Bulls begin title defense with loaded roster

Bullpen should be a strength for Triple-A national champs

(Eamon Queeney / North State Journal)

DURHAM — The Durham Bulls enter the season as the defending Triple-A National Champions. However, anyone who thinks that history is important in the International League, even recent history, need only look at the last month and a half.

Heading into spring training, the Bulls looked to have one of the best pitching rotations in team history. Last year’s ace, Brent Honeywell, was penciled in to start the season in Durham, before likely earning a call-up to Tampa at some point in the season. Jose De Leon, the organization’s No. 7 prospect, was also expected to start the year with the Bulls, after missing nearly all of last season with an injury.

Those two budding stars, plus an extra starter likely headed to Durham thanks to the parent Rays choosing to start the season with a four-man starting rotation instead of five, had the Bulls looking unhittable.

In quick succession, however, both De Leon and Honeywell suffered elbow injuries, requiring season-ending Tommy John surgeries. And, with Tampa likely depending heavily on the bullpen, due to the lack of a fifth starter, the Rays chose to keep several potential Bulls starters, including Austin Pruitt, Yonny Chirinos, who won 12 games for the Bulls last season, and Ryan Yarbrough, who led Durham in strikeouts.

The Bulls should still have a solid starting rotation — just not the legendary one that it appeared to be inheriting. Chih-Weh Hu, a versatile pitcher who bounced between the rotation and the bullpen last year, earning a prolonged stint in the majors, is the lone returner. He’ll be joined by free agent pickup Vidal Nuno, a veteran of 138 big league games, and Jose Mujica, who won 13 games at Double-A Montgomery last season. Anthony Banda, who saw Major League time with Arizona last year, is the fourth starter.

The team’s bullpen, however, could be every bit as good as it thought the rotation would be. Ryan Stanek, Adam Kolarek and Hunter Wood all provided relief for last year’s team before getting promoted to Tampa. Jamie Schultz and Jonny Venters also return, as does Diego Castillo, who should threaten triple digits on the stadium’s radar gun.

While much of the Bulls’ roster has turned over, several core players from last year’s champions will return to the lineup. Wily Adames, Tampa’s No. 2 prospect, will once again play shortstop. He hit .277 with 10 home runs and 62 RBI last year and will likely earn a call-up at some point this season. First baseman/outfielder Jake Bauers, who led the team with 13 homers and was second with 20 steals, also returns. He’s Tampa’s No. 6 prospect and could also earn a look from the big club.

Kean Wong, who hit the championship-winning grand slam in the Triple-A title game, earning game MVP honors, also returns to Durham.

Christian Arroyo, acquired in the trade that sent Evan Longoria to San Francisco last year, will likely start at third base. He’s the No. 4 prospect in the system.

Two other top prospects will join returning Bull Johnny Field, who had 12 home runs last year, in the outfield. Justin Williams hit .301 at Double-A, with 14 homers and 72 RBI, earning a promotion to Durham for the playoff run. He’s Tampa’s No. 12 prospect. Joe McCarthy, Tampa’s fifth-round pick out of UVA in 2015, continues his fast rise through the minor leagues. At Montgomery last year, McCarthy joined Williams on the Southern League postseason All-Star team. He’s the No. 22 prospect in the system.

Rounding out the lineup will be several veteran pickups, including utility man Brandon Snyder, who hit 23 home runs at Syracuse last year, catcher Adam Moore, a veteran of 96 MLB games, and outfielder Micah Johnson, who logged 18 games with the Atlanta Braves last year. Another veteran catcher, Curt Casali, took a roundabout route right back to where he’s spent most of the last five years. After hitting .263 with the Bulls last year and earning a call-up to Tampa, Casali signed with the Rangers in the offseason. When Texas cut him in spring training, he returned to Durham, where he’s played 183 games over the last four years, in addition to 161 games with Tampa.

In the dugout, manager Jared Sandberg returns after continuing Durham’s tradition of winning last year. He’ll have an all-new coaching staff, however.

Pitching coach Kyle Snyder and hitting coach Ozzie Timmons both earned promotions to Tampa. Replacing them will be former Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp and longtime Montgomery hitting coach Dan Dement.

The Bulls should open the season as one of the most talented teams in the league, but as we learned from Durham’s superstar pitching staff that never was, things can change in a hurry.