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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Devastation at last: Durham Bulls return home after disastrous 1-13 road trip

Posted by on Thu, Apr 26, 2012 at 6:00 AM

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The cruelest month...

The Durham Bulls don't play today, and they are probably thankful for that. They returned late Wednesday night from a 14-game road trip that can only be called a total disaster. The Bulls lost 13 of the 14 games, including the last 10 in a row.

To put it in perspective, that is the longest losing streak by a Durham Bulls team since the franchise joined the International League in 1998. Chances are good that it is also the longest losing streak in manager Charlie Montoyo's sparkling career, which dates back to 1997. I'm planning to ask him if he recalls such a long skid ever befalling one of his teams.

Remarkably, the Bulls' 6-15 record is not the worst in the IL. Syracuse is 5-13, and that's after winning two games in a row. Still, Durham is in last place in the South Division, 7.5 games behind front-running Gwinnett. It's early in the season and the Bulls are by no means in deep trouble, but they must rebound strongly during the 10-game home stand that commences Friday at Durham Bulls Athletic Park, starting that evening with a 7:05 p.m. game against the Indianapolis Indians.

"Devastation at last / finally we meet." That's the opening line from "Mockingbirds" by Grant Lee Buffalo, a band from the 1990s that deserved better than it got. The "at last" part is what's germane here, because the odds dictate that sooner or later the Durham Bulls were guaranteed to land in "a terrible realm," as the song puts it. This has been the proudest, most successful franchise in its league for five years. Even the biggest bull on the block will sometimes stumble. The question is, having been humbled, how will they respond?

A team that goes 1-13 and loses 10 straight games must be doing just about everything poorly. The problems plaguing the Bulls last time we reported on them have persisted, and in fact worsened. The Bulls are still last in the league in home runs, tied at seven with Rochester. They are also third to last in doubles with 26. The Bulls' team batting average (.256) and team OBP (.336) are perfectly alright. The problem is how little power the team has. Of their 182 hits, 145 have been singles. To make matters worse, they are batting .210 with runners in scoring position, with a miserable .273 slugging percentage. With RISP and two outs, the team average plunges to .151. This is, so far, a punchless team, especially when it counts the most.

Even so, it is possible to be better than 6-15 while hitting badly. Just ask Lehigh Valley. The IronPigs have the worst OPS in the International League, one of a number of important hitting stats in which they are dead last (including walks drawn). Yet they're 12-8, the fourth best record in the league. It can't hurt to have Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg as your manager, but on the other hand the Bulls' Charlie Montoyo is perhaps the most successful skipper in the minor leagues over the last several years. In any case, managers don't play the game, and it isn't clear how much effect they really have on wins and losses.

What Lehigh Valley uses to offset its lousy hitting is good pitching. Their team ERA of 3.19 is nearly three runs better than the Bulls', which sits at an even 6.00—one of the highest figures in all of organized baseball. In fact, both of these teams have deviated, in opposite directions, from their expected Pythagorean winning percentage. The Bulls, mathematically, should be closer to 9-12, the IronPigs 9-11.

That's small consolation, because whatever the Bulls' record should be, it is actually 6-15. They have fallen short even of the low expectations generated by their runs scored/runs allowed ratio. Another small consolation: they won't stay this bad. The saving grace, and also the curse, of the minor leagues, especially at Class AAA, is its inconsistency. Not only do the best teams eventually falter after their best players are called up to the majors, the worst teams can't help but improve, at least a little, as under-performers are shipped out and new blood is pumped in—and as the mean asserts itself over time. While Durham could, of course, finish the season with a .286 winning percentage, the team is almost sure to end up better than that.

How much better, though? It's worth noting that this team lacks what the last three have had: top-level prospects. To some degree, the Bulls are victims of Tampa Bay's success. No longer do the Rays finish last and routinely get one of the top picks in the draft, which previously netted them first-rounders B. J. Upton, Jeff Niemann, Evan Longoria and David Price.

