Durham Bulls hopeful for return to International League playoffs

Seven of Tampas top eight prospects open the year on the Bulls roster

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
The bull breathes smoke in celebration after the minor league baseball game between the Durham Bulls and the Charlotte Knights at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham

In Jared Sandberg’s two seasons as Durham Bulls manager, the team has yet to make the International League playoffs.The early end to the baseball season is something new for Durham. In Charlie Montoyo’s — Sandberg’s predecessor — eight years at the helm, the Bulls missed the playoffs just once.With a roster stacked with the best prospects in the Tampa organization, the third time just might be the charm for Sandberg. Here’s a look at the players to watch when the Bulls return to the DBAP on April 10.The Price is right: At the 2014 trade deadline, the Rays traded away former Bulls’ ace and American League Cy Young Award winner David Price. It was the typical star-for-prospects trade that rebuilding teams use to invest in the future. Well, the future arrives in Durham this spring, as shortstop Willy Adames, the centerpiece of the Price trade, joins the Bulls. Adames is the top prospect in the Rays organization and the 19th-best prospect in baseball, according to MLB.com.Can’t have enough pitching: In addition to the top position player in the Rays system, the Bulls will have the top pitching prospect — eventually. Jose De Leon starts the year on the disabled list, but he’s expected to move into the Durham rotation when he gets healthy. The Rays acquired the righthander in an offseason trade with the Dodgers, where he broke some of Clayton Kershaw’s minor league strikeout records. He struck out nine batters with no walks in his Major League debut last September.Who are you working for: Jack Bauer thrilled viewers as the main character, played by Kiefer Sutherland, in the primetime series 24. First-baseman/outfielder Jake Bauers could bring just as much excitement to fans at the DBAP. The No. 4 prospect in the Rays system is No. 73 in all of baseball and nearly made the Rays in spring training, after hitting four home runs for the big club in Grapefruit League play.Casey at the bat: Casey Gillaspie was the Tampa Minor League Player of the Year last season and joined the Bulls last July, hitting .307 for the team. The switch-hitting first baseman is the No. 5 prospect in the system and should provide power for the Bulls lineup.Returning to the mound: Righthander Jacob Faria has rocketed through the Rays system and arrived in Durham in the middle of last season, going 4-4 with a 3.72 ERA. The No. 6 prospect in the system, he went 17-4 two seasons ago and is expected to anchor the Bulls starting rotation.Hu’s the boss: Another top prospect the Rays were able to grab in a rebuilding trade is Chih-Wei Hu. The righthander in No. 7 in the system. Hu came over from the Twins in 2015 and was chosen for the MLB Futures Game on All-Star Weekend last season.He led the Double-A Southern League in ERA last year and will join Faria, Taylor Guerrieri, Southern League pitcher of the Year Ryan Yarbrough and MLB vet Chase Whitley in the rotation. The deep staff allowed the team to move Jamie Schultz (No. 8 in the system), who led the IL in strikeouts last season, to the bullpen to become the Bulls’ closer.With seven of the Rays’ top eight prospects and a deep pitching staff, the Bulls should be favored to end their two-year postseason drought and once again strike fear in the heart of International League opponents.