A Mississippi Braves fan who should happen to stumble into the Atlanta Braves’ spring training complex in Kissimmee, Fla., next month would get the feeling of old home week. Nineteen of the 40 players on Atlanta’s big league roster have passed through Trustmark Park the last four years, and seven of the 16 non-roster invitees also have played in Pearl. That’s an indication that the Braves’ build-from-within philosophy is still alive and well, or at least alive. And that’s how an organization stays competitive from year to year, which the Braves have done since the remarkable worst-to-first campaign in 1991. Yes, the Braves have missed the postseason the past three years. But they’ve been competitive, even last year when disaster struck the pitching staff. The Braves’ farm system is still strong, still among the top 10 or so in the game even after trading away the likes of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Matt Harrison, Elvis Andrus and Tyler Flowers. The Double-A M-Braves won a championship, and the high Class A Myrtle Beach Pelicans set all kinds of offensive records and made the playoffs in 2008. There’s a wave of young talent beneath those groups. The big Braves will be OK. They should be in the playoff hunt this season and certainly will be in 2010. And there may be a day soon when every Atlanta starter will be an M-Braves alumnus. And the manager might be, as well. That’s something to look forward to. Really.
The early leader — OK, so it’s REALLY early, but still — for the Ferriss Trophy is Belhaven College’s Craig Westcott. The senior transfer had quite the debut for the Blazers today as they beat Spring Hill 3-2 at Mobile in the game that launched the 2009 college season in Mississippi. Westcott, a 6-foot-4 left-hander, went five innings and allowed just one hit while striking out 11. He also hit fifth in the lineup and went 1-for-2 with an RBI. A transfer from Division II West Florida, Westcott looks like he could be a key player for a Blazers team that is ranked in a couple of NAIA polls.
P.S. Tougaloo also debuted today and lost 19-1 to Loyola of New Orleans. The new coach at Tougaloo, Robert Franciskato, still has a lot of work to do with the fledgling Bulldogs program.
An update: Dewon Day’s future got a bit cloudier today when the Tampa Bay Rays designated him for assignment. That means the former Madison Central and Jackson State pitcher is off the 40-man roster and could be on his way to yet another team if he is claimed on waivers. (See Jan. 10, 2009, post.) By coincidence, Day was removed from Tampa Bay’s roster when the Rays signed pitcher Lance Cormier, who Mississippi Braves fans might recall from his injury rehab stint with the Double-A club.
From the Whatever Happened to … Dept: Terrell Young, the former Grenada High pitching standout, has been in pro ball for parts of five seasons and has yet to get out of A-ball. That may change soon. Young, 24, a 6-foot-3 right-handed reliever, was the first selection in the major league phase of the Rule 5 draft last month. The Washington Nationals plucked him from the Cincinnati Reds, who drafted Young in the 10th round in 2004. Young will go to spring training with the Nationals — who no doubt need pitching help — and be given every chance to make the big league roster. If he doesn’t, the Nationals have to offer him back to the Reds, per Rule 5 rules. Young has a career ERA of 3.63 with 131 strikeouts and 85 walks in 141.2 minor league innings. He only made it to high Class A last summer. Still, the Nationals seem to believe that Young has matured enough, as both a pitcher and a person, to rate an opportunity, at least, to make their bullpen in 2009. That will be an interesting story to follow this spring. Ready or not, Young’s life may be about to change dramatically.
P.S. Former Meridian Community College catcher Paul Phillips, who has a smattering of big league time, has signed a minor league deal with the Colorado Rockies.
An awful lot could happen between now and the time the Mississippi Braves actually take the field on April 9. Still, browse through last year’s rosters and stats, close your eyes real tight and you can almost see the lineup they’ll trot out. It figures to be a young team, i.e. a lot of Double-A newbies, but a potentially good one. One with some power bats, for sure. Ernesto Mejia, who led Class A Myrtle Beach with 21 homers, is the likely first baseman. Pencil Travis Jones (16 homers) in at second base, Brandon Hicks (19) at shortstop and Eric Campbell (16) at third base. Willie Cabrera (16), Jon Mark Owings (16) and Concepcion Rodriguez (11) could find spots in the outfield, though the highly touted Gorkys Hernandez, a speed guy, is the probable center fielder. Of that bunch, only Hicks and Cabrera have spent any time at Trustmark Park. Phillip Britton appears to be in line for the M-Braves catching job, with Tyler Flowers gone to the Chicago White Sox in a trade. Pitching is always tougher to call, but Deunte Heath, Johnny Venters, Ryne Reynoso and Scott Diamond are good bets to fill spots in the rotation, and Kevin Gunderson probably will be back in the bullpen. A fast-rising prospect named Craig Kimbrel might be the closer. Again, much could change between now and the first call of “Play Ball,” but it’s never too soon to toss some names out there and speculate. That’s what the Hot Stove is all about.
