Durham Bulls on Parade

Shane Baz, SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game, July 11, 2021. Photo credit Scott Greene, @Scotty_Ballgame on Twitter

The Durham Bulls have been utterly dominant this season. They have played their way to an impressive 50-24 record as of this article, with a run differential of +159 that represents the highest total in Triple-A East by a wide margin (second is Scranton/Wilkes-Barre with +114 run diff.) The team has rightfully earned the reputation as a prospect powerhouse, in large part to the significant amount of talent that has rallied its way through the highest level of the Rays’ minor league system. Some of the prospects deservedly highlighted below started the season as a member of the Bulls family and have been recently promoted as a result of their strong performances, while others are still coming with it now in Triple-A, waiting for their chance to join the parade onto the major league stage.

HITTERS

Wander Franco, SS
One of the most highly-anticipated prospects in baseball’s next wave of talent needs very little introduction. Before earning the promotion for his Major League debut in late June, Wander Franco cemented his status as baseball’s top prospect in the heart of the Durham Bulls lineup. Franco laid waste to opposing pitchers in his first career Triple-A stint, raking.315/.367/.586 (147 wRC+) with seven homers and five stolen bases in 39 games. The legendary bat speed has been on full display, and Franco noticeably stands out above every other player each time he takes the field. He played most of his games for Durham at shortstop, his natural position, but also played both second base and third base in games for the first time in his professional career. If Franco is up with the big league club for good as many reasonably expect, he leaves behind an all-time minor league career. In 214 minor league games, Franco earned a hearty slash line of .332/.398/.536, as well as the distinction as the sport’s top prospect. It’s been a fun ride for Wander as he demolished opposing pitchers at every minor league stop, but now the time has finally come and it’s Wander’s World. We’re just living in it.

Vidal Bruján, 2B
Bruján got off to a scorching start to the 2021 minor league season, hitting .315/.408/.584 with seven homers, nine steals, 14 walks, and just 17 strikeouts across the month of May. He led off most nights in front of Wander Franco, forming perhaps one of the most formidable prospect combinations atop a minor league lineup in recent memory while providing fans a glimpse of the electric youth movement making its way around the corner in Tampa. The Rays organization also prioritized developing Bruján’s ability to play all over the diamond, gaining experience at shortstop, third base, and all three outfield positions, along with his natural placement at the keystone. This should allow the major league club to consistently maximize his bat and elite speed in the lineup by playing him anywhere in the field. Bruján was promoted to the show in early July, and although he will see more time in Triple-A Durham this season, the Rays may have found their table-setter for the next decade.

Josh Lowe, OF
Lowe has accelerated his ascent as one of the organization’s premier prospects. After a productive 2019 regular season (18 HR and 30 SB, one of only four minor leaguers to accomplish the feat in 2019) and prosperous Arizona Fall League showing (hit .327/.379/.558), Lowe has continued to reward the team that selected him as the 13th overall pick in the 2016 MLB Draft. He’s displayed a tantalizing ability to hit for both average and power, raking .279/.354/.546 (132 wRC+) with 14 HR, also stealing 15 bases without being caught once. Lowe has also been able to successfully raise his FB% to a career-high 44.9 percent this season, while trimming his GB% to a career-low 32.9 percent. After starting his professional career as a third baseman in the system, the Rays have transitioned Lowe to the outfield where he has played each professional inning since the start of the 2017 season. Lowe looks primed to take advantage of an opening at the Major League level sooner than later, and should make a major impact as he advances on a promising upward trajectory. He represents not only the best primary outfield prospect currently in the Rays system, but also one of the most underrated prospects in all of baseball.

Nathan Lukes, OF
Lukes may not be the most well-known name on this list, but he’s having an absolutely sensational season in his second campaign with the Durham Bulls. Lukes, the former seventh-round pick by the Indians, was acquired by the Rays at the 2016 trade deadline in exchange for OF Brandon Guyer. He had a solid couple of seasons before struggling in 2019 in his first taste of Triple-A. Lukes’ offensive improvements have been monumental this year, as he’s hitting .320/.374/.506 (131 wRC+) in 54 games while serving as a key cog in the dominant Durham Bulls lineup. He also has extensive experience playing all three outfield positions throughout each season of his minor league career, so he could become a sneaky asset for the major league club if an opportunity were to arise in Tampa’s outfield.

