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Friday, April 20, 2012

Durham Bulls Road Roundup, Vol. 7: There once was a man from Pawtucket

Posted by on Fri, Apr 20, 2012 at 2:24 PM

pawtucket-ri-united-states.jpg
Well, this isn't going very well, is it?

The Durham Bulls are just over halfway through a grueling, peripatetic 14-game (!) road trip. The yield from the first eight of these games has been alarming: one win, seven losses, all against division rivals Gwinnett and Charlotte (who swept the Bulls). By my calculations, the Bulls haven't had a 1-7 stretch since way back in 2009. If you want to look on the bright side, they wound up winning the championship that year.

Some notes follow, but if you just want a quick snapshot of what ails the Bulls before you get back on the tour bus and head for another scenic (web) site, try this astounding fact: The Durham Bulls have not hit a home run since April 9.

Let me repeat that, with slightly different phrasing: the Bulls have not hit a home run in a week and a half, a span of 89 innings. That is actually rather hard to do. It is also a large part of the reason why the Bulls, who started the season with a 5-2 homestand to take an early lead in the IL South Division, have fallen to 6-9, already five games out of first place behind front-running Gwinnett (11-4) and Charlotte (8-7). They are just a game ahead of last-place Norfolk. The Bulls have not been this far out of first place since I started covering the team four seasons ago, and I would not be surprised to learn that 2006 was the last time a Durham Bulls team was five games out of first place.

As the season-opening homestand came to an end, no one in Bulls-land had anything good to say about the upcoming two-week road trip, and so far you can see why. The team is up in Pawtucket tonight to open a four-game series, followed by two more games in Norfolk before they come home. If you're a Bulls fan and you feel like writing your own Pawtucket limerick, I don't think you'll have much trouble figuring out the final rhyme.

Fifteen games into the season, the Bulls have scored 57 runs, less than four per game. They are tied for fourth-fewest runs in the league, but in some ways the numbers are even worse than they seem. The Bulls scored 13 runs in a game against Charlotte on April 9, which means they have scored barely more than three runs per game in the other 14 they've played. That is atrociously bad, and the trend has been downward lately: In the four-game series at Charlotte that just concluded, Durham scored nine runs: two, two, three, two, like that.

The homer drought is reaching epidemic levels. The Bulls' four home runs so far this season is a total matched or exceeded by seven players in the International League. Durham's Leslie Anderson actually leads the league in hitting at an absurd .444 clip so far, but the average is sure to come down and there's no power there. Anderson has only four extra-base hits, all doubles, to go with 16 singles. He is the only Bull currently among the league's top 50 in OPS. Jeff Salazar, whose .707 OPS is second on the team, has struck out 16 times in 46 plate appearances. The team OPS is an anemic .318, third lowest in the league. For good measure, they have stolen only seven bases and been caught nine times. Only one other team, Buffalo has a success rate lower than 50 percent.

To modify the famous old line of Ring Lardner's—"although he is a very poor fielder, he is a very poor hitter"—although the Bulls have hit poorly, they have pitched poorly, too. The team ERA is 5.08, second to last in the IL, and they lead the league with 73 walks allowed, more than a third of them by Chris Archer and Alex Torres, who have allowed 27 of them in 25 1/3 combined innings pitched. (Amazingly, the team in the IL with the second most walks allowed, Gwinnett, leads the league in ERA at 2.39. That's because they give up few hits and even fewer home runs, just five so far. The Bulls have allowed 10.)

Starter Alex Cobb has been steady despite missing a turn because of a brief callup to the majors (he went unused), and lefty reliever Cesar Ramos has been virtually unhittable in seven appearances. Otherwise, the staff has ranged from so-so (e.g. Jhonny Nunez, a reliever who had to step in as a spot-starter) to downright awful. Seven of the 12 pitchers on the active roster have ERA's over 6.00. The team ERA has actually been brought down a bit by reserve catcher Craig Albernaz, who has tossed a pair of scoreless innings in mop-up relief at the end of blowouts.

The Bulls are a very left-handed lineup this season. You'd think that would work to any team's advantage because most pitchers are right-handed, but it hasn't helped the Bulls at all. Part of me is inclined to argue that it's never good to have too extreme a split in handedness—variation being useful in disrupting strategy—but that's only speculation. In any case, nothing much is working right now.

As for the pitching, much is riding on Archer and Torres. If they can get it together and start throwing strikes, the Bulls will be just fine. If they can't, look out. Reliever Dane De La Rosa, basically the Bulls' closer now that Brandon Gomes has been recalled to Tampa Bay, has so far pitched to a 9.53 ERA with seven walks in 5 2/3 innings pitched. (He was also shelled in a single appearance in the majors, allowing five runs in one inning at Fenway Park last Saturday.) De La Rosa's velocity has been down so far this season. In tandem with the spike in walks, that may indicate that his mechanics are way out of whack. Or that he is injured.

