It’s no surprise that the cover of the Durham Bulls’ 2016 media guide displays a photo of Blake Snell.
The left-handed pitcher was named the Minor League Player of the Year by Baseball America and USA Today in 2015. He is rated the No. 1 prospect in the Tampa Bay Rays organization, the No. 2 lefty prospect in the minor leagues and the No. 12 overall prospect.
And it’s also no surprise that Snell will be on the mound when the Bulls open the International League season at 6:05 p.m. Thursday in Durham Bulls Athletic Park against the Charlotte Knights.
Charlotte manager Julio Vinas named right-hander Scott Caroll his starter on Wednesday afternoon. Durham manager Jared Sandberg made his starter official Tuesday, but it would have been a shocker to see anybody but Snell on the mound.
Pitching at three levels – Class A, Double-A and Triple-A – Snell compiled a combined 15-4 record with a 1.41 ERA. His ERA not only led the minor leagues but was the lowest since Justin Verlander had a 1.29 mark in 2005. He also led minor league pitchers in opponents’ batting average (.182) and allowed one earned run or less in 19 of 23 starts.
“He had a season for the ages,” said Sandberg, who has managed Snell in three previous minor league campaigns. Bulls pitching coach Kyle Snyder will be working with Snell for a third minor league season.
“It’s wonderful here,” said Snell, who appreciates the familiarity he has with them and with Durham as well. “Jared and Kyle have been my coaches for the third and fourth years now. I know how to approach it (the season).”
Now the challenge for Snell, who has been named the Pitcher of the Year in the Rays organization for the past two years, is to do it again. The payoff could be a quick promotion to the parent Tampa Bay Rays.
“He’s got some high expectations,” Sandberg said. “He knows he’s got to do it again, but he’s not putting pressure on himself to duplicate that.”
If that sounds like a contradiction, Snell understands the difference. “I just focus on the team right now,” he said. “I don’t think about last year. That’s in the past.”
Snell spent a good portion of spring training this year in the Rays’ major league camp. He said the most memorable aspect of camp was simply meeting major league players and talking baseball with them.
“Definitely I was more excited to meet them,” Snell said, but no doubt the major leaguers wanted to get a firsthand look at the prospect who could be joining them in the very near future.
On the mound Snell bears an uncanny physical resemblance to a former Durham Bulls lefty, Steve Avery, who pitched in the Class A Carolina League in 1989 before joining the Atlanta Braves as the No. 4 pitcher in a rotation behind Hall of Famers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz.
Snell, a native of Seattle who was drafted out of Shorewood High School as a supplemental first-round pick in the 2011 draft (52nd overall), stands 6-foot-4, weighs 180 pounds and has earned a reputation as a strikeout pitcher. He has recorded more strikeouts than innings pitched at every step of his five-year minor league travels, 467 in 422 innings overall. Last year for the Bulls, he punched out 57 batters in 44.1 innings over nine starts, posting a 6-2 record and 1.83 ERA.
“My go-to pitch is my fastball,” Snell noted of a four-seamer that tops out at 97 mph, but he also throws a changeup, curve and slider.
His goal in spring training was to improve each of his pitches, “developing my craft even more,” he said. There was some speculation that after his big 2015 season, Snell might make the major league team and even earn a spot in the rotation. But he was reassigned to the minor league camp on March 15 having pitched only 4.2 innings in the big league camp, allowing three runs.
Snell admitted to some disappointment, but it faded quickly, he said.
“No pressure at all,” he said. “I kind of knew what was going to happen.
“I felt like I would end up here. Obviously I gave it my best shot. I feel excited about what will take place Thursday.”
Charlotte Knights at Durham Bulls
When: 6:05 p.m. Thursday
Where: Durham Bulls Athletic Park
Pitching matchup: RHP Scott Caroll (Charlotte) vs. LHP Blake Snell (Durham)
Tickets: Available, $7.99 - $23.99
Postgame: Fireworks show