NSJ Pro Team of the Year: The Durham Bulls remain the gold standard for all of minor league sports

Team continues to prove it’s more than just movie fodder with another championship

The Durham Bulls won its fifth Governors' Cup in 20 years in the International League. (Photo courtesy of the Durham Bulls)

It may be a little premature to say this, but it looks like the Durham Bulls’ move to Triple-A was a successful one.

The Bulls made the jump in 1997 and, 20 years in, have dominated the International League like no other team in history.

The Bulls have won the Governors’ Cup, awarded to the league champion, once every four years. The 2017 team raised the cup for the fifth time in two decades. Only five I.L. franchises have won more, including Rochester (who won their first in 1939), Buffalo (1933) and Syracuse (1935).

Since the Bulls joined the league, no other team has won it more than three times. Durham’s 11 trips to the Governors’ Cup Finals — a pace slightly better than once every other season — are fifth-most all time, and no other team has gone more than six times since the Bulls joined the I.L.

While dominance has become old hat at the DBAP, the 2017 Bulls team was a special one. The Bulls won the South Division by 15 games, the largest margin in the I.L. since the 2010 Bulls won by 16 games. The team also posted the fourth-highest win total in franchise history, going 86-56. The Bulls’ South Division crown was its 13th in 20 seasons.

The Bulls — the top affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays — also beat the Pacific Coast League champion, Memphis, in the Triple-A National Championship Game. It’s the second national title for the Bulls, tied for most by any team, and Durham’s three trips to the championship game are more than any other franchise.

Durham’s pitching staff was dominant in 2017. The Bulls led the league with 18 regular-season shutouts, most by Durham in 12 seasons. The Bulls then added two more shutouts in the playoffs.

Durham’s pitchers also struck out 1,421 batters, setting an all-time minor league record. In fact, despite playing 19 more games in their season, only seven Major League teams have ever posted more strikeouts in a year than Durham.

Lefthander Ryan Yarbrough led the way with a league-leading 159 K’s, the second most in franchise history. Top prospect Brent Honeywell added 152, which averaged out to 11 strikeouts per nine innings.

Honeywell also earned the win in the Futures Game, showcasing the top prospects in the minor leagues as part of the MLB All-Star break. He became the first pitcher in the history of the game to win MVP honors.

Yonny Chirinos was voted the Rays Minor League Pitcher of the Year, going 12-5 with a 2.74 ERA. The big right-hander was the team’s most consistent starting pitcher, averaging 6⅔ innings per start.

The team’s pitching performance was even more impressive, considering three Bulls starting pitchers — Blake Snell, Austin Pruitt and Jake Faria — earned midseason call-ups to Tampa.

The bullpen was a team effort, with 11 different pitchers earning saves this season, none recording more than eight.

The Bulls lineup had a core group of players who were with the team for the entire season, a rarity for a good minor league team. Thirteen members of their opening day roster were still with the team when it sprayed champagne in September. Six players saw action in 100 or more games, the most in three years.

The team was led by first baseman/outfielder Jake Bauers, who set a Bulls postseason record with 14 hits in the playoffs, earning the Governors’ Cup MVP award. The No. 5 prospect in the organization, Bauers led the I.L. in runs with 79 and finished second with 78 walks.

Outfielder/third baseman Patrick Leonard got the team off to a fast start this year, opening the season with a torrid first month to help Durham build its huge lead in the division. Leonard hit .412 in April, earning I.L. Player of the Month.

Shortstop Willy Adames was the third member of the lineup to play in at least 130 games. Voted the team’s MVP, Adames led all I.L. shortstops in hits, total bases and doubles.

First baseman/outfielder Shane Peterson, who led the team in batting at .286, and middle infielder Kean Wong, whose grand slam paced the team in the Triple-A Championship game, rounded out a solid lineup for the Bulls.

Manager Jared Sandberg will be back in 2018, but the team will have to replace several components, including both of his coaches, who earned promotions to the majors. Several veteran players, including Leonard, Peterson and catcher Curt Casali, have also departed.

The Bulls will still have their 2017 rings, however, as well as the title of North State Journal Pro Team of the Year.

Other teams considered: Carolina Panthers, Carolina League champion Down East Wood Ducks, South Atlantic runners-up Kannapolis Intimidators