So, here's how I tackled this questioned: I took over 100 years of Durham Bulls baseball, all the players, and crunched the numbers a bit. At first, I started looking at the player's performance while they were in Durham. After a few minutes I wasn't sold on the player's actual performance in Durham being the best measure of the players. After all, Evan Longoria has a .245 career batting average for the Bulls over 45 games. First, I don't think of Longoria as a .245 hitter. Second, given that he's one of the best third baseman in the American League, there is probably a reason he was only in AAA for part of a season.
Here's what I decided. The purpose of players, generally in AAA, is to prepare to take the last step to be Major Leaguers. There are also players who are not in the Majors, have been in the past, that are trying to revive their careers or might even serve in some type of mentoring role for the younger players. Ultimately, they all want a ticket to the Majors and they want to perform the best that they can when they get there. So, I tackled this issue based on how well the players performed once they reached the majors. The players I looked at generally made their appearances for the Bulls at the beginnings of their professional careers. An older player, such as Norm Charlton, might have had an impactful Major League career, but not had an impact after being on the Bulls.
I broke my list into a position players list and a pitchers list. Enjoy!
Top 5 Durham Bulls Position Players
I used a couple of different measures to look at the former Bulls players for my list. One of my main measures was the use of OPS+ which is a statistic that looks at the amount of times a player gets on base and their slugging percentage. OPS+ also takes account factors, such as different ballparks, which could skew a players numbers. OPS does not do that. An average player would have an OPS+ of 100 while better players drift upwards towards 200. Babe Ruth has the highest career OPS+ around 206. I also took into account other career statistics and awards.
1. Chipper Jones- While Chipper is not in the Hall of Fame, he will be in once he is eligible. I think. Over a 19 years career for the Atlanta Braves Chipper Jones posted an OPS+ of 141, hit over 450 career home runs, while posting a batting average over .300. Chipper Jones also won the 1999 National League MVP award, was named an All-Star eight times, and was apart of numerous post season teams including the 1995 Braves team which won the World Series.
2. Joe Morgan - The only Durham Bulls player to ever be named to the Hall of Fame, Morgan is considered by many to be one of the greatest second baseman of all-time. His 22 year career was primarily spent playing with the Houston Astros and Cincinnati Reds, but also appeared at the end of his career with the Phillies, Giants, and A's. Morgan has an OPS+ of 136, but to his credit was very productive getting on base. He tallied just over 2,500 hits in his career, but also walked 1,800 times giving him an OBP of almost .400. He lead the league in that category several times. Morgan also hit over 250 home runs and stole almost 700 bases. Morgan played on two World Series winners with the Reds, won 5 Gold Gloves, and was named to 10 All-Star teams.
3. Evan Longoria- While Longoria's career has just started, and his over all career numbers don't match up to Morgan or Chipper, he has the potential to their equal if career continues at it's current pace. He's already been named the American League Rookie of the Year on 2008, been named to 4 All-Star teams, and won 2 Gold Gloves. His OPS+ is currently 137+ which is just a hair better than Morgan's. Also, a quick glance at his Baseball-Reference page shows his comparable players through age 26 include Chipper Jones, Gary Sheffield, and Jim Thome. Not bad company. I realize the top of the list has Bob Horner and Scott Rolen, but both of those players were Hall of Fame potential early in the career. Horner had a sudden and sharp decline while Rolen has had injury problems.
4. David Justice - Justice played in the Majors for 14 seasons between 1989 and 2002 playing for the Braves, Indians, Yankees, and A's. He appeared in six World Series during that time: three with the Braves, one with the Indians, and two with the Yankees. Justice won the 1990 National League Rookie of the Year, won the LCS MVP in 2000 with Cleveland, and was also named to three All-Star teams. Justice is never going to be in the Hall of Fame, but he was an above average Major League player. He ended his career with over 300 home runs, 1000 rbis, a slugging percentage of .500, and an OPS+ of 129.
5. Rusty Staub- Le Grand Orange gets the last spot on my list. Rusty Staub is a little bit hard to judge as player. In my opinion, he probably stuck around a few too many years at the end of his career. However, if someone is willing to pay you to play baseball who am I to argue. Staub had an OPS+ of 124 to go along with almost 300 home runs and 500 doubles. He appeared in six All-Star games over his 23 year career that featured appearances with the Astros, Expos, Mets, and Tigers.
Top 5 Durham Bulls Pitchers
The pitchers were a little bit trickier to rank than the hitters. The Bulls basically have two Hall of Fame position players and one potential Hall of Famer. The other two players on my top 5 position players list were very good everyday Major League players. The pitchers list really has one clear cut best pitcher, one potentially great pitcher, and several solid Major League hurlers.
1, Mickey Lolich - I was really surprised by the career totals of Lolich when I looked him up a few days ago. I grew up in St. Louis around Cardinals fans and always knew Lolich as the pitcher that beat Bob Gibson in Game 7 of the 1968 World Series. To hear most Cardinals fans talk of the pitching match up, they describe Lolich as a David and Gibson as a Goliath. In actuality, the pitching match up was much better than described. Lolich won more than 200 games in his career and almost reached 3,000 strikeouts. During the 1971 and 1972 seasons Lolich paced the Tigers with 22 and 25 wins while striking out 558 batters during those two seasons. Lolich won 3 games in the 1968 World Series and was awarded the World Series MVP
2. David Price - I am putting Price second on my list despite the fact that he hasn't played a really long time. Price definitely has the potential to be the equal of a pitcher like Lolich or maybe even better. Price has now played for the Rays for three full seasons and parts of two others. During that time he has already won 65 games, struck out 200 hitters twice, won a Cy Young, and been named to three All-Star teams. Not a bad start.
3. James Shields- I was a little sad to see Shields get traded this off season, but the Rays got a good return for him. Shields isn't the equal of Price, but he is an above average Major League pitcher. He throws a lot of innings, over 200 six times, and is a consistent winner. Over seven seasons Shields has won 87 games with double digit totals in six of the seven years. He has also gone over 200 strikeouts twice and finished third in the Cy Young in 2011.
4. Jason Schmidt- Schmidt's final career numbers aren't spectacular, but for a very a few years he was a really good pitcher. I remember watching him pitch the second game of the NLCS in 2002 for the Giants, playing the Cardinals, and thinking it was one of the better post season pitching performances that I had ever seen. During his six seasons on the Giants he won 78 games and averaged more than a strikeout per inning during that time. He also made two All-Star teams and won a ERA title in 2003.
5. Kevin Millwood - Millwood makes my list as a solid Major League pitcher. He had some good years, he had some bad years, and more importantly a few nice moments. First, Millwood has 16 years in the Majors and was still active last year. During that time he has recorded 169 wins for the Braves, Phillies, Indians, Rangers, Rockies, and Mariners. He won the American League ERA title in 2005 and pitched a no-hitter once for the Phillies. Last season he passed 2,000 strikeouts for his career.