Sunday, March 27, 2011

Durham Bulls Basics — 2011

The season opens soon and I'm thinking that some fans will be looking around the web for information about the Durham Bulls. So here’s WDBB's contribution. I hope that it doesn't come off as too basic. This is mostly stuff I didn't know when I became a Bulls fan.

In the very remote chance that I might be in error, I hope that readers will set me straight and I’ll fix it as soon as I can.

AAA Baseball

The Durham Bulls are the Triple-A franchise of the Tampa Bay Rays. Triple-A baseball is one step below major league baseball. How do we know that? Because Major League Baseball says it is.
More than that, Major League Baseball also tells us that there will be 30 major league baseball teams: 14 in the American League and 16 in the National League. And each major league team has a AAA team in their farm system. Thus, there are 30 AAA minor league baseball teams. (Who said I couldn’t do basic arithmetic?)

The 30 Triple-A teams are divided into two leagues: The International League with 14 teams and the Pacific Coast League with 16 teams. So that sort of makes sense, so far.

What also makes sense is that, mostly, the International League is made up of teams who have their major league affiliates in the eastern and midwestern part of the country, while the Pacific Coast League’s parent clubs are, mostly, in the southwest and west.

But, hey, it’s baseball, so there will inevitably be a few quirks in the system. The Marlins, Brewers, and Cubs affiliates are all in the Pacific Coast League.

The Durham Bulls are in the International League.

The International League

The 14 teams in the International League are matched up with major league teams without regard to whether the parent club is in the National League or the American League. The IL has teams affiliated with Boston, New York (Yankees and Mets), Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago (White Sox), and Minnesota. That gives the IL 8 American League and 6 National League affiliates.

Logic would say that since AAA is the next step down from the majors, the teams would like to be in close proximity to each other. Sometimes that’s true. Toledo is linked to Detroit, Pawtucket is the AAA team of Boston, and the Atlanta Braves AAA club is just a long taxi ride away in Lawrenceville, Georgia. On the other hand, Charlotte is pretty far from Chicago and the Durham/Tampa Bay distance is a good bit more than average.

Obviously all the teams in the “International” League are in the US, but up until recently there was a team in Ottawa. That gave us the chance to sing along to “O, Canada” four times a year. You can bet that someday — maybe not in my lifetime, but someday — The IL will have a team in Havana, San Juan, or Mexico City.

With teams from both the National and American Leagues, what about the designated hitter rule? In the International League the only time pitchers bat is when both clubs are National League affiliates. That means that no Durham Bull pitchers will go to the plate this year (except in the very weird circumstance where a pitcher could go to the plate as a pinch-hitter — not likely, but possible).

The International League has three divisions: North, West, and South

Divisions and Affiliations

North Division

Buffalo Bisons - New York Mets
Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs- Philadelphia Phillies
Pawtucket Red Sox - Boston Red Sox
Rochester Red Wings - Minnesota Twins
Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees - New York Yankees
Syracuse Chiefs - Washington Nationals

West Division

Columbus Clippers - Cleveland Indians
Indianapolis Indians - Pittsburgh Pirates
Louisville Bats - Cincinnati Reds
Toledo Mud Hens - Detroit Tigers

South Division

Charlotte Knights - Chicago White Sox
Gwinnett Braves - Atlanta Braves
Norfolk Tides - Baltimore Orioles
Durham Bulls - Tampa Bay Rays

The league offices are in Dublin, Ohio. Not quite sure what it means, but the Bulls have one seat on the Board of Directors (Bulls VP George Habel). They, of course, have a website.

The Schedule

The International League schedules 144 games for each of its teams. Half of those games are played at home. So, unless you are truly a Durham Bulls fanatic, you will only have 72 chances to see your Bulls during the regular season.In 2011 the first home game (April 14) is seven days after the start of the season and the last home game (August 30) is six days before the end of the season. So, unless the Bulls get into the playoffs again, Durham fans have a short season this year.

Another very important feature of the schedule is that the Bulls only have one four-day home stand with teams outside the South Division. So, if you are a Boston fan the only chance you’ll get to see Red Sox prospects will be June 3 thru June 6. That’s it. They won’t be back unless we are both in the playoffs in September. The same is true if you’re a Yankees fan (June 24-27), or a Reds fan (May 17-20), or a fan of any of the other parent clubs of teams in the North or West divisions of the International League. Said another way, the Bulls play 40 games at home with the teams from outside the South Division.

