Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Governors' Cup Playoff Series Preview: Durham Bulls vs. Columbus Clippers

Posted by on Tue, Sep 6, 2011 at 11:25 PM

For the fifth straight year, and Charlie Montoyo's fifth as manager, the Durham Bulls have qualified for the International League playoffs.

Before we go any further, it's worth taking a moment to appreciate what a rare and remarkable accomplishment that is—especially in the chancy environment of Class AAA baseball.

There are those who might argue that, because the Tampa Bay Rays have one of baseball's top farm systems, Montoyo's job is easy. All he has to do is preside over his two-dozen blue-chip prospects and watch the wins pile up.

For one thing, it doesn't really work that way—there are seldom more than three or four legit big-leaguers on any Triple-A roster. For another, every team at the Class AAA level has good players. The talent gap between the Durham Bulls and just about any other team, even the worst of them, is actually quite slim. Somehow, the Montoyo-piloted Bulls keep finding, every year, that margin of difference. We'll call it The Extra 2%, in honor of Jonah Keri's book-length homage to the Rays' acumen.

This year's team did not have the overall talent of last year's, which was so good that, for a while, it had eventual league OPS-leader Chris Richard batting seventh in the lineup. The 2011 Bulls were a more modest club in terms of talent and overall character. It wasn't until after the All Star break that this year's team really began to come into focus, when half a dozen Montgomery Biscuits began their collective rise to Durham. Those younger players, along with a few Class AAA stalwarts, helped Durham finish 80-62, good for the league's third best record. It was an over-achievement, and another boldfaced bullet-point on Charlie Montoyo's already loaded résumé .

The Bulls' reward for their accomplishments this year is a first-round rematch of the 2010 Governors' Cup Championship Series against the International League's best team by far: the Columbus Clippers.

"I kind of like it," Montoyo said this afternoon. "Because if we go through Columbus, our chances are better."

I actually have a prediction for this series. You can read through to the end, or just cheat and skip. But you'll feel dirty if you do.

Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo meets with the media in the Bulls home clubhouse, 6 September 2011.


First, the matchups:

Game One: Weds. (tonight!), Durham Bulls Athletic Park, 7:05 p.m. Clippers (Zach McAllister, RHP) @ Bulls (Matt Moore, LHP).

Game Two: Thurs., DBAP, 7:05 p.m. Clippers (Mitch Talbot RHP) @ Bulls (Chris Archer, RHP).

Game Three: Fri., Huntington Park (Columbus), 7:05 p.m. Bulls (Alex Torres, LHP) @ Clippers {TBA}.

Game Four (if necessary): Sat., Huntington Park, 7:05 p.m. Bulls (Matt Torra, RHP) @ Clippers {TBA}.

Game Five (if necessary): Sun., Huntington Park, 6:05 p.m. Bulls {TBA} @ Clippers {TBA}.

The Clippers, as you may recall, not only beat the Bulls in last year's championship series. They crushed them. The series went four games (of the maximum five), but it was not as close as Columbus' 3-1 margin might indicate. The Ohioans outscored Durham, 37-10 and out-homered them 9-1. Only one Durham starter lasted five innings. The Clippers had 20 hits in Game One, and then 20 more in Game Four. It was total destruction.

The 2011 Clippers were basically the 2010 Bulls: a rampaging juggernaut (88-56 overall) that far outpaced the rest of the league—they, like the 2010 Bulls, had essentially wrapped up the division title by the All-Star break—and then, come playoff time, was decimated by callups. The Cleveland Indians, Columbus' parent club, are still on the fringe of contention in the American League Central division, and it's close to all-hands-on-deck up there as they try to catch up to Detroit, 7 1/2 games ahead.

This afternoon, Montoyo was, naturally, asked to compare the 2011 Clippers to the 2010 club that lassoed his Bulls in last year's championship series. "They're different teams," he replied, and they are. In fact, as Montoyo often says of all teams throughout the ever-changing Triple-A season, the Columbus that sailed the ocean blue all year has undergone a sea change from the one the Bulls saw earlier this season—as have the Bulls themselves.

The 2010-2011 comparison is actually chiastic: it's not just that last year's Bulls look like this year's Clippers, it's also the other way around. Last season, a wave of hungry, talented Double-A callups from Akron to Columbus propelled the Clippers to the Governors' Cup title. This season, the Bulls have those up-and-comers: Chris Archer, Tim Beckham, Matt Moore, Stephen Vogt. (And they could wind up with former No. 1 draft pick Matt Bush. See way below.)

The International League playoffs are a strange beast. Coming as they do just after the September 1 major-league roster expansion date, when most of the International League's best remaining players (i.e. the ones who haven't already been called up) are brought up to the majors for the stretch drive, the contestants are a rather depleted bunch. What's left in Columbus, Durham et al is a motley crew of Class AAA soldiers (such as the Bulls' J. J. Furmaniak and Ray Olmedo); prospects who are either too green for the big leagues (Chris Archer, Tim Beckham, Matt Moore) or haven't proven themselves worthy (Alex Torres); and late-season reinforcements from Class AA (John Matulia, Stephen Vogt).

