The Durham Bulls, a perennial International League powerhouse, had another successful season in 2014. Fresh off winning the Governor’s Cup (the Triple-A International League championship series) in 2013, the Tampa Bay Rays’ Triple-A affiliate finished at the top of the International League’s Southern Division in 2014 with a 75-69 record. They then won the first round of the International league playoffs but fell to the Pawtucket Red Sox in fifth game of the 2014 championship series. As usual, there were plenty of good players at Durham that could factor into the Rays’ plans soon.
As with most Triple-A teams, the Bulls roster was made up of a combination minor league veterans and prospects with varying degrees of talent. This year’s veterans included outfielders Justin Christian and Jeremy Moore and infielders Mike Fontenot and Wilson Betemit. Fontenot and Betemit have considerable major league experience where Christian and Moore, as well as catcher Ali Solis, are minor league lifers. Betemit led the team in home runs with eighteen. Moore was a pleasant surprise, as he hit .262/.335/.492 in 55 games after signing a minor league deal last offseason. One more added benefit is that all five offered excellent support to the young players on the team.
Durham also had plenty of notable position prospects. They ranged from Kevin Kiermaier, who was called up mid-season and became an important contributor to the Rays lineup, to Cole Figueroa, who was promoted just long enough to get his first major league hit. Other position players seeing major league time included Curt Casali at catcher and newly acquired Nick Franklin at second base. Utility man Vince Belnome also got a cup of coffee in the big leagues. Other position players who saw important playing time with Durham were outfielder Mikie Mahtook, infielder Tim Beckham, and shortstop Hak-Ju Lee.
Starting Pitching Prospects
The Bulls pitching staff was almost entirely made up of prospects with some form of upside. The starting rotation included Alex Colome and Nate Karns, both of whom were called up in September and pitched well in their respective starts. Matt Andriese, Mike Montgomery, and Enny Romero improved their control and command and all three could see their first extend big league time next season. Swingman Merrill Kelly pitched well enough to be in any Triple-A rotation other than the Bulls, posting a 2.76 ERA, and he too could factor in shortly (although more likely in relief).
Relief Pitching Prospects
Like the starting rotation, the Bulls bullpen was loaded with prospects. Seven relief pitchers that could factor in with the Rays were on the staff including Adam Liberatore, C.J. Riefenhauser, Steve Geltz, Jake Thompson, Jeff Beliveau, Cory Burns, and Kirby Yates. Of those seven, Riefenhauser, Geltz, Beliveau and Yates all spent time with the Rays this season. Beliveau has been particularly effective at the big league level, posting a 1.64 ERA in 22.0 innings, and he looks to be the left-handed specialist the Rays badly need. Brandon Gomes and Josh Lueke were very effective for the Bulls, but neither showed much in their stints in the majors. Gomes has pitched better in September, but neither looks like a long-term piece for this team.
Most Valuable Position Player
Once Kevin Kiermaier left for the Rays, Mikie Mahtook was the Bulls’ most valuable position player. Mahtook had a .292/.362/.458 slash line, showed good power and led the team with 68 RBIs . The former first round draft pick out of LSU also played well defensively at all three outfield positions. He’ll probably be back with Durham for part of next year given the Rays’ outfield logjam, but has shown enough to at least be an effective fourth outfielder in the big leagues in the near future.
Most Disappointing Position Player
Hak-Ju Lee has been a top 5 prospect for the Rays ever since he came over from the Cubs in the Matt Garza deal. Lightning fast and a superb fielder, he was seen as the next Rays shortstop. Then came the collision at second base in 2013 and the torn ACL. He missed most of the 2013 season and hasn’t been the same since. This year he posted a .203/.287/.276 slash line and he never showed much life. His fielding has held up but the knee may be affecting his hitting and speed. The 2015 season will determine if Lee is still in the shortstop mix for the future.
Most Valuable Pitchers
Matt Andriese and Adam Liberatore win this award. Andreise produced a nice 3.77 ERA with a 129-48 K-BB ratio and a 1.24 WHIP as a starter. Liberatore was even better out of the bullpen with a 1.66 ERA and an amazing 86-15 K-BB ratio and a 1.26 WHIP. Both will probably be added to the 40-man roster this offseason, and Liberatore should get a long look in spring training as the Rays revamp their bullpen.
Most Disappointing Pitchers
This would have to go to Nate Karns and Enny Romero. While both showed flashes of brilliance, both had command struggles that led to underwhelming overall numbers. Karns posted a 5.08 ERA on the year while Romero put up a 4.50 mark. That said, both are not far off from contributing to the Rays, though that may come in relief.
The Durham Bulls continue to be one of the powerhouses of Triple-A baseball. In the past they have achieved success based on a strong core of minor league veterans and top prospects alike, and 2014 was no different. It was good to see the Rays prospects playing such an important role in the Bulls success. There may not be a Wil Myers or a Matt Moore in this year’s group, but there are a lot of names you will be seeing in a Rays boxscore for the next few years.