Friday, March 22, 2013

Durham Bulls Basics 2013 — Part 2


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. Although, Charlotte and Norfolk aren't all that far away ...

In 2013 the first home game (April 8) against the Gwinnett Braves is five games into the International League season. The Bulls start their season at Norfolk against the Norfolk Tides on April 4. The last home game (August 27) is against the Charlotte Knights, but the Bulls will have five more away games before the season ends on September 2.

A very important feature of the schedule is that the Bulls only play 8 games against each team outside the South Division, 4 at home and 4 away. That means that if you are a Boston fan the only chance you’ll get to see Red Sox prospects will be July 18 - 21. That’s it. They won’t be back unless both teams are in the playoffs in September. The same is true if you’re a Yankees fan (May 31 - June 3), a Reds fan (June 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 only 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. (Well, it’s a bit difficult to call an Orioles fan as being in any sort of luck, but you get the idea.) Those teams will be here a lot this year (Charlotte - 11, Norfolk - 11,  and Gwinnett - 10 times)

The Bulls have a 9-game home stand in August, but home stands usually run 4 - 8 days. Road trips are often 8 days long, but sometimes they are shorter.

Triple-A ballplayers have a much more relentless schedule than major leaguers. 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 17, well past mid-season, and will be played at the ballpark of the Reno Aces out in Nevada. 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 2014 All-Star game is to be played at the DBAP.

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 at the home ballpark of the Lehigh Valley IronPigs on September 17, 2013.

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 five of the last six years.

The 40-Man Roster

And now, sigh, let’s talk about the Tampa Bay Rays.

To clear up some possible confusion, 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).

Every major league team consists of 25 players on the “active” roster. Those are the guys in the games and in the box scores, traveling in chartered airplanes, and making a decent, sometimes obscene, amounts of money. An additional 15 players are added to make up the 40-man roster. In general, once a player makes it to the 25-man active roster he stays there (unless traded, sold, or designated for assignment). For players who have been around for a while, there are all sorts of byzantine rules regarding how this works. To complicate matters, last year the rules were changed allowing the major league teams to expand their roster to 26 on days that they have a double-header. What matters to Bulls fans, however, is that a Bull cannot be called up to play in a Rays game (even to temporarily replace an injured player) 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 11 to 12 of the players on the 40-man will be assigned to Durham and they will probably be split about 6 or 7 pitchers and 4 or 5 position players. Players on the 40-man who aren't with the Bulls are oddities a bit difficult to explain and don't really make that much difference to us. Mostly they are playing at AA and lower levels. Of the pitchers, one or two will be prospective starting pitchers, the other potential relievers. Fairly often when WDBB writes about a Bull we will mention whether or not he's on the 40-man.

Why are the players we see here playing for the Bulls? 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 almost all of the players on the 40-man who start the year with the Bulls will at least get a few days with the Rays. Some will go there and stay.

What about the Bulls who aren’t on the 40-man? Unless Tampa Bay takes someone off the 40-man, they cannot be called up. Adjustment to the 40-man roster can, and does, happen, but not very often. On the other hand, the Rays are nothing if not creative in gaming the major league player rules system.

The 40-man roster also has an effect on how the players who are with the Bulls are used. For example, pitchers may be on limited 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).

My point is that sometimes what we see on the field is often decided in St. Petersburg, not in the Bulls’ clubhouse. 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. And with this new 26 man roster for double header rule, Bulls’ pitching rotations can get really screwed up with a pitcher being called up for a spot start and then coming back.

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, in the Rays system very few upcoming prospects just “pass through” AAA-level ball. Time with the Bulls is a real and very serious testing ground for pitchers and hitters. That means we will get to see a lot of very talented ballplayers with first rate managing/coaching crew. Lastly, of course, without the Rays we wouldn’t have AAA ball here at all.

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

For  more background on the 111 years of Durham Bulls history, check out the Bulls’ web page and the Wikipedia page.

For WDBB's and other views on who are the Great Triple-A Durham Bulls see this post and this one and another from earlier this year.

If you missed Part 1, check it out here.

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