On the other hand, if you’re a Braves (Gwinnett) or White Sox (Charlotte) or Orioles (Norfolk) fan, you’re in luck. They will be here about a dozen times each this year.

As a general rule Bulls home stands lasts eight days and road trips eight days. But not always. In late April, July, and August this year the Bulls have extended road trips.

Triple-A ballplayers have a much more relentless schedule than the majors. They play more games with fewer days off, at least until September.

The Triple-A All-Star Game pitting the International League All-Stars against the Pacific Coast League All-Stars is set for July 13, 2011 and will be played at the ballpark of the Salt Lake Bees. Exactly how the players are selected for the game is something of a mystery. Fans do get a vote; however, usually the IL doesn't bother to tell us how the voting went.

The International League Championship (The Governors’ Cup) is decided with two rounds of best of five playoffs in September. A one-game “AAA Championship” game is to be played on September 20, 2011 in Albuquerque, NM.

The Durham Bulls, as all readers of this blog must know, won the Governors’ Cup and the AAA Championship in 2009 and has won the Southern Division of the International League for the last several years.

The 40-Man Roster

And now, sigh, we need to spend some time discussing the Tampa Bay Rays.

First of all, the Tampa Bay Rays play baseball in St. Petersburg, Florida, not Tampa. That may come as a bit of a surprise to those not familiar with Florida geography (or modern marketing strategies).

To continue, every major league team consists of 25 players on the "active" roster and another 15 are listed to make up a 40-man roster. In general, once a player makes it to the 25-man active roster he stays there (unless traded or sold). For players who have been around for a while, there are all sorts of byzantine rules regarding how this works. What matters to Bulls fans, however, is that a Bull cannot be called up to play in a Rays game unless he is first on the 40-man roster.

Here in Durham, we are not much interested in the active roster. What matters to Bulls fans are those 15 ballplayers who are on the Rays 40-man but not on the active roster. Members of that 15 man group usually make up the heart of the Durham Bulls.

If previous years are typical, we can expect that 10 or 11 of the players on the 40-man will be assigned to Durham and they will probably be split about 75/25 pitchers/position players. Of the pitchers, one or two will be prospective starting pitchers, the other potential relievers.

Why are they in Durham? Lots of reasons. And that’s one of the pleasures of watching AAA ball. Why is this guy here? When will he be called up? Will he be called up?

The odds of being called up are pretty good. There are enough injuries and trades in a given year that most if not all of the players on the 40-man will at least get a few days with the Rays. Some may even go there and stay.

What about the Bulls who aren’t on the 40-man? Well, there’s the problem. Unless Tampa Bay takes someone off the 40-man, they can’t be called up. Adjustment to the 40-man can, and does, happen, but not very often.

So, the 40-man roster has a lot to do with who plays on the Durham Bulls. It also has an effect on how they play. For example, pitchers may be on defined pitch counts and/or working on specific pitches that the Rays have decided the pitcher needs to develop. Relievers may be tested to see if they can do two days in a row, or “tried out” as a closer. We will see infielders playing the outfield (and vice versa). Some position players may be under orders to become a switch hitter.

My point is that sometimes what we see on the field is decided in St. Petersburg, not Durham. The Rays really aren’t particularly interested in the Bulls' won-loss record. So, we will inevitably see some unfortunate (for the Bulls) decisions, such as a player being called up, sitting on the Rays’ bench for a couple of weeks, then coming back to Durham with his timing shot and struggling at bat.

Nevertheless, we cannot avoid the fact that the Durham Bulls live and die at the whim of the Tampa Bay Rays front office. What’s fortunate for Bulls fans is that the Rays have invested a ton of effort into building a steady stream of talent to feed into the big team. More than that, very few just “pass through” AAA-level ball. This is a real testing ground for pitchers and hitters. So we may get to see a lot of them. Furthermore, we have a first rate managing/coaching crew with the team.

All of which is not going to keep me from complaining about the Rays. Hey, it’s baseball!

For Durham Bulls history, check out the Bulls web page and the Wikipedia page, which is pretty much up to date.

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