ST. PETERSBURG — The opportunity for an improved player experience was the Rays’ primary reason for shifting one of their Class A affiliates from their spring training base in nearby Port Charlotte to Charleston, S.C.
The move was part of Major League Baseball’s controversial reorganization and consolidation of the minor leagues, unveiled on Wednesday with the issuing of invitations to teams that survived the reduction from 160 to 120. Each big-league team now has four affiliates, down from five or six, plus entry-level squads at their spring complexes and in the Dominican Republic.
“It wasn’t like we were looking to get out of Port Charlotte,” Rays vice president Carlos Rodriguez said. “This was an opportunity we thought was better long-term.”
The Rays will continue to hold spring training and have a year-round player development base in Port Charlotte, with a lease through spring 2028. And they will maintain their three other existing affiliates: Triple-A in Durham, N.C., Double-A in Montgomery, Ala., and advanced Class A in Bowling Green, Ky., which moves up one classification along with the rest of the Midwest League.
The Florida State League was, in turn, dropped from advanced to “low” Class A, which factored in the Rays’ decision to leave. The four FSL teams based in the Tampa Bay-area are expected to remain: Bradenton (Pirates), Clearwater (Phillies), Dunedin (Blue Jays) and Tampa (Yankees).
All of the new agreements are for 10 years.
Having the Stone Crabs based 90 minutes from Tropicana Field was convenient for team officials and major-league players on rehab assignments, but the Rays considered the small crowds (averaging 1,631 from 2014-19) and frequent rain disruptions not ideal for player development. And with the Crabs reclassified to low A and short-season leagues eliminated, the Rays were concerned about young players potentially spending their first three pro seasons in Port Charlotte without advancing to another site.
The opportunity to re-affiliate with Charleston, where the Rays were based from 1997-2004 before being replaced by the Yankees (who have since shifted their teams closer to New York), was appealing on several fronts.
They have a good relationship with the RiverDogs ownership group (led by Marvin Goldklang and including actor Bill Murray, who attends occasional games). They consider the riverfront stadium and facilities top-notch, with a solid fan environment (averaging 4,405 fans from 2014-19). And they liked the idea of the players “graduating” when ready for full-season play.
The Rays lost short-season affiliates in Princeton, W. Va., and Hudson Valley, N.Y. Hudson Valley, also owned by Goldklang, became a Yankees full-season team.
“There was nothing wrong with Port Charlotte, and (there were) a lot of positives that came from it,’' Rodriguez said. “But taking a step back (with the FSL) transitioning to low A, it was an opportunity to take a fresh look at things and looking at ways to improve the player experience.
“When Charleston became an option, given the relationship and you know what you’re getting with that group, it seemed like an exciting way to improve things for our players. We think it will serve them well.”
The Rays still will have a year-round presence in Port Charlotte, with major- and minor-league spring training, extended spring camp, a Gulf Coast League team (or possibly two) for their more recently signed players, fall instructional league and various offseason camps and programs. Big leaguers will continue to be able to make at least some rehab appearances there, as well.
Plus, Rodriguez said, without a full-season team, they can better utilize the space in Port Charlotte to improve the experience for the increased number of players based there.
The Stone Crabs began play in 2009, the same year the Rays shifted spring training south from St. Petersburg. They were initially owned by Cal Ripken’s company, then sold in late 2015 to the Caribbean Baseball Initiative group. (The Rays still hold a small ownership stake in the team, which is an interesting dynamic.)
CBI officials were not pleased to be abandoned.
“We were extremely saddened and disappointed that the Rays elected to eliminate the Stone Crabs as one of their affiliates,” vice president Jared Forma said Wednesday. “It’s a tremendous loss for Charlotte County and our fan base and partners.”
Information will be forthcoming about ticket refunds and a sale of remaining merchandise.
Charlotte County has separate agreements with the Rays and CBI, and officials said elimination of the minor-league team doesn’t change the terms of the Rays lease. County officials plan to bring other baseball events to the Charlotte Sports Park.
In other Rays news:
* Nick Anderson was one of two relievers named Wednesday to the all-MLB team, chosen in a vote of fans and an expert panel. Brandon Lowe was a second-team selection at second base, behind the Yankees’ D.J. LeMahieu.
* The Rays are prepared for the possibility of losing prospects in Thursday’s Rule 5 draft of minor-leaguers not on 40-man rosters, with the process held virtually given the cancellation of the winter meetings. Pitchers Paul Campbell, Matt Krook and Tommy Romero are candidates to be taken, per Baseball America. The Rays have an open spot on their 40-man roster and could take a player, though that seems unlikely. Picks cost $100,000 and players taken must be kept on the major-league roster all season or offered back for $50,000. There is some uncertainty how teams will evaluate draft candidates since they didn’t play games in 2020. “There’s a pretty decent chance we may lose some players,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t know what other teams are planning on doing.”