Speaking of injury, the one that shelved Bryan Augenstein after his first start of the season may be more serious than we were initially given to suppose. The evidence of that is the Rays' recent signing of Lance Pendleton, a right-handed pitcher who was a teammate of former Bull (and current Ray) Jeff Niemann at Rice University. Pendleton was with the Yankees last season, when he made his major-league debut, spending most of 2011 with Class AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. (He is prominent in this game story from last year.)

Pendleton had moved to the Astros organization, but he was released just before the 2012 season began for reasons I don't yet know. In an article about his signing with Tampa Bay, he said he was healthy. My best guess is that the Astros tried to outright him to Triple-A—he had been on the 40-man roster—and he decided to take his chances on free agency instead. He first signed on with a brand-new team in the independent Atlantic League, the Sugarland Skeeters, who are based in Pendleton's hometown of Houston—not exactly "Atlantic," but oh well. Pendleton never pitched a game for the Skeeters, who happened to be managed by former Bulls hitting coach Gary Gaetti (maybe no coincidence?). The Rays, perhaps attempting to fill the rotation hole left by Augenstein, snapped him up.

Another significant change is imminent. Rays center fielder B. J. Upton started the season on the disabled list but is expected to return to action in the next few days. Meanwhile, the Rays claimed Brandon Allen off waivers from Oakland—apparently the Rays are collecting Brandons (Gomes, Guyer)—and Allen is out of options, so for now both he and Upton will claim spots on the 25-man big-league roster.

That means, certainly, that Stephen Vogt is headed back to Durham. His stay in the majors was planned as a temporary one—he was just holding Upton's place—but Vogt made sure it would be short by going 0-13 in limited platoon duty. To add to the pileup of reasons why Vogt can't be expected to stay with Tampa Bay, both he and Brandon Allen are left-handed outfielder/first baseman types, and Allen has a track record of at least observable big-league productivity. In other words, Vogt No.

(Wow, the Rays have a lot of lefty corner-infield and outfield DH types! Carlos Pena, Luke Scott, Allen, Vogt, Matt Mangini, Leslie Anderson, Juan Miranda... Is that the new market inefficiency? More likely it's just that there's a ton of these guys out there. Just ask ex-Ray Johnny Damon, a potential Hall of Famer who started the season jobless until finally signing a cheap deal with Cleveland.)

That leaves one more odd man out of the major-league mix, and the likeliest victims are Reid Brignac and Elliot Johnson. Both are shortstops, neither hits much, and one of the two is basically unnecessary. Brignac is the better fielder, so you'd think the Rays would want to keep his glove, but he also has a minor-league option left. Johnson doesn't, and also brings versatility to the roster. He is a switch-hitter, a good base-stealer, and a utilityman with the glove. If the Rays drop him, he can refuse the assignment to Durham and become a free agent. Johnson lives in Durham, however, so he might agree to return in order to live with his family.

Well, we shall see. As always, the one thing you can count on in Triple-A is change. One thing the Bulls need desperately to change are the losing ways that have gripped them on the road. Tonight they send Matt Torra to the mound at Pawtucket. Torra has allowed 20 hits in 11 1/3 innings pitched so far this year, including four home runs, over two starts. He has a 6.35 ERA. He will be opposed by Doug Mathis, a hard-throwing, 28-year-old right-hander who was with five different organizations in 2011, including one in Korea.

Perhaps the Bulls could learn something about the suitcase life from from the PawSox, who just swept the Syracuse Chiefs to close out a 7-2 road trip of their own. On the other hand, the trip to Pawtucket is something of a homecoming for two Bulls. Craig Albernaz is from nearby Fall River, Mass., and Torra himself hails from Pittsfield, which is just a couple of hours away. (Brandon Gomes, called up to Tampa Bay, is also from Fall River.) Chances are good that Torra will have family in friends in the stands at McCoy Stadium tonight.

The best way, in my opinion, to keep up with the goings-on while the Bulls are in Pawtucket, is by reading The Baseball Heavy, which might be the best minor-league blog going these days. Funny, impassioned, readable, it's the kind of idiosyncratic baseball writing that can (and does) thrive only on the internet. The Heavy goes by the handle of Jenks in honor of Bobby Jenks, the larger-than-life BoSox reliever whose 2012 season has been lost to a horrific, malpractice-triggered health crisis. The Heavy's real name, however, is Jen Sealey (take out the "k" in Jenks, leave the space there, and the nickname starts to make even more sense), and she wrote a good guest column for Baseball Prospectus last season.

One final note looking ahead. The only fun prospect about the trip-ending two-gamer in Norfolk was that the Tides had the former Durham Bull Winston Abreu on their roster. But the beloved 35-year-old closer has recently changed leagues, signing on with the Mexico City Red Devils.

We'll see you back at the DBAP a week from today, when the Bulls (finally!) return for a 10-game homestand. Now go get busy on your limerick.

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The Bulls have staggered to a 1-7 start on their 14-game road trip.

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