Durham News: Sports

Bulls ready for home debut

Players Jake Elmore, left, and Matt Buschmann walk off the field following evening practice Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Tuesday.
Players Jake Elmore, left, and Matt Buschmann walk off the field following evening practice Durham Bulls Athletic Park on Tuesday. jhknight@newsobserver.com

The changes that swept the parent Tampa Bay Rays club in the off-season created ripples that have affected the look of this year’s Durham Bulls.

Charlie Montoyo and Neil Allen, the manager and pitching coach who took last season’s Durham Bulls to the International League Governors’ Cup, now have jobs in the major leagues dugouts.

Hitting coach Dave Myers is the senior member of Durham’s clubhouse, and 37-year old Jared Sandberg is the youthful new manager.

The Rays, who finished second-to-last in the A.L. East last year, represent the most troubled franchise in baseball, playing in a stadium disliked by all, before the smallest crowds in the majors.

David Price’s trade in the middle of last summer may have been one reason erstwhile Rays manager Joe Maddon, the titular face of Tampa’s organization in his black nerd-glasses, became convinced that the skies were sunnier above Wrigley Field.

Kevin Cash’s advent as a 37-year old major league manager is conjoined to Charlie Montoyo’s promotion as the Tampa Bay Rays’ third-base coach.

Montoyo’s duties will go beyond signaling for steals, bunts and holds. He coached a lot of those Rays into the major leagues during eight seasons as the nurturing manager of Triple-A Durham, a linchpin in Tampa Bay’s successful player-development schematic.

On April 7, when the minor league team reconvened for workouts at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, only a handful of players knew their way around the home clubhouse.

“Jared Sandburg’s roster is a little bit in flux,” Durham’s broadcasting booth guru Patrick Kinas observed during an extra-inning loss in last week’s opening series at Gwinnett. “Welcome to Triple-A.”

Pennsylvania native Vince Belnome, with two full seasons in Durham fatigues under his belt, becomes the city’s closest thing to a hometown hero in a crop of new faces.

In the off-season, Belnome worked out at his high school gym in Coatsville, Pa., where he saw his old coaches and their current crop of young players, who are hoping for a call from a university offering scholarships.

For those good enough to go pro, not much changes.

“We’ve all got one goal,” Belnome said before the season’s first workout at DBAP, “which is to come here and win, and eventually get to the big leagues.”

That’s really two goals, but they illustrate the somewhat split desire for individual performance and team success that characterizes minor league baseball.

It also points to the subordination of the team’s success to the needs of the major league club in Florida. Sandberg won’t use a pitcher in consecutive nights of relief, because it would mean he is not rested in case the upstairs-team needs his arm in a pinch.

All players nurture major league dreams, some of them fading, some of them fulfilled. Outfielder Mikie Mahtook was called up by Tampa immediately after his debut in Gwinett for the Bulls.

Sandberg tweeted last week that it was an “unbelievable feeling to tell guys that they are fulfilling their dreams by getting the ‘call up.’”

For those who stay, there’s a gritty reality about the minors, from the buses to the blue-collar pay. Minor league contracts start at around $2,100 a month in Triple-A. Some minor leaguers earn less than the federal poverty level.

With Mikie Mahtook’s call-up to Tampa last week preempting the chance to see last year’s most exciting player, here are a handful of personalities that could become faces of the 2015 team’s redefinition.

Belnome was called up to Tampa last year for a stint in July, but he would still qualify as a rookie if called up this year.

His batting average dipped from .301 in 2013, to.245 in the minors last season, but he hit 25 doubles and 10 home runs in 118 games. If not overly tall for a first-baseman, his talent has been to stick his glove into wild throws that come to the bag. He passed on a football scholarship to play baseball, and his athleticism shows when he makes a stab at a ball the middle infield has contrived to throw past him.

