Nobody anticipated what would happen to minor league baseball teams last year. One thing that we knew is that forty of them would no longer be affiliated with MiLB. It was rumored that the High-A Florida Fire Frogs would not be a Braves affiliate in 2021. That did indeed come to pass, as the Fire Frogs are no longer associated with Atlanta. Danville was dropped as well. They will join the Appalachian League with their efforts to become a wooden-bat summer league for college players.
To fill the gap between the Gulf Coast League and High-A Rome is the Augusta GreenJackets franchise. The team is new to Braves fans, but continues a MLB trend of bringing affiliates geographically closer to the parent club. The furthest affiliate is now AA Mississippi in Jackson, which is a mere five-and-a-half bus ride away from Truist Park. This is in contrast to having the Idaho Falls Chukars as a Braves rookie ball team as recently as 1994.
In 1987, an ownership group led by Bill Horton convinced the Pittsburgh Pirates to place an affiliate in Augusta. The Macon Pirates were moved to accommodate. The following year, the Augusta Pirates began play in the South Atlantic League. They played in the hastily constructed Heaton Stadium. In 1994, Horton had sold the team and the newly renamed GreenJackets, after the Augusta-hosted Masters tournament, moved into Lake Olmstead Stadium.
The GreenJackets remained a Pirates affiliate until 1999. They were briefly a Red Sox affiliate from 1999-2004, but Boston moved on to Greenville. They were a Giants affiliate until 2020. In keeping with the MLB trend, the Giants brought their Low-A affiliate players much closer to San Francisco. The Giants gave up the GreenJackets in the MiLB contraction, and will retain only the San Jose Giants as their Low-A affiliate. This move left Augusta without a MLB connection. Being weary of the Fire Frogs and their facilities (and lack thereof), the Braves pounced on the GreenJackets and will again have a South Atlantic League team.
The GreenJackets stadium
Like the Braves, the GreenJackets previously played in a stadium now used by a university. Also like the Braves, they play in a new stadium on a large complex with a bank for a namesake. The GreenJackets played in Lake Olmstead Stadium until 2018. The stadium was built for three million dollars. It has standard dimensions at 330-400-330. It seats 4,822 with max capacity at 5,828. Now the collegiate Augusta University of the Peach Belt Conference play in the stadium.
SRP Park was built in 2017 for the 2018 season at a construction cost of forty million dollars. Overlooking the park is a modern apartment complex and a Crowne Plaza hotel. The stadium seats 4,782 with standing room space for another thousand. Fans can enjoy Southbound beer from the beer garden on the first base line.
The GreenJackets started life as a Pirates affiliate, but started in Augusta after the outfield of Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, and Andy Van Slyke played in the minors. However, Tim Wakefield played in Augusta in 1989. This was in his days playing first and third base. After being informed that he wouldn't have a future in baseball, he started throwing a knuckleball from the mound in the Carolina League the next year.
Madison Bumgarner blew through the South Atlantic League in 2007. He struck out 164 in 141.2 IP and 15 wins on the way to a dominant Major League career. A few former Braves left their mark in Augusta. Pablo Sandoval hit for a .660 OPS in Augusta before becoming a fan favorite in San Francisco. Both Bumgarner and Sandoval each picked up two World Series rings. Former Brave Roberto Kelly from 1994 managed the GreenJackets from 2005 to 2007, winning the South Atlantic League Manager of the Year award in 2006. Kelly has served as the First Base Coach and Third Base Coach in San Francisco, winning three World Series rings as well.
The South Atlantic League
The League splits their season into two 70-games halves, and the division winners of each half of the season meet in the playoffs. The season, should it start on time, will run from the first week of April until Labor Day. The GreenJackets belong to the Southern Division, however the schedule is balanced so that they play each team 12 or 13 times. They have won the South Atlantic League four times, which ties for the most titles. The GreenJackets are the southernmost team in the South Atlantic League, which runs all the way up to Maryland.
|South Atlantic Southern Division|
|Kannapolis Cannon Ballers||White Sox|
|Myrtle Beach Pelicans||Cubs|
Each team in the Southern Division has a unique nickname different than the team with which they are affiliated. The Potomac Nationals ran a contest to pick a new name for their team. In a stranger vote than the Braves AAA team vote, they picked the “Fredericksburg Nationals”.
|South Atlantic Northern Division|
|Down East Wood Ducks||Rangers|
|Salem Red Sox||Red Sox|
The stadiums in the league are modestly-sized and can hold 4,000 to 7,500 in attendance. Most were built in the 1990s but some like the New Fredericksburg Ballpark has never hosted a Sally League game. Segra Park, home of the Columbia Fireflies, was built in 2015. The Down East Wood Ducks’ stadium has been in service since 1933.
The 2021 Season
No one knows what the roster or coaching staff will look like in 2021. We probably won’t know until March. For reference, here is the 2020 preview for the Florida Fire Frogs. We did not preview Danville last year. Danville’s season starts in June, which was a mess last year. However, the 2021 Preseason Talking Chop Prospect List is out this week, and you can place some of the biggest names into their level from that. One thing for sure is that this season the lowest rung of full-season minor league ball will have great facilities and a meme-worthy nickname.