Last day of the year seems like a good time to take another look ahead at how the Mississippi Braves’ lineup for 2011 might shape up. With Cody Johnson (traded) out of the picture, left field opens up, possibly for another fallen prospect, Jordan Schafer, whose 2010 season was wrecked by injuries. Put speedy L.V. Ware in center, where he finished up with the M-Braves last summer. Fast-rising Cory Harrilchak, who got high marks in Baseball America’s Atlanta organizational ratings, could be the right fielder. If Mauro Gomez (16 homers in Pearl in 2010) doesn’t make the Triple-A club, he’ll be back at first base. Or Michael Jones (.282, 5 homers, 47 RBIs at Class A Myrtle Beach) might break through. Cole Miles, who got a brief tour with the M-Braves in 2010, is a logical candidate at second base. Tyler Pastornicky, possibly Atlanta’s shortstop of the future, likely will be back at that spot for the 2011 M-Braves. He’s one to watch. Third base is tougher to peg. Donell Linares might return for a second season, or Mycal Jones could fit in there. Jones also played briefly in Pearl last year. Another candidate could be free agent signee Shawn Bowman, who hit 22 homers in Double-A last year. Catching duties may go to Jesus Sucre and Shawn McGill, both of whom spent time in Pearl in 2010. Sucre quietly hit .297 in 38 games. The pitching might be very good. Eight of the Braves’ top 10 prospects as picked by Baseball America are pitchers, and as many as five of those could play in Pearl in 2011. That group includes Julio Teheran (the No. 1 prospect), Randall Delgado (No. 3) and Arodys Vizcaino (No. 7), all starters. Teheran and Delgado showed flashes of brilliance for the M-Braves last summer.
Today’s subject: Ellis Burks. Burks, born in Vicksburg in 1964, put up in 1996 what is arguably the greatest single season by any Mississippi-born player. As a member of the ball-bashing Colorado Rockies, Burks, an outfielder, hit .344 with 40 home runs and 128 RBIs along with 142 runs, 45 doubles, 8 triples, 32 stolen bases and a .639 slugging percentage that led the National League. He could have, maybe should have, won the MVP award. The 20th overall pick (out of a Texas junior college) by Boston in 1983, Burks made the big leagues in 1987. Over an 18-year career that was mottled by various injuries, he hit .291 with 352 homers and 1,206 RBIs. He was on the Hall of Fame ballot last year for the first time but didn’t get enough votes to stay on. Not a huge surprise. As good as his numbers are, Burks was never really regarded as one of the greats of his time. (That’s also one of the issues dogging ex-Mississippi State star Rafael Palmeiro, eligible for the Hall this year.) Burks’ numbers do, however, rank with the best of any Mississippian to play the game, which is worth celebrating.
Marcus Thames and Fred Lewis, two fairly well-established big leaguers, remain unsigned as we head toward the new year. Both play outfield, but they bring different tools to the table. Thames, from Louisville and East Central Community College, is a power guy. The New York Yankees might bring him back, but there’s been no word. Lewis, from Wiggins and Gulf Coast CC, is a speed guy who got strong consideration for the Cool Papa Bell Award after a fine year with Toronto. He was quoted in September as saying he was “a whole lot unsure” about the Blue Jays’ plans for him in 2011, and they non-tendered him at season’s end. He could still end up back there, but then again … . Eager to see where those guys land.
Today’s subject: Dave Hoskins. Greenwood native Hoskins, who died in 1970, holds a noteworthy distinction in baseball history: He was the first black player in the Texas League. More than that, he was sensational for the Dallas Eagles of 1952, posting a 22-10 record and a 2.12 ERA. The right-handed pitcher, who batted from the left side, was a Negro Leagues star in the ’40s as both a hurler and slugger. He signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1953 and pitched in 40 big league games. Hoskins’ numbers were very good: 9-4, 3.81 in 139 1/3 innings, .227 batting average. But he was on a Cleveland team overrun with great arms (Feller, Lemon, Garcia, Wynn, et. al) and his opportunities were limited. He was out of The Show after 1954. Still, Hoskins made his mark.
P.S. Mitch Moreland, the former Mississippi State star from Amory, will be the speaker at Itawamba Community College’s Leadoff Banquet on Feb. 4. After his sparkling debut with the Texas Rangers last season, Moreland might be the most intriguing Mississippian to watch heading into 2011. … Former ICC star and onetime big leaguer Jonathan Van Every has signed a minor league contract with the Washington Nationals.
Bill Hall has a job for 2011, which is more than a lot of folks can say. And reportedly he’ll be paid $3 million-plus by the Houston Astros, which ain’t bad. The Nettleton product is headed for his fourth team in what will be his 10th MLB season. He was found wanting in Boston after hitting just .247 in a utility role in 2010. The Astros have Hall, 30, targeted for their second base job. He’s started fewer games there than he has at third, shortstop or in the outfield in his career, and his fielding percentage at second base is .960, not so good. But he does bring pop to the position, having hit 18 homers last season. Ane he’s a good athlete, so he’ll make some plays on the bases and in the field. This could be a good fit.
