The KC Royals have enjoyed a long relationship with the Appalachian League’s Burlington club. But the affiliation ended a few days ago.
The Burlington Royals, one of the KC Royals’ Rookie League teams for several years, will no longer be the first professional stop for some Kansas City minor leaguers. Instead, the North Carolina entry in the famous Appalachian League will only stock its roster with college players. Burlington’s professional baseball days are over.
The franchise, affiliated with the Royals since 2007, had already suffered a major jolt when COVID-19 forced the minor leagues out of business for the 2020 season. Then came Tuesday’s news, detailed in a Major League Baseball press release, that MLB, owner of all10 Appalachian franchises, is abandoning the league’s professional minor league model and moving the loop into the world of amateur ball.
Now, instead of hosting Rookie League players, including top major league draft choices beginning their pro careers, The Appy will field teams composed of college freshmen and sophomores. These new players will use wood bats for the summer, a move obviously designed to prepare them for the bats they’ll use as professional hitters. Per the press release, the League will join the Prospect Development Pipeline, a player development venture of MLB and USA Baseball featuring players chosen by those two entities.
The release also revealed the Appalachian League will retain its name but change its look. Not only will the players be different, but so will identities, as each club will sport new names and change other team-specific attributes.
The Burlington Royals will, then, cease to exist in the form known so well to the KC Royals and fans of their minor league affiliates. Kansas City organization rookies will play elsewhere; some may launch their quests to become big league players with Kansas City’s Idaho Falls Rookie League entry if it somehow survives the expected contraction of the minor leagues.
That means Burlington fans will no longer get to watch players already under Kansas City control. Burlington Athletic Stadium, until Tuesday the host venue for so many Royal prospects, will now be home to youngsters swinging wooden bats for the first time. Lost to fans in the transition from pro to amateur baseball will be their identification with a big league team and players they know have a shot to make that club.
Burlington snared four playoff berths as a KC affiliate and was a first, or very early, stop for several 2020 KC Royals. Jakob Junis started there; so did Carlos Hernandez and Meibrys Viloria. Nicky Lopez played his first professional game for Burlington shortly after Kansas City made him a fifth round draft selection in 2016. Tyler Zuber, pitching in his first professional season, saved six games and posted a 2.16 ERA for Burlington in 2017. And Burlington was home to Salvador Perez for parts of his second and third seasons.
Former Royals Kelvin Herrera, Terrance Gore and Wil Myers all played at Burlington.
Although he could conceivably stay with the new Burlington club, look for manager Tony Pena Jr., named to that post for 2020, to seek a more traditional professional path if he wants to follow his father Tony to a major league managing job.
Will the Royals seek a new Rookie League team? Probably not. The future of minor league baseball as we know it is in too much doubt—spearheaded by a commissioner obviously interested in contraction, talk of jettisoning franchises and leagues became more public this year and seems likely to lead to some degree of palpable reduction.
Time will tell if the wholesale overhaul of the Appalachian League is the first significant step toward a major decrease in minor league teams. It’s already reduced Kansas City’s system by one club.