Sluggers at First in Durham

Due to a June 15th opt-out clause in the contract of 30-year-old Ryan Shealy’s contract, the Durham Bulls, AAA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, lost the first baseman to International League foe Pawtucket, an affiliate of the Red Sox. With the presence of Carlos Pena in Tampa and Shealy’s advanced age, it’s hard to imagine Shealy fitting into the Rays’ plans in this season or the future. Still, Shealy had compiled a .241/.358/.518 line with Durham, an 876 OPS that ranked 11th in the league at the time of his departure. Surely, even if the Rays wouldn’t miss Shealy, the division leading Durham Bulls will.

Perhaps not. To go along with Shealy, the Bulls have the #3 IL OPS in Dan Johnson at .983 and the #5 IL OPS in Chris Richard. As far as active players go, Johnson and Richard are at #2 and #3 respectively, behind only Mike Hessman of Buffalo, the Mets affiliate, now that the Indians have called up Carlos Santana and the Pirates have called up Neil Walker.

Johnson, 30, is fresh off a season with the Yokohama BayStars. Stateside, Johnson was a slightly below average player, compiling 2.9 WAR in a touch over 1200 plate appearances, primarily as a member of the Oakland Athletics and also with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2010. Johnson’s .333 wOBA simply isn’t good enough for a first baseman in the MLB, but its possible that he suffered some BABIP luck, as his batted profile doesn’t suggest a .256 BABIP. Johnson’s back to his old tricks this season, as his .293/.391/.553 line is eerily similar to his career .306/.416/.543 minor league numbers.

Richard, 36, essentially defines the journeyman. Between the majors and the minors, Richard has played for 16 different teams since 1995, with only 1005 plate appearances coming at the MLB level. Most recent was an awful 13 game stretch with a .200 wOBA with the ’09 Rays, his first MLB stint since 2003. Over all, Richard has a .324 career wOBA and has accrued 1.6 total WAR. He has spent the last four seasons with Durham outside of that stint with the Rays, and he’s been excellent, posting OBPs above .360 and SLGs above .480 each season.

Even without Shealy on their roster, Durham looks to have a reliable duo to man first base down the stretch of the minor league season. Neither has played well in the major leagues, and given their ages, they certainly don’t have prospect status. Still, with Matt Joyce, Hank Blalock, and Carlos Pena all struggling to a certain extent, one of these two may be looked at as a potential stopgap at the DH position. Many teams have strengths at positions, but not many can lose a top-15 hitter in the league and hardly bat an eye. The Durham Bulls have that luxury at first base this season.

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How is exactly is Joyce struggling? He was injured at the beginning of the year, but has been mashing in AAA since he recovered. I would have to imagine he’s the Ray’s first option to call up if they want a new DH (especially as Joyce is also a plus defender in the corner OF).