The Tampa Bay Rays are the Bulls' parent club.
We sometimes forget that all of the players, all the coaches, and almost everyone else in the dugout, work for Tampa Bay. Consequently, it's fair to say that what happens in Durham doesn't stay in Durham. How responsible are the Rays for this year's Bulls' performance? 100%
So, what about them Rays?
They are not a very good baseball team, not this year, not most years since they were formed. At the moment they are 21 games below .500 and in last place in the American League East. Their team OPS of .739 is 10th in the 15-team league; the team ERA of 4.18 is 13th. Most years, the Ray's rep is built around pitching, not so much this year. The most notable statistical oddity about the team is that the Pythagorean Expectation number says that they "should" be at just 5 games below .500. That difference between actual (-21) and expected (-5) is usually attributed to a combination of bad luck and pitching. We'd agree. The hitting is OK. Plus, their defense is OK. The "Defensive Difference Index" of 6.88% is actually better than the league average of 6.95%
But we are interested in the Durham Bulls.
Our view is that there are some systemic problems with the Rays and that those problems are having an effect on both teams. The issues show up in 1) player development, 2) selecting and managing/coaching veteran players, and 3) overall managing/coaching.
For example, so far this season, up in Tampa Bay, if you look at games played by position players [BaseballRef], of the top 7 players only two (Evan Longoria and Kevin Kiermaier) came up through the Rays system and played in Durham. Of the next seven, 3 players (Desmond Jennings, Tim Beckham, and Mikie Mahtook) came up through the Rays system and two others from outside the Rays system (Nick Franklin and Brandon Guyer) spent some time with the Bulls.
For pitchers, the picture is slightly better. Of the 24 (so far) pitchers in Rays' games, seven (the traded-off Matt Moore, late-season call-up Blake Snell, returned from rehab Alex Cobb, and relievers Alex Colome, Ryan Garton, Dylan Floro, and Enny Romero) came through the Rays system. Plus almost all of the rest we've seen in Durham one time or another.
Does the fact that not many ex-Bulls are playing for the Rays help explain why the Bulls have not been very good these last few years? Well, maybe. But that's certainly not all of the picture. As important is probably that they are not doing a very good job of spotting or managing veteran talent. Back in 2013 (with a lot of help) we put together some stats on "greatest" Durham Bulls. (here, here, and here). Unless you happen to be a thorough-going baseball fanatic, you may not recognize many of those names. But Bulls fans do. Our concern is that, without diving into the data too deeply, it doesn't look like any names could be added in the three years since we made up the list. What does that mean? It means that the Rays are not seeking out and finding quality ballplayers to fill out the Bulls' roster. Just exactly what did Kyle Roller, Jake Goebbert, Eury Perez and Carlos Corporan bring to the 2016 Bulls? About as much as 2015's Eugenio Valez, Bobby Wilson, Grady Sizemore, Jose Constanza, and Alexi Casilla. Only Casilla's OPS of .827 is particularly respectable among that bunch, and he got dumped in mid-season.
Then there was the using playing for the Bulls as a "punishment" at the end of the season. Two players on the 40-man were sent down and not recalled after the Bulls season ended, reportedly because the Rays didn't want them around. What does that say about being a Durham Bull?
Management? The record speaks for itself. How much difference does a management crew make? We have witnessed three of the Bulls losing seasons and if there's a thread it's that the "veterans" didn't contribute as much as they could/should. We fans expect the youngsters to have growing pains. But we also expect the veterans to come up with the timely double play, home run, accurate throw from the field, and smart base-running moment that wins games. And a competent job of pitching. However, even veterans need solid coaching and managing. Is coaching/managing another thread that's running throughout the Rays system as an issue? Begins to look like it.