Veteran Bulls look for third straight championship

Triple-A Durham is the class of N.C.’s ever-growing minor league scene

Kean Wong was the Bulls’ team MVP last season and returns to try to win a third ring in Durham. (Shawn Krest / North State Journal)

DURHAM — Fresh off of back-to-back Governors’ Cup championships, the Durham Bulls open the season with a roster expected to contend for a three-peat this season.

“I’ll tell you what,” pitcher Austin Pruitt said. “We won the Governors’ Cup last year, but I think this year’s team is a little bit better. There’s a lot of good players here. I don’t think there’s really any weaknesses. There are a lot of good arms in the bullpen, a lot of hitting. There’s more depth in the bullpen and all over, really. We have a lot of guys that have been here, were here last year, as well.”

The Bulls feature many of the core players from last season’s title team, including team MVP Kean Wong and Tampa Bay’s Minor League Player of the Year, Nate Lowe.

All told, 15 players who got rings as a member of last year’s Bulls open the season on this season’s roster, with at least four more on the injured list. Seven returning players also spent time on Tampa’s MLB roster last year.

Returnees include infielder/outfielder Andrew Velazquez, who led the International League in stolen bases, outfielder Jason Coates, who hit 15 home runs, and MiLB Reliever of the Year award winner Colin Poche.

The returning Bulls are bolstered by several promising call-ups from Double-A Montgomery. Infielder Mike Brousseau had 13 homers and 61 RBI for the Biscuits last year. Nick Solak hit 19 homers and led the Southern League in hits and on-base percentage. Outfielder Nathan Lukes hit .276.

Brady Williams is in his first season as Durham Bulls manager. Shawn Krest / North State Journal)

Perhaps the biggest promotion from Double-A is manager Brady Williams.

The son of Jimy Williams, a 12-year MLB manager with the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Astros, Brady replaces Jared Sandberg, who left for the Seattle Mariners’ staff after winning two titles in Durham.

Williams managed the last five seasons in Montgomery, leading the Biscuits to three second-place finishes and four playoff appearances.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “The expectations after what happened last year are pretty high — the group coming from Montgomery, making the playoffs last year with a good mix of young and veteran guys in the bullpen. I think we’re set up for success. I’m looking forward to watching these guys play.”

Many of the current Bulls have played for Williams before on their way up the ladder.

“I’m a big Brady guy,” Pruitt said. “He’s a super good dude. He’s definitely a player’s guy, but he’s pretty intense. You don’t see a lot of managers going out to coach third base, but he’s out there. The guy loves the game.”

Williams isn’t concerned about making the jump to Triple-A.

“It’s going to be a challenge for myself, learning to deal with older players, a guy who’s been up and down,” Williams said. “It’ll be a challenge for me, but it’s still baseball. It’s still the same game. We’re here to get better. There are things that players need to work on so when they go to the big leagues, they’ll stay there.”

As usual, Durham also added plenty of veteran signees with big-league experience in the offseason, including pitcher Oliver Drake, who set an MLB record by playing for five teams last year — the Brewers, Indians, Angels, Blue Jays and Twins.

Lefthander Ryan Merritt made a postseason start for the Indians a few years ago. Reliever Emilio Pagan appeared in 55 games for Oakland last year. Casey Sadler (Pittsburgh), Aaron Slegers (Minnesota) and Luis Santos (Toronto) also pitched in the bigs last season.

Outfielder Jake Smolinski was also signed. The 30-year-old has more than 1,000 career pro games and spent time with Oakland last year.

“That’s vital to the clubhouse,” Williams said. “Obviously, the professionalism of guys who have been in the big leagues, who are down here working on their craft, getting better, to get back.”

“You look at Emilio Bonifacio,” Williams continued, talking about the former Braves middle infielder with more than 830 games of MLB experience, signed by the Bulls in the offseason. “There’s a guy who’s been around the major leagues a lot. There’s a way about him in the clubhouse — the way he leads by example, the way he talks to guys. It speaks volumes.”

In addition to winning another title, the promise of a chance with the big-league club is a carrot for the Bulls players. On last season’s team, 19 of the 26 position players and 21 of the 29 pitchers saw time in the majors.

“If the big-league team wasn’t where they’re at (packed with young players), there are a lot of good players here who could be in the big leagues if they were with another organization,” Williams said. “We’re happy they’re here.”