Opening day of the 2022 Major League Baseball season has been pushed back two weeks because of the labor dispute that delayed the start of spring training.
But baseball fans, especially those in North Carolina, won’t have to wait that long to get a taste of their favorite sport.
Because the minor leagues were not affected by the contentious 99-day lockout, the state’s 10 affiliated teams will begin their seasons as scheduled. The Durham Bulls and Charlotte Knights were scheduled to get started on Tuesday with road games in the Triple-A International League, while the first pitch for the others — evenly divided between the High-A South Atlantic League and Low-A Carolina League — will come on Friday.
Fans will notice several subtle changes at the games, starting with the names of the leagues in which the teams play.
Among them are experimental rules including a pitch timer, larger bases and rules prohibiting defensive shifts by requiring two infielders on each side of second base in Double-A and A league games.
An automated ball-strike system will be used in games in Charlotte and in Low-A leagues, a challenge system will be used in which teams will be allowed up to three appeals of umpires’ ball-strike calls per game.
After changing to generic regional designations such as Triple-A East and High-A South in 2021, the leagues have returned to their traditional names now that MLB has officially acquired their rights.
While there aren’t any can’t-miss prospects destined to be called up to the show sooner rather than later, as was the case with phenom Wander Franco of the Bulls last year, there is plenty of talent — and future major leaguers — to go around on state rosters.
Here’s a look at the teams and how they stack up.
The Bulls opened their season on Tuesday at Nashville. Their home opener is Tuesday, April 12 against Jacksonville.
Taking advantage of the Tampa Bay Rays’ deep farm system, the Bulls won their third Triple-A national championship in the past four seasons in 2021 with a 86-44 record that was the best in franchise history.
This year’s team will feature plenty of familiar faces, including infielder/outfielder Vidal Brujan — the Rays’ No. 4 overall prospect who led all Triple-A players with 44 stolen bases with the Bulls last season while hitting a career-high 12 home runs. Outfielder Josh Ray also returns after hitting .291 with 22 homers.
The Knights also start out on the road with a five-game series at Norfolk before returning home on April 12 against Louisville.
With most top prospects of parent club the Chicago White Sox still at the lower levels of the minors, the Knights’ roster is heavy on players who have already spent time in the majors. That includes recently acquired outfielder Adam Haseley, the Philadelphia Phillies’ opening day center fielder a year ago. Another former first-round pick, third baseman Jake Burger, hit 18 homers for the Knights last season while also playing 15 games for the White Sox.
South Atlantic League
The Houston Astros affiliate opens its season on Friday at Bowling Green before returning home on Tuesday against Greenville (SC). The Tourists, who once had Russell Wilson on their roster, feature another NC State alumnus in former Wolfpack closer Tommy DeJuneas.
The Pittsburgh Pirates affiliate opens its season at home on Friday against Rome. The Grasshoppers feature three of the Pirates’ top five prospects in pitcher Quinn Priester, catcher Henry Davis and infielder Nick Gonzales.
The Texas Rangers affiliate begins its season Friday at Winston-Salem with its home opener on Tuesday against Bowling Green. Half of the Crawdads’ initial roster is made up of players that have previously played for the team.
The Chicago White Sox affiliate begins play at home on Friday against Hickory. The Dash’s roster features outfielder Terrell Tatum, a star of NC State’s run to the College World Series last spring.
The Milwaukee Brewers affiliate based in Zebulon begins play at home on Friday against the Down East Wood Ducks. Among the top prospects assigned to the Mudcats is second baseman Tyler Black, last year’s first-round draft pick.
Down East Wood Ducks
The Kinston-based affiliate of the Texas Rangers will open its season with a three-game series in Zebulon before playing its home opener Tuesday against Kannapolis. The Wood Ducks return several players, including Gavin Collyer, their starting pitcher in Game 1 of last year’s league championship series against Charleston.
The Houston Astros affiliate begins play at Kannapolis on Friday and opens its home schedule on Tuesday against Salem. The Woodpeckers will have a local flavor with slugging outfielder Joey Loperfido, the star of Duke’s ACC Tournament championship last spring, expected to be assigned to the team.
Kannapolis Cannon Ballers
The Chicago White Sox affiliate opens its season Friday against Fayetteville and features a highly rated pitching staff anchored by prospects Jared Kelley and Matthew Thompson.
In addition to the 12 MLB affiliated teams, North Carolina is also home to two independent franchises — the Gastonia Honey Hunters and High Point Rockers of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball — both of which are scheduled to begin their seasons on April 21.