⇒ Also this week in Sports: Carolina RailHawks begin league play Saturday
When the Tampa Bay Rays won the American League pennant last year and stepped into the World Series spotlight—in their specially designed fleece-flapped-for-frigid-Philly caps—everything changed for the Durham Bulls.
The Rays had patiently drafted superb prospects over the last several seasons, and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park was a proving ground for many of them. The problem was that those prospects were then called up to a terrible major league team with an indifferent fan base. Being a Bulls fan was a bit like rooting for soldiers training for a distant war in which they'd be cut to pieces.
No longer. The Rays are suddenly the reigning American League champs, leaping from worst to first in just one season: The franchise has bypassed puberty and moved directly into adulthood. The Bulls suddenly matter a great deal—doubly so given that Tampa's affluent division rivals, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, went out this winter and cashed in their chips for new weapons (the Yankees lavished an eye-popping $400 million on just three players), while the Rays held their cards. If an ace is needed, he will probably be drawn from the Durham deck.
And that brings us to David Price—no, not the local congressman, but the No. 1 overall pick (out of Vanderbilt) in the 2007 draft. Last season, Price rode his rocket fastball and slider quickly through the Tampa farm system, stopping briefly in Durham before reaching Tampa in September. After throwing just 14 regular-season innings for the Rays, Price was made their postseason closer—a high-stakes role raised even higher by the timing: Price's first save was in the pennant-clinching Game Seven of the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox (he struck out three of four hitters). His solid performance in the ensuing World Series was muted by the Rays' loss to Philadelphia, but the 23-year-old Price had apparently punched his ticket to Tampa.
Or had he? As spring training unfolded, rumors emerged that Price might end up in Durham again. Three reasons: 1) to protect his young arm by strictly limiting his workload, easier to do in the pressure-free minors; 2) to find a place to put one of the three prospects vying for the final slot in the Rays' rotation (the other two, former Bulls Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann, must be played or traded this year under baseball's byzantine transaction rules); 3) to have him work on his changeup. If Price has a weakness (other than his elbow, perhaps, which he mildly strained early last season), it's that he doesn't vary his speeds much, and major league hitters will hit even bullet-speed pitches if you don't keep them off balance by mixing in slower stuff. Although Price claimed in March that he was throwing his changeup with total confidence, that wasn't enough to keep the Tampa front office from assigning him to Durham, much to the consternation of the national media, who kvetched more about Price's demotion than about any minor-league transaction since the Rays pulled a similar stunt with blue-chip third baseman Evan Longoria last year. (They quickly regained their senses and promoted him, whereupon he rewarded them by winning the Rookie of the Year Award.) In years past, Price's demotion would have been a mere transaction-wire footnote. Now it's big news.
The upshot? Durham Bulls fans get to watch a pitcher with nearly limitless potential work at the DBAP. But look hard and look fast: If Price does well, he won't be here long—even Father's Day is probably a reach.
(Speaking of special Prices—and things to do with your dad—the Bulls' PR folks reminded us recently that a trip to the DBAP remains one of the true bargains in entertainment; when Price takes the mound you get major league diversion at minor league expense.)
It isn't quite right to say that Price is the Nuke LaLoosh of the 2009 Bulls—for one thing, he's refuted Annie Savoy's Bull Durham claim that "when somebody leaves Durham, they don't come back" (in her defense, the Bulls were a Class A team back then, not a AAA holding pen)—and the 33-year-old Adam Kennedy isn't quite Crash Davis either, although they both share names with former presidents, if you count the Confederacy. For one thing, Kennedy is a second baseman, not a catcher; for another, he's a proven major-league quantity with a World Series ring. Kennedy finished in the top 10 in Rookie of the Year voting in 2000 for the Anaheim Angels and was the American League Championship Series MVP in 2002. His numbers have declined over the last couple of years, partially due to knee injuries, and when he was let go by St. Louis, the Rays picked him up. Kennedy can play many positions other than second base, and his versatility recommends him for a callup if there are injuries in Tampa. The veteran amiably accepted his assignment to Durham, where he'll move around the diamond as necessary and hope for a promotion.
He may also help mentor, Crash Davis-style, a real Davis—Wade—and Mitch Talbot. These two starting pitchers are knocking on the door of the majors. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Davis, considered by some the second-best Rays pitching prospect after Price, is a classic power pitcher who has added a changeup and a cutter to his 96-mph fastball and curveball arsenal. There doesn't appear to be much room for him in the Rays' starting rotation right now (not even Price can crack it), but with a stellar performance in Durham this year, Davis can force the issue. Talbot isn't as highly regarded, but his numbers have improved over two seasons in Durham, and he'll be back to further refine his skills. He could fit in as a middle reliever for Tampa, or as a fourth or fifth starter elsewhere.
The Rays have a rare and wonderful problem: too much good pitching. Arms will thus be the focus this season in Durham, where there are no prized hitting prospects like former Bulls Longoria, B.J. Upton, Elijah Dukes, Carl Crawford, et al. But keep an eye on these two position players:
- Reid Brignac. The 23-year-old Louisiana shortstop was the Rays' very highly regarded second-round pick in the 2004 draft. His productivity has tailed off over the last couple of seasons, though, so this year is an important one for him—especially because the Rays also had the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft (great draft position is perhaps the only benefit of perennial bottom-dwelling) and used it and more than $6 million to sign high school shortstop Tim Beckham. Just 19 years old, Beckham is unlikely to reach Durham this season, but his presence puts heat on Brignac to establish himself. There are rumors, too, about moving Brignac to second base, perhaps in anticipation of Beckham's emergence.
- John Jaso. Some say that the Rays' top catching prospect swings a bat that is nearly major-league ready. If he continues to improve, the Rays may have to consider giving him a shot to unseat Tampa incumbent Dioner Navarro, a banjo hitter who gets by on his defense. If nothing else, former Bull Shawn Riggans will have to keep earning his pay as Navarro's backup.
In addition, there will be other familiar faces on the roster, including Elliot Johnson, Chris Richard, Justin Ruggiano, Dale Thayer and Jon Weber.
And finally, get well soon Fernando Perez! No doubt the Indy's favorite Bull, the base-stealing, John Ashbery-reading Columbia grad seemed poised to stick on the Rays' major league roster this season. But the dismaying news came last week that Perez severely injured his wrist diving for a catch in a spring training game (perhaps due to a new, larger glove Perez was trying out that got caught in the turf). He's out at least four months. We wish him a miraculous return to health, knowing that if anyone can get somewhere faster than humanly possible, it's Perez. Until then, the centerfield grass at the DBAP will be lonely without him.
The Durham Bulls open their season at home Thursday, April 9, at 7:05 p.m. against the Norfolk Tides. Mitch Talbot will be on the mound, with David Price getting the start Friday. As it happens, the nation's No. 1 hitting prospect, Matt Wieters, plays for Norfolk, so Friday night promises a showdown between the two best players in the minor leagues.
Adam Sobsey covers the Durham Bulls for Triangle Offense, the Indy's sports blog.