Leaving the tiny southwest Virginia town of Bristol turned out to be a big decision for the Chicago White Sox.
Chicago announced earlier this week that it is pulling out of Bristol, the team's home in the Rookie-level Appalachian League since 1995, and plans on joining the Rookie-level Arizona League next season—the organization's first stint in a complex league. The White Sox have yet to finalize their entry into the Arizona League, but assistant general manager Buddy Bell expects it to be completed over the offseason.
Typically, teams interested in participating in either the Gulf Coast or Arizona leagues are approved. (The Rockies and White Sox were the only organizations without a team in either the GCL or AZL last season; the Yankees, meanwhile, fielded two GCL squads.)
AZL president Bob Richmond said he received the White Sox's application for entry into the league and will present it to the board of directors for approval.
"We try to make it easy for everybody's player development, so I don't anticipate any difficulties," Richmond said.
The Pirates will replace Chicago in Bristol, becoming one of nine major league organizations to field seven domestic minor league affiliates—joining the Diamondbacks, Astros, Royals, Mets, Cardinals, Mariners, Rays and Blue Jays. Bristol gives the Pirates three teams in short-season circuits, including the New York-Penn and Gulf Coast leagues.
“We are looking forward to expanding our development system into the Appalachian League as well as beginning a new relationship with the fans and staff in Bristol, Virginia,” Pirates farm director Larry Broadway said in a statement. “As we continue to invest in the draft and Latin America, the addition of an advanced Rookie League team provides us another opportunity to maximize the development time of every player who enters into our system.”
Bell stressed that the team's decision to leave Bristol was not due to any dissatisfaction with the franchise's operation—quite the contrary, in fact.
"We loved our situation there," Bell said. "The people were great, and we hope that we don't regret the decision to leave."
The decision to move West was made to consolidate operations at the team's spring training base in Glendale, Ariz.; the Sox retain their Rookie-level Pioneer League affiliate in Great Falls (Mont.). That Chicago waited so long to do so—the White Sox moved from Palm Beach to Tucson in 1998 before shifting to the new Salt River Fields complex in 2008—shows how much they valued their time in Bristol.
Bell said the team originally planned on keeping all three clubs. But concerns over having enough players to fill those rosters ultimately led Chicago to opt of Bristol.
Bell, who served as the Bristol's director, said the relationship between the minor league club's staff, notably longtime general manager Mahlon Luttrell, and Chicago's front office made sending young players to the Appalachian League an easy process. It also made the decision to leave Bristol a difficult one.
"We hope it's the right thing to do," Bell said. "I'm just not convinced leaving Bristol was the right thing. We had to make a decision, and I hope it works out."
The change in Bristol's affiliation comes in an off year for player development contracts—the agreements that bind major and minor league clubs and expire following even-year seasons. However, PDCs do not apply to the Appalachian League, whose teams are owned by their major league partners, who can either run the team themselves or enter into an operator's agreement with a local group.
Bristol Baseball Inc. is the non-profit organization that has operated Bristol's franchise since it rejoined the Appalachian League in 1969 following a 14-year hiatus. Pittsburgh previously served as a Bristol affiliate for two seasons from 1952-53.
"We are excited to welcome Pittsburgh back to Bristol and to the Appalachian League as we get ready for the 2014 season," Luttrel said in a release. "The Pittsburgh organization is a top-notch one. We've all seen their great performance on the field this season, and we could not be happier about having them join us here in Bristol."