North Carolina’s 12 minor league baseball teams stretch as far west as Asheville (the Tourists) to the other side of the state, where the Down East Wood Ducks play in Kinston, and there’s everything from rookie ball in Burlington to Triple-A play in Charlotte and Durham (read about the Bulls’ quest for a third straight Governors’ Cup). Regardless of where you live in the state, there’s a fun day at the ballpark close by.
Affiliate and level: Colorado Rockies, Class A South Atlantic League
Manager: Former Brewers and Mets catcher Robinson Cancel
Best prospect: First baseman Grant Lavigne was the 42nd overall pick in the 2018 draft. He hit .350 with .996 OPS in Grand Junction last year and is the fifth-best prospect in the Rockies organization according to MLB.com.
Outlook: There’s plenty to do in Asheville, but with a roster packed with top Rockies prospects, including pitchers Ryan Rolison, Riley Pint, Ryan Feltner and Mike Nikorak, as well as SS Terrin Vavra, OF Daniel Montano, C Willie MacIver and former Tar Heel Kyle Datres, the Tourists should be able to compete with the rest of the city’s attractions.
Affiliate and level: Kansas City Royals, Rookie advanced Appalachian League
Manager: 11-year MLB catcher Chris Widger
Best prospect: Reliever Janser Lara, the 30th-ranked prospect in the Royals organization, is slated to start the season in Burlington. Lara was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2015 and has hit 100 mph on the radar gun.
Outlook: The team doesn’t start until mid-June, when it will be stocked with some of Kansas City’s top picks in the 2019 draft. The Royals finished last in the Appy League in 2018 but will have a whole new roster this season.
Affiliate and level: Milwaukee Brewers, Class A advanced Carolina League
Manager: Former Braves (and Durham Bulls) catcher Joe Ayrault
Best prospect: Outfielder Tristen Lutz was the 34th overall pick in the 2017 draft and is the No. 4 prospect in the Brewers system. He had 13 homers and 63 RBI in Wisconsin last season.
Outlook: The Mudcats finished in the middle of the Carolina League’s Southern Division in 2018 and lost top Brewers prospects infielder Keston Hiura and pitchers Trey Supak and Braden Webb, all promoted to higher levels in the organization. Still, the team boasts highly rated catchers Mario Feliciano and Payton Henry.
Affiliate and level: Chicago White Sox, Triple-A International League
Manager: 15-year MLB second baseman Mark Grudzielanek
Best prospect: RHP Dylan Cease is the No. 3 prospect in the White Sox system and has one of the top fastball/curve combinations in the minor leagues. He had the fifth-lowest opponent batting average and eighth-highest strikeout rate of all minor league pitchers last year.
Outlook: The Knights look to end the Bulls’ domination of the I.L. South Division and field a team worthy of the downtown ballpark palace they play in. With veterans like Brandon Guyer and a bevy of prospects (catchers Zack Collins and Seby Zavala, pitchers Zack Burdi, Jordan Stephens, Spencer Adams) they might pull it off.
Down East Wood Ducks
Affiliate and level: Texas Rangers, Class A advanced Carolina League
Manager: Corey Ragsdale, who won a Sally League title in 2015 managing Hickory.
Best prospect: Infielder Anderson Tejada is the No. 4 prospect in the Texas system. He finished second in the Carolina League in total bases and fifth in homers with the Wood Ducks last year. He’ll try to convert to a switch hitter this season.
Outlook: Down East finished down at the bottom of the Carolina League standings last year, but an infusion of talent should help. The Ducks have outfielders Bubba Thompson (No. 5) and Leody Taveras (6), pitcher Tyler Phillips (14), A.J. Alexy (20) and Demarcus Evans (24) and infielder Diosbel Arias (19), all highly ranked Texas prospects.
Affiliate and level: Houston Astros, Class A advanced Carolina League
Manager: Nate Shaver doesn’t have much pro playing experience, but the first-year manager was a coach for Carolina League champion Buies Creek last year and has a doctorate degree.
