Howdy, Bulls fans!

Game times and matchups:

Game One, Wednesday, Sept. 8, 6:05 p.m., Louisville Slugger Field: Richard De Los Santos (Bulls) @ Chad Reineke (Bats).

Game Two, Thursday, Sept. 9, 6:05 p.m., Louisville Slugger Field: Aneury Rodriguez (Bulls) @ Tom Cochran (Bats).

Game Three, Friday, Sept. 10, 7:05 p.m., Durham Bulls Athletic Park: TBA (Bats) @ Alex Cobb (Bulls).

Game Four (if necessary), Saturday, Sept. 11, 7:05 p.m., Durham Bulls Athletic Park: Ben Jukich (Bats) @ Bobby Livingston (Bulls).

Game Five (if necessary), Sunday, Sept. 12, 5:05 p.m., Durham Bulls Athletic Park: TBA (Bats) @ Paul Phillips (Bulls).

(Note: the Bats’ starters are speculation only, based on Louisville’s rotation at the end of the regular season. Durham Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo has not, at the time of writing this preview, named his starters beyond Game Two.)

For the third year in a row, the Durham Bulls will face the Louisville Bats in the first round of International League playoffs. Charlie Montoyo’s Bulls beat Louisville manager Rick Sweet’s Bats in 2008 and 2009. What’s more, the Bulls have bested the Bats in the two other playoff series between the two teams, in 1998 and 2003. So there is a rich history of Durham dominance in the post-season.

All of that means nothing, of course. Not only are these two teams changed from previous years, they aren’t all that close to the corporations they were as recently as July, when they last played. (The Bulls took three or four games from Louisville at the DBAP then, after splitting a four-game June visit to Louisville.) For Bulls fans worried about the team’s depleted roster, that’s really nothing compared to what has become of Louisville’s. There are details after the jump about the players and pitching matchups.

There is, perhaps, one thing that, according to Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo, might favor the Bats in this series, regardless of how the teams match up. Last season, after eliminating Louisville, Durham went on to beat the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees to claim the Governors Cup—it was a measure of revenge for Scranton’s 2008 triumph over the Bulls in that same competition. After this past Monday’s season finale, Montoyo was musing on the upcoming series. “You know what I was thinking last year? I’m not saying [the Bats] are going to beat us, obviously; but when [the Bulls] played Scranton [in the 2009 finals], I was thinking, ‘It’s my turn now. There’s no way you’re going to beat us two years in a row.’” He paused. “I’m hoping Rick Sweet doesn’t feel the same way.”

The thing is, of course, that Durham has already beaten Louisville two years in a row. So does that make the third try a charm for the West Division champs against Durham, or does it simply assert a mysterious domination by one team over another?

We’ll know in the next few days. Games One and Two are Louisville; the Bulls bussed up there on Tuesday (an 11-hour ride). If you’re planning on tuning in, note the early start time at Slugger Field both Wednesday and Thursday, 6:05 p.m.—some concessions, including beer for a while, are just $1, too, if you happen to be going there for the games.

Details of the series to come are after the jump.

Let’s break this down first by who is no longer on these teams, since that will account for most of the best players:

Key losses for Louisville:

Pitchers: Aroldis Chapman, Carlos Fisher, Sam LeCure and Matt Maloney have been called up.

Position players: Yonder Alonso, Juan Francisco, Corky Miller, Chris Valaika have been called up. Outfielder Wladimir Balentien, a post-season All-Star who has 25 homers and is a very dangerous middle-of-the-order hitter, is on the disabled list with a strained oblique. He isn’t eligible to return to action until Thursday, although that doesn’t mean he will.

Key losses for Durham:

Pitchers: Mike Ekstrom and Jeremy Hellickson are in Tampa now (Ekstrom was just recalled on Tuesday). Pitchers Brian Baker, Carlos Hernandez, Heath Phillips and Virgil Vasquez are all injured and will not pitch again for Durham this season. Neither will late-season acquisition Ramon Ortiz, who was injured in his last start.

Position players: Desmond Jennings, Dan Johnson and Dioner Navarro have all left for Tampa since the Bulls played Louisville. Jose Lobaton, officially also promoted, is on the major-league disabled list but is in fact still with the Bulls and merely traveling with the team. He is out of action and doesn’t seem likely to play again this season.

Louisville Analysis: Looking at this from a bit of a distance, it seems that Louisville has been hit harder with losses. That is largely because the Bats had many more young, talented prospects on their team than the veteran Bulls have had this season. Alonso and Francisco, along with Balentien, were a pretty fearsome 3-4-5 presence in the bats’ lineup, and Valaika was the post-season All-star second baseman in the International League. Catcher Miller is a better hitter than the Bats’ starting catcher, Wilkin Castillo, but Castillo is solid. The Bats have lost their two best starting pitchers in LeCure and Maloney, their best setup man in Carlos Fisher, and of course the young phenom Aroldis Chapman, the Bats’ converted closer; when last seen at the DBAP in early July, he was throwing over 100 mph, hitting Dan Johnson and Chris Richard, striking people out all over the place, and generally being the scariest (in multiple senses) pitcher in the International League.

