The Durham Bulls were stacked with talent and perhaps even overflooded with prospects when the 2021 season finally began.
They had the game’s top prospect in shortstop Wander Franco and a lineup that might have been the envy of teams in the major leagues.
Then, it got better for the Bulls.
They started playing.
“It has been an unbelievable year from start to finish,” Durham manager Brady Williams said. “Not knowing if we were going to start the season. Coming into a season where you weren’t sure if you were going to have fans. Then we had fans. Then a Fourth of July sellout, which was awesome. This is how it was in ’19, a packed house.”
Meanwhile, this edition of the Bulls was cramming the record books.
With that, Durham is the Minor League Team of the Year—the first Triple-A team to land that honor since Tucson in 2006.
“Day One, we showed up and we were expected to win it all,” outfielder Josh Lowe said. “And we did win it all. We all did what we were supposed to do and took care of business.”
Williams had a chore managing all this talent for the top affiliate of the Rays, who finished with the best record in the American League. That meant a steady stream of player transitions between Durham and Tampa Bay.
Durham’s 86-44 record matches the third-most wins in the franchise’s Triple-A history while playing 14 fewer games. The .661 winning percentage is tops for the Bulls franchise.
“To put together the run we did to go down as the best Bulls team in history, that’s a pretty special group to accomplish that,” Williams said.
The Bulls produced the best record in Triple-A, winning whatever team honors that were to be awarded. They took a first-place spot in Triple-A East in mid-June and never relinquished that.
Five Durham players received first-time callups to the major leagues. Two others were with the Bulls in what amounted to an extended spring training when they received their first calls to the big leagues.
“If they were in a different organization or a different spot, they would be up there a lot longer,” Williams said. “It’s hard to crack that (Rays) lineup.”
There was more than one player transaction per day involving Durham.
In all, 74 players appeared in games for the Bulls—46 pitchers and 28 position players.
Williams, who was in his second season with the Bulls after leading them to the 2019 International League playoffs, had veteran pitching coach Rick Knapp at his side.
“There was a moment in the season we weren’t quite sure who was on the team and who was available to pitch,” Williams said.
At one point, the Bulls lost two members of the rotation to the U.S. Olympics team when Joe Ryan and Shane Baz headed to Japan. When the Olympians came home, Ryan was a member of the Twins organization.
By the time the season ended, Baz was pitching in the American League playoffs.
Franco, of course, made a splash with the Rays once his stay of about six and a half weeks with the Bulls came to a close.
If not for Franco, other Bulls might have been viewed as headliners in any other season.
“I think anybody who’s with Wander is going to get overlooked,” Williams said. “He’s the No. 1 prospect in baseball for all the right reasons. There’s a lot of other good players on this team who deserve attention just like Wander.”
There was no shortage of notable performances. Second baseman/outfielder Vidal Brujan was the only minor leaguer with at least 40 extra-base hits and 40 stolen bases. Shortstop Taylor Walls was splendid at times, and Lowe was one of the most productive hitters in Triple-A.
“We were the best team in minor league baseball on paper coming into this season,” Lowe said. “There was really no pressure on anybody. Just come out here (and) compete, have fun and play Bulls baseball, and the rest will take care of itself.
“And it goes to show that we’re the No. 1 team in Triple-A. It shows every single day how incredible this organization is where some guys aren’t even prospects and they still produce the way they do. It says a lot about our organization—how deep we are.”
Perhaps what made the Bulls so dominant was that first baseman Dalton Kelly became a slugger, utilityman Miles Mastrobuoni was promoted from Double-A Montgomery and would have been a contender as the team’s top batter in a full season. Catcher Rene Pinto entered the conversation as a prospect.
There were stretches when Durham’s pitching proved again that the Rays develop hurlers at a ridiculously high level. They had the best team ERA (3.40) and highest strikeout total (1,326) in Triple-A.
“They just have all the confidence in the world,” catcher Brett Sullivan said of the pitchers. “They have video-game numbers. You look at their numbers, and it’s just incredible—all of them.”
And yet it was on the mound where the Bulls also experienced their most horrifying moment. When a line drive from Norfolk’s Brett Cumberland struck reliever Tyler Zombro in the head during an early June game, it was a moment that seemed etched in the team members’ minds for the rest of the season.
From the pain and grief that the Bulls experienced that night and the days ahead, there was comfort in seeing Zombro when he stopped by the ballpark prior to a July 17 game.
By then, the Bulls had established a trend of providing much more uplifting drama. Ten times the Bulls won in walk-off fashion, with six of those in extra innings.
That helped them to a 45-20 record at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
At one point, they won 10 consecutive series. Later, they won 17 of their final 19 games.
Not bad considering how 2021 began.
“The goal this year was just to get back to playing,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of positives. A lot of positives in the whole minor league system.”