led my little-league team in walks,” he told me not long ago—he has adapted well to his new organization and league. Belnome plays first, second and third base and hits left-handed. The Rays’ big-league infield is much solider than it was last year, but if he keeps on this way, he could make himself into a very useful platoon or utility piece—and could also drop his teammate Cole Figueroa down a peg on the depth chart. Figueroa, another lefty-hitting utility infielder acquired from San Diego, looked like a player on the rise last year, but his numbers have declined in 2013—there’s no power to speak of, for one thing—and those numbers look paler still compared to Belnome’s. Headiness is a wonderful asset, but heftiness of natural ability has to accompany it.

Fielding. The loss of Hak-Ju Lee, a terrific, exciting shortstop, dealt a huge blow to Durham’s infield. None of the other infielders have great range (for the very short Mike Fontenot, the problem is as much vertical as it is horizontal—he’s come up short, literally, on multiple liners that other infielders would have caught). Tim Beckham has a habit of not catching balls cleanly. Figueroa is an excellent third baseman but can’t play shortstop. Fortunately, Durham’s pitchers don’t rely on grounders—this is a strikeout-and-fly-ball staff from A to Y (Archer to Yates)—so perhaps the impact won’t be heavy. The outfield, when it’s composed of Guyer, Jason Bourgeois and Rich Thompson, covers a lot of ground. Myers doesn’t run well, but he has a very strong throwing arm—don’t forget that he used to be a catcher.

Speaking of catchers, it’s hard to know how to assess the current trio of Craig Albernaz, Juan Apodaca and Chris Gimenez. Gimenez, who doesn’t have the quickest footwork behind the plate, is currently out with an undisclosed (or perhaps undiagnosed) hand injury. Albernaz has a great arm but isn’t, in an ideal world, a heavily used piece—he’s an organizational fixture who figures to spend a good deal of time off the roster, although to his credit he has become a much better hitter with seasoning and practice. We haven’t seen much of Apodaca yet. It would seem that, for all three of these catchers, the key is to call a good game for Durham’s five promising starters and maximize their effectiveness. So far, they seem to be doing that quite well. The hurlers look comfortable and confident nearly all the time.

Above and Below: The Bulls have been pretty stable so far this year, much more so than they were in 2012 when a rash of injuries in the majors necessitated constant movement and change in Durham—perhaps part of the reason why last year’s team stumbled out of the gate and staggered to a disappointing, sub-.500, third-place finish. Not a single position player has been called up yet this year to Tampa Bay, which is one of only five major-league clubs not to have done so. The Rays are likely to stay healthier this year than they did last season; probably the lion’s share of the movement will affect the bullpen. The Durham roster stands a very good chance, then, of remaining reasonably constant. It would probably take a major emergency for the Rays to call up any of the Bulls position players save Gimenez, Guyer and Myers. The big-league roster has the flexibility to account for the loss of many of its regulars.

The minor-league club in Durham has additional constancy: its coaching staff. Charlie Montoyo, who just won his five hundredth game as Durham’s skipper (congrats to him!) is in his seventh year on the job. Hitting coach Dave Myers is in his fifth; pitching coach Neil Allen, his third. Whatever change comes the Bulls’ way, the coaches are well-established, organized and comfortable, and they work well together—Myers filled in capably for Montoyo for about a week earlier this season, when Montoyo left the team to be with his family during his son Alex’s recent surgery.

Perhaps the one thing to be a little worried about is the lack of impact players in Double-A Montgomery. The Biscuits are devoid of a star up-and-comer, are batting just .230 as a team, and don’t have a single hitter with an OPS of even .800. The top mark belongs to Shawn O’Malley, a middling Double-A returnee who struggled in limited action as a Bull last year and can’t be considered a prospect. (Plus, O’Malley is a utility infielder, and the Bulls have enough of those.) The team’s top two prospects among position players, 2011 supplemental first-round draftees Todd Glaesmann and Mikie Mahtook, are struggling. Among pitchers, lefty Enny Romero is the only appealing starter, but he’s very young (just 22) and has walked 26 batters in 43 innings, sort of a next-wave Alex Torres. Mexican League reclamation project Juan Sandoval is 30 years old and likely to get the nod to come to Durham at some point, but do note that despite being the Biscuits’ closer (and an effective one), he was not promoted last week when the Bulls needed relief help. The Rays turned instead, oddly, to an obscure A-ball pitcher named Austin Hubbard, who was clearly unqualified, got shelled in his lone appearance with the Bulls, and was quickly hustled back to Port Charlotte. Sandoval’s story is an interesting one—he has only one working eye, the result of a freak crossfire gunshot in a bar years ago—and it will be interesting to have him in Durham for that reason alone. Lefty reliever C. J. Riefenhauser is a safe bet to join the Bulls from Montgomery at some point, too. In his first season as a full-time reliever, he’s been close to untouchable in Double-A this year, with a 0.89 ERA in 19 appearances. Beyond those two, options are thin.

It’s certainly possible that the Rays could again dig deeper into the farm to restock the Bulls. There is a good deal of talent in High-A Port Charlotte. But the Rays aren’t known to be fond of quick advancement of prospects. The Bulls will probably be better off with the horses they have than with the colts below them.

One to watch: Glaesmann hasn’t done much this year; his OPS in Double-A is just .632. But he’s a big, athletic outfielder (a former high school quarterback) with power: Glaesmann hit 21 homers last season and earned Minor League Player of the Year honors from the Rays. If he can find himself in Montgomery, he may find himself in Durham by season’s end, filling Wil Myers’ shoes if Myers makes the jump to the majors.

Verdict: If the Bulls can hit a little more—especially if Myers, Duncan or someone else can boost the home-run count—this should be a playoff team. (Quick update: sure enough, on Saturday night Myers hit his sixth home run of the season, his second in the last three games. Maybe he’s figuring out International League pitching.) The next month will be crucial in determining the team’s destiny: Starting tomorrow, 16 of the Bulls’ next 29 games will be against two of the league’s best teams, Buffalo and Indianapolis. How Durham fares in those will tell us a great deal about how good they, and their post-season chances, really are. If they come out of June still snorting, believe in them to make a charge for the playoffs.

It’s bovine-on-bovine, Bisons vs. Bulls, at the DBAP for the next four home games, starting Monday—Memorial Day—at 5 p.m. Bull City Summer will see you there.

2 Comments on “State of the Bulls Address

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