Durham Analysis: The Bulls lost to the majors the league’s Most Valuable Player (Dan Johnson) and Most Valuable Pitcher (Hellickson, who was also named Baseball America‘s Minor-League Player of the Year yesterday). Desmond Jennings was the leadoff hitter, and a strong center fielder (albeit with a weak throwing arm), and J. J. Furmaniak has taken over the job. Although Jennings’ base-stealing ability will be missed—he would probably have led the league had he not been called up—Furmaniak actually has a higher on-base percentage. He is basically a singles hitter, but he does have the ability to get on base—and he also has nine steals. So this is not the blow it might seem on the surface.

(A little side note: It was a nice surprise, looking over Furmaniak’s stats, to see how well he has done this year. He often seems like your basic mid-level middle-infield journeyman—he probably is your basic mid-level middle-infield journeyman—but he has been more productive than we perhaps realize, and he can play three infield positions plus outfield if necessary. You can see why the Rays, who value utility and the ability to reach base, signed him in the offseason. Plus, he seems like a good guy.)

Dioner Navarro was a very fine backstop and a solid bat lower in the order, and his replacements—Craig Albernaz and Nevin Ashley—are a serious downgrade. The lower third of the Bulls’ batting order, without Navarro—and Furmaniak, who often batted ninth—may be quite light-hitting from here on out.

As for the pitchers, the loss of Hellickson is of course huge. He won two games for the Bulls in last year’s playoffs and was arguably the best pitcher in the minor leagues this season. However, Richard De Los Santos has had a wonderful 2010, leading the league in wins and placing in the top ten in ERA among starting pitchers. His final outing of the season was poor, but he said later that his arm wasn’t tired; he just had a bad game. Mike Ekstrom was a mid-level piece of the Durham bullpen, and although he was at times very effective—especially early in the year, when he was virtually unhittable—he was also quite erratic. In any case, there are a lot of good arms in the relief corps, and you may recall that the Bulls won last year’s Governors Cup without the services of Dale Thayer, who had a very good 2009 and was called up, like Ekstrom was this season, just before the Bulls’ playoffs started.

The trio of Hernandez, Phillips and Vasquez have been on the disabled list for a while now, so the immediate impact of their loss is no longer felt. Brian Baker pitched well for Durham this season, but has been shut down with arm fatigue and is unlikely to pitch again. The Bulls have options to replace him.

Key additions for Louisville:

Pitchers: Tom Cochran, Jeremy Horst, Matt Klinker and Joseph Krebs have all been called up from Double-A Carolina; Micah Owings was outrighted from Cincinnati.

Position players: Mike Costanzo, Sean Henry and Dave Sappelt were promoted from Carolina.

Key additions for Durham:

Pitchers: Alex Cobb, Jake McGee and Paul Phillips were called up from Double-A Montgomery; veterans Bobby Livingston and Brian Shouse were signed to late-season minor-league deals.

Position players: Craig Albernaz, Drew Anderson, Leslie Anderson, Nevin Ashley, Rashad Eldridge and Matt Spring were all added from Double-A Montgomery.

Louisville Analysis: Outfielder Sappelt was the Southern League’s Most Valuable Player, kind of the Desmond Jennings (who won the award last season) of 2010. He hits for more power than Jennings, and has good speed (although he stole only 15 bases in 28 attempts); and like Jennings he boasts strong plate discipline. He is a legitimate replacement in the middle of the Bats’ order. Third baseman Costanzo, who like Sappelt attended Coastal Carolina, put up a solid .808 OPS with Double-A Carolina before his recent callup. He won’t mash like Juan Francsico did, but he has game. Ditto Sean Henry, who had a .759 OPS as a Mudcat, 23 doubles, and 15 stolen bases (but was caught eight times).

The loss of Alonso, Balentien, Francisco and Valaika is huge, bigger than any quartet the Bulls have lost. The load will have to be carried instead by mainstays Zack Cozart, Danny Dorn and Todd Frazier. Carry it they might. All three can hit, and they combined for 47 home runs this season. That total is competitive with the Bulls’ Elliot Johnson, Chris Richard and Justin Ruggiano.

