Minor leagues ready for return

North Carolina lost one franchise and sees leagues and parent teams shuffle for others

(Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

After a year of uncertainty, minor league baseball appears poised to return to the field — although things may look different in many cities around the country, including several in the state of North Carolina.

Since the playoffs ended in the various levels of minor league baseball in September 2019, the industry has been shaken to its core, by both the pandemic and the maneuverings of Major League Baseball.

The nation shut down last March as the coronavirus spread across the country. The timing, just as spring training was winding down, couldn’t have been worse for baseball. The delayed start and eventual 60-game major league season made it logistically impossible for the minors to play and, with no fans allowed in the stands, made no financial sense to have a season.

While teams struggled to survive with no income, the pressure on the sport was increased by MLB, which enacted a plan to eliminate 40 teams. The plan, which was formulated before the pandemic began, included the Burlington Royals, who lost their Class A franchise. Instead, the city will host a team in a new collegiate summer baseball league. The High Point Rockers of the independent Atlantic League are unaffected and plan to start their season in late May.

The rest of North Carolina’s teams escaped the cut, but make no mistake, the changes will be visible once the season starts.

And when will that be? As of press time, teams are planning to play a full season (144 games for the higher-level teams) beginning in April. Spring training will begin later this month. There’s a strong likelihood, however, that the start will eventually be pushed back to May as players work to get back into shape after a year away from organized league games and teams attempt to cope with pandemic restrictions that remain.

Schedules are expected to be released next week, which is extremely late for a normal minor league season — yet the latest piece of evidence that 2021 will be far from normal.

The schedule will be different. To reduce travel costs, teams will play longer series against the same opponent, with talk of six-game series to keep the same team in town for a week.

MLB has also reorganized the remaining 120 minor league teams, changing affiliations with parent teams to make sure each MLB franchise has four minor league affiliates. Just last week, MLB released the new alignment, which eliminated the traditional leagues, many of which have dated back more than 100 years.

Here’s a look at what that means for teams in North Carolina:

Durham Bulls: The Bulls keep Tampa Bay as their parent team and have signed a new agreement through 2030. The International League, which the Bulls have won six times since 2002, is no more. Instead, the Bulls will play in what’s currently (at least until naming rights are sold) being called Triple-A East.

They may find it tougher to win their division. Durham won the four-team International League South 14 times in 21 years. They’ll now play in the seven-team Triple-A East Southeast Division, which is a mouthful. The three other teams previously in their division — Charlotte, Gwinnett and Norfolk — will also be with them, along with newcomers the Memphis Redbirds, Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp and Nashville Sounds.

Charlotte Knights: Like the Bulls, Charlotte keeps its parent team, the White Sox, and moves with Durham from the IL South to the Triple-A East Southeast.

Winston-Salem Dash: The Carolina League got blown up in the reorganization, and no team flew farther than the Dash. Winston-Salem kept its parent, the White Sox, but they left their former Carolina League rivals to move to High-A East South Division, where they’ll join several teams from the South Atlantic League.

Asheville Tourists: One of the in-state teams moving from the South Atlantic to Winston-Salem’s division in the High-A East is Asheville, which has a new parent club, losing Colorado in favor of Houston.

Greensboro Grasshoppers: The Hoppers keep the Pirates and stay in the same division as Asheville.

Hickory Crawdads: They stick with the Texas Rangers and join the North Carolina teams moving from the South Atlantic to High-A East South. The non-NC teams in that division are South Atlantic refugees Rome and Greenville, as well as the Bowling Green Hot Rods from the Midwest League.

Kannapolis Cannon Ballers: They keep the White Sox but change their name from the Intimidators. They’re also the lone South Atlantic team in the state not assigned to High-A. The Intimidators will be in Low-A with many of the former Carolina League teams.

Carolina Mudcats: They keep Milwaukee and join Kannapolis in the Low-A East Central Division.

Down East Wood Ducks: They keep Texas and also got sent to the Low-A East Central.

Fayetteville Woodpeckers: The Peckers round out the all-NC division in Low-A and keep their Houston Astros affiliation.