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Charlotte Knights, top prospects set for season opener. Here are 9 storylines to watch

Charlotte Knights starting pitcher Michael Kopech is the Chicago White Sox’ No. 3-ranked prospect.
Charlotte Knights starting pitcher Michael Kopech is the Chicago White Sox’ No. 3-ranked prospect. AP

The Charlotte Knights and Durham Bulls get a one-night jump on the rest of the International League when they open against one another Thursday night in Durham.

The Knights, the Class AAA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox, will spend the first week on the road and open at home Thursday, April 12 against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, the New York Yankees’ top farm club.

If you’re a traditionalist who enjoys seeing baseball on a summer holiday, you’re in luck. The Knights will be at home on both Memorial Day weekend (against Indianapolis) and July 4 (Durham).

First pitch at BB&T Ballpark in Charlotte’s Uptown will be 7:04 p.m. (yes, you read that right) for evening games, with Sunday games set to start at either 2:05 p.m. (April through June) and 5:05 p.m. (July and August). There will also be an 11:05 a.m. game on May 2.

Here are nine storylines to watch during the 2018 season:

Kopech-mug
Michael Kopech, a top Chicago White Sox prospect, pitched with the Charlotte Knights at the close of last season Nam Y. Huh AP

1. The big name on the roster: A lot of attention is focused on starting pitcher Michael Kopech, the White Sox’ No. 3 prospect. Kopech pitched with Charlotte at the close of last season and needs to polish his off-speed pitches before going to the majors. “I’ll be working on my change-up,” Kopech said earlier this week. “Getting ahead in the count is crucial.”

2. Big name on the horizon: Chicago’s No. 1 prospect (and the No. 4 prospect in all the minors) is outfielder Eloy Jimenez, who has speed, power and strong defense. He’ll start the season at AA Birmingham but should be in Charlotte this summer, if all goes well.

3. Waiting for the call-up: As a Class AAA team, the Knights are a spot where players can work on minor adjustments in hopes of being called up to Chicago. Among those fitting the description are right-fielder Ryan Cordell, who just missed getting a spot on the White Sox roster at the end of spring training; designated hitter Matt Skole; and first baseman Casey Gillaspie.

knights-manager
Charlotte Knights manager Mark Grudzielanek, left, reaches out to hug Chicago White Sox manager Rick Renteria before last week’s exhibition at BB&T Ballpark. Grudzielanek will begin his second season as the Knights’ manager on Thursday in Durham against the Bulls. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

4. The veteran influence: The Knights were a young team last season, but manager Mark Grudzielanek says, “We’ve got some free agents who came over (to the Chicago organization), and we should be a bit more experienced this year.” Some of those players include Skole, 28, who hit 24 homers two years ago with Syracuse; Cordell, 26, acquired from the Milwaukee organization; and pitcher Chris Volstad, 31, in his third season with the Knights.

Chris Volstad
Pitcher Chris Volstad, 31, starts his third season with the Charlotte Knights. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

5. Strengths and weaknesses? Most analysts say starting pitching and offense should be Charlotte’s strengths. Relief pitching is a question mark.

6. There’s a local connection: Catcher Brett Austin, a Providence High alum, has made the Knights’ roster. Austin said that after being signed by the White Sox, “I always thought how cool it could be to play here.”

7. One Dragon Flame Burger, please: BB&T Ballpark features plenty of food and drink options, but there will be a few new items available this year, including the Dragon Flame Burger and Homer’s Citrus Dog.

8. Celebrating an anniversary: This marks the 20th season of the White Sox-Charlotte connection, and the anniversary will be marked by several special events, including appearances by a number of former Chicago players. Former Cy Young Award winner Roger McDowell was on hand last week for the Knights-White Sox exhibition.

9. Seeking the attendance title: The Knights led the minor leagues in attendance their first three seasons at BB&T Ballpark (2014-16) but were edged out by Indianapolis last season. Charlotte’s average was 9,125 last year (less than 1,000 below capacity), and Indianapolis averaged 9,159.

Steve Lyttle on Twitter@slyttle

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