Minor leagues return to NC with plenty of top talent

MLB prospects are prepared to play across the state

Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Wander Franco, baseball's consensus top prospect, will likely start the season with the Durham Bulls. (Brynn Anderson / AP Photo)

For the first time in 20 months, Minor League Baseball teams across the nation — including North Carolina — will take the field next week.

While the pandemic won’t keep teams off the field this year, fans will still notice COVID-related changes to the ballpark experience. For starters, the season is starting a month later than usual. Teams will also have longer homestands and road trips to consolidate travel, spending entire one-week stretches in one place.

Crowds will be smaller and spread out. Most teams are using a pod seating system, meaning fans can come to games in groups of two or four and sit together, with their group socially distanced from others. There will also be less wandering and socializing permitted than in a nonpandemic season.

With fans paying more attention to the action on the field, it’s only fitting that they’ll likely get a chance to see the top prospect in baseball, for at least part of the season.

Wander Franco, the most promising minor leaguer in the Rays’ — or any other team’s — system, is expected to start the season with the Durham Bulls.

While the cancellation of last season makes it difficult to project which player will go where since their level-to-level progression through the minor leagues was interrupted, it’s a safe bet that Franco will be just a heartbeat away from the major league team. The 20-year-old shortstop played in Class A in 2019 but spent last season on the Rays’ taxi squad, meaning he could be called up in case of injury or illness. There was even speculation he’d be activated for the team’s postseason run to the World Series.

In all likelihood, he’ll start the season as a Bull and be the most exciting prospect to come through the team since Wil Myers spent about two months in Durham before getting called up and winning Rookie of the Year in 2013.

He won’t be the only top Rays prospect in Durham. Pitcher Luis Patiño, who spent time in the big leagues with the Padres last year, has been in the alternate site to start the season and will likely be transferred to the Bulls until the Rays are ready for him in Tampa. He was the main reason the team traded ace (and former Bull) Blake Snell to San Diego in the offseason.

Further loading the Bulls roster, left-handed pitcher Shane McClanahan is also slated to start the year with Durham. While the team didn’t end up calling up Franco to make his MLB debut in the postseason, they did use that plan with McClanahan, who pitched in the postseason but is still waiting to make his regular season Rays debut.

The Bulls will also have plenty of talent ready to replace Franco when he makes the move to the majors. Vidal Brujan is one of the top 100 prospects in baseball, and the switch hitter will likely come through Durham at some point, if he doesn’t start the season there, perhaps learning to play outfield to clear a path to the Rays for him.

Flame-throwing reliever Shane Baz and two-way player Brandon McKay, who played in Durham in 2019, are other top prospects that Bulls fans will likely see.

Across the state, the Charlotte Knights will showcase the top minor league players in the White Sox system, although fans likely missed a wave of major league talent to rival the Rays due to last season’s cancellation. Position players Nick Madrigal, Luis Robert and Andrew Vaughn are already playing in Chicago with the big club, as are pitchers Michael Kopech and Garrett Crochet.

Pitcher Jonathan Stiever, outfielder Blake Rutherford and first baseman Gavin Sheets — a Wake Forest product — should all be key contributors to the Knights this year and likely see a promotion to the White Sox at some point.

Fans can also see future Knights and White Sox stars across the state, as Chicago’s two Class A teams are both located here — the Winston-Salem Dash and the rebranded Kannapolis Cannon Ballers. Pitchers Jared Kelly, Matthew Thompson and Andrew Dalquist as well as position players Bryan Ramos, Benyamin Bailey and DJ Gladney are the names to watch as they start their minor league journey.

Elsewhere in the state, Brewers prospects Hedbert Perez and Freddy Zamora could be the top players on the Class A Carolina Mudcats. The Greensboro Grasshoppers, now affiliated with the Pirates, could feature two of the top three players in the Pittsburgh system in second baseman Nick Gonzales and pitcher Quinn Priester.

Both of the Texas Rangers’ Class A teams are in the state in the Hickory Crawdads and Down East Wood Ducks. Middle infielders Maximo Acosta and Luisangel Acuna are likely going to see time at one or both places, along with pitchers Cole Winn and Hans Crouse.

Finally, the Fayetteville Woodpeckers will feature Class A talent for the Astros that could include pitcher Ale Santos and outfielder Colin Barber.

After a year away, fans in the state will get to play “I knew him when” with some of the most promising up-and-coming major leaguers in the pipeline.