Best prospect: RHP Bryan Abreu is the No. 8 prospect in the Houston system. He struck out 90 in 541/3 innings last year with a 1.49 ERA and features one of the best curves in the minors.
Outlook: Baseball returns to Fayetteville. After a very successful stint in Buies Creek, the Astros/Woodpeckers move to a brand-new stadium looking to defend their Carolina League title.
Affiliate and level: Pittsburgh Pirates, Class A South Atlantic League
Manager: Former Reds catcher Miguel Perez.
Best prospect: RHP Steven Jennings is the No. 13 prospect in the Pirates system. A second-rounder in 2017, he has four pitches that he blends well to go along with his 94-mph fastball.
Outlook: The Grasshoppers are in their first year with the Pirates after 16 as a Marlins affiliate. Pittsburgh hasn’t exactly rolled out the welcome mat. Other than Jennings, the only other top-30 prospect on the roster is outfielder Lolo Sanchez.
Affiliate and level: Texas Rangers, Class A South Atlantic League
Manager: Matt Hagen returns for his second year as Hickory skipper.
Best prospect: The top prospect in the Rangers’ system begins the year in Hickory. RHP Hans Crouse, a 2017 second-rounder, has dominated the minors with his fastball and slider, posting a 1.93 ERA and striking out nearly a third of the batters he’s faced.
Outlook: Hickory finished 17 games out last year but is packed with talent this season. In addition to Crouse, the Crawdads feature Texas’ No. 2 (outfielder Juan Pablo Martinez), No. 12 (infielder Chris Seise), No. 18 (infielder Jonathan Ornelas), No. 20 (catcher Sam Huff), No. 21 (3B Sherten Apostel) prospects.
High Point Rockers
Affiliate and level: Independent Atlantic League of Professional Baseball
Manager: Jamie Keefe, but the big name on the coaching staff is former Cy Young winner Frank Viola, who will be pitching coach.
Best prospect: The biggest name on the roster is likely Dante Bichette Jr., son of the former All-Star and a former top pick of the Yankees.
Outlook: The new independent league expansion team features several former MLB players including pitchers Vic Black (Mets) and Seth Maness (Royals) and infielders Hector Gomez (Brewers) and Tyler Ladendorf (A’s). There’s plenty of local talent, including NC State’s Brett Austin, ECU’s Maness and Seth Simmons, Campbell’s Matt Sergey, Asheville product Sam Runion and Apex’s Quincy Latimore.
Affiliate and level: Chicago White Sox, Class A South Atlantic League
Manager: Ryan Newman, son of MLB catcher Jeff, takes the helm of his sixth different White Sox minor league team.
Best prospect: Outfielder Steele Walker has one of the great baseball names of all time. He’s also Chicago’s 11th-most promising prospect. A former outfield mate of Kyler Murray at Oklahoma, he’s a second-round draft pick.
Outlook: With top prospects Bryce Bush, Lenyn Sosa and Luis Curbelo, the Kannapolis infield is, well, intimidating. So is the rotation, which will feature prospects Konnor Pilkington and Jonathan Stiever. The team should contend in the Sally League, assuming the talent doesn’t get promoted too quickly.
Affiliate and level: Chicago White Sox, Class A advanced Carolina League
Manager: Former All-Star shortstop Omar Vizquel
Best prospect: Outfielder Luis Robert is the No. 4 prospect in the White Sox system. He signed for $26 million out of Cuba and, with nine hits and three homers in his first 17 at-bats this season, may not be long for Winston-Salem before he’s promoted.
Outlook: More than half of Chicago’s top 30 prospects played in Winston-Salem for at least part of last season, as the Dash won the first- and second-half league titles and finished 30 games over .500. The team starts this year with just three — Robert, second baseman Nick Madrigal and pitcher Alec Hansen. While there are prospects on their way up the system, the Carolina League might take its revenge on the Dash in the early going.