Seth Beer and Jeremy Pena spent a month in Fayetteville during the summer of 2019. Bryan Abreu was here 19 days, while Jake Meyers was around for 119 days.
Those are just four of the 17 baseball players who have suited up for the Fayetteville Woodpeckers the last three seasons and advanced to the major leagues. Nine of those are on the 40-man roster of the big league Houston Astros, who in December 2016 signed a 30-year lease to send their Class A minor league players here for development.
The fourth year of that agreement began Friday when the 2022 edition of the Woodpeckers started their 142-game Low A-East regular season at Kannapolis. The home opener at Segra Stadium in downtown Fayetteville is scheduled for April 12, the first of six straight against the Salem Red Sox.
Now, with Major League Baseball and its players coming together on a collective bargaining agreement, every professional level will be in action this spring and summer. The Woodpeckers start the 2022 season one day after the major leaguers get underway.
“We are excited to announce to our fans that the 2022 Woodpeckers’ season will start on time with our club opening up at Kannapolis on April 8th and returning home April 12th against the visiting Salem Red Sox,’’ Woodpeckers’ assistant general manager Pete Subsara said in a release March 2.
That’s good news for fans, who suffered through no minor league baseball in 2020 due to COVID-19 and had to adapt to safety protocols at Segra Stadium last season in the aftermath of the pandemic.
There will be 66 opportunities this summer to see future major leaguers such as Beer, who is expected to compete for a starting job at first base with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2022, or Pena, the top candidate to succeed free agent Carlos Correa at shortstop in Houston.
Abreu became the first former Woodpecker to reach the majors in 2019 after his brief stint in Fayetteville. The right-handed pitcher will be a part of Houston’s bullpen corps in 2022 along with ex-Woodpecker Christian Javier. Luis Garcia, who pitched for Fayetteville in 2019, is expected to be a member of the Astros’ starting rotation.
Meyers, an outfielder, could be a candidate for Houston’s center field position once he’s recovered from off-season surgery.
“It’s crazy to think, but we had 12 or 13 guys from that (2019) team go up the following season (to MLB),’’ Subsara said. “All those early guys were pitchers, but now we’re starting to get some position guys like Jake Meyers, who’ll play a significant role in the outfield up there. It’s pretty cool to see, especially because we’re so new.’’
A trio of pitchers who spent brief stints with the Woodpeckers last year also got their first taste of major league experience in 2021. Josh James, Pedro Baez and Austin Pruitt came to Fayetteville on rehabilitation assignments before making their way back to the big leagues by the end of the season. James and Baez are on the 40-man roster for the Astros, while Pruitt was dealt to the Miami Marlins last July. He has since filed for free agency.
The Woodpeckers finished 55-65 overall in the Low A East-Central Division a year ago, but hope to improve upon that in 2022 with first-year manager Jon Thon and a new crop of big-league hopefuls arriving in town. Thon, the son of former major league infielder Dickie Thon, served as Fayetteville’s developmental coach last season.
Several of Houston’s top minor league prospects are expected to join Thon at some point this season in Fayetteville, including outfielder Tyler Whitaker, pitcher Alex Santos and shortstop Christian Gonzalez.
Gonzalez and Santos both spent the last two months of the 2021 season with the Woodpeckers. Gonzalez, Houston’s No. 14-ranked prospect, hit .244 with two homers and 14 RBIs in 30 games, while Santos was 2-2 with a 3.46 earned run average in 12 appearances. Santos is Houston’s No. 8 prospect.
Whitaker, No. 6 among Houston’s minor league prospects, was a third-round pick in last year’s amateur draft out of Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas. The 19-year-old hit .202 with three homers and six RBIs in 29 games during his pro debut with Houston’s rookie league affiliate last summer.
Off the field, Segra Stadium should be back to normal game operating procedures after playing part of 2021 under COVID protocols.
“As of right now, we are operating as normal,’’ Subsara said. “We have 35 sanitation stands and those aren’t going away anytime soon. But we’ll be ready to go April 12 at 100-percent capacity.’’
Segra Stadium will also have some additional technology at use during the 2022 season.
A 30-foot long and 4-foot wide LED scoreboard will eventually be hung just below the party deck and club lounge on the main grandstand. Due to supply issues, the board probably won’t be in place until June, but once there will allow fans sitting in the outfield seats or down the sidelines to see important game stats.
Three new pitch clocks have also been added, one in the outfield and two behind home plate. The clocks will time the 15 seconds in between pitches that will be allowed this season in Low A leagues.
“The Low A West used the experimental (pitch) rule last year and on average games were 25 minutes faster,’’ Subsara said. “So it works and will help speed our games up, and get people out of here before 11 o’clock at night.’’
The Woodpeckers also plan to continue with special promotions and themes for fans.
The planned daily promotions for the first half of the season include T-shirt Tuesday, where the first 750 fans receive a free T-shirt; Dollar Dog Wednesday/Winning Weekday with Smithfield Foods hot dogs being $1. Fans may also bring their dogs to the game for $1. And if the Woodpeckers win on a Wednesday home game, fans can turn their ticket in at the next Wednesday home game for a free hot dog.
Thirsty Thursday features discounted domestic and craft brews and Pepsi products. This is also the time for live music at Healy’s Right Field Bar after the game. Fireworks are planned after every Friday night game. On Sunday Funday, kids can run the bases after the game and families can play catch in the field. There also will be discounted beverages for adults 21 and older.
Tickets for Woodpeckers games can be purchased online at milb.com/fayetteville.