Reigning IL champion Bulls open season tonight at DBAP

Apr. 03, 2014 @ 04:39 PM

The International League title rings nearly half of the players on the Durham Bulls opening day roster won last September will be awarded in a couple of days.

Those 10 players know, even though they are one step below the Holy Grail that is Major League Baseball, that baseball can be fun and rewarding at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

When the Bulls play Gwinnett tonight in their season-opening game at 6:05 p.m., guys like Vince Belnome, Kevin Kiermaier and Cole Figueroa will be surrounded by new teammates as they aim to win another International League championship.

“If you are going to be in Triple-A,” Belnome said, “why not be here? The fans are great. Basically the stadium is brand new. We have a good team and a good group of guys. You can’t complain.”

Belnome batted .300 with eight home runs and 67 RBIs to make the IL All-Star team last season in his first season with the Tampa Bay Rays organization. A versatile player who split time between first base, second base, third base and designated hitter last season, he’ll provide Bulls manager Charlie Montoyo with a steady bat and reliable glove all over the diamond.

That is, as long as Belnome is in Durham. The Bulls’ opening day roster features nine players who are on Tampa Bay’s 40-man roster. That means the Rays thought enough of them to protect them from being plucked by other organizations. It also means they are in prime position for promotion.

Belnome is one of those players. So is speedy centerfielder Kevin Kiermaier, who finished the Triple-A season last year with Durham after playing most of the summer with Double-A Montgomery.

“We have a lot of good players, a lot of 40-man guys,” Montoyo said. “What I’m going to do is call these guys everyday so they don’t know when I’m calling them if they are going up. It could be anyone at any time, which is fun. As long as they are doing their jobs they are going to have a chance to go up.”

Most of the pitching staff, seven players, are 40-man roster guys. They include relief pitchers Jeff Beliveau, Brad Boxberger, C.J. Riefenhauser and Kirby Yates.

Durham’s starting rotation will also be a strong point with Nathan Karns, Enny Romero and Mike Montgomery leading the way. All are 40-man roster players.

Matt Andriese, acquired from the San Diego Padres organization in January, and big-league veteran Erik Bedard round out the rotation. Merrill Kelly, who pitched with Durham last season, will begin the year as the team’s long reliever.

“Karns is going to be fun to watch,” Montoyo said. “He’s a big prospect. I saw him in spring training. Great arm. Romero is a left-hander who throws 95, 94. Big arm. Great prospect.”

The rotation could have been even better but a couple of last-minute situations changed that. Alex Colome received a 50-game suspension last week for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Jake Odorizzi began the season with Tampa Bay after Jeremy Hellickson landed on the disabled list.

Montoyo is looking forward to getting a longer look at Kiermaier, one of Tampa Bay’s top prospects. Kiermayer spent the last month of the season with Durham last season, helping the Bulls win the IL Governor’s Cup championship, before heading to the Rays for their postseason.

“He’s a good player this kid,” Montoyo said. “He is fun to watch. Last year, he came at the end in August. He saved probably 20 runs that month making plays in the outfield and throwing guys out at the plate. I‘m looking forward to him playing every day.”

Mikie Mahtook, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2011, will also patrol the Bulls outfield along with Jerry Sands, a former Smithfield-Selma High School star Along with Belnome, the Bulls will rotate Figueroa, Fontenot, ex-big leaguer Wilson Betemit and a familiar face in Ray Olmedo around the infield.

Over the first two games of the season, Durham will bat against a couple of pitchers readying themselves to help the Atlanta Braves.

Gavin Floyd, whose 2013 season with the Chicago White Sox was cut short by elbow surgery, will start for Gwinnett tonight. Ervin Santana, who signed with Atlanta on March 12, will pitch Friday in what is expected to be his final minor-league appearance before joining Atlanta.

NOTES — Top Rays' prospect Hak-Ju Lee, a shortstoph who started for the Bulls at the beginning of last season but was quickly lost to a knee injury, begins the season on the Bulls’ disabled list with an unrelated muscle strain. Also on the DL to open the season are outfielders James Darnell and Jeremy Moore.