What does it take to be a major league ballplayer? For some Durham Bulls, a little extra, a little luck and perhaps a new location.
Their path to Tampa Bay is blocked by young established starters, including several All-Stars, who form the core of an annual playoff contender. David Price, Evan Longoria, Matt Moore, 2011 A.L. Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson and Desmond Jennings aren’t going anywhere, which means those waiting behind them in Triple A Durham eventually might have to.
The Rays’ rotation is so stacked, for instance, that Wade Davis, 26, who started 58 games the previous two seasons, was moved to the bullpen. Alex Cobb, 24, posted a 3.42 ERA in nine starts last season but still opened this season in Durham.
A Rays injury allowed Bulls ace Chris Archer, the organization’s No. 3 prospect, to make his major league debut earlier this season. He contributed two solid starts but was back in Durham in less than two weeks.
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“I knew I was there to fill in briefly,” said Archer, who surrendered five earned runs in 11 2/3 innings. “I was happy that I was able to do what I was asked to do.”
Archer has company. Pitcher Alex Torres, third basemen Will Rhymes and Cole Figueroa, and outfielders Brandon Allen, Jesus Feliciano and Leslie Anderson are in the same situation.
In order to stick in the major leagues, they likely will need to rely on a trade, a long-term injury, or poor play from a Rays starter.
There had been some talk that the Rays might deal All-Star James Shields before Tuesday’s trade deadline, but the starting rotation remained intact.
The outfield is no less crowded – or talented. The Rays are locked in with Jennings, a rising star, B.J. Upton, Matt Joyce and veteran Ben Zobrist. But despite the additional challenge of being a long-term player in the Rays outfield, Bulls outfielders insist there’s no lost motivation.
“You can go to another place and be in the same situation,” said Feliciano, who leads the Bulls in games played this season. “Most teams already have their guys, and you can’t control that. All you can do is show them you’re capable of playing.”
“There’s no point in slacking off,” added Allen, who played seven games with the Rays this season before being sent to Durham on June 10. “If you have the opportunity in the big leagues and you don’t make the most of it, you end up in Triple-A. The goal is to get out of Triple-A.”
Upton is a pending free agent. If he leaves, and the Rays don’t sign a veteran free-agent replacement, Allen or Anderson could vie to fill the void in 2013.
Injuries will create the only playing opportunities at third base. Longoria, a three-time All-Star, is signed through 2016. Longoria, however, has health issues. He hasn’t played since April when he suffered a partially torn left hamstring. Longoria’s injury created an opportunity for Rhymes. He hit .233 in 45 games and returned to Durham.
“I’m just here to fill in that role, basically as insurance against injury,” said Rhymes, 29, who made his major league debut with Detroit in 2010.
Figueroa, 25, was the Rays minor league player of the month in April, according to Scout.com. He is rising in the organization’s prospect list. But despite his relative youth and promise, he too, is stuck behind Longoria.
“Looking at that spot, third base, yeah it’s a little tough,” Figueroa said.
The good news for Bulls prospects is there are 29 other organizations, 29 other possibilities. They know other teams’ scouts are looking.
As Allen explained it, every game is another tryout.
“In baseball anything can happen,” he said. “If Tampa doesn’t feel like they need me, I’ll be a free agent, but I can’t worry about who’s in front of me or what their situation is;, I just have to do what I do.”
“You just gotta be realistic,” Figueroa said. “This is my second team, and you know there are always people out there watching you.”
The Rays are watching, too, of course. Late-season call-ups helped fuel previous playoff runs, and health is always a concern.
“We count on those guys; we really count on those guys,” said Mitch Lukevics, Rays director of minor league operations. “Make no mistake, when somebody on the Rays gets hurt, we turn to our Durham players to come up and make an impact.”
Lukevics referred specifically to the Rays’ 2008 run to the World Series. Several Bulls played pivotal roles, most notably Price and Willy Aybar, who hit two home runs in the ALCS victory over Boston.
“It’s factual that the guys who start out in Durham play and help in the big leagues with us,” Lukevics said. “You look at a lot of these clubs in the major leagues and you look at injuries. What resources do they tap into to replace injured players? In our case, it’s the Durham Bulls.”
Tampa Bay is locked in another tight American League wild-card race. And although starting pitching, third base, and the outfield appear to be complete for the time being, Lukevics and the Rays expect Durham players to be ready when they get the call.
“We’ve got a long way to go this year, and anything can happen in the big leagues.”