It has been a long time coming, but the minor league season is finally upon us. The season was canceled last year and pushed back by a month this year due to the pandemic, but tonight teams will kick off the season. The minors will look a bit different after MLB seized control of the minors, reshuffled a few affiliates, and cut out short-season rookie ball leagues. The Royals will have two new affiliates this year - the Quad Cities Bandits and Columbia Fireflies.
COVID-19 safety protocols will vary by ballpark, so check the team website before going out to a game. Here is your guide to where you can find Royals minor leaguers this summer.
Omaha Storm Chasers (Triple-A)
The Royals have one of the longest-running minor league affiliations in baseball, with Omaha serving as their top affiliate since the inception of the franchise in 1969. The Storm Chasers used to play in the Pacific Coast League, but with the reshuffling, they will cut down on their travel and play centrally in the Midwest Division of “Triple-A East” with the Columbus Clippers, Indianapolis Indians, Iowa Cubs, Louisville Bats, St. Paul Saints, and Toledo Mud Hens.
Home park: Werner Park, Sarpy County, Nebraska. The Storm Chasers moved out of Rosenblatt Stadium in 2011 and have played at Werner Park in suburban Omaha ever since. The ballpark seats 9,000 fans and includes a Family Fun Zone, mini-golf, a basketball court, and the Downdraught Bar. The stadium is located just off I-80 on Nebraska Highway 370, and you can find directions here.
Players to watch: The Omaha rotation took a hit when top pitching prospect Daniel Lynch was promoted before the season even started, but they will still have an excellent rotation with former first-round pick Jackson Kowar, hard-throwing Carlos Hernández, and crafty right-hander Ronald Bolaños. Outfielder Kyle Isbel, who began the season with the Royals, will set the table for the offense, with Edward Olivares, Kelvin Gutierrez, and Bubba Starling expected to hit in the lineup. You can see the complete roster here.
Mascot: There is Vortex, an anthropomorphized tornado, “Casey”, a blue cat, and “Stormy”, who is apparently a long-lost cousin to the Philly Phanatic.
Wacky promotions: Take Meowt to the Ballgame! Ballparks have had Bark at the Park for years, it was time to give our feline friends a night as well. On September 4, you can bring your cat to the ballpark for a purr-fect night of baseball. The Storm Chasers will also honor essential workers with Thank You Tuesdays. The complete promotional schedule is here.
Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Double-A)
The Naturals play in Springdale, Arkansas, in northwest Arkansas near Fayetteville and Bentonville. The club has been a Royals affiliate since 2008, spending several years in the Texas League. Most of the clubs from that league will carry over to the “Double-A Central”, with the Naturals playing in the North Division with the Arkansas Travelers, Springfield Cardinals, Tulsa Drillers, and a new club in the league, the Wichita Wind Surge.
Home park: Arvest Ballpark, Springdale, Arkansas. The stadium served as the home of the Royals Alternate Site as the minor leaguers kept ready in case they were needed for a call up in April. The stadium seats 7,300 fans and is located southwest of I-49 and Highway 412. You can find directions here.
Players to watch: The Naturals have a solid roster with top pitching prospects Jonathan Bowlan, Yefri del Rosario, Jonathan Heasley, and Alec Marsh. First baseman Nick Pratto has been listed as a potential breakout prospect by Baseball America, MJ Melendez is one of the club’s top catching prospects, and outfielder Brewer Hicklen has a good blend of power and speed. But the player everyone will be keeping an eye on is infielder Bobby Witt, Jr., the Royals’ top pick in 2019 and one of the best prospects in baseball. The 20-year old has five-tool talent and is considered a future star who may not be in the minor leagues for long. You can see the complete roster here.
Mascot: Strike the Sasquatch is the hairiest mascot in baseball.
This is Strike the Sasquatch, the mascot for the NW Arkansas Naturals. But he just looks like a dude from Arkansas. pic.twitter.com/IFuIduHf5H— CAPTAIN BACONWURST (@Brisket_Bob) January 20, 2015
Wacky promotions: The Naturals will give away five exclusive bobbleheads this season. There are bobbleheads of former Naturals that have made it big in the big leagues, like Salvador Perez (June 25) and Whit Merrifield (May 29 and August 28), and one of Captain America (August 29). But the most unique bobblehead will be the Growlin’ Chickens Bat Breakin’ Bobblehead, given away on May 28 and July 17. You can find the complete promotional schedule here.
Quad Cities Bandits (High-A)
The Royals have a new High-A affiliate, joining up with the Quad Cities Bandits in the “High-A Central” League. The Bandits, who were previously affiliated with the Houston Astros, play in eastern Iowa, in Davenport, located about halfway between Des Moines and Chicago. They will play in a division with teams from Beloit (WI), Cedar Rapids (IA), Peoria (IL), South Bend (IN), and the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, who play in Appleton.
Home park: Modern Woodmen Park, Davenport, Iowa. Located on the banks of the Mississippi River, Modern Woodmen Park has been around for 90 years and once hosted an exhibition match between Negro League stars such as Satchel Paige against MLB players like Rogers Hornsby. After many renovations, it now seats 4,024 and features a hot tub and tiki bar in right field, and a carousel and Ferris wheel in left field.
Players to watch: Nick Loftin was a first-round pick in the 2020 draft and the infielder could be a prospect on the rise this year. Slugger Seuly Matias turned heads with his light-tower power in spring training. Pitcher Asa Lacy was one of the top picks in the draft last year and will front the rotation Yohanse Morel, Zach Haake, and Angel Zerpa among the other pitchers to watch. You can see the complete roster here.
Mascot: Rascal the Racoon. He was named by the fans and as far as I know, he does not actually engage in any law-breaking activities.
Quad-Cities River Bandits pitcher Willy Collado (28) steals Rascal the raccoon's hat (and eventually returns it) before their game at Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport on Thursday. GALLERY: https://t.co/mvFXMrm5HS @qctimes @QCRiverBandits pic.twitter.com/xJwW9EU2PN— Andy Abeyta (@andy_abeyta) August 3, 2018
Wacky promotions: The team is giving away magnet schedules at the first two games on May 11 and 12, but as they put it, “what good is a magnet schedule if you don’t have a freezer to put it on?” So they will give away a freezer to one lucky fan at the home opener as well. You can find the complete promotional schedule here.
Columbia Fireflies (Low-A)
The Fireflies had been affiliated with the New York Mets since 2016, when affiliated baseball returned to Columbia, South Carolina after a short absence. The new Royals Low-A affiliate is part of the “Low-A East”, playing in the South Division with the Augusta GreenJackets, Charleston RiverDogs, and Myrtle Beach Pelicans.
Home park: Segra Park is located in downtown Columbia and seats 9,077. In 2016, Ballpark Digest named it “Ballpark of the Year.”
Players to watch: The Fireflies will feature many players making their professional debut, including 2020 second-round pick Ben Hernandez. The lineup features college standouts like infielder Brady McConnell and outfielder Tucker Bradley, and some big international signings like outfielders Darryl Collins and Juan Carlos Negret. You can see the complete roster here.
Mascot: Mason the Firefly. His backstory is he is a furry creature of the “Whatsit” family that stumbled upon Congaree National Park and was adopted by fireflies.
Wacky promotions: Despite the absence of a season, the Fireflies kept a connection with fans with the #WeAreFireflies campaign, giving them the opportunity to have their name placed on a theme jersey for this season. The jerseys will be unveiled May 15, then auctioned off with the proceeds benefitting Homeless No More. You can find the complete promotional schedule here.