We end 2016 with a countdown of the 10 biggest stories of the year on Ballpark Digest, as chosen by editors and partially based on page views. Today, #1: The Carolina/California League realignment.
After years of speculation about whether it could be done, Minor League Baseball followed through on a dramatic realignment in 2016. The long-discussed shift of two California League teams to the Carolina League took place, yielding the return of baseball to two markets that were waiting for another chance.
Ever since the departure of the Kinston Indians after the 2011 season, Kinston officials were not shy about their desire to obtain baseball again, and sought a return to the Carolina League. Meanwhile, in another North Carolina city, talks had popped up about a new downtown ballpark.
In that case, it was Fayetteville that was looking for chance to land a franchise. The city had been without affiliated baseball since the departure of the Cape Fear Crocs (Low A; Sally League) after the 2000 season, and saw a downtown ballpark with related development as a potential lure for a franchise.
Out in the California League, two franchises—the Bakersfield Blaze and the High Desert Mavericks—found themselves toiling in undesirable situations at Sam Lynn Ballpark and Heritage Field at Maverick Stadium, respectively. With that, word began circulating early in the season that the realignment of two California League teams to the Carolina League would take place.
One of the main drivers was potential ownership of the franchises, as the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers were both linked to the effort. The Astros were looking to shift their High-A affiliation, which had been with the Lancaster JetHawks (California League), and began perusing a plan to own a franchise in Fayetteville. In a similar vein, the Rangers were looking to get out of High Desert, and saw Kinston as a potential fit for a Carolina League affiliate.
Fayetteville officials made an aggressive pursuit of the Astros, pitching a new $33 million downtown ballpark that could open for the 2019 season. As that effort progressed, and the Rangers laid the ground work for their operations in Kinston, MiLB followed through on the plan. On August 22, it was announced that the shift would take place, as Bakersfield and High Desert would cease operations after the 2016 season, clearing the way for the addition of two teams to the Carolina League.
The Rangers were quick in the finalization of their franchise in Kinston, and went to work in short order on a name the team contest. In early November, it was announced that the team will be named the Down East Wood Ducks.
Over the final months of 2016, the Astros struck two crucial agreements. One was a pact that allowed the franchise to play at Campbell University’s Jim Perry Field. The Astros announced in November that the team will use the ballpark for the 2017 and 2018 season while awaiting the completion of the ballpark in Fayetteville. During that time frame, the team will be known as the Buies Creek Astros. In December, the Astros finalized lease terms with the City of Fayetteville on a new downtown ballpark.
Certainly the plans for Fayettville will continue to evolve, but the dramatic realignment that has already taken place will lead to some big, immediate changes in Minor League Baseball.
Previously in our Top Ten Stories of 2016 List:
#10: Savannah Bananas