Home opener
Durham Bulls vs. Norfolk Tides
Durham Bulls Athletic Park
Thursday, April 15, 7:05 p.m.

Chinese astrologers might have predicted that the Durham Bulls would win the International League and Triple-A Championships last season. It was the Year of the Bull.

If that makes the Bulls’ ascendant 2009 sound vaguely occult or just lucky, well, perhaps to some degree it was: The winning run in the team’s crowning victory scored on a passed ball. That isn’t to say that the Bulls didn’t deserve their trophy. They did, but the minor leagues, like the heavens, are transited by such swiftly tilting bodies that winning teams need some beneficent starry influenceor, as the pitching great Lefty Gomez once put it, “I’d rather be lucky than good.”

Well, champions have to be both. (Branch Rickey’s rebuttal to Gomez: “Luck is the residue of design.”) The Bulls’ parent club, the Tampa Bay Rays, is among the best in baseball at developing young talent; unlike their divisional rivals in New York and Boston, they can’t afford to buy it. As a result, the Bulls enjoy a steady stream of blue-chip prospects. (It’s no coincidence that they’ve made the playoffs in nine of their 12 years under the Rays’ wings, winning three league championships.)

Last year’s departures of top pitching prospects David Price and Wade Davis to Tampa were softened by the July promotion to Durham of another superb young hurler, Jeremy Hellickson. Meanwhile, by the time September’s major-league roster expansion looted the Bulls of three skilled outfielders, the Rays had already promoted to Durham super-stud Desmond Jennings, who thrived as a Bull, including pulling off the rare seven-hits-in-a-nine-inning-game feat in August.

Hellickson and Jennings, both 23, are the centerpieces of the 2010 Bulls. If the team seems to have fewer hot young prospects this yearplus outfielder Matt Joyce (25), who is rehabbing an elbow strainthat’s because the rest have followed the Rays’ planned progression and moved up to Tampa. This year’s edition of the Bulls is mainly insurance for a very promising, still young Tampa Bay team that is expected to rebound from a disappointing 2009 campaign and contend for the AL East Division title.

The Rays’ youth, and the organizational practice behind it, necessitates a protective layer of age somewhere. You can find it at the DBAP: The Bulls’ opening-day roster is actually older than the Rays’; the average Bull is 28 1/2 years old, an age when most ballplayers are reaching the prime of their big-league careers. (Further stabilization: Eighteen of the 25 Bulls are returnees.) One of Montoyo’s possible infield configurationsChris Richard (35 years old, a fourth-year Bull), Joe Dillon (34, warmed the Tampa bench much of last season), Angel Chavez (28, with his fourth organization in four years) and Dan Johnson (30, spent 2009 in Japan after hitting a memorable homer for the Rays in 2008) will give Montoyo an infield of reliable old oxen-reliable and very slow. Sinkerballers may want to pitch to contact and then cover their eyes. The alternatives are Ryan Shealy (30, 6-foot-5, 240 pounds); former All-Star third baseman Hank Blalock (29), whose multiple injuries have kept him from playing a full season in the field since 2006; and fourth-year utilityman Elliot Johnson, who figures to see plenty of starts at second base and shortstop.

It isn’t for their lumbering around, but the way they swing the lumber, that the Rays have so many power-hitting corner infielders installed as Bulls. Sure, chicks dig the long ball, but so do general managers, especially with newer statistical models that emphasize power over speed and contact. Also, Tampa first baseman Carlos Peña, who shared the American League home run title in 2009, is recovering from broken fingers (he was hit by a pitch late last season) and is in the final year of his contract.

Fortunately, the outfield is younger and faster, and will reclaim some of the runs the infield surrenders. Joining Jennings in the pasture are Fernando Perez and Justin Ruggiano; those three may be the league’s best outfield. Perez, who turns 27 next week, is looking to rebound from a 2009 season lost to injuries. His speed is keeping him in baseball; he just needs to hit better in order to make himself indispensable to a big-league club.

A reopened case this year is that of Ruggiano. This past winter he worked with Jaime “The Swing Mechanic” Cevallos and then “probably played better than anybody in spring training,” according to Joe Maddon. Ruggiano would have been ticketed for Tampa had it not been for a glut of outfielders already there. He took his assignment to Durham in stride; if he keeps swinging the bat well, he’ll either be called up or traded to a needier team.

The pitching staff is much the same: Along with Hellickson, a pair of 29-year-old lefty starters, Jason Cromer (shelved until at least mid-May with elbow problems) and Carlos Hernandez (never very far from his own injury trouble), return to give the Bulls three-fifths of last year’s starting rotation; and back to close games for them are sidearmer Joe Bateman (30), Winston Abreu (33), the bullpen ringmaster back from an aneurysm, and “Slingshot” Dale Thayer (29), whose big-league window is starting to lower.

This is the Chinese Year of the Tiger, by the way, which suggests that the Toledo Mud Hens have the inside track on the Governor’s Cupthey’re the Class AAA affiliate for the Detroit Tigers. That’s one more reason why, if you attend just one game this year, it should be on May 10. That night, the Bulls host Toledo at the historic Durham Athletic Park. Tickets are sure to be as scarce as Mud Hens’ teeth. Be there to watch the Bulls try to catch the cub-Tigers by the tail. And be at the DBAP all year to watch Hellickson, Jennings and all the old Bulls try to repeat as champions.

The Indy covers baseball online at Triangle Offense.