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Blue Rocks survive minor league purge, join Nationals farm

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The Wilmington Blue Rocks will join the Washington Nationals’ farm system and a new league amid changes to Minor League Baseball in 2021. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WILMINGTON BLUE ROCKS

WILMINGTON – Fans of hometown baseball, Rocky Bluewinkle and Mr. Celery breathed a sigh of relief Wednesday, as news spread that the Wilmington Blue Rocks will reportedly survive the purge underway in Minor League Baseball.

Although the powder blue uniforms at Frawley Stadium have aligned with the Kansas City Royals farm system for 25 years, the Blue Rocks are now joining the system of the 2019 World Series Champion Washington Nationals. They will remain at the High Class A level – three steps from the major league – and join a system that includes the Triple A Rochester (N.Y.) Red Wings, Double A Harrisburg (Pa.) Senators and Low A Fredericksburg (Va.) Nationals – which will actually drop a level from its current status as a Blue Rock league opponent.

Although the Blue Rocks have long been the northernmost team in the Carolina League, of which they won the 2019 championship, they will reportedly be moving to a more regionally constrained Mid-Atlantic League.

“Clark Minker and I can’t wait to welcome the 2019 World Series champion Washington Nationals to Wilmington,” Blue Rocks owner Dave Heller said in a statement announcing the moves. “They are a team of great integrity which prides itself on doing the right things the right way.”

“A championship community deserves a championship team, and from our first communications with Mark Lerner, Mike Rizzo and Mark Scialabba, we knew the Nationals were a first-class organization and a perfect fit for Wilmington. We couldn’t be more excited about the future,” he added.

Nationals President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo noted the four invited teams were located within 120 miles of Nationals Park, a key to its reorganization efforts of its farm system.

“Our four affiliates and their proximity to Washington, D.C. will be critical not only to player development and roster construction, but also to our injury rehabilitation process. We are certain that each affiliate and the surrounding community will be assets to our player development and organization as a whole,” he said in a statement.

The future of the Blue Rocks, whose spring and summer-long games at Frawley have been the biggest and most consistent draw to the Riverfront since they began play there in 1993, was closely watched by sports fans and city business owners alike. While the team has only about a dozen full-time employees, it employs upward of 175 seasonal workers when games are played and has drawn an average attendance of about 3,000. That serves as an anchor for many of the restaurants located at the Riverfront.

Kris Bubic pitched for the 2019 Carolina League champion Blue Rocks and joined the Kansas City Royals in 2020, pitching in 10 games. | PHOTO COURTESY OF WILMINGTON BLUE ROCKS

“The Blue Rocks become a Washington Nationals affiliate and Joe Biden is about to become President of the United States which means there is some wonderfully magical chemistry underway along the Wilmington to Washington corridor,” Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki said in a statement to Delaware Business Times. “Wilmington could not be happier for Blue Rocks President Clark Minker, his staff, and all of the past and present Blue Rocks players for the team’s new league and major league ball club affiliation. When last we saw Wilmington’s Blue Rocks before COVID, they were league champions. So, let’s do it again in 2021.”

Gov. John Carney heralded the news in a statement too.

Despite these very challenging times, we have been working hard to make improvements at the Stadium & maintain Wilmington as an attractive location for minor league baseball,” he said. “Thank you to MLB, the Nationals, the Blue Rocks, members of General Assembly, and the Delaware Stadium Corporation. Let’s keep working together to have baseball and our fans back at Frawley Stadium next year.”

The entire 2020 minor league season was scuttled amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with rosters of Major League Baseball expanded to allow some minor league players to get time on the field and in practice. The agreement between MLB and its minor league expired in September, however, and the big league eyed a 50% contraction of the sprawling farm system.

It has converted several low-level leagues into developmental leagues where prospects and college athletes can try to earn attention from teams, while also leaving some other teams on the cutting room floor. According to The Athletic, which was first to report the Blue Rocks’ assignment, the new Mid-Atlantic League will also include the Aberdeen (Md.) Ironbirds, of the Baltimore Orioles’ farm; the Jersey Shore Blueclaws, of the Philadelphia Phillies’ farm; the Brooklyn Cyclones, of the New York Mets’ farm, the Hudson Valley (N.Y.) Renegades, of the New York Yankees’ farm; and the Lake County (Ohio) Captains, of the Cleveland Indians’ farm.

Although the Blue Rocks will be joining a system of a recent World Series champion, it is not one replete with up-and-coming talent that could fill seats. MLB.com ranked the Nationals’ farm system 29th in 2020, or second to last, while the Royals were ranked 17th. While the Blue Rocks have hosted more than 175 future major leaguers, including Carlos Beltran, Johnny Damon, and Zack Greinke, it could be awhile before another phenom appears.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the new Mid-Atlantic League assignments.

By Jacob Owens

[email protected]

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