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Round Rock Express, Texas Rangers formalize 10-year agreement for affiliation

Kevin Lyttle
American-Statesman Correspondent
A Round Rock Express fan holds a bobblehead of Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton before a 2015 Express game. On Tuesday, the Triple-A club formally announced a 10-year affiliation with the Rangers after just one year as a minor league club of the Houston Astros.

During their 22-year history, the Round Rock Express have swung back and forth between the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers. For the next decade, at least, Round Rock will be Rangers country.

The Express and Rangers announced Tuesday a 10-year agreement for Round Rock to be Texas' top affiliate. The Express were the Rangers' Triple-A team from 2011-18.

"We're thrilled to be back in Round Rock. We loved our eight-year run there," Rangers assistant general manager Mike Daly said.

Reid Ryan, CEO of Ryan Sanders Sports & Entertainment, said his family's connections to the Rangers "go back to the late '80s. There is a lot of familiarity. In '89 my dad (Nolan) signed with the Rangers. Then the Express had a lengthy affiliation with them. It's a good fit."

MORE:Houston Astros drop Round Rock Express as club’s Triple-A affiliate

Questions remain about the league, the start of the season and how many fans will be allowed at Dell Diamond because of the pandemic.

The Pacific Coast League had 16 far-flung teams, but one of Major League Baseball's goals in taking full control of minor league baseball last fall is geographical realignment and travel-saving measures. Triple-A may be divided into three leagues, not two.

"It looks like 10 teams for us," Ryan said. "All Southwest Airlines cities. We should know more soon."

While MLB opening day is scheduled for April 1, Triple-A teams hope for April 8 openers.

Texas Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz swings at a pitch during a 2012 exhibition game against the Round Rock Express at the Dell Diamond. The Express, which previously served as the Triple-A club for the Rangers from 2011-18 before switching to the Houston Astros, will once again be a partner with Texas.

"We're hoping for a schedule (Wednesday)," Express president Chris Almendarez said.

With the entire 2020 minor league season canceled by the pandemic, the Express, like other clubs, laid off at least 50 percent of its staff and helped stay afloat by scheduling about 30 other socially distanced events. State guidelines have set a 50 percent limit on outdoor stadium capacity, and the Express have operated at 25 percent.

Dell Diamond will host the Round Rock Classic from Feb. 26-28 with Texas A&M, Baylor, Oklahoma and Auburn. Almendarez said they've set the attendance limit at 3,600 per game.

"For the Express our hope is certainly that as more people get vaccinated, it will be safe for more people to be at the games," Ryan said.

The Express are annually one of the minor-league home attendance leaders, averaging approximately 600,000 tickets sold.

Round Rock won two division titles under the Rangers banner, but its last three teams (2016-18) finished with losing records as the Texas minor league system ran dry. Recent farm-system rankings have the Rangers rated as high as No. 13 by Bleacher Report and as low as No. 24 by MLB Pipeline.

"We have really good talent at the lower levels," Daly said. "Eventually those guys will see Round Rock."

For now former Texas Tech third base standout Josh Jung and 6-foot-5, 245-pound catcher Sam Huff are the Rangers' top two prospects, and both are likely to start 2021 in Round Rock.

By comparison the Astros system is ranked 27th according to MLB Pipeline and 28th by Bleacher Report. Houston hooked up with suburban Sugar Land with Astros owner Jim Crane buying majority interest in the Triple-A expansion franchise. Round Rock and Sugar Land will be in the same league.

In 2019 Round Rock was chosen to host the 2021 Triple-A All-Star game. There is no word on whether that will happen this summer.

MLB trimmed its list of minor league affiliates from 160 to 120, and many are required to upgrade their facilities. The Express have some work to do to create a video room and weight training area. However, the club was ahead of the curve with re-doing its seating bowl and installing an LED-lit field. The Express will discuss changes and costs with their partner, the city of Round Rock.

"We check almost all the boxes," Ryan said. "We do need to look at a few space issues. We meet the basic requirements, but we want to be better."