Striving for team success at the minor league level can leave a manager feeling like he’s trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.
The better his players do on the field, the more likely they are to get promoted to help someone else’s team win.
Such is life for Jared Sandberg, who enters his third season managing the Durham Bulls.
The last two seasons, while the parent Tampa Bay Rays languished near the bottom of the American League East, Sandberg’s Bulls routinely shuttled back and forth to the big leagues.
As a result, Durham has missed the International League playoffs both seasons after playing in the postseason seven times in the previous eight seasons under Charlie Montoyo.
Sandberg’s job is to get players ready for the big leagues, whether they are destined to help the Rays themselves or become a tradeable chip to add another big-leaguer.
Yet, as he spoke Wednesday morning at Durham Bulls Athletic Park on the eve of the team’s season-opening game at Gwinnett, Sandberg admitted the need for team success is a priority for him as well.
“Expectations are high for the ballclub this year with all the prospects that we have, the players we have on the team,” Sandberg said. “If the tradition here in Durham is to win a championship, we have the right personnel to do it. Personally for me the comfort in coming back here is great but I personally have some things to work on as a manager.”
The Rays have certainly given Sandberg plenty of young, talented players to work with in his quest to return winning baseball and postseason accomplishment to Durham. The Bulls, after all, own four International League championships since they entered the league in 1998.
“Look at the banners, look at the championships that have been won here with the managers that have been at the helm in years past in Bill Evers and Charlie,” Sandberg said. “They’ve set the tone and set the bar very high. There is a standard of winning and we haven’t won the last two years. With the roster that we have on each given night, we’re going to do our best to go out there and compete and bring a championship back to Durham.”
Willy Adames, rated as the No. 1 prospect in the Rays minor-league system by mlb.com, will play shortstop and bat third for the Bulls. Jake Bauers, a slugger with the versatility to play outfield or first base, is slotted as the clean-up batter. Bauers is Tampa’s No. 4 prospect.
Casey Gillaspie, the Rays minor league player of the year in 2016, hit .284 with 18 home runs in 132 games split between Double-A Montgomery and the Bulls. He starts the season in Durham this year for the first time and he batted fifth during the Bulls’ 2-1 Tuesday night exhibition win over Duke.
That’s a healthy middle of the batting order filled with players expected to star for the Rays one day soon.
“Talking about young players here and the roster itself, there’s lots of Rays players here, homegrown talent here,” Sandberg said. “It’s fun to look around and see your players here mixed in with a few free agents. In years past we’ve had quite a few free agents, so it’s good to see our guys here, our prospects here.”
The Bulls have prospects on their pitching staff as well. Taylor Guerrieri, a first-round pick in 2011, tied for the Southern League lead in wins with 12 last season at Montgomery. He’ll start the season in the Bulls rotation.
Jacob Faria pitched 13 games for Durham last summer after a promotion from Montgomery. He’ll start in Thursday night’s season-opening game at Gwinnett.
Jamie Schultz led the International League with 163 strikeouts while making 27 starts for Durham last season. At age 25, he’s transitioned to the bullpen. Another former Tampa first-round pick, Ryan Stanek, joins Schultz on Durham’s relief staff.