Each of the 30 major league teams has 25 players = 750 major league baseball players (!). Out of those 25, usually 13 are pitchers and 12 are position players = 390 pitchers (usually 5 starters – 150; and 8 relievers – 240); 360 position players. Of those 12 position players most teams have 2 catchers, 5 infielders, and 5 outfielders.
For those 750 guys who are on a major league roster, we have another 750 players divided into 25 man teams who are in Triple-A and, trust me, every one of them could be playing in the major leagues today.
How do the Durham Bulls fit into that?
Well, now, sigh, we need to talk about the Tampa Bay Rays, who own the players wearing the Durham Bulls uniform. To oversimplify just the bit, the Tampa Bay Rays have a contract to provide the Durham Bulls a baseball team. In turn, the Durham Bulls provide a place to play and folks to cheer them on (that would be us).
To clear up some possible confusion, the Tampa Bay Rays play baseball in St. Petersburg, Florida, not Tampa. That may come as a bit of a surprise to those not familiar with Florida geography (or modern marketing strategies).
As mentioned above, major league team consists of 25 players on the “active” roster. Those are the guys in the games and in the box scores, traveling in chartered airplanes, and making a decent, sometimes obscene, amounts of money.
An additional 15 players are added the 25 to make up a 40-man roster. In general, once a player makes it to the 25-man “active” roster he stays there (unless traded, sold, released, or designated for assignment). For players who have been around for a while, there are all sorts of byzantine rules regarding how this works. To complicate matters, the rules were changed last year to allow major league teams to expand their roster to 26 on days that they have a double-header. What matters to Bulls fans, however, is that a Bull cannot be called up to play in a Rays game (even to temporarily replace an injured player) unless he is first on the 40-man roster.
Here in Durham we are not much interested in the active roster. What matters to Bulls fans are those 15 ballplayers who are on the Rays 40-man but not on the active roster. Members of that 15 man group usually make up the heart of the Durham Bulls.
If previous years are typical, we can expect that 11 to 12 of the players on the 40-man will be assigned to Durham. Tof those 6 or 7 will be pitchers and 4 or 5 will be position players. Of the pitchers, one or two will be prospective starting pitchers, the other potential relievers. Fairly often when WDBB writes about a Bull we will mention whether or not he’s on the 40-man.
What about the rest of the team? Without exception — and this is part of what makes AAA baseball so much fun — they are ballplayers who have played, or are judged capable of playing, at the major league level. The precise reason why they are not playing there is also part of the fun — too young, too old, no room at the top, needs to work on a specific skill — sometimes all of the above.
The odds of a player called up are pretty good. There are enough injuries and trades in a given year that almost all of the players on the 40-man who start the year with the Bulls will at least get a few days with the Rays. Some will go there and stay.
However, unless Tampa Bay takes someone off the 40-man, a non-40 man player cannot be called up. Adjustment to the 40-man roster can, and does, happen — just not very often. On the other hand, the Rays are nothing if not creative in gaming the system.
The 40-man roster also has an effect on how the players who are with the Bulls are used. For example, pitchers may be on limited pitch counts and/or working on specific pitches that the Rays have decided the pitcher needs to develop. Relievers may be tested to see if they can do two days in a row, or “tried out” as a closer. We will see infielders playing the outfield (and vice versa).
My point is that sometimes what we see on the field is decided in St. Petersburg, not in the Bulls’ clubhouse. The Rays really aren’t particularly interested in the Bulls’ won-loss record. So, we will inevitably see some unfortunate (for Bulls fans) decisions, such as a player being called up, sitting on the Rays’ bench for a couple of weeks, then coming back to Durham with his timing shot and struggling at bat. And with this new 26 man roster for double header rule, Bulls’ pitching rotations can get really screwed up with a pitcher being called up for a spot start and then coming back.
Nevertheless, we cannot avoid the fact that the Durham Bulls live and die at the whim of the Tampa Bay Rays' front office. What’s fortunate for Bulls fans is that the Rays have invested a ton of effort into building a steady stream of talent to feed into the big team. More than that, in the Rays system very few upcoming prospects just “pass through” AAA-level ball. Time with the Bulls is a real and very serious testing ground for pitchers and hitters. That means we will get to see a some talented ballplayers. Lastly, without the Rays we wouldn’t have AAA ball here at all.
All of which is not going to keep me from complaining about the Rays. Hey, it’s baseball!
For a terrific book about Triple-A baseball, the Durham Bulls, and sheer great writing and photography, you cannot go wrong by picking up a copy of Bull City Summer. Available at local book stores, the Bulls ballpark store (on sale, $20!) or online shops. We reviewed the book here.