The MLB playoffs open this week, and the Durham Bulls and Charlotte Knights will battle for the chance to win the World Series.
Not the current editions of the Bulls and Knights, of course, but both teams will have plenty of representation in the postseason as their parent clubs, the Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago White Sox, respectively, are two of the favorites in the American League after winning division titles. The Sox also call North Carolina home for their two Class A teams, the Winston-Salem Dash and Kannapolis Cannon Ballers.
The AL’s other division winner? The Houston Astros, who also has a pair of Class A teams — the Asheville Tourists and Fayetteville Woodpeckers — in the state.
Two members of the White Sox starting lineup — catcher Yasmani Grandal and outfielder Luis Robert — played for the Charlotte Knights this season. So did rookie outfielder Gavin Sheets, a former Wake Forest player..
Third baseman Yoan Moncada, shortstop Tim Anderson, and starting pitchers Lucas Giolito and Dylan Cease came through the North Carolina teams on their way up to Chicago.
The White Sox player with the strongest connection to the state is probably Carlos Rodon, who helped lead NC State to the College World Series. That Wolfpack team also had infielder Trea Turner, the NL batting champion who was traded to the Dodgers at this year’s MLB trade deadline and plays in Wednesday’s National League Wild Card game.
The Rays finished with the best record in the American League, making them the favorite to return to the World Series for a second straight year. The team is loaded with former Durham Bulls, including Wander Franco — the shortstop who started the year in Durham as the top prospect in the minor leagues. He was called up midseason and tied an MLB record — shared with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson — with 43 straight games reaching base, the most by someone under age 21.
Second baseman Brandon Lowe, who led the Rays with 39 home runs, is another former Bull, as is left fielder Austin Meadows, who led the team with 106 RBIs, and center fielder Kevin Kiermaier.
The pitching staff is loaded with former Bulls, including starter Ryan Yarbrough, relievers Andrew Kittredge, Pete Fairbanks and Josh Fleming, as well as late-season call-up Shane Baz, who won an Olympic silver medal as part of Team USA in Tokyo. Fellow silver medalist David Robertson also went from Tokyo to Tampa by way of Durham this summer. The Rays are also managed by a former Bull, Kevin Cash. The NL East champion Atlanta Braves also have a former Bull at the helm in Brian Snitker.
The Astros just affiliated with Asheville last season, and Fayetteville is also only 2 years old, so no one has jumped from Class A to the Houston starting lineup yet. But starting pitcher Jake Odorizzi and reliever Ryne Stanek are former Durham Bulls.
The team also used to have a franchise in Buies Creek, and home run leader Yordan Alvarez, starters Framber Valdez and Jose Urquidy, and outfielders Myles Straw and Kyle Tucker are among the current Astros to spend time there.
The National League only has one team with a home base in North Carolina, but former Bull Evan Longoria is a member of the Giants lineup, and David Price is on the Dodgers’ pitching staff.
Charlotte native Mike Shildt manages the Cardinals, who entered the Wild Card as baseball’s hottest team. All-Star infielder Nolan Arenado is a former Asheville Tourist, back when the team was an affiliate of the Colorado Rockies.
The Brewers have several contributors to their NL Central championship team that played for the Carolina Mudcats, most notably Cy Young Award candidate Corbin Burnes. Starting pitcher Freddy Peralta and reliever Brad Boxberger also came through Zebulon, while shortstop Willy Adames is a former Bull that Tampa traded this season to make room for Franco.
If this year’s minor league season is any indication, the White Sox don’t want any part of the Rays in the playoffs. The Durham Bulls beat the Charlotte Knights 25 times in their 31 games this year as the Bulls went on to win their 15th divisional title in Triple-A, seventh league championship and third Triple-A National Championship. Titles this year were determined by regular season record since, instead of playoffs, all Triple-A teams played a 10-game “final stretch.” The Bulls won that, too, with a record of 9-1 in the 10 games.
The lower levels of the minor leagues did hold best-of-five playoffs. The Greensboro Grasshoppers advanced to the High-A championship series, losing to Bowling Green in five games. In Low-A, the Down East Wood Ducks also made it to the championship round before falling to Charleston in five.