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Cardinals and Pirates prepare to play unusual finale in first-ever MLB Little League Classic

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The Pirates and Cardinals will switch things up for Sunday’s series finale, moving from the spacious PNC Park to the renovated Minor League confines of BB&T Ballpark at Historic Bowman Field. Normally the home stadium for the Phillies’ Short-Season Single-A Williamsport Crosscutters, Historic Bowman Field will set the stage for an unusual — and unprecedented — matchup between the NL Central rivals as they take the field for the first-ever MLB Little League Baseball Classic.

The game will cap a packed day for Major League and Little League participants alike, as four Little League double-elimination games will be played in the morning and afternoon before the Pirates’ Ivan Nova and Cardinals’ Mike Leake face off at 7:00 PM ET. Despite drawing national attention, the Classic will be invitation-only, and its projected 2,366 attendees will comprise the lowest capacity attendance figure in Major League history.

The event is designed to spark more interest in the sport, especially among young players, and Cardinals’ manager Mike Matheny called it “grassroots marketing at its finest.” “We all fell in love with the game and started dreaming about playing on a field like this at the age of these kids we’re going to go see in Williamsport,” he told reporters prior to Sunday’s game. “I hope there are some kids that we can encourage and maybe give a different look of the game and create some lifelong baseball fans that might not have been there otherwise.”

Judging by the excitement that infused the pregame festivities among the players, it looks like they’re already on the right track.

Evan Longoria: ‘I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base’

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The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.