by Mike Potter
The Durham Bulls, who have billed themselves as “America’s Favorite Minor League Team,” play at the Triple-A level, just one step from the Major League show.
In their 17th season as the top affiliates of the Tampa Bay Rays, the Bulls are defending Governors Cup Champions and during their run have won that title four times plus one National Championship.
The Carolina Mudcats play in the storied Class A-Advanced Carolina League, where they have been for the past three seasons. The CL is known as a place that separates the wheat from the chaff and the men from the boys among minor-league prospects.
And as the affiliates of the Cleveland Indians, the Mudcats inherited a long winning tradition from when the team was known as the Kinston Indians.
Durham Bulls Athletic Park is due for a grand re-opening after a $20 million renovation, while the Mudcats’ Five County Stadium has a reputation as one of the best facilities in A-ball.
There will be high hopes all around as the teams open their seasons at home about 10 minutes apart.
Nathan Karns (10-6, 3.26 at Harrisburg in ’13) will take the mound at 6:05 for the Bulls against the Gwinnett Braves, skippered by long-ago former Bulls manager Brian Snitker. Gavin Floyd (0-4, 5.18 at Atlanta) is set to start for the G-Braves.
And the Mudcats will play their first game under new manager Scooter Tucker, who was at Lake County of the Midwest League last season. 2013 Mudcats manager David Wallace is now managing Double-A Akron.
Mudcats lefty Shawn Morimando (8-13, 3.73 in ’13) is set to fire his first pitch against the Potomac Nationals at 6:15.
Durham Bulls outlook
Eighth-year skipper Charlie Montoyo has been one of the most successful managers in the minor leagues during his tenure in Durham, with six division and two league titles and the 2009 National Championship to his credit.
And no fewer than 13 players who were in Durham last season are on the 25-man active roster.
Karns is on the Rays’ 40-man roster along with two fellow starting pitchers, Bulls returnees lefties Enny Romero and Mike Montgomery. Returning bullpen stalwarts lefties Jeff Beliveau, C.J. Riefenhauser and Kirby Yates are also on the 40-man, along with newcomer and one-time Mudcats right-hander Brad Boxberger, outfielder Kevin Kiermaier and infield returnee Vince Belnome.
Newcomers Matt Andriese and lefty Eric Bedard are the other starters, while ’13 Bulls right-handers Steve Geltz and
Merrill Kelly and returning lefties Adam Liberatore and Juan Sandoval are in the pen.
Cole Figueroa and Mike Fontenot are back in the infield as is former (’09 and ’11) Bull Ray Olmedo. Long-time former Braves farmhand Wilson Betemit is also in the infield along with Robby Price who is up from Montgomery.
Smithfield-Selma product Jerry Sands joins the Bulls in the outfield as does Justin Christian.
Kevin Kiermaier will be back as the everyday center fielder, while Mikie Matook — the Rays’ No. 1 pick in 2011 — also joins the outfield corps.
Catchers are Eddy Rodriguez, who was at Tucson last season, and Ali Solis, who was at Indianapolis.
Carolina Mudcats outlook
Tucker will have 10 players who suited up for the 2013 Mudcats including Morimando on his Opening Night roster.
The other starting pitchers are right-hander Michael Peoples, southpaw Ryan Merritt and right-hander Cole Sulser, all up from Mahoning Valley. Louis Head, Jacob Lee, Josh Martin, Rob Nixon, Grant Sides and Benny Suarez all return on the pitching staff. Elvis Araujo, D.J. Brown, Louis Head and Carlos Melo are newcomers.
Returnees Todd Hankins and Joe Sever will likely be the regular starters at second and first.
Newcomers Alex Mosalve will be the No. 1 catcher, Yandy Diaz the third baseman, and Logan Vick and Ollie Linton in the outfield.
Newcomers Jeremy Lucas and Charlie Valerio will back up at catcher, while holdovers Yhoxian Medina are the utility infielder and Anthony Gallas the fourth outfielder.
They said it:
Bulls manager Montoyo: “It’s a different year, but it’s going to be fun Saturday when we get the (championship) rings. It’s even tougher to make it when your big-league club is in the playoffs. The one thing the Rays want to teach is championship baseball, so when these guys get to the big leagues they’re winners.”
Bulls outfielder Sands: “I played in a graveyard last year in Indianapolis, so I’m hoping to benefit from playing in a little bit more of a hitters’ park. I had a terrible season last year. In the spring I just wanted to get down to the basics and get comfortable again. Last year I got into a rut and couldn’t get out. And when you start doubting yourself nothing’s going to work. I had a pretty good spring, got my confidence back and started swinging the bat really well.”
Bulls infielder Belnome: “If you’re going to play Triple-A Baseball you might as well play here. Great city, great fans, great ballpark. This place is beautiful. It’s enjoyable to come to the field every day. This is like the Big Leagues of Triple-A. This bunch of guys is the same as last year if not better. Good team chemistry and a bunch of good guys on the team. We’ll find a way to win any way possible.”
Mudcats manager Tucker: “I think you’re going to find we’re a team that’s got a lot of guys with grit. They play hard and like playing the game. You’re going to get max effort just about every night. We’re still concentrating so much on developing these guys that we put them into situations to challenge them that may not be the perfect fit if you were managing for a Major League team. You’d match up different or pinch-hit different. We have to keep them in mind and not worry about my record.”
Mudcats pitcher Morimando: “This is my first (Opening-game start) one in the minor leagues. I’m excited to have the opportunity to open it up and hopefully get off to a good start. Being in the league last year helps a lot. I’ve got an understanding of what’s going on and am a little more relaxed. I’ll have a good feel for what’s going on around me and what I’m supposed to do.”
Mudcats outfielder Washington: “All I can do is take advantage of where I am and play hard day-by-day. It seems like everybody is hungry and wants to take the spot of somebody in front of him. The pitcher’s mound is the pitcher’s mound, home plate is home plate and they’ve got to throw it over the plate. A lot of people tell me stuff about this league, but I’m going to stay with my same approach. It’s baseball. I’m not going to see anybody throwing with his foot.”