Garner Cleveland: Sports

Mudcats, Braves agree: Atlanta’s road to MLB will run through Triangle again

The Atlanta Braves’ next stars will come through the Triangle again.

The Carolina Mudcats will become the Braves’ advanced Class A affiliate next spring. The two teams announced a two-year player development deal Monday.

The agreement reconnects Atlanta with the Triangle. The Durham Bulls were the Braves’ Class A affiliate in the Carolina League in 1980-97, before the Bulls shifted to Class AAA and partnered with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Many of the Braves’ stars who played a key role in their 1990s dominance started in Durham, most notably Chipper Jones and Andruw Jones.

Chipper Jones played 70 games for the Bulls in 1992 on his way to being named the top prospect in the minor leagues. Three years later, he led the Braves to the first of their 11 consecutive division titles and their only World Series title in Atlanta.

Andruw Jones’ rise was even more dramatic. He arrived in Durham in 1996 as the game’s top prospect. In just 66 games with the Bulls, he hit 17 home runs. He belted 17 more in Class AA (Greenville, S.C.) and AAA (Richmond), and then added two home runs in the World Series against New York.

The announcement ends the Mudcats’ three-year affiliation with the Cleveland Indians. Since arriving at Five County Stadium in 1991, the Mudcats have featured players from five franchises: the Pirates, Marlins, Reds, Rockies and Indians.

Two-time A.L. MVP Miguel Cabrera is the Mudcats’ most notable alum. Cabrera hit 10 home runs for the Mudcats in 2003 before jumping directly to the majors, where he helped the Marlins win the World Series.

The Mudcats decided to reopen their affiliation this off-season. Mudcats owner Steve Bryant said five or six MLB teams were interested in a Carolina League affiliation. The Mudcats also considered an agreement with the Texas Rangers, but ended up with a team that has a history in the Triangle.

“We felt like the Braves were a really good fit,” Bryant said. “They’ve had a lot of success in the Carolina League over the years. And we think this will help us bring a lot of Braves fans here to help out our attendance.”

The Mudcats have struggled to consistently attract fans to Five County Stadium since moving into the Carolina League three years ago, never averaging more than 3,500 fans a game. The Frederick Keys, Wilmington (Del.) Blue Rocks and Winston-Salem Dash averaged more than 4,200 each of the past three seasons.

Atlanta had sought to put its advanced Class A team in Wilmington, N.C., but in late 2012, residents there voted down a proposal to fund a $37 million stadium near downtown.

The move is a smart one for an Atlanta franchise that is being challenged by the growing fan base of the Washington Nationals in the mid-Atlantic region.

“The Braves, for a long time, have had a hold on this area,” Bryant said. “And they’re not on TV as much as they were back in the days where almost every Atlanta game was on TBS. Being able to see the Braves’ stars of tomorrow here and following those guys to the major leagues is something that could help reestablish that hold.”

With the Braves/Mudcats announcement, the Carolinas – and the Carolina League – are picking up two well-followed MLB franchises next spring. The Myrtle Beach Pelicans are now a Chicago Cubs affiliate.

“We are delighted to reach this agreement with the Carolina Mudcats,” Braves pPresident John Schuerholz said in a statement. “This move will allow us to continue our long-standing affiliation with the Carolina League.”

Braves players have played in the Carolina League for the past three years in Lynchburg, Va. The Hillcats won the Carolina League championship in 2012. Lynchburg made the Carolina League playoffs this season but bowed out in the opening round.

The Mudcats will open the season April 9 at Five County Stadium against the Salem Red Sox.