In addition to the blue-chip prospects they've snapped up, the Rays also found some success stories in lower-round draftees like Desmond Jennings (10th round) and James Shields (16th). Every organization will have a few of those, but right now none of them are Durham Bulls. Alex Cobb is the closest thing to a viable major-leaguer on the team—he would probably be in several other teams' starting rotations right now, in fact—but he is not an elite prospect. He doesn't have the electric stuff of David Price, Matt Moore or Wade Davis at Davis' best (remember that Davis once routinely threw a 95-mph fastball). Cobb is a finesse pitcher, drafted in the fourth round in 2006. He has much in common with another former fourth-round draft pick of the Rays, Jeremy Hellickson, but he doesn't throw as hard as Hellickson does and his ceiling is probably a notch below Hellickson's. Hellickson is the reigning American League MVP.

After Cobb, the Bulls don't have a single player who looks like a probable starting major-league player right now. Brandon Guyer is close, but he is also 26 years old, nearing the ledge of his prospect status. He doesn't have the upside (or plate discipline) of Desmond Jennings, perhaps the best outfielder the Bulls have had since Carl Crawford in terms of potential.

The Bulls currently have a pair of not-quite-there shortstops, Reid Brignac—recently demoted from Tampa Bay—and Tim Beckham, who is on the disabled list with a wrist injury. Brignac, who has played with the Bulls in parts of three of the last four seasons, has an indisputably big-league glove but hasn't shown he can hit well enough to stick. He is 12 days older than Guyer. Beckham, 22, would probably be more highly regarded had he not been the No. 1 pick of the 2008 draft. The expectations, of course, were as high as they get, and he has yet to fulfill them. He was batting just .204 with a .568 OPS when he went on the DL.

The mainstay types, who are known colloquially and uncharitably as "Triple-A filler," will change from year to year. Some of them thrive for a season—Russ Canzler (2011); Dan Johnson and Richard De Los Santos (2010); Jon Weber and Jason Cromer (2009)—and others don't. (Some do well one year and struggle the next, like J. J. Furmaniak.) It seems to me that the overall productivity of these older Triple-A veterans winds up evening out in the end, with overachievers giving a boost where others are struggling.

All things being equal in that regard, it's probably the prospects who push their teams to the right side of the threshold of respectability, and the Bulls simply don't have any top-level rising stars in 2012. There are plenty of pretty good, even very good ballplayers on the roster; but there are really none, save Cobb, whom you would project for a successful big-league career based on their current resume. The lack of phenoms is one thing in terms of production, but it's another altogether in terms of phenomenon—that is, in the way top prospects affect the mood and metabolism of a minor-league team. You need some greatness on a roster to bring out the best in the merely good players, a sky-high potential to which the non-prospects and fringe prospects are called. The highest example on the current roster is very good (Cobb, in fact, was ineffective in his previous start, and has walked nine batters in his last 10 innings pitched), but Cobb is the only occupant at that level.

Only two of the top 10 prospects in the Rays' farm system (according to Baseball America) are in Class AA Montgomery, one level down. One of them, Hak-Ju Lee, is yet another shortstop. He stumbled badly right out of the gate and is just beginning to himself. The other, pitcher Alex Colome (yet another pitcher named Alex to go along with Cobb and Torres), is on the disabled list. The rest of the Biscuits appear to be of the same pretty-good caliber where we find the Durham Bulls.

So the question is: How great can a team be if its best player isn't great? That is what remains to be seen over the last 85 percent of the season—plenty of time for improvement. Expectations surely play a role. Fans here have gotten used to the Bulls winning, winning, winning. They are accustomed to seeing the cream of the crop wearing the uniform, and to watching No. 1 draft picks excel. Charlie Montoyo himself is used to success. How he handles an extended bout of failure will be of some little interest, and may have at least some impact, on what happens next.

At the moment, the road-weary, road-killed Bulls must be glad, glad as can be, to have finally gotten home—a home which they barely had time to settle into this season before they were whisked up and down the eastern seaboard for two weeks. And they are, presumably, glad for the day off, too. They had one not long ago due to a rainout in Pawtucket. That one didn't help (they were swept in a doubleheader the next day), but perhaps the comforts of home will.

One thing is certain: the Bulls could use a loving home crowd at the DBAP this weekend. Triangle Offense will see you there. In the mean time, a rainy-day interlude from the aforementioned Grant Lee Buffalo.


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