by Adam Sobsey
Even with UNC's unsightly stumble at Maryland on Saturday (the Heels squandered an easy win via one of the worst endgames I've seen a supposedly elite team play), the ACC regular season title is still theirs to win. They can even lose another game as long as it isn't at home on Senior Day against Duke, and will still finish first via tiebreakers. Barring a total Tar Heel meltdown over the next couple of weeks, at this point we're reduced to watching the rabble play musical chairs with slots 2-6 (more or less) and waiting it out until sweaty-palmed tournament season arrives.
Which is to say: It's a great time for Durham Bulls notes!
At least one commentator believes that briefly-a-Bull David Price, the phenom who emerged as a major piece of the Tampa Bay Rays' pitching puzzle late last year, ought to begin the season back in Durham rather than in Tampa, where he has been expected to move into the Rays' starting rotation. In the euphoria surrounding Price's key contributions to the Rays' improbable run to the 2008 World Series, it had been conveniently forgotten that Price had minor elbow problems last year. Those problems may simply have been the result of throwing too many innings at too young an age. In that case, argues Chuck Johnson of Dugout Central, why not baby him a little in AAA before throwing him to the major league wolves again? Also, Johnson notes, Price needs to develop a changeup, or some other offspeed pitch that will keep hitters off-balance. Although he is a legitimate power pitcher, major leaguers will catch up to even his fastest fastballs. The key is to change speeds and locations. Just ask Greg Maddux: By the end of his Hall-of-Fame career, his fastball could barely beat a school bus to home plate.
Complicating matters further are the byzantine rules that govern the movement of players back and forth from the minors to the majors. Rays' pitchers Jeff Niemann and Jason Hammel, both of whom have seen significant time in Durham, are "out of options." That means they can't be returned to Durham from the big leagues without "clearing waivers." During the waiver period, any team can claim that player, so the Rays would risk losing Niemann and Hammel if they tried to demote either player to make room for Price. What this boils down to is that the Rays have three pitchers vying for one slot in the rotation, two of whom have to be played or traded.
The easiest thing to do is to let Price get his feet wet in Durham this spring while the Rays figure out what to do with Niemann and Hammel. But the Rays took a lot of flack last year when they let Evan Longoria start the year in Durham even though he was clearly the best third baseman they had (they were trying to save money). The Tampa front office regained its senses and promoted him -- and he won the Rookie of the Year Award. So the Rays have a pretty good problem here: Not many teams have too many good pitchers. We all want to see Price succeed in the majors, of course; but would it be so terrible if before that he succeeded here in Durham just a little more?
One other item of note about the Rays' pitching maneuvers: Tampa recently signed Jason Isringhausen to a minor league deal. Isringhausen was once part of the trio of promising young New York Mets' starting pitchers ("Generation K," along with Paul Wilson and Bill Pulsipher) who were expected to lift that team out of its doldrums back in the mid-1990s. Injuries derailed all three careers, but Isringhausen got back on track as a reliever. In the first half of this decade, he excelled as the closer for Oakland and then St. Louis. Injuries, however, have returned, and Isringhausen was without a job until the Rays picked him up off the discard pile a couple of weeks ago. If indeed David Price, who closed for Tampa in the postseason, moves into the starting rotation, and if last year's original closer, Troy Percival, can't rebound from the injuries that ended his season early, Isringhausen may get a chance to step into the breach. Until and unless that happens, we could get to see him try to rehabilitate his arm and his career at the DBAP.