The Royals announced on Thursday that they've signed a player development contract through 2016 with the Lexington Legends of the South Atlantic League. They replace the Kane County (Ill.) Cougars, the Royals' Midwest League affiliate for the last two seasons, who have switched to the Chicago Cubs
"We're very excited, we've wanted to be in this league for a long time," said Scott Sharp, Royals director of Minor League operations.
The team will play in Whitaker Bank Ballpark with a capacity of 6,006. Lexington has been affiliated with the Houston Astros since the team's inaugural 2001 season.
Lexington has the advantage of warmer weather than the Kane County location in the Chicago area.
"The schedule isn't as fluctuating, you don't play as many early-season day games, it's a more traditional schedule. You get more field time and the weather is better," Sharp said.
The Royals had a team in the South Atlantic League twice before, in Charleston, S.C., from 1980-84 and in Charleston, W.Va., in 1999-2000.
Lexington has been among the league's top four teams in attendance in each of its 12 seasons.
"I have had the fortunate experience of getting to work with the Kansas City Royals the past five seasons through our ownership stake in the Omaha club," said Legends president Andy Shea. "Every single occasion has been the ultimate professional encounter. This is a fantastic fit for Lexington, Whitaker Bank Ballpark and the Lexington Legends."
The Legends might be in line to have outfielder Bubba Starling, rated as the No. 2 Royals prospect by MLB.com, on the team. Starling, Kansas City's top Draft pick in 2011, had his first pro season this year with Burlington, N.C., at the rookie level and batted .275 with 10 homers and 33 RBIs in 53 games.
Player assignments, of course, are far in the future.
"I think the natural progression is that the rookie ball guys move up and one of the advantages of being in this league is that it's good for development with the warm weather and you have no compunction about sending players because it's not cold," Sharp said. "We feel like it reduces injury risk. The natural progression for all those rookie ball guys is to go to the next level."
But he quickly added: "We're 10 days into the offseason so we've got a long time."
Sharp, in Lexington for the announcement, pointed out that the Legends had this notation on their bulletin board: 200 Days to Opening Day.