The Durham Bulls have won the Governors Cup, emblematic of the International League championship, four times. They’ve won the IL South Division seven times in the past eight years and took the Triple-A championship in 2009.
But this season, if the Bulls are to reach the lofty heights their fans expect while they celebrate the 20th anniversary of Durham Bulls Athletic Park, they will do so with a mostly new-look roster when they open the season Thursday night at Gwinnett. The home opener is April 15 against Norfolk.
The starting rotation could feature five new starters from a year ago, the top three closers are gone, and only three regulars return in the field.
However, this year’s Bulls roster has more experience than it did a year ago. There are 13 players with at least six full seasons of pro ball who are at least 27 years old. Last year’s team had only nine six-year pros, and only eight were 27 or older.
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Along the way, the Bulls will have to answer some questions:
1) How will Jared Sandberg measure up in his first year as a Triple-A manager?
Sandberg is the nephew of Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame second baseman Ryne Sandberg, now the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies. Jared Sandberg has managed in the Tampa Bay system for six years, following a 12-year playing career that included parts of three seasons in the major leagues. However, this is his first year managing above the Class A level, and at 37 he will be the youngest manager in Triple-A.
At Tuesday’s Bulls media day, Sandberg said he was ready for the move up in the Rays’ hierarchy. He said he plans to utilize his entire roster, a necessity at the Triple-A level because of frequent player movement back and forth with the major league club.
“My father (a veteran high school and college coach) says have fun,” Sandberg said. “My Uncle Ryan says communicate with the players.”
Sandberg said “about six or seven” of the Bulls played for him previously and that his goal is to get to know the older players as soon as possible.
2) Is shortstop Hak-Ju Lee healthy?
Lee, 24, begins his third season in Durham, but he has played in only 108 games over the past two seasons because of ACL surgery on his left knee in 2013 and an unrelated calf injury in 2014. Considered the shortstop of the future in Tampa Bay, Lee could become only the third Korea-born position player in the major leagues if he can stay healthy.
“I’m 100 percent – I’m ready to go,” Lee said. “I really feel like it’s a new year for me.
“My goal this year is to stay healthy, get RBIs, play good defense. I just want to be an exciting player this year. I want to play like the Hak-Ju Lee before I got hurt.”
3) How long will center fielder Mikie Mahtook be here?
Mahtook, 25, returns to Durham after being named the Bulls’ MVP in 2014. The No. 8 prospect in the Rays system according to Baseball America, Mahtook set career highs in home runs (12), doubles (33) and walks (46) while tying career highs in RBIs (68) and games (132). He was one of only three IL players with 12 homers and 12 stolen bases, and he hit .292.
His bat could earn him a swift promotion to Tampa Bay, which overhauled its lineup in the offseason and might lack for outfield punch, but Mahtook isn’t looking ahead.
“The more you look at the guys ahead of you, the more it consumes you and takes your focus away,” he said. “Everything works itself out. The only thing you can control is how you play.”
He said his goal was to build on the numbers he put up a year ago and become a smarter situational hitter.
4) What will the starting rotation look like?
In a word, new. Sandberg has named right-hander Dylan Floro to start the season opener. Floro, 24, was the Rays’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2013 and last year went 11-13 with a 3.48 ERA for Double-A Montgomery. A 13th-round draft pick out of Cal State Fullerton in 2012, Floro led the Southern League in innings pitched (178.2), complete games (3) and starts (28) last year.
“He came out of spring training ready to pitch six innings,” Sandberg said. “I managed him the year after he was drafted. He’s a bulldog, a strike thrower.”
Injuries during spring training scrambled the Rays rotation, and the resulting domino effect sent some candidates who might have ended up with the Bulls to Tampa Bay instead.
“The depth of pitching in the organization is thin with the injuries,” said Sandberg, who declined to name the rest of his starting rotation. However, the likely candidates are right-hander Matt Buschmann and left-handers Jim Patterson, Scott Diamond and Everett Teaford.
5) Who will be the closer?
Two former Bulls have extensive closer experience: lefty C.J. Riefenhauser (3-3, 1.40) and right-hander Brandon Gomes (0-2, 3.62), although not recently. Gomes, 30, had seven saves in 2011 and nine in 2012 for the Bulls, while Riefenhauser had 11 for Montgomery in 2013.
Two other candidates are right-handers Andrew Bellatti (2-6, 3.68), who had six saves last year for Montgomery, and Jose Dominguez (1-2, 3.24), with 10 saves last year for Triple-A Albuquerque.
Sandberg and new pitching coach Kyle Snyder are still sorting out the possibilities.
“There’s no set order in the bullpen,” said Sandberg, who said he wants to stay flexible because of the prospect of frequent player movement.