It has been great to have major league baseball back, but there was something missing. Where were the minor leaguers? Where were the prospects to dream on? Well, now they are here, and on Opening Day, the Durham Bulls showcased several prospects Rays fans will be calling for before long.
Triple-A International League: Durham Bulls 7, Gwinnett Braves 6
This game began in disastrous fashion. After finishing fourth in the Rays’ fifth starter competition, Nate Karns‘ regular season Rays organization debut could not have been much worse. In 2.2 innings, Karns allowed 6 runs, 5 earned on 3 hits and a ghastly 7 walks while striking out just 1. This was clearly the worst day control-wise of Karns’ career, and it means little in terms of how he will perform this season. Nevertheless, Karns entered the system with high expectations, and it is a little nerve-wracking to see him start so badly. Hopefully he can erase the memory of this game in his next time out.
Then the Bulls came back. Merrill Kelly looked extremely good replacing Karns, using just 38 pitches to toss 3 innings allowing just 2 hits and a walk while striking out 3. Kelly finds himself without a rotation spot to begin the year, but if he continues performing like he did with Durham in the second half of last year, the Rays will have an interesting choice to make. While Kelly was shutting the Braves down, the Bulls offense tied the game. Kevin Kiermaier, facing a huge season of his own as he hopes to prove himself at the plate, started the scoring with a 2-run home run in the second inning, but Karns’ struggles left the Bulls down 6-2 after 3 innings. But an error brought them to within 6-3, and then fireworks in the 5th tied the game. Wilson Betemit drilled a 2-run homer and Jerry Sands followed with a solo shot, and suddenly the game was tied. Betemit’s big league track record speaks for itself while Sands impressed in spring training, and both will hope to crack the Rays’ roster this season. Sands actually went 3 for 3 with a triple short of the cycle, a walk, and 3 runs scored in the game. Then in the 7th, it was Kiermaier driving in the go-ahead run, beating out a potential double play groundball to give the Bulls a 7-6 lead. The Durham bullpen was untouchable so that was enough. Adam Liberatore (0.2 IP), Brad Boxberger (1.2 IP), and Kirby Yates (1.0 IP) combined for 3.1 perfect innings with 4 strikeouts. It does not get better than that. Every player we have mentioned could see time with the Rays this season. This Durham roster lacks a top-of-the-top prospect, but its all-around talent is extremely impressive.
Double-A Southern League: Birmingham Barons (CHW) 9, Montgomery Biscuits 2
About the only common thread between the Bulls game and this one was the terrible starting performance. Victor Mateo went 4.2 innings allowing 8 runs, 6 earned, on 8 hits, allowing a trio of home runs. The good news: he did strike out 5 while walking none. Hopefully that is more indicative of his future performance than anything else. Braulio Lara, Andrew Bellatti, and Jacob Thompson (now in relief) had some up-and-down innings before Matt Ramsey was strong to finish the game, striking out 2 in a perfect frame. Armed with a fastball touching the mid-90’s and a very good breaking ball, Ramsey could be yet another interesting relief option for the Rays. Then on the offensive side, Willie Argo was one of the few highlights, going 1 for 3 with a solo homer, a walk, and 2 runs scored.
High Florida State League: Charlotte Stone Crabs 5, Bradenton Marauders (PIT) 4
Josh Sale returns to action with about a million things to prove. Here’s hoping that this game shows that he is up to the task. Sale went 2 for 4 with an RBI double, a 2-run single, and a run scored, tying the game in the 6th inning with the latter hit. The go-ahead run in the 8th scored on a wild pitch with Sale at the plate. Among the other heroes for Charlotte at the plate was Patrick Leonard, who went 1 for 3 with a double, a walk, and a run scored. In terms of the hurlers, Roberto Gomez started and went 5 innings allowing 3 runs (2 earned) on 7 hits, striking out 4 while walking 3. Nick Sawyer did not get off to a good start, walking 4 in his frame as he allowed a run, before Marcus Jensen (2.0 IP), and Kevin Brandt (1.0 IP) tossed scoreless ball to finish the game. The story in this game has to be Sale, and we will have to see whether he can keep them up.
Low-A Midwest League: Bowling Green Hot Rods 5, South Bend Silver Hawks 2
Oscar Hernandez first caught the public eye when he hit .402 with 21 home runs in the Venezuelan Summer League in 2012. In 2013, though, it was his defense that made him emerge as a real prospect, with his bat lagging behind. Maybe this is the year that he brings it all together, and if it is, he set the tone on Opening Day. Hernandez’s third-inning grand slam meant everything for the Hot Rods in this game. Granden Goetzman also impressed at the plate, going 2 for 2 with a stolen base and a run scored. Then we also have to talk about Hernandez’s work catching the Bowling Green pitching staff. Jacob Faria went 4.1 innings allowed an unearned run on 3 hits, striking out 5 while walking none before Aaron Griffin worked around a hit and a walk with 3 strikeouts in 2.2 scoreless frames. Stone Speer did allow a home run and 2 walks in the final 2 innings, but he also struck out 4. Faria is a pitcher whose strong numbers in short season ball belied stuff that never quite came along. Finally in the past year, his arsenal took a step forward, and it will be interesting to see how he does for the Hot Rods this year.