PITCHERS

Shane Baz, RHP
Baz has solidified his status as one of the sport’s elite prospects with a dynamic showing to kick off the 2021 season. One aspect that has vastly improved for Baz this season is his control of the strike zone. Once considered to be the only aspect of his game holding Baz back from a future as a starter, control has now become a significant asset for him. He’s racked up 82 strikeouts compared to only 10 walks in 55.2 IP this season while holding opposing hitters to a .189 BAA across the minor leagues’ two highest levels. Baz has also immediately made his presence felt in Durham, with a 1.96 ERA across his first five starts in Triple-A. His electric arsenal is headlined by a booming fastball paired with an above-average sweeping slider and a solid changeup. Shane Baz and (former) teammate Joe Ryan are both representing Team USA in the 2020 Olympics, and should both gain meaningful experience pitching in a very competitive environment. He could be on the fast track to the big leagues as he continues to overmatch opposing hitters this season, and the stratospheric upside for the former Player To Be Named Later looks to be that of a frontline ace.

Joe Ryan, RHP
Many were anticipating how Joe Ryan would perform after a truly dominant 2019 campaign when he pitched across three levels and led all qualified minor league pitchers in K% (38.0%) and K/BB (32.4%.) To date, Ryan has impressed, undoubtedly looking the part of a potential impact starting pitcher at the next level. Ryan leads the Triple-A East league in strikeouts (75 K in 57 IP, 11.8 K/9), WHIP (0.79), and BAA (.175.) In his best start of the season so far, Ryan dominated the Norfolk Tides, allowing only one hit and one walk while striking out nine across seven scoreless innings. He primarily utilizes his deceptive, three-quarter arm slot to unleash his signature “disappearing fastball” at a high clip with pinpoint accuracy to stymie batters. Ryan was the headline piece of the recent trade package that sent Nelson Cruz to the Rays on July 23, and could soon prove to be a viable member of the Twins’ rotation.

Drew Strotman, RHP
Strotman had been a vital rotation piece for the Durham Bulls this year, as he’s earned seven wins with a 3.39 ERA in 13 games to date. He’s allowed one or fewer runs in nine of his first 12 starts to begin the campaign, which is even more impressive considering that Strotman last pitched in High-A in 2019 after recovering from Tommy John surgery and skipped Double-A entirely coming into this season. He’s shown tremendous poise on the mound for a pitcher skipping levels and possesses a high-90s fastball paired with a couple of developing secondary offerings that have proven effective. His upside as an underrated arm in a stacked system was apparent to many, including the Twins’ scouting department, as he was also acquired by the club in the Nelson Cruz deal. Once the trade processes, Strotman will likely resume his professional career with Triple-A St. Paul, with a potential Major League debut to be anticipated by the end of 2021 or early next season.

Louis Head, RHP
Head has performed as a highly effective weapon coming out of the Bulls’ ‘pen. In 20 games this season, Head has posted a pristine 1.96 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 11.7 K/9 across 23.0 IP. It has been a long journey for the former 18th-round pick in the 2012 Draft. Head spent the first seven years of his professional career with the Indians organization before a brief stint in Los Angeles, and now finds himself at the top level of the Rays farm system. Head has seen brief action with the big league club in four separate stints, but he’s found success with a 1.88 ERA and 0.91 WHIP during that time, so he could realistically represent a bullpen weapon for a Rays organization down the stretch that has earned the reputation for getting the most from effective relievers.




About Jake Wiener 11 Articles
Jake Wiener is a lifelong sports fan who leads Tampa Bay Rays minor league farm system coverage for the Prospects1500 team. Growing up playing baseball, Jake developed a love and genuine excitement for the game that grows stronger every year. Jake, who was born and raised in New York with family in Ohio, is a New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians fan. Jake participates in daily, redraft, dynasty and prospect-only fantasy baseball formats during each season and knows that when it comes to baseball, there truly is no offseason. Stay connected and feel free to reach out on Twitter @GatorSosa

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