As for Louisville’s pitching, the arms that replaced the departed don’t measure up. Cochran is a former Independent League journeyman who has toiled for Double-A Carolina for much of the last two years. The lefty has pitched well there, but he was hammered by the Bulls in Game Four of last year’s playoff series and is trying to right that wrong. He made one (ineffective) start for Louisville after his recent late-season retrieval from Double-A. The Bulls hit Matt Klinker well shortly after his mid-season callup from Carolina, and he has pitched to an ugly 5.85 ERA with the Bats. The lefty reliever Horst has actually started two games for Louisville recently—I don’t know if that’s due to emergency or by Cincinnati decree-but has pitched only four innings in each start due to limited game-by-game workload this year. He doesn’t have the arm strength to go much deeper into a game than that. Krebs has been a plus so far out of the bullpen, having given up only one run, although he has issued seven walks in just 14 2/3 innings. Owings has been a big-league starter for much of his career (he put up a pretty good season for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2007), but the Reds moved him to the bullpen this year, with mixed results. He wound up getting outrighted to Triple-A not long ago. He could conceivably start against the Bulls should Rick Sweet decide (or be ordered) to go that route.

Durham Analysis: The Cuban defector Leslie Anderson has brought an impact left-handed bat to the Bulls. He is a line-drive machine who can hit to all fields. He fell into a mini-slump after putting up great numbers in his first few weeks with the team, but went 3-6 with the game-winning hit in the season finale on Labor Day. None of the other position players called up will make much of a dent in the lineup, unless one of them gets unreasonably or unseasonably hot. Drew Anderson is basically unknown on the Rays’ prospect radar. The 27-year-old second baseman has a bit of pop in his bat (seven homers)—and he hasn’t been officially added to the Bulls’ roster, so he may only be a travel insurance policy should something befall an incumbent Bulls infielder. Eldridge is a third-year repeat late-season callup from Double-A. Decent speed, no power—just there as an extra outfielder, and to score the winning run on a passed ball should the Bulls advance to the Triple-A Championship game again.

Note that three of the Double-A promotions are catchers. It seems likely that Albernaz and Ashley will be on the roster and Spring will travel with the team in case of injury, but that’s only a guess. Kyle Holloway, who filled in gamely for a few days, has been sent back to Princeton, i.e. cashiered for 2010 (Princeton’s season is over). The two As, Alby and Ashley, are good backstops, but they don’t hit much at all.

The pitching is a mixed bag with some mystery gifts in it. Livingston has made only five starts for Durham, and they have been pretty good since his first two, when he may have been rusty from not having pitched in a fortnight. McGee has been excellent out of the bullpen; the 41-year-old Shouse has not. Paul Phillips, called up for two appearances in August, was returned to Montgomery and then called back up just in time to pitch six stellar relief innings in Monday’s season-ending 12-inning win. He is a two-pitch righty who can be very effective if he has command of both pitches, as he did on Labor Day. And to repeat, as you may recall, he started and won the very tense Game Five of last year’s playoff series against the Bats.

The wild cards are Cobb, who had a superb season for Montgomery and figures to will start a playoff Game Three for the Bulls this week (otherwise it’s Darin Downs and somebody on short rest), and Dane De La Rosa, who has not been officially added to the Bulls’ roster. (I don’t know if he will be, but Stacy Long down in Montgomery reported that he would be joining the Bulls.) I mentioned De La Rosa earlier this season when the Bulls needed arms. He is an Independent League reclamation project who has pitched well out of the Biscuits’ bullpen, with an intriguing 6-foot-6 frame.

Overall analysis: On paper, Durham looks like the slightly better team, because their pitching is superior. The bullpen has vastly more experience than Louisville’s—Winston Abreu, Joe Bateman, Brian Shouse, R. J. Swindle and Dale Thayer boast 62 combined seasons (!) of baseball between them, and that doesn’t even account for the liveliest arm in the pen, which belongs to 24-year-old Jake McGee, who stands to make a major difference in the playoffs if he isn’t called up the majors by the Rays. The Bats’ Chad Reineke starts Game One against the Bulls’ Richard De Los Santos, and although Reineke pitched well against Durham earlier this season, you have to think that the matchup favors De Los Santos. Beyond that, there are some guessing games about starters, and it isn’t meet to speculate too much.

Somehow, though, I have a feeling that a fair amount is going to ride on the 22-year-old shoulders of young Alex Cobb, just up from Class AA Montgomery, where he pitched well all year. The Triple-A playoffs are, to some degree, an audition for Double-A guys trying to move up here for next season, and it will be fun to watch the new blood when the Bulls return to the DBAP on Friday. By then—regardless of who seems like the better team—they could be on the verge of sweeping the series, on the verge of being swept, or deep in a major dogfight. A five-game playoff series can go either way, and neither logic nor talent nor anything else has anything to do with the outcome. This is the minor leagues’ Season of Chance. I will make no predictions, except to say that plays in the field—I mean errors with the gloves—will have something to do with who wins. I’ll see you Friday, for whatever the evening brings. Until then, hold on tight.