Jared Sandberg is excited about the prospects for the 2016 Durham Bulls in his second year managing at the Triple-A level.
“On paper the expectations are pretty high,” he said during the Bulls’ media day Tuesday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. “On paper we have a solid pitching staff, led by Blake Snell.”
It’s also a relatively young group by Triple-A standards, with 16 players on the opening day roster who are 26 or younger and only three 30 or older.
Snell earned Minor League Pitcher of the Year honors in 2015 when he compiled a 15-4 record and 1.41 ERA while pitching on three levels of the Tampa Bay Rays’ minor league chain. The left-hander from Seattle was 6-2 with a 1.83 ERA for the Bulls and excited fans with his lively fastball.
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Snell will start the season opener Thursday night against the Charlotte Knights, scheduled for 6:05 p.m. at DBAP, to begin a four-game series and seven-game homestand.
He isn’t the only familiar face back with the Bulls. Eleven players were here last season, five pitchers and six field players. Two mainstays who return are shortstop Taylor Motter (.292, 14 HRs, 72 RBIs), an International League All-Star and the Bulls’ MVP, and outfielder Mikie Mahtook (.249, 4 HRs, 45 RBIs).
Following Snell in the rotation will be right-handers Matt Andriese, Jaime Schultz and Austin Pruitt, and lefty Adam Wilk. Andriese was the only member of the rotation to pitch for Durham last year (3-3, 2.35 in 12 starts). Schultz (9-5, 3.67) and Pruitt (10-7, 3.09) moved up from Double-A Montgomery, and Wilk (7-11, 5.59) came over from Triple-A Salt Lake City in the Los Angeles Angels organization. Schultz led the Southern League with 168 strikeouts in 135 innings.
The bullpen will be headed by three returnees, right-handers Andrew Bellatti (2-1, 5.24) and Jhan Marinez (4-1,1.92, 5 saves), and lefty Dylan Floro (9-12, 5.02), who was the 2015 opening day starter before movingto the bullpen late in the season.
Big things are expected of third baseman Richie Shaffer, who was the Rays’ Minor League Batter of the Year. In 69 games with the Bulls after a promotion from Montgomery, the Clemson product hit .270 with 19 home runs and 45 RBIs. Switch-hitting Nick Franklin (.266, 11 HRs, 30 RBIs) returns at second base, while there is a crowded field at first with East Carolina product Kyle Roller (.232, 14 HRs, 59 RBIs at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre), Southern League All-Star Cameron Seitzer (.308, 12 HRs, 59 RBIs), and Patrick Leonard (.256, 10 HRs, 43) RBIs), another Montgomery grad.
Luke Maile (.205, 5 HRs, 29 RBIs) is back at catcher, backed by spring acquisition Carlos Corporan, who came over from the New York Yankees.
Joining Mahtook in the outfield will be Jaff Decker, who was at Triple-A Indianapolis (.266, 3 HRs, 26 RBIs) and spent 23 games with the parent Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015, and Cuban national Dayron Varona (.264, 10 HRs, 50 RBIs at Montgomery).
Sandberg is high on the versatility present in his roster. Motter, Shaffer and Leonard can play in the outfield, and Shaffer also can play first.
“Players can move around, and that’s something that’s important to the Rays’ organization,” said Sandberg, who welcomes pitching coach and UNC product Kyle Snyder back to his staff. They are joined by hitting coach Ozzie Timmons, a former Bull who coached at Montgomery last year.
5 things to watch for
How long will Blake Snell be in Durham?
Not long. The parent Tampa Bay Rays will open the season with a four-man starting rotation for the first month, taking advantage of early-season off days. Their eventual fifth starter could be Erasmo Ramirez, who went to the bullpen largely because closer Brad Boxberger will begin the season on the disabled list. Or it could be Snell, the 2015 Minor League Pitcher of the Year. If you want to see Snell pitch at DBAP, don’t wait until summer to buy tickets.
Where will IL All-Star Taylor Motter play?
Everywhere. The Rays like Motter as a utilityman, and he nearly made the big club out of spring training in that role. After playing shortstop in the Dominican League last winter, he is expected to play there regularly for the Bulls. But don’t be surprised to see the speedster start at shortstop one day and right field the next. He will be a fixture in the lineup, as his .292 average, league-leading 43 doubles, and 26 stolen bases attest.
Will Mikie Mahtook ride the “Durham shuttle” again this year?
Probably. Mahtook went back and forth between Durham and Tampa six times last year, and the outfielder impressed in his 41 big league games, hitting .295 with nine homers and 19 RBIs. He was one of the Rays’ last cuts in spring training.
Will the Bulls make the playoffs after a one-year absence?
Hard to say. The Bulls posted a 74-70 record last year in the International League’s toughest division, the Southern, where all four teams posted winning records. A franchise-record 213 player transactions, which resulted in 63 players wearing the Bulls’ uniform last year, led to a late-season swoon that dropped them out of first place. “My goal this year is to not talk about last year,” Bulls manager Jared Sandberg said. “We set a record for transactions, mostly because the major league club was not healthy.
“The big thing in Durham is that winning tradition. We want to get back in the playoffs and win another championship.”
Who will be the surprise player of the Bulls’ season this year?
Sandberg thinks it could be second baseman Nick Franklin, acquired from the Seattle Mariners in 2014 in the three-team deal that involved pitcher David Price. “Here’s a kid who hit 23 home runs as a 19-year-old in the Midwest League,” Sandberg said of the switch hitter. “He’s my sleeper pick to have a tremendous year.”