Ryan Brett The Seattle native is a 23-year old infielder. He can hit and he can run the bases. These things bring a ballplayer success. He made too many errors last year to threaten Logan Forsythe’s role in Tampa, so barring health issues, we’ll see Brett at 2B for most of the season. He and shortstop Hak-Ju Lee need to get into a rhythm together, because they have already committed costly errors holding the middle.

Hak-Ju Lee Hak-Ju Lee has been a face in Durham for two years, and has come the farthest of any member of the team. A tall middle infielder, he came into baseball relatively late in life, and was still learning the game when he arrived from Korea to play ball in the U.S.

After his 2013 season was crippled during an awful collision at second base, he began the 2014 season gingerly, with a large compress on that knee after every game.

Hak-Ju seems to be able to intuit where to position himself to get to chopped balls in one or two long strides. The Rays must feel confident he will turn into a competent hitter. He spent a lot of time working with Dave Myers last year, and he probably will this season too.

Eugenio Velez A veteran major-leaguer who held a job (and garnered a World Series ring) with the San Francisco Giants, he hasn’t played a major league game since 2011.

Velez has recorded some of the dreariest hitting slumps in the history of the organized game. Yet he batted an impressive .309 with 27 stolen bases in Nashville last year, and slugged .441. He could be a key utility cog in Sandberg’s scheme.

He is a wiry 6-feet-1 from San Pedro de Macoris, in the Dominican Republic.

Dylan Floro The right-handed Californian was sharp as the Bulls’ opening-day starter, pitching six innings and combining with Brandon Gomes and Jose Dominguez for a shutout. The scouting report on Floro, 24, is a pitcher who jams hitters into a lot of ground balls and gives up very few walks.  

Luke Maile and Curt Casali... Durham’s “everyday catchers” to start the season, Maile and Casali could see more time in Tampa Bay this year. Tampa’s catchers are basement-batting Bo Wilson and his backup, Renee Rivera, who has a .222 career average.

In 254 minor league games, Maile has a .275 average with 256 hits, decent power numbers and a good walk-to-strikeout ratio.

Casali split time at catcher with Ali Solis last year, played 30 games in the majors (he struck out a lot) and batted .253 in the minors. He is a reliable backstop, who filled in for the ailing Jose Molina.

Everett Teaford ... was coming off a respectable Triple-A season and trying to make the Kansas City Royals last spring when the Royals sold his contract to a team in South Korea. The 29-year-old finished the season with the LG Twins in Seoul.

His numbers there were less than galactic, but he’s back in the U.S.A., and we’ll be seeing him on the mound in Durham.

Bulls fans might be interested to know about a familiar face who is playing Korean ball now, Merrill Kelly, who went 9-4 with a 2.76 ERA for the Bulls last season. Kelly is playing for the SK Wyverns, near Hak-Ju’s hometown of Jeju, South Korea.

Alexi Casilla The Dominican infielder played six seasons for the Minnesota Twins after his debut in 2006. He found less of a role in Baltimore in 2014. He has great speed, and though he had a great Spring Training this year, he begins the season in Durham.

Update: Right-handed pitcher Jose Dominguez was recalled Tuesday night by Tampa Bay.  RHP Ronald Belisario was assigned to Durham to bring the Bulls' roster to 24 active players.

At the DBAP

The 20th Anniversary season of Durham Bulls Athletics Park begins on Wednesday, April 15 at 6:05 p.m. with the first pitch of a three-game stand against Norfolk. Gates open at 5 p.m. for Bulls’ game against division rival Norfolk, giving fans plenty of time to enjoy pregame festivities that will feature a special entrance by Wool E. Bull, a video tribute to the iconic ballpark’s anniversary, full roster introductions, and National Anthem performed by the Duke Pitchforks.

Immediately following the home opener, fans will be treated to the first fireworks show of the season.

The Bulls will twice at Norfolk this weekend before returning home to host Charlotte April 20-23 and then Gwinnett April 24-26.