Today’s subject: Eric McNair. McNair, who was born and is buried in Meridian, is one of the best and perhaps least-heralded Mississippi-born players of any era. Nicknamed “Boob” after a popular cartoon character of his time, McNair played in the big leagues from 1929-42, hitting .274 for his career with 82 homers, 229 doubles and 633 RBIs. Good numbers for a middle infielder — he primarily played shortstop — even by today’s standards. McNair’s best season was 1932, when he hit .285 with 18 homers, 95 RBIs and a league-best 47 doubles for the Philadelphia Athletics. He got MVP votes that year, and in two other years, as well. He also played in two World Series, including the 1930 Fall Classic with the champion A’s team that included Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Al Simmons, Mickey Cochrane and Rube Walberg, among other stars. McNair, who died suddenly of a heart attack at age 39 in 1949, would rate strong consideration for the shortstop position on Mississippi’s all-time team.
P.S. Jackson native Donnie Veal was re-signed to a minor league deal by the Pittsburgh Pirates, who cut him loose from their 40-man roster earlier this month. Veal, a lefty pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery, worked in Triple-A last year, posting a 4.35 ERA in 49 2/3 innings before his injury. Veal, who has some big-league time, passed through Pearl in 2007 and ’08 as a member of the Tennessee Smokies when that club was a Chicago Cubs affiliate.
Cliff Lee’s surprising — shocking? — decision to return to Philadelphia is a blow to the Atlanta Braves’ hopes of winning the National League East in 2011. The Phillies’ arsenal of arms is now historically great. Still, former Meridian Community College star Lee, Roy Halladay and Holmes CC alumnus Roy Oswalt have things to prove as postseason pitchers. None has a World Series ring yet. And the Phillies’ offense took a big hit with the loss of Jayson Werth, who made the surprising — shocking? — decision to sign with Washington. With all due respect to Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and Shane Victorino, Werth was the scariest hitter in Philly’s lineup last season. He made the clutch hit almost seem routine. The Braves’ attack will be better with Dan Uggla, though their defense may suffer. And Atlanta’s got pitching, too. The NL East will be a war.
With the addition of Carl Crawford to their lineup, the Boston Red Sox have an imposing group. All-Stars everywhere … except catcher. Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s name stands out because it doesn’t seem to belong. The former Mississippi Brave is penciled in as the BoSox’s No. 1 backstop and No. 9 hitter, seemingly by default. “Salty” was once a prized Braves prospect but hasn’t done much at the big league level: .248 with 23 homers in 250 games. He also has had some defensive issues in the past. Maybe it’ll help that he’s overshadowed by all the big stars. Less pressure to perform. But that only works to a point. In Boston, there’s always going to be scrutiny. It could get tough for “Salty.”
P.S. Former M-Braves lefty Scott Diamond was plucked by the Minnesota Twins in the Rule 5 draft. Diamond’s record in two years in Pearl was just 9-16, but his ERA was 3.50 and he struck out 201 in 233 1/3 innings. He was 4-1 with a 3.36 ERA the latter part of 2010 at Triple-A Gwinnett. He’s got big league potential, for sure. And Atlanta could get him back if he doesn’t stick with the Twins’ major league team in the spring. … Ex-M-Brave Jeff Francoeur landed in Kansas City, where so many former Braves have gone to play for ex-Braves farm director Dayton Moore. Considering how irrelevant KC has been over the last 25 years or so, will we ever hear from Francoeur again? … Former Meridian Community College star Paul Phillips, a well-traveled catcher, signed a minor league deal with Cleveland on Wednesday. That’s a club he could make. … Mark Feb. 4 on your calendar. Belhaven opens its season that day at Smith-Wills Stadium against Blue Mountain, which is launching its inaugural baseball campaign.
Today’s subject: Billy Cowan. Born in Calhoun City in 1938, Cowan played college ball at Utah (wow!) and went on to appear in 493 major league games from 1963-72 with six teams, most of them bad (Cubs, Mets, Phillies, Angels). Cowan, 6 feet and 170 pounds, hit 35 homers in one minor league season but managed just 40 total in the big leagues. His best year was 1964, when he hit 19 bombs for the Chicago Cubs as a regular outfielder. He batted .276 in 1970 and ’71 as a part-timer with the California Angels but dropped out of the majors in 1972. A .236 career hitter, Cowan would have a tough time making even the 40-man roster of the all-time Mississippi major league club. But, hey, he played in The Show.
As strange as it was to see Lance Berkman in a New York Yankees uniform, it might be even odder to see the former Jackson Generals star in St. Louis Cardinals duds next season, back in the National League Central to play against the Houston Astros. It was a great sign for the Cardinals. When healthy, Berkman can handle left field; he’s more athletic than people think. And there’s no doubt he can hit. He’s closing in on 2,000 career knocks (1,675) and already has topped the 300-homer and 1,000-RBI milestones. Too bad the Atlanta Braves didn’t make a run at Berkman. … Reports are that Cleveland, Kansas City and Philadelphia are interested in free agent Jeff Francoeur, the former Mississippi Braves outfielder. Francoeur hit .249 with 13 homers last season for the Mets and Texas. He’s still got some value, especially as a right fielder. If you’ve ever watched him play the field, you know. … Atlanta made a good deal in getting veteran reliever Scott Linebrink from the Chicago White Sox for former M-Braves hurler Kyle Cofield. Cofield is a tall right-hander with a good arm, but he’s been plagued by wildness and nagging injuries. He wasn’t going to help the Braves anytime soon. Linebrink will right away. … Got a Mike Minor (2010 M-Braves ace who was rushed to Atlanta and faltered there) rookie card on Sunday. What are the chances it will be in high demand in 10 years? Probably about as long as the odds that former Mississippi State star Rafael Palmeiro will make the Hall of Fame. Well, maybe not that long. Palmeiro has pretty numbers but too much ugly baggage.