Coming into 2013, scouts praised the Durham Bulls as having one of the best Triple-A pitching rotations that they had seen in a long time. An opening day rotation of Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Montgomery, Alex Torres, and Alex Colome was touted for having a full rotation of pitchers that all had the ability to open the season in the major leagues. However, this rotation was quickly broken up, as Archer and Torres were called up after ten and nine starts respectively. Instead, the Bulls relied on a combination of seasoned veterans and solid prospects to finish the season 87-57; ultimately winning the International League championship.
The Bulls began the season hot, winning seven out of their first eight games. They would never go cold, winning the International League South with a record of 87-57. The second place Norfolk Tides finished ten games back, giving the Bulls a comfortable win of the division. The Bulls came out quick in the playoffs, sweeping the Indianapolis Indians in three games. Then after losing game one of the championship series to the Pawtucket Red Sox, the Bulls came back to win the International League Championship by winning the next three games. The season finally ended for the Bulls after losing 2-1 to the Omaha Chasers in the Triple-A championship game.
The Bulls has solid seasons from many different players, which is what is required in order to win a league championship. From on offensive standpoint, Leslie Anderson and Vince Belnome led the way. Anderson, a 31 year old 1B/LF, hit .292/.372/.459 with 14 home runs, tied for the team lead. A free-agent after the season, Anderson has always hit well in four seasons in Triple-A, but has always been a tweener defensively, not having quite enough power for first base and not having the speed for the outfield. Belnome is a similar player, always having solid hitting stats, but he is considered below average defender. Belnome finished 2013 with a .300/.408/.446 line. Brandon Guyer also had a solid .301/.374/.458 line with 7 homers and 23 stolen bases. However, that came in just 98 games as he finished the season on the 60-day DL. Wil Myers tied for the team lead in homers with 14 before being called up after 64 games.
From a pitching standpoint, many players contributed, with 26 players throwing a pitch for the bulls, 13 of these starting at least one game. Among starters, veteran J.D. Martin was the Bulls best and most consistent. Starting 27 games, Martin led Bulls starters with a 2.75 ERA and 116 strikeouts in 160.1 innings. Top Prospect Jake Odorizzi was also very good, pitching to a 3.33 ERA with 124 strikeouts in 124.1 innings. Many relievers were also quite effective for the Bulls. Josh Lueke was stout, pitching to a 0.63 ERA with 81 strikeouts and 17 saves in 57.1 innings. Kirby Yates was also good, emerging as closer when Lueke was in the majors and never letting go. Yates finished with a 1.90 ERA and 20 saves, striking out 93 strikeouts in 61.2 innings.
While a championship team must have few flaws in order to win, every team does have their disappointments. The biggest disappointment for the Bulls this year was the performance of Mike Montgomery. Coming over from the Royals in the James Shields deal, Montgomery represented a once top prospect who had gone bad. Montgomery was ranked as high as the number 19 prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America, but a 5.32 ERA in 2011 and a 6.07 ERA in 2012 threw him off of top prospect lists. When acquired, the Rays hoped Montgomery could regain some of his old form and turn into a solid piece. If anyone could get Montgomery to regain his form, it would be the Rays. However, Montgomery continued his struggles, pitching to a 4.72 ERA with 77 strikeouts and 48 walks in 108.2 innings. It was marginally better than past years, but Montgomery still has a long way to go. If Montgomery could regain his previous dominance with his fastball, he still had the potential to be a strong major leaguer starting pitcher, but the Rays have already begun to move on from that, adding a cutter to Montgomery’s repertoire. How he progresses with that cutter will be the key to his future.
The Bulls’ two other biggest disappointments came in the form of injuries. After hitting to a 1.136 OPS in his first 15 games, Hak-Ju Lee went down with a season ending knee injury. Known as a defensive wiz, the potential everyday shortstop needed to prove that his bat could play in the upper levels of the minors. Just as he was showing flashes that he could indeed hit quality pitching, Lee went down for the season, losing almost a full year of development. Alex Colome’s injury is also very concerning. After 14 solid starts with the Bulls and 3 starts with the Rays, Colome went down with an elbow strain. Elbow injuries are always concerning for pitchers, and Colome’s is no exception. If it were not for his injury, Colome would likely be in the major leagues right now, possibly providing the “secret weapon” that David Price and Matt Moore provided in years past.
Prospects to Watch
Many players that played for the Bulls in 2013 could end up making an impact in the close future. Both Jake Odorizzi and Alex Colome will battle for starting rotation spots in spring training next year (provided Colome is healthy). Odorizzi would provide a solid mid-rotation starter, and has little left to prove in the minor leagues, especially after how he has performed in his limited time in the major leagues. Colome could be sent back to Durham to maintain starting depth, win a starting rotation spot, or provide a weapon out of the bullpen. The Rays will likely be cautions with Colome as he works his way back from his elbow injury, but whether that means a return to Triple-A or a shift to the bullpen remains to be seen. Enny Romero, who made one start for Durham in September before making his big league debut on Sunday, will also provide starting rotation competition is spring training. Romero will likely be in Durham’s rotation to begin 2014, but he could get his first extended chance in the majors in 2014 with enough development. Relief prospects Kirby Yates and C.J. Riefenhauser will also get a chance to win a job out of spring training.
From a position player standpoint, there are plenty of players to keep an eye on. Tim Beckham is the highest profile of these prospects, and will likely compete for a utility man job out of spring training. At just 23 years old, Beckham provides solid potential as a utility man that could develop some power. Cole Figueroa could also fit a similar role, but at 26 years old he does not have as much upside as Beckham does. Infielder Vince Belnome will also receive a look for a roster spot out of spring training, but his lack of a defensive home will likely lead the defensive-minded Rays to look elsewhere. Brandon Guyer, meanwhile, will be given a chance to win the fourth outfield spot, but his time as a prospect is running out, as he played all of 2013 at age 27. If it was not for a series of injuries, Guyer would likely be in the big leagues right now, as he provides a solid bat capable of playing all three outfield spots. Just becuase he isn’t a prospect anymore, though, does not mean he can’t contribute to the Rays in some capacity if he can just find a way to stay healthy.
Overall, the Durham Bulls had a successful season. Using a combination of veterans with major league experience and top prospects, the Bulls were able to win the International League Championship. Many of their players have the potential to impact the Rays in 2014 and beyond. Looking towards next year, the Bulls will again have many roster spots filled with veteran players that provide depth, as well as a good mix of top prospects. Building on their strong 2013 will be a tall order, but the Bulls will look to do just that next season.