Let's take a look at significant transactions over the last month for the Bulls and Clippers:

COLUMBUS

Called up: Luis Valbuena (IF), Josh Judy (P), Jerad Head (OF), Cord Phelps (IF), Ezequiel Carrera (OF), Shelley Duncan (IF/OF), David Huff (P)

Released (to pitch in Japan): Justin Germano (P)

Added to roster: Matt LaPorta (1B), Mitch Talbot (P), Trevor Crowe (OF).

DURHAM

Called up: Brandon Guyer (OF), Andy Sonnanstine (P).

Released: None.

Added to roster: Chris Archer (P).

There have been a handful of other changes to both teams' rosters, but most in the form of non-impact Class AA promotions. It's unlikely that players like Durham's John Matulia and Columbus' Ben Copeland are going to have a huge effect upon the series.

As is obvious from the above lists, Columbus has undergone a much deeper overhaul than the Bulls have. Looking over the lineups from the June series these two teams played against one another, it's shocking how few Clippers remain compared to what the Bulls still have—seven of the nine Clippers who started those games are no longer with the team, as opposed to just four Bulls (one of whom was a scrub, Omar Luna, since replaced by superior players).

Even just in the last month, the Clippers have lost a very good starting pitcher (Huff), a valuable swingman (Germano, who threw a perfect game earlier this season), their closer (Judy, who saved 23 games), a pair of excellent middle infielders (Phelps and Valbuena), a speedy outfielder (Carrera), and a pair of power hitters (Duncan, Head). The Bulls have lost only a starting pitcher and an outfielder—an All Star outfielder, to be fair, but Valbuena was also an All Star.

The Clippers have been shored up a bit, however. Matt LaPorta, once considered the Indians' first baseman of the future (after bidding for an outfield spot), was just sent down to Columbus, and he is likely to step into Duncan's power-hitting shoes. Trevor Crowe, a starting outfielder for the Indians last season, is on a rehab assignment with Columbus after June shoulder surgery, and should be handled with caution.

But the big name—to Bulls fans, of course—is Mitch Talbot, the former Durham Bulls starting pitcher. Talbot was last seen in a Bulls game in September of 2009, when he came into the Triple-A National Championship game with the score tied in the 11th inning. Talbot tossed a six-pitch scoreless frame and then picked up credit for the win when the Bulls scored in the bottom of the inning.

And now he'll start Game Two at the DBAP. Against the Bulls.

Analysis follows.

Starters. Advantage: Durham.

With the mid- and late-season addition of 22-year-olds Matt Moore and Chris Archer, plus season-long Bulls strikeout leader Alex Torres, Durham probably has the best 1-2-3 rotational punch of any team in the playoffs. In fact, if they manage to win the Governors' Cup, it will probably be on the strength of those three arms. And that is to say nothing of Matt Torra, who has steadily found himself since a mid-season trade brought him over from the Diamondbacks organization. Over his last seven starts, Torra has pitched 37 innings, allowed just 31 baserunners (28 hits, 3 walks), and put together a sterling 1.95 ERA. Torra is scheduled to start Game Four of the series, at Columbus.

Moore has not been quite as dominant in his last few starts as he was when he first came to Durham in July. His fastball command has been a little weaker lately and he has been hit harder. Nonetheless, he has a 1.37 ERA in eight starts as a Bull, with 79 strikeouts in just 52 2/3 Triple-A innings. As for Archer, he called his most recent start, seven shutout innings at Charlotte, his best of the season so far. He seems to be on the rise as the season falls to its ending.

Better still, neither Archer nor Moore (nor Torra) has faced the Clippers this season, and none has seen any of its current players at any level in 2011 or, probably, in 2010 either. That works to their advantage, as does the rotation's lefty-righty-lefty-righty mix in the post-season. And as Archer said earlier today in a media session, every team he has played for since turning pro has been in the post-season, so he's not going to be cowed by the pressurized circumstances. Neither, I bet, is Moore, whose confidence matches that of Jeremy Hellickson in quantity if not quality: Hellickson was zombie-like at times; Moore's awareness is visible closer to the surface, and just as evident. He knows how good he is. The only guy you worry about is Torres, who is wound very tight.

Columbus sends its best starter to the mound in Game One, Zach McAllister. McAllister started Game Two of last year's Championship Series and beat the Bulls easily. He had an excellent 2011, posting the league's seventh-best ERA among qualifying starters (3.32) and showing great control, with just 31 walks in 154+ innings. McAllister threw an eight-inning complete game at Durham a little over three months ago, although he took the loss, allowing homers to current Bulls Russ Canzler and Dan Johnson.

