There’s still hope!
The minor leagues have been undergoing substantial change over the last few seasons. Several teams were eliminated during the pandemic, and the remaining minor league franchises were reshuffled into new leagues.
The minors have also been a hotbed of testing, with the rules that have transformed MLB (pitch clock, placed runner in extra innings, bigger bases) getting their origins over the past few seasons at various levels of the minors.
This year, the minor leagues at all levels have embraced a split-season model. Long used at lower levels, the split season crowns a first-half champion, then restarts the season with everyone at 0-0. With roster turnover high, that allows a team that may look very different later in the season to still have a chance to make the postseason.
This year, even Triple-A is using the split season model, and, with the perennial contender Durham Bulls 8.5 games back and the Charlotte Knights 13.5 games off the pace, the change couldn’t have come at a better time.
Here’s a look at the first half of the season for the state’s minor league teams with some highlights and bests as we reset everyone for the second half.
The only area team to claim a first-half crown is the Down East Wood Ducks, which took the Carolina League North Division at 37-24. The Ducks lead the league in ERA (3.03), WHIP (1.167) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (2.77). At the plate, their 59 home runs are tied for the best in the Carolina League, and their .695 OPS puts them in second place.
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For all of Down East’s accomplishments to start the year, Hickory, which finished seven games under .500 in the South Atlantic South Division in the first half, may be the team to watch in the second half. The Crawdads have opened the second half with eight straight wins, and counting, to jump out in front.
The state is home to two home run leaders at the halfway point. Tim Elko of the Kannapolis Cannon Ballers leads the Carolina League with 17 home runs. His 57 RBIs also are tops in the league. He’s 12th in batting average, 10th in OPS and earned a promotion to Winston-Salem. Jase Bowen of the Greensboro Grasshoppers leads the South Atlantic with 15 home runs and 55 RBIs.
However, our pick for the first-half MVP is someone who split his time between two area teams. Texas Rangers prospect Abimelec Ortiz currently ranks second in both the Carolina League and South Atlantic in OPS, hitting over 1.000 in both leagues. Ortiz has seven homers and 20 RBIs at low A Down East and was promoted to High A Hickory, where he’s produced 11 homers and 33 RBIs. He’s hitting .332/.409/.678 on the year.
Fayetteville may have the best pitching staff in the minor leagues with three Woodpeckers in the top five for strikeouts and four in the top 11. Trey Dombroski leads the league with 88 Ks. Jose Fleury has 76, and Nolan DeVos has 74. The best pitcher in North Carolina’s minor leagues might be in Durham, however, where Evan McKendry leads the International League with a 7-1 record. His 3.52 ERA is third among pitchers with 10 starts, and his 70 strikeouts are seventh in the league.
The MLB Futures Game will be held this weekend to help kick off the All-Star Game week in Seattle. Durham Bulls first baseman Kyle Manzardo was chosen for the American League squad. His 11 home runs and .811 OPS are part of the reason why he’s a top-40 prospect in the minor leagues.
Top pitching prospect
A pair of local team pitchers made the Futures Game rosters. Jonathan Cannon of the Winston-Salem Dash is on the A.L. roster. He’s 5-2 with a 3.69 ERA and 66 strikeouts making him a top-10 White Sox prospect.
The National League welcomes J.P. Massey of the Greensboro Grasshoppers, who is 1-1 in two games with the team after getting a promotion from low A, where he struck out 57 in 49.1 innings.
NC first-half minor league All-Stars
1B: Abimelec Ortiz, Down East/Hickory
2B: Jonathan Aranda, Durham
3B: Zach Dezenzo, Asheville
SS: Tsung-Che Cheng, Greensboro
LF: DJ Gladney, Winston-Salem
CF: Jase Bowen, Greensboro
RF: Drew Gilbert, Asheville
C: Tucker Mitchell, Down East
DH: Tim Elko, Kannapolis/Winston-Salem
Evan McKendry, Durham
Nate Fisher, Charlotte
Josh Stephan, Hickory
Shane Murphy, Kannapolis
Trey Dombrowski, Fayetteville
Lane Ramsey, Charlotte
Tristan Stivors, Winston-Salem
Jose Fleury, Fayetteville
Nolan DeVos, Fayetteville