SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $1 for 3 months
SUBSCRIBE NOW
As low as $1 for 3 months

Texas Rangers invite Round Rock Express to be the club's Triple-A affiliate

By Kevin Lyttle
American-Statesman Correspondent
Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish warms up for the Round Rock Express before the watchful eyes of pitching coach Greg Hibbard in 2016. After one season with the Houston Astros, the Express are lined up to be the Triple-A affiliate with the Rangers in 2021.

The long-awaited minor league baseball shuffle plans to hook up a pair of old dance partners, the Texas Rangers and the Round Rock Express.

Round Rock, as expected, made Major League Baseball's 120-team minor league lineup – pared down from 160 – for the 2021 season. Also Wednesday, the Rangers invited the Express to be their Triple-A affiliate. Yet work needs to be done.

"We're excited. We wanted to be with the Rangers or Astros and knew the door had closed on the 'Stros," Express president Chris Almendarez told the American-Statesman. "This has shaken out the way we figured it would. But it's a process. I have people calling or texting and congratulating me, and that's still kind of premature.

"We haven't seen the documents from MLB yet involving their requirements and facilities standards. We don't have any idea yet on the length of contract. Then we have to get together with the Rangers on an agreement. It won't get done before Christmas."

The Astros announced last month they were moving their top club to the Houston suburb of Sugar Land, buying majority ownership in the Skeeters, who play in a 7,500-seat stadium built in 2012. The Rangers spent the last two years in Nashville, which has a 10,000-seat stadium that opened in 2015. Dell Diamond, with an 11,000 capacity, opened in 2000.

The Express are relieved to have a seat at the Triple-A table. San Antonio no longer does. Among the shakeups, the Missions, Milwaukee's Triple-A team, were moved down to Double-A as a San Diego affiliate. Fresno lost its Triple-A club as MLB prioritized geography and facilities in its new order.

"We are an attractive franchise, and it was nice to have that acknowledged by MLB," Almendarez said. "We've been named a top-30 MiLB market. We upgraded our lighting and other things a few years back. I'm comfortable with where we are in regards to whatever MLB expects."

Round Rock, annually one of the top ticket-selling clubs in the minors, has swung back and forth between Texas' two major league teams for its 21-year existence. The Express started with the Astros, switching to the Rangers in 2011 and back to the Astros in 2019.

Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton talks with members of the media before a 2015 Round Rock Express baseball game. Hamilton and many other Rangers used a stop in Round Rock to get them ready for a return to the majors after injury.

The latest move was made more tenable because Express owners Ryan-Sanders Baseball are no longer directly involved with the Astros, who parted ways with president Reid Ryan and special advisor Nolan Ryan, the Hall of Fame pitcher.

In addition to proximity – Round Rock is 180 miles from Arlington – getting back into this market is significant for Texas. It's long been a battleground between the Rangers and Astros.

"We look forward to the opportunity of returning to Central Texas, where we previously had a great eight-year partnership with the Express," Rangers managing partner Ray Davis said.

The Rangers could not further comment on the relationship because minor league clubs have to agree to licenses with MLB before anything is official. Texas executive vice president John Blake pointed out MLB does not even plan to announce the league structures until early 2021.

The fate of the Pacific Coast League, which has its office in Round Rock, remains up in the air. There is speculation Triple-A may divide into a third league to better geographically align. The PCL stretches 2,400 miles from Tacoma, Wash., to Nashville. PCL officials did not immediately respond to attempts to contact them.

"There is still so much up in the air," Almendarez said. "We're on conference calls with the PCL all the time, working on scenarios. Today was the next step."

The Rangers will return to Frisco (Double-A), Hickory, N.C. (High-A) and Down East (Low-A) in Kinston, N.C., for their other three teams.

The Astros will roll with Sugar Land (Triple-A), Corpus Christi (Double-A), Fayetteville, N.C. (High-A) and Asheville, N.C. (Low-A).

Texas' farm system ranked 24th this summer according to MLB Pipeline. Houston, which had a top-10 system in 2018, fell to 27th.