The Game Two starter for Columbus will be Mitch Talbot. At his best, Talbot is a complete starting pitcher, with four good pitches and, by this point in his career, veteran know-how. He has also been known to have the occasional meltdown inning. Injured earlier this year, Talbot had been ineffective in Cleveland (where he posted a 6.33 ERA) and was finally outrighted to Class AAA when the Indians obtained Ubaldo Jimenez from Colorado.

The Game Three and Game Four starters for the Clippers are likely to be a pair of right-handers: 28-year-old Joe Martinez and Corey Kluber, 25, although it's not clear in which order. Paolo Espino, whom the Bulls saw in last year's championship series, could preempt either one of them. Martinez was sort of the Yohan Flande of the Clippers: like the Gwinnett Braves pitcher, he is a swingman who made a successful transition to the starting rotation, and like Flande he gets a good number of grounders. Kluber is a big but not overpowering right-hander who got off to a bad start and has since improved, but his ERA leveled off at a still poor 5.56. He walks a lot of batters. The Bulls saw both Kluber and Martinez twice each earlier this season, and hit them both reasonably well.

Hitters. Advantage: Columbus.

These are the league's top two hitting teams by the measurement of OPS. Columbus led the league in that category (.770), the Bulls were at .762. Columbus hit the most home runs; Durham was tied for third. The Bulls had a slight edge in total bases (+41 in in two fewer games); Columbus led the league in walks drawn, with 570—the Bulls drew just 444, good for just ninth in the 14-team league. Patience has been the Bulls' season-long problem at the plate. Neither team sole many bases.

Yes, they've been ravaged by callups—four of the IL's top 15 OPS-men this season are gone-to-Cleveland Clippers—but Columbus can still swing it. They can put out an infield that includes Jared Goedert (.839 OPS) at third base and either LaPorta or veteran Nick Johnson at first base. Second baseman Argenis Reyes batted .313 in 83 games. The outfield includes not just rehabbing Trevor Crowe but also Chad Huffman, who hit 13 homers and 30 doubles, and Travis Buck, who has spent chunks of the last five seasons in the majors. There are enough veteran hitters available to Columbus manager Mike Sarbaugh that Durham pitchers will have to throw strikes—and that is no given for Archer and Torres, who have struggled with control issues this season.

As for the Bulls' bats, it is hard to call. Although I'm giving the advantage to Columbus, there are all kinds of reasons to think that the Bulls might explode in the upcoming series, partly because a team-wide slump can only last so long (and the Bulls had 18 hits in their final game of the regular season). Durham was virtually unable to score runs over the last month—Montoyo mentioned that problem in his interview today—and yet the team has two of the league's top-20 hitters. Russ Canzler, as you probably know, was basically the best hitter in the IL, posting a league-leading .930 OPS and winning the MVP award.

What you may not be aware of is that Dan Johnson finished in the top 20 in OPS, after a season-long struggle to get going. His .842 mark was as good as All Star Stefan Gartrell's and better than, among others', the Bulls' Desmond Jennings, Yankees' home run king Jorge Vazquez and super-prospect Jesus Montero, and Charlotte sluggers Dallas McPherson and Lastings Milledge. (Jennings and Montero are currently lighting fire to the American League East.) What's more, DanJo finished the regular season on a tear, going 16-38 (.421) over his last 11 games, with four doubles and three home runs. He looks primed to do more damage; he's playing for a 2012 contract, after all.

There are other signs of life. Canzler found himself in a mini-slump before busting out with seven hits in his final 12 at-bats; Matt Carson was 6-16 to end his year, with two homers and a double plus three walks; and Stephen Vogt, mired in an 0-24 drought, went 4-5 in the final game of the regular season. These three hitters will be crucial to the Bulls' chances. Guys like Leslie Anderson, Nevin Ashley, J. J. Furmaniak, John Matulia and Ray Olmedo are pretty predictable producers: You know what they're likely to do, which is probably going to be pretty average. It's the bigger, middle-of-the-order bats that will make the difference.

Catching and Fielding. Advantage: ?

I haven't seen much of the Clippers, although I do recall that their outfielders played so deep at the DBAP back in June that they were basically conceding that they had little speed or skill out there; they were just trying to ensure that balls didn't go over their heads for extra bases. On the other hand, only Huffman remains from that outfield, if I recall correctly. Columbus' Luke Carlin is, by all accounts, a very good backstop. The Clippers' middle infield currently appears to have no shortstop.

