After a brief hiatus, the Elizabethton Twins are back in a familiar role -- reigning champions.
Ray Smith has been Elizabethton's manager since 1987, directing the team to eight Appy League titles. Until last September, the Twins had been without a championship since 2008, a three-year gap that marked their longest drought since the 1990s.
The league begins its 68-game schedule Thursday night, and president Lee Landers said he intends to visit all 10 teams in the first 10 days of the season. He'll start at Elizabethton on Opening Night and visit 2012 runner-up Burlington Royals the day after.
Burlington's pursuit of a title -- after coming within an out of securing the crown last year before an extra-inning loss to Elizabethton -- will include an overhauled roster.
"I've replayed it a thousand times, and I would do a thousand different things," said manager Tommy Shields, who enters his second season with Burlington this year. "You have to move on."
The Royals welcome 19-year-old outfielder Desmond Henry, a 2011 fourth-round pick of the Rangers who was acquired in the trade for Tommy Hottovy, and catcher Chad Johnson, Kansas City's fifth-rounder last year.
Prospects descend on Bristol: The Bristol White Sox made a managerial change prior to the season as Mike Gellinger begins his first stint in Bristol. Three days before Opening Night, Bristol GM Mahlon Luttrell had yet to meet the new skipper.
"That's not unusual -- I never met Pete Rose Jr. until he got here," Luttrell said. "We've had email exchanges going back and forth. I feel like I know him."
Rose was the manager the past two seasons, but he's directing the Great Falls Voyagers of the Pioneer League this year. Bobby Magallanes was originally tabbed as Bristol's manager this season, but the White Sox decided to use him in other roles.
Gellinger will arrive from mini-camp in Arizona with the organization's top three selections from this year's Draft on the roster: shortstop Tim Anderson, right-hander Tyler Danish and center fielder Jacob May.
This comes on the heels of 2012 first-rounder Courtney Hawkins, currently patrolling the outfield for Class A Advanced Winston-Salem, playing parts of last season in Bristol. Luttrell said these assignments provide a good vibe around the club.
"We're thinking we're doing something right here," Luttrell said.
Look who's in charge: Concerns about the status of Kingsport seem to have faded with the New York Mets taking over operations of the club. The Tennessee city has been home to a Mets farm team every year since 1980 with the exception of 1983.
"A Major League club has some more resources to get things done sometimes," Landers said. "I think it was a win-win for everybody."
Other Appalachian League teams under direct operation of the parent team are the Danville Braves and Greeneville Astros.
Tinkering with the playoffs: The league has altered its four-team playoff set-up, preventing division rivals from meeting in the championship series. Landers said a proposal was made to have the division winners meet the runners-up from the same division in the semifinals.
"It was brought up by the Burlington club," Landers said, citing the uncertainty about where the championship series would begin. "We'll see how long it goes. It was brought up because you didn't know who [or where] you were going to play."
Under the new format, home-field advantage in the Finals will alternate each year. This season, Game 1 will be hosted by the West Division winner and move to the East Division site for Game 2 and, if necessary, Game 3.
Previously regular-season division winners met the runners-up from the opposite division in the opening round.
Last things last: Here's a look at some significant lasts around the Appalachian League.
Last season's championship: Elizabethton over Burlington in three games
Last season's attendance leader: Greeneville Astros, 42,303
Last back-to-back champion: Johnson City Cardinals, 2010-11
Last 100-strikeout pitcher: Daniel Osterbrook, Elizabethton, 104 in 2008
Last .400 season: Rene Aqueron, Bluefield, .405 in 2008
Last 20-home run hitter: Eddie Rosario, Elizabethton, 21 in 2011
Last 60-steal season: Rafael Furcal, Danville, 60 in 1998
Last 10-win season: Matthew Crim, Danville, 10 in 2009