Thursday, March 31, 2016

New Net Going Up Today

Netting going up at DBAP today. Just think, in 2016 you can play with your smartphone with no risk of getting hit by a bat or ball — of course, you're not going to be able to see the game as well, but you weren't really watching anyhow.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Durham Bulls Basics 2016 - Part 3

The Players

Each major league team has 25 players = 750 major league baseball players. Out of those 25, usually 13 are pitchers and 12 are position players = 390 pitchers (usually 5 starters - 150; and 8 relievers - 240); 360 position players. Of those 12 position players most teams have 2 catchers, 5 infielders, and 5 outfielders.

For those 750 guys who are on a major league roster, we have another 750 players divided into 25 man teams who are in Triple-A and, trust me, every one of them could be playing in the major leagues today.

How do the Durham Bulls fit into that?

Well, now, sigh, we need to talk about the Tampa Bay Rays, who own the players wearing the Durham Bulls uniform. To oversimplify just the bit, the Tampa Bay Rays have a contract to provide the Durham Bulls a baseball team. In turn, the Durham Bulls provide a place to play and folks to cheer them on (that would be us).

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).

As mentioned above, 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.

The 40-man Roster

An additional 15 players are added the 25 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, sold, released, 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, the rules were recently changed to allow 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.

What about the rest of the team? Without exception — and this is part of what makes AAA baseball so much fun — they are ballplayers who have played or are judged capable of playing at the major league level. The precise reason why they are not playing there is also part of the fun — too young, too old, no room at the top, needs to work on a specific skill — sometimes all of the above.

The odds of a player 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.

However, unless Tampa Bay takes someone off the 40-man, a non-40 man player 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 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 and Bulls fans) 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 some very talented ballplayers with first rate managing/coaching crew. Lastly, 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!

More Stuff

For  more background on the 114 years of Durham Bulls history, check out the Bulls’ History link page and their Wikipedia page.

For a terrific book about Triple-A baseball, the Durham Bulls, and sheer great writing and photography, you cannot go wrong by picking up a copy of Bull City Summer. Available at local book stores, the Bulls ballpark store or online shops. We reviewed the book here.

If you missed them, check out Part 1 and Part 2, and you will be the expert in the DBAP this year.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Good Grief! Dan Johnson is Back!

Dan Johnson Crossing Home Plate After Home Run, DBAP, 2010

Dan Johnson, who collected just about every award he could get during parts of three seasons with the Durham Bulls and is now 36 years old, has been signed to a minor league contract with the Tampa Bay Rays — as a knuckleballer!

I'm not sure this is going to be fun to watch or not. Love watching knuckleballers, but can't remember one pitching for the Bulls in recent years. 

Stories all over the place, but all of them about his heroics as a Tampa Bay Ray. However, here at WDBB we mentioned him some 92 times! Guess we thought he made a difference. As a minor league signee, good chance he will show up at the DBAP eventually.

Stories on Rays website, RaysIndex, DRaysBay, and MLB Trade Rumors. With many more to come I am sure.

Update [6 March]: Former Bulls broadcaster Neil Solondz has a nice interview with former Bull Dan Johnson. Here.
Update [31 March]: DJ has been released by the Rays.

Durham Bulls Basics 2016 - 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 2016 the Bulls opens their season on April 7 against the Chicago White Sox affiliate, the Charlotte Knights. The last game of the season is a day game at home against the Norfolk Tides on September 5.

A important feature of the IL schedule is that the Bulls only play a few home games against each team outside the South Division.  That means that if you are a Boston fan the only chance you’ll get to see Red Sox prospects will be the four games July 7 thru 10. 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 (three games, May 30-31, June 1). Cincinnati  fans, in an exception to the rule, will see their team, the Louisville Bats, come to town twice (April 27-29 and July 29-31). Said another way, the Bulls only play 35 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.

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 13, well past mid-season, and will be played up in Charlotte. 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, 2016 in Memphis, Tennessee.

The Durham Bulls, as all readers of this blog must know, in just the most recent years won the Governors’ Cup and the AAA Championship in 2009, the Governors’ Cup in 2013, and has won the Southern Division championship seven of the last nine years.

This year’s schedule is at the Bulls web site here. If you want to download a calendar file of the home games to your computer or smartphone the file is here. Lastly, for a full schedule of all the teams in the International League, a schedule is here.

Part 1 of Bulls Basics is here. Part 3 is here.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Durham Bulls Basics 2016 - Part 1

For the last couple of years WDBB has made a stab at presenting the basics of this terrific baseball team. Here’s Part 1 of our 2016 version. I hope it doesn’t come off as too basic, but this is mostly stuff I did not know when I became a Bulls fan.

If you see a mistake, let me know. 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 Triple-A baseball is one step below Major League Baseball.

Major League Baseball has 30 teams: 15 in the American League and 15 in the National League. 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? Except, of course, that there’s a AAA Mexican League with 16 teams and recognized by Major League Baseball as being AAA, but I’ve never been able to figure that one out. (This is the last mention of the Mexican League for another year.)

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, for example, are all in the Pacific Coast League not in the International 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), Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago (White Sox), Toronto, and Minnesota. That gives the IL 9 American League and 5 National League affiliates.

Logic would say that since AAA is the next step down from the majors, the teams would prefer 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 from Atlanta over in Lawrenceville, Georgia. On the other hand, Charlotte is pretty far from Chicago and the Durham-to-St. Petersburg 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.

With the re-opening of relations with Cuba, my bet is that we will see a International League team back in Cuba as soon as a major league team can make a deal. Note that the Tampa Bay Rays are playing the Cuban National Team in Havana this month. Maybe they will even name them the Sugar Kings, after the last International League AAA team that played in Havana. Why not move the Washington National’s affiliate, currently in Syracuse, New York? Not much of a fan base up there. They drew only slightly over 250,00 fans last year (the Bulls brought in more than twice as many). Only problem I see with a team in Cuba is learning the words to La Bayamesa, much less singing it.

With teams from both the National and American Leagues, what about the designated hitter rule? The DH rule is in effect in all games except 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 - Toronto Blue Jays
Lehigh Valley IronPigs - Philadelphia Phillies
Pawtucket Red Sox - Boston Red Sox
Rochester Red Wings - Minnesota Twins
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

Part 2 is here. Part 3 here.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Where the Bulls Are

In some ways the 2016 Durham Bulls don’t yet exist. But we know where they are. They are playing baseball here, right next to Bert’s Black Widow Harley-Davidson shop outside Port Charlotte, Florida.

During Spring Training this is a very busy place. Come summer it’s the home of the Charlotte Stone Crabs, the Rays’ Single-A team. (The Stone Crabs are followed in Jim Donten’s blog Claw Digest and he’s already watching).