As for the Bulls, they were a poor fielding team this season, leading the league in unearned runs allowed. Their infield had poor range. Ray Olmedo is prone to thoughtless errors—usually when he decides to try to make a stylish play that goes awry—and Daniel Mayora is a stolid third baseman. Leslie Anderson isn't much of a first baseman, either. One recent improvement is the arrival of Tim Beckham. Beckham is no infallible shortstop by any means—at 21 years old, he's still prone to youthful mistakes—but he's certainly an upgrade over Olmedo. Moreover, he moves Olmedo to second base, where Olmedo's game plays better.

The Bulls' outfield is merely serviceable, especially with Brandon Guyer gone to Tampa Bay. Look for John Matulia as a late-inning replacement in close games in which he doesn't start. As for the catchers, Robinson Chirinos has never struck me as much better than average; nor has Nevin Ashley, despite Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon's avowed love for the kid. For what it's worth, though, Durham committed the second-fewest passed balls in the league.

Bullpen. Advantage: Columbus.

I make this call mostly because the Durham bullpen has been quite a crap shoot lately, with an emphasis on the crap. Dane De La Rosa has generally been very good, and Rob Delaney—despite a recent meltdown against Norfolk—boasts season-long results. Otherwise, you don't really know what you'll get, night to night, from the rest of the relief staff (erratic work from Joe Bateman, Jay Buente, Lance Cormier, Mike Ekstrom, Adam Russell). Also, the Rays didn't give Montoyo any left-handers out of the 'pen for the playoffs. I had thought we might see Montgomery southpaws Neil Schenk and/or Frank De Los Santos, but apparently the Bulls are going to have to get by with nothing but starboarders.

How to deal with a shaky bullpen? Try not to use it. I wouldn't be surprised to see Montoyo ride his starters as long as he possibly can, provided that they are effective. He'll likely attempt to shorten the game by going straight from his starter to De La Rosa or Delaney, if he can.

One final note before wrapping this up: Montoyo declined, earlier today, to name a starter for Game Five, if it comes to that (he is hoping, of course, that there isn't a fifth game). Brian Baker would be the rotational candidate, but Baker has had a poor season—and it has gotten worse as he has gone along. Baker's ERA over the last two months is nearly 9.00.

To that end, perhaps, the Rays have sent to Durham three Montgomery Biscuits, one of whom is starter Jim Paduch. Paduch, a longtime indy-ball vet (he was all over the Midwest, where he's from: Lincoln, Neb., Gary, Ind. etc.) made one spot-start for Durham in early August, allowing three runs in seven innings in a blowout win for the Bulls at Rochester. I'm betting that Paduch is added to the roster in time for a decisive fifth game, if necessary.

(UPDATE, 12:00 NOON, WEDS.: it's official; Paduch is a Bull. Brian Baker has been assigned to Montgomery, whose season is over—in other words, dropped.)

Also dressing for the Bulls will be middle infielder Cole Figueroa—unlikely to see action, given that the Bulls have four middle infielders already on the roster—and reliever Matt Bush. Bush is an intriguing player. He was the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft (by San Diego)—as a shortstop. But he quickly fell victim to drinking problems, then was converted to a right-handed pitcher, only to need a pair of surgeries (including Tommy John UCL replacement). He was, in the mean time, released by two organizations for continued off-the-field misbehavior stemming from alcohol. (Here is a story about him. For the more car-crash inclined, here's some sordid video.)

The Rays picked him up off the scrap heap in 2010 and limited him to a tiny bit of work last season. Unleashed a bit more in 2011, Bush had an uneven year in Montgomery, but he throws very hard and he did strike out 77 batters in just 50 1/3 innings pitched. If you're looking to neutralize left-handed hitters but don't have a left-hander in your bullpen, sheer ornery right-handed velocity helps.

(UPDATE, 12:00 NOON, WEDS.: Bush, like Paduch, has been promoted to Durham. Lance Cormier is off the roster.)

Neither of last year's post-season Montgomery add-ons (De La Rosa and infielder Drew Anderson) actually made it onto the Bulls' roster, and so there's no reason to expect Bush, Figueroa or Paduch to do so; but it's somehow cheering to know that they'll be here. If nothing else, we get to see some probable 2012 Bulls in uniform now. There's always that early-autumn playoff promise of the season to come—it allows baseball devotees to keep from getting depressed as football, the world's ugliest sport, comes to swallow the cold months whole.

***

So where does that leave us?

As Montoyo put it this afternoon, "When you get to the playoffs, it's not the best team [that wins]. It's the hottest. So we'll see tomorrow who's hot." The Bulls have superior starting pitching, better not only than Columbus' but anyone else's. If Moore, Archer and Torres pitch to (or near) the best of their ability, Durham will be very hard to beat. That's because the mighty Clippers have been clipped by September 1 and its amputating effects; and because, everything else being equal—which it basically is—Columbus has no counteractive weapons against Durham's arms.

I didn't think I'd come to this when I sat down to write this preview, but you know what I'm predicting?

Bulls in four games.

See you Wednesday at the DBAP at 7:05 p.m.

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