Dave Parker fell considerably short today in his latest bid to become the first Mississippi native elected by the writers association to baseball’s Hall of Fame. (Negro Leagues star Cool Papa Bell was picked by a special committee, and Red Barber is in the broadcasters wing.) Parker, a power-hitting outfielder who retired in 1991, got 81 votes from the writers who guard the Hall gates; you need 405 to get in. Parker will appear on the writers’ ballot for two more years, then he’ll have to count on the veterans committee. It’s unlikely he’ll get much support there either. (See Dec. 2, 2008, post.) Former Jackson Met Jesse Orosco got one — count ’em one — vote in his first and last year on the ballot.
Say this for Dewon Day, the former Madison Central and Jackson State pitcher: He’s got something big league scouts like. The Tampa Bay Rays, your defending American League champs, claimed Day off waivers from the Boston Red Sox on Friday. He’ll likely go to spring training with a chance to make the Rays’ staff. Day is 28 years old and has pitched a grand total of 13 games in the majors, with an 11.25 ERA to show for it. And yet … the Red Sox liked him enough to claim him from the Chicago White Sox at the end of last season. The White Sox liked him enough to snatch him in the 2005 Rule 5 draft from the Toronto Blue Jays, who liked him enough to draft him in the 26th round in 2002 out of Southern University, where he played his senior season. Day stands 6 feet 4, weighs 210, throws right-handed — and throws very hard. He had some success with the Birmingham Barons of the Double-A Southern League the past couple years, and his career minor league ERA is 3.99. He also has fanned more than a batter an inning. That kind of power arm is rare enough to keep Day in the game. Maybe it’ll get him back to the big leagues.
A few quick comments on various topics:
Good move by the Mississippi Braves, switching their radio affiliation to WYAB-103.9 FM. On WZRX-1590 AM last season, the signal could not be picked up in many parts of the metro area. Ben Ingram does a fine job as the play-by-play man, but you had to wonder during last year’s championship season how many people ever actually heard him. On the FM dial, that shouldn’t be a problem anymore.
An update: Selwyn Langaigne, the former Jackson Senators outfielder with the lyrical name, recently signed with the independent Shreveport-Bossier Captains (formerly the Shreveport Sports) of the American Association. Former Senators GM Craig Brasfield is now the Captains’ GM. Langaigne will play on at least one more summer. Good for him.
Weir resident and former Holmes Community College star Roy Oswalt, current ace of the Houston Astros, is on the tentative roster for Team USA in this spring’s World Baseball Classic. So is former M-Braves catcher Brian McCann. Former Jackson Mets skipper Davey Johnson will manage to club. This tournament, awkwardly jammed into the schedule though it may be, has the potential to develop into something pretty cool. The MLB Network will televise a slew of the games, which will greatly enhance the event’s exposure. Can’t hardly wait.
Here’s a sleeper who could have an impact in Atlanta this season: infielder Diory Hernandez. No one talks much about him, but it was evident during the brief time Hernandez spent with the M-Braves in 2007 and ’08 that he’s got some skills. Check out his numbers in the Dominican Winter League: .329, 7 homers, 27 RBIs. He can play second, short and third, maybe even the outfield. Also worthy of note: Former M-Braves center fielder Gregor Blanco is hitting .349 with 14 doubles, 4 triples, 22 RBIs and 39 runs through 48 games of the Venezuelan Winter League. He could blossom in Atlanta this season given regular duty.
An update: Jason Smith, the journeyman infielder out of Meridian Community College, was signed to a minor league contract today by the Houston Astros. The 31-year-old Smith was cut loose by the Kansas City Royals last month. See Dec. 16, 2008, entry.
Circle the date Jan. 23. Ready or not, baseball season in Mississippi starts that day. We’re deep into football and basketball here, and yet baseball is so close. Belhaven College will play Spring Hill in Mobile on Jan. 23 to get its season started; Tougaloo also opens that day. It could be a very good season for the Blazers, who went 41-17 in 2008 and are ranked No. 25 in one preseason NAIA poll and No. 27 in another. Hill Denson is entering his ninth season as the Belhaven coach. The former Callaway High and Southern Miss head man has done a great job with the Blazers program. He is no doubt counting the days until Jan. 23. He has a lot of company.