The Rays are interested in seeing what Belnome can do at the plate. (Credit: Flickr user StormBaseball)
The Durham Bulls were very good in 2013, winning the International League before going on to lose in the one-game championship game to the Pacific Coast League’s Omaha Storm Chasers. The Bulls got it done with a mix of top prospects (like Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi) and veteran players (like Mike Fontenot and Shelley Duncan). Here’s my prediction at what the Bulls’ lineup and rotation will look like as they to once again make a run at the IL title.
This is a very hard lineup to put together because there are so many good hitters. Hak-Ju Lee and Kevin Kiermaier are fairly interchangeable at 1-2, but I slotted Kiermaier in the number two spot because he has a bit more pop in his bat. Kiermaier has an outside shot to make the big leagues this year, but even if he doesn’t his plus defense and improved bat should make him big league relevant sooner rather than later. Lee missed most of last season because of a gruesome knee injury, otherwise he might be breaking camp this year as the Tampa Bay Rays’ everyday shortstop. He too should become big league relevant soon, especially if he can bounce back from his knee injury quickly.
Betemit was signed on a minor league deal this offseason, but likely isn’t going to make the roster. No opt-out clause was reported in his contract, though it is possible there is one. If there isn’t, he will be Durham’s everyday 3B and should hit in the middle of the order with a solid bat that has proven itself at the big league level in the past. Sands came over on a waiver claim from the Pittsburgh Pirates, and has shown great ability in the minors, hitting 26+ home runs three times, although his ability hasn’t translated to the big leagues yet. He has an option left so he is likely ticketed back to Triple-A, especially after a poor 2013 season, but I think he will bounce back and be a huge presence in the middle of the Bulls’ lineup.
The number five spot goes to Belnome, who was the Bulls’ best hitter in 2013. He doesn’t hit for huge pop, but he gets on base well and hits for a high average, which would make him a good hitter in the number five position. Like Betemit and Sands, he has an outside shot at a MLB roster spot this spring, but is likely headed back to Triple-A. Mikie Mahtook, who slots into the number 6 spot, is a former first round pick that has been disappointing thus far in his minor league career. However, he plays good defense at the corner outfield spots, and his bat was fine at Double-A last year (107 wRC+). He enters a key year in his development.
Darnell is another minor-league signee who has shown upside with the bat, but he has struggled with injuries in his career. He is in big league camp, but he hasn’t played in a game yet, which might indicate he is not healthy. If he is hurt, Cameron Seitzer might be the Bulls’ next option at DH, but if healthy he should provide another solid hitter to an outstanding lineup. At 8th, we see two more minor league signings in Roman Ali Solis and Eddy Rodriguez who stand to split time at the position. They both were brought in for their defensive prowess, and neither is going to do anything special with the bat. Figueroa rounds out the lineup. He is a solid defender around the infield, and has good plate discipline and contact ability, but an inability to hit for power leaves a potential big league role as a longshot at this point.
Overall, this is an incredible lineup. Every hitter 1-9 has a chance to produce at a solid rate. Andrew Friedman should be proud of the mix of top prospects with upside and veterans who will be ready in case they are needed in the big leagues because of injuries.
Colome will return to Triple-A for the second straight year, as he will likely lose the 5th starter competition to Odorizzi. He has the arsenal to be a very good pitcher, but he can’t stay healthy, and has only pitched above 120 innings once in his minor league career. He isn’t far off from contributing to the big league rotation in terms of stuff, but he also could be one injury away from a permanent move to the bullpen. Karns was acquired this offseason from the Washington Nationals in exchange for backup catcher Jose Lobaton and minor league prospects Felipe Rivero and Drew Vettleson. The Rays think highly of him, but he isn’t young at 26 years old, and still has significant work to do with his changeup. He too is in contention for the 5th starter role, but will ultimately lose to Odorizzi.
Romero probably has the highest upside of any pitcher in the Rays’ system, but he has struggled tremendously with his control in his career. He needs to fix these issues otherwise he might also be destined for the bullpen, although the Rays will give him plenty of chances to start. Andriese was also acquired via trade this offseason, this time from the San Diego Padres. He has a bit of Triple-A experience under his belt, and has the upside of a number three starter. His upside isn’t as high as the other guys in this rotation, but he also has the highest floor, and could become the Rays’ first option in the event of injury if he starts the season strong. After Montgomery once again struggled last season, it appeared he would be moved to the bullpen. However, a solid Arizona Fall League and a good start to Spring Training later, and the Rays will probably give him one last chance in the rotation in hopes Montgomery can regain some of the form that made him a top-25 prospect in all of baseball three years ago.
This is a rotation that features some huge upside, but also some big question marks. All of the pitchers have had success in the lower minors, but it will be interesting to see how they adapt to Triple-A hitters. The rotation’s success is key to the Bulls winning in 2014.
Once again, the Durham Bulls should have a great team in 2014. Their lineup features a nice mix of highly regarded prospects as well as players with some big league time under their belt. The rotation will be key, as they have tons of ability, but also some questions. Overall, don’t be surprised to see the Bulls vie for the International League title once again.