Since he cleared waivers after a brief—he dressed in uniform but did not appear in a game—stint with the Tampa Bay Rays, Dan Johnson has torn up the International League. Johnson continued his hot-hitting ways on Tuesday night, going 3-for-4 with his 17th home run and three RBIs as the Bulls dropped the second game of a four-game series with the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, 4-3. The left-handed-hitting designated hitter is now batting .438 with five homers and 14 RBIs in his past 10 games. In 75 games overall at Durham, he has posted a line of .296/.419/.544, ranking among circuit leaders with a .963 OPS.
Johnson, who was acquired in an April deal with the Oakland Athletics before Gabe Gross arrived, had his most productive season in the majors in 2007, when he hit 18 home runs and posted a .768 OPS in 117 games. It would not be a surprise to see him get another shot with the big league club if the right situation arises and he continues to produce.
Another veteran who has major league experience has been a key cog in the Bulls' lineup. A Triple-A All-Star, Chris Richard is having a fine season, ranking first on the roster in homers (18), RBIs (59) and second in OPS (.915). The 34-year-old first baseman ranks in the top ten in the circuit in homers and OPS as well, sitting with a current line of .277/.389/.537.
Durham outfielder Justin Ruggiano has also been productive, hitting .297/.356/.489 with 18 extra-base hits in 182 at-bats. Ruggiano did not receive a strong look when he was up with the parent club earlier this summer, getting only 31 at-bats in 15 games. The 26-year-old has posted solid statistics in his professional career since being drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers out of Texas A&M in the 2004 First-Year draft. Scouts have never been wild about his tool set, however, despite his constant production and career .903 OPS in the minors.
If Tampa Bay does not address its need for a right-handed bat at the trade deadline, perhaps Ruggiano will finally get his true shot to play on a nightly basis in the majors as an internal replacement. If this situation, indeed, occurs, Jonny Gomes will probably be designated for assignment. The organization will then have enough information to determine if he can hold down the right field, or if he is better suited in a platoon situation against left-handed pitchers or as a fourth outfielder.
Fernando Perez is enjoying a nice season at Durham as well. Perez, whose name has surfaced in several potential trade rumors involving the Rays, is now batting .294/.367/.406 as the Bulls' leadoff hitter. He continued to make things happen at the top of the Bulls' lineup, going 3-for-4 with a double and two runs scored in the loss on Tuesday night. He turned in a 2-for-4 performance the night before as well, as Durham dropped the opener of a four-game series with the IronPigs. Over his previous 10 games, the Ivy League product (Columbia) is batting .395—17-for-43—with five steals in as many chances. A solid defender in center field who does not hit for any power, he profiles as a fourth outfielder at the major league level.
Scouts and statistical analysts are still waiting for a breakout from Reid Brignac, who made his debut in the majors when Jason Bartlett went down with a knee injury two weeks ago. Brignac, however, did not get a real shot with the parent club, going 0-for-10 in a limited role while Ben Zobrist received the majority of innings at shortstop.
Brignac, drafted out of Louisiana high school in 2004, has made great strides defensively, but has regressed offensively since earning California League MVP honors after a monster campaign back in '06. He performed well enough to earn IL All-Star honors, but is batting only .261/.309/.416 and will have to hit for a high batting average to keep his OBP at an acceptable level. Brignac still has power potential as well, though he has hit only seven homers in 303 at-bats so far.
Despite a two-game slide, Durham has a six-game lead in International League South division. While the Bulls' starting rotation has seen strong individual performances from Jeremy Cummings and Jeff Niemann, the aforementioned position players have all factored mightily in the club's success.