Durham Bulls look to rebuild after off year

The Bulls were unable to win the worst division in baseball history

Christine T. Nguyen—The North State Journal
Durham Bulls catcher J.P. Arencibia (16) celebrates with outfielder Jaff Decker (4) after the Bulls scored in bottom of the eighth inning on Wednesday

The Durham Bulls finished third in the division no one wanted to win.The four teams in the International League South set a dubious record this season, as the weakest division in baseball history.The Gwinnett Braves won the division with a 65-78 record, and the division finished a combined 63 games below .500. Gwinnett’s .455 winning percentage was the lowest by a division winner in International League history, breaking Durham’s record (.514 in 2008). It’s also the worst in Triple-A history (2013 Omaha, .486) and the worst by any Triple-A or MLB team (the Texas Rangers, who “won” the AL West in the strike-shortened 1995 season with a .456 percentage).Only one other team in the entire International League had a worse record than any of the teams in the South.The Bulls took turns exchanging the division lead with Gwinnett and Charlotte over the season’s final month, but Durham finished 64-80, a game and a half out.Durham could have run away with the division, had the Bulls not had their worst hitting season since baseball returned to Durham in 1980. The Bulls hit just .238, in a virtual tie with Syracuse for last place in the I.L. and 12 points lower than last season.The plunge at the plate was keyed by two of the team’s most consistent performers from the year before. Infielder Taylor Motter saw his average plunge by 63 points, while Richie Shaffer dropped 43 points. Shaffer entered the season as one of the Rays top prospects and spent six games in Tampa this season, but he saw his power numbers drop. He hit 19 home runs in 69 games in 2015, but just 11 in 119 contests this year. He also struck out at a much higher rate, finishing in the top five in that dubious category.The Bulls relied on pitching to remain in the race for the South division. The Bulls made organized baseball history by becoming the first pitching staff at any level of the Major or Minor Leagues to average a strikeout an inning for a full season, with an I.L. record 1,287 in 1,284 innings. (Single A Wisconsin also accomplished the feat this year.)Starters Jamie Schultz, Austin Pruitt and Justin Marks all finished in the top five in strikeout rate. Jake Faria, who spent the first half of the season at Double-A, ranked in the top ten in the minor leagues in strikeouts.Despite the disappointing results, there are plenty of building blocks for the team in 2017.Casey Gillaspie arrived from Montgomery and hit .307 with seven home runs over the final month and a half of the season. He will likely start the season as a Bull next year. He’ll be joined by reliable infielder Daniel Robertson and outfielder Johnny Field, who hit 23 doubles since getting promoted to Durham, good for fifth in the league over that span.The trio will be joined by several core players from the Double-A Montgomery Biscuits, who won their division. Outfielder/third baseman Patrick Leonard (.286, 9 home runs, 47 RBI), who was sent down from Durham early in the season, will likely be back. Jake Bauers (.274, 14, 78), Willy Adames (.274, 11, 57), Cade Gotta (22 stolen bases) and Kean Wong (.276, 5, 56) will also likely see time in Durham.The pitching pipeline will continue to bring prospects up through the Tampa Bay organization. Taylor Guerrieri (12-6, 3.76 in Montgomery), Chris Kirsch (7-7, 3.22, 114 strikeouts) and Brad Schreiber (7 saves) and Jaye Chapman (19 saves) are all candidates to join the Bulls.The team will have to replace one of its key glue players. J.P. Arencibia led the 2015 Bulls with 22 home runs. After leaving as a veteran free agent in the offseason, the team acquired him a month into the 2016 campaign to help give the team a lift, both at the plate and in the clubhouse.Arencibia hit .252 with 15 home runs since joining Durham this year. At the end of the season, however, he announced his plans to retire if he didn’t make a Major League roster next spring. “I’ve played my last game here,” he announced to the crowd at season’s end.The Bulls’ leadership may also be in line for a change. Manager Jared Sandberg has missed the playoffs in both seasons at the helm, becoming the first Bulls Triple-A manager to miss the playoffs two years in a row. Sandberg was chosen to manage in the Arizona Fall League, a sign that the organization still views him as a managerial prospect, but a change of scenery may be due.Things change quickly in the minors, and, with plenty of prospects on their way, along with a Tampa organization that has always stocked the Bulls with veteran free agents, look for Durham to rebound next season.