Friday, March 31, 2017

Remembering Sidd Finch

Once each year Watching Durham Bulls Baseball invites our readers to take a moment to recall the all-too-brief career of an exceptional baseball player, and horn player of some note, Sidd Finch.

Photo courtesy Sports Illustrated

For those among you who were witness to those unforgettable events back in 1985, this is a chance to bring that gentle young man back from his undeserved obscurity, if only for a brief stay among us. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Finch’s contributions to the game we commend to you the brilliant essay by George Plimpton in Sports Illustrated that first brought this gentle soul to our attention. 

Photo courtesy Sports Illustrated.

Update for 2015: Mr. Finch's fame has now extended even into the realm of Wikipedia.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Who's in Camp? Durham Bulls from 2016

2016 Position Players

Of the 19 Durham Bulls who played in 25 games or more in 2016, just 8 are in the major league camp with the Rays this spring. And of those, 3 are on the 40-man roster of the Rays, having a shot at sticking with the team. For more info, check out our end-of-season report here.

Here's last season's group, listed in order of # of games played. Players now in the Rays camp are in bold.

  • Richie Shaffer, 199 games: Now with Cleveland Indians (via Mariners, Phillies, and Reds over the winter)
  • Daniel Robertson, 118 games with Bulls in 2016: On Rays 40-man. Infielder. 22 years old. Not having a particularly good spring with 23 ABs and just 2 hits.
  • Dayron Varona, 117 games in 2016: Non-Roster invite to spring training. Outfielder. This spring: 6 hits in 18 ABs. 
  • Jaff Decker, 99 games in 2016. Now with Oakland Athletics.
  • Jake Goebbert, 93 games in 2016. Now with Arizona Diamondbacks.
  • Taylor Motter, 88 games in 2016. Now with Seattle Mariners
  • J.P. Arencibia, 78 games. Free agent?
  • Jake Hager, 71 games with Bulls in 2016. Non-Roster Invite. Infielder. 23 years old. Spring so far: 21 ABs, 3 hits.
  • Johnny Field, 69 games. NRI. Outfield. 16 ABs. 3 hits.
  • Nick Franklin, 64 games. On 40-man. Infield. Having a decent spring, but only 18 AB and 9 hits.
  • Luke Maile, 58 games. On 40-man. Catcher. 20 AB, 8 hits. 
  • Kyle Roller, 50 games. Free agent?
  • Casey Gillaspie, 47 games. NRI. Infield (1B). 24 years old. Impressive spring. 19 AB, 5 hits (2 HR).
  • Patrick Leonard. 42 games. NRI. Infield. 18 AB, 4 hits.
  • Cameron Seitzer. 40 games. With Chicago White Sox
  • Juniel Querecuto, 36 games. With San Francisco Giants
  • Hank Conger. 30 games. With Arizona Diamondbacks.
  • Mikie Mahtook, 27 games. With Detroit Tigers.
  • Eury Perez, 17 games. With Pittsburgh Pirates (May see him with Indianapolis).
Update [14 March]: Ooops! This is position players only. Makes my head hurt trying to keep track of the pitchers.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Durham Bulls Basics — 2017 — Part 3

The Players

Each of the 30 major league teams 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 a 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, a 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, amount of money.

The 40-man Roster

An additional 15 players are added to 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 changed last year 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. The current Rays' 40-man is here. And their 25-man, "active," roster is here.

If previous years are typical, we can expect that 11 to 12 of the players on the 40-man, but not on the 25-man roster will be assigned to Durham. Of those 6 or 7 will be pitchers and 4 or 5 will be position players. Of the pitchers, one or two will be prospective starting pitchers, the others 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, need to work on a specific skill — sometimes all of the above.

The odds of a player 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.

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 — just not very often. On the other hand, the Rays are nothing if not creative in gaming the 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 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.

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, 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 some talented ballplayers. 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 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 bookstores, the Bulls ballpark store (on sale, $20!) 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.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Durham Bulls Basics — 2017 — Part 2

The Schedule

The International League schedules 142 games for each of its teams (down from 144 in 2016). Half of those games are played at home. So, unless you are truly a Durham Bulls fanatic, you will only have 71 chances to see your Bulls during the regular season. Although, Charlotte or Norfolk isn’t all that far away ...

In 2017 the Bulls have an exhibition game against Duke (née Trinity College) at 6 pm on April 4th. But their regular season starts April 6th down in Lawrenceville, Georgia against the Gwinnett Braves. The first home game is April 10th against the Chicago White Sox affiliate, the Charlotte Knights. The last home game of the season is a Sunday game against the Norfolk Tides on August 27. The Bulls' season ends September 4th back in Lawrenceville.

An important feature of the IL schedule is that the Bulls only play a few home games against teams 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 three games the first weekend of June (2-4). 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 (four games against the RailRiders, August 10-13). Detroit  fans, in an exception to the rule, will see their team, the Toledo Mud Hens, come to town twice (May 12-14 and July 7-9). Said another way, the Bulls only play 36 games at home against the teams from outside the South Division.

On the other hand, if you’re a Braves (Gwinnett - 11) or White Sox (Charlotte - 13) or Orioles (Norfolk - 11) 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 than the big league guys, 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 12, well past mid-season, and will be played up in Tacoma, Washington at the home field of the Tacoma Rainiers (Seattle AAA affiliate). 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” is to be played on September 19, 2017 in Moosic, Pennsylvania, home field of the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.

The Durham Bulls, as all readers of this blog must know, 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 ten 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.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Durham Bulls Basics — 2017 — 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 2017 version. This is mostly stuff I did not know before my first Bulls game. I hope it doesn’t come off as being too basic.

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 parts 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 an International League team back in Cuba as soon as a major league team can make a deal. Note that the Tampa Bay Rays played the Cuban National Team in Havana last spring. Maybe a new team could be named the Sugar Kings, after the last International League AAA team that played in Havana. Why not move the Atlanta Braves affiliate since they only drew 3,000 fans per game 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 Bayamo, the Cuban National Anthem, 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 is here.