Hillcats to See New Competition in the Carolina League in 2017
Bob Toth | On 25, Aug 2016
The Lynchburg Hillcats will see two new opponents in 2017. Minor League Baseball announced on Monday that two California League teams will cease operations at the end of this season while the same amount will begin play in the High-A Carolina League next year.
The Bakersfield Blaze (Seattle affiliate) and the High Desert Mavericks (Texas affiliate) will both close their doors on baseball operations in their respective sites as the Class-A Advanced level looks towards realignment.
The Carolina League currently is composed of two four-team divisions (Northern and Southern), leaving clubs to face each other frequently. Lynchburg is joined in the Northern Division by the Potomac Nationals (Washington), the Frederick Keys (Baltimore), and the Wilmington Blue Rocks (Kansas City). The Southern Division is home of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans (Chicago Cubs), the Salem Red Sox (Boston), the Winston-Salem Dash (Chicago White Sox), and the Carolina Mudcats (Atlanta Braves). The schedule is unbalanced with the two small divisions and Lynchburg will face its rival Salem more in 2016 than any other team, despite the Red Sox being in the Southern Division. Similar scheduling irregularities will now become the fate of the California League, which will drop from ten teams to eight after contraction.
With ten teams in the Carolina League moving forward and eight in the California League, the remaining 12 MLB teams have affiliates in the Florida State League, which features two six-team divisions.
Kinston, North Carolina, will host one of the new clubs as Carolina League baseball returns to the area. Kinston was a minor league affiliate for the Cleveland Indians from 1987 to 2011 and has a long history within Carolina League play dating back to 1956. The Kinston Indians were sold in December of 2011 and business relocated to Zebulon, North Carolina, following the season.
The Texas Rangers will call Kinston their affiliate through a 12-year agreement to play at Grainger Stadium.
“The Texas Rangers are very happy to be bringing baseball back to the great city of Kinston and we want to thank Minor League Baseball and the Kinston leadership for helping us to make this a reality for 2017,” said Rangers Ownership Committee Chairman Neil Leibman via press release. “We are excited about creating the best fan experience possible at Grainger Stadium, and we look forward to working with the city of Kinston and its residents to make it a top Carolina League franchise.”
The second site is expected to be Fayetteville, North Carolina, a host city in the Carolina League in the 1950s and the home of a South Atlantic League team for 33 years through 2011. The city is working through the process of building a new ballpark in its downtown region and would host the new minor league affiliate at an undisclosed location until their new ballpark is ready for play.
The Houston Astros will call Fayetteville their new High-A home, as their player development contract with the Lancaster JetHawks (California League) expires after the season and the new Carolina League site has signed a Memorandum of Understanding to build a ballpark and bring professional baseball back to its city. The Mariners, who will see their High-A club in Bakersfield contracted, will relocate to Modesto, as the Colorado Rockies’ PDC expires with the Nuts after this season.
“This step was taken with the best interests of Minor League Baseball, both leagues and our Major League Baseball partners in mind,” Minor League Baseball President & CEO Pat O’Conner shared in a press release announcing the contractions and relocations. “California League President Charlie Blaney, Carolina League President John Hopkins and the club owners in both leagues worked to address this important issue and I thank them for their efforts. We are happy that professional baseball will return to Kinston and we are pleased with the steps Fayetteville has taken to bring professional baseball back to that great city as well.”
These are likely just the first few dominos to fall, as a half dozen player development contracts expire in the California League alone after this season. As for the Carolina League, there is a distinct possibility that the two divisions would be restructured to accommodate two teams joining from North Carolina. Salem, a club closest in proximity to Lynchburg but in the South Division, could be shifted into the North Division, allowing the two new North Carolina clubs to be paired with the existing two (Carolina and Winston-Salem) and South Carolina’s representative in Myrtle Beach.
The latter months of this year look to be a good time for business for moving companies in some of these minor league hot spots, as there will be plenty of relocating being done over the fall and winter.