The Atlanta Braves placed two — only two? — players on mlb.com’s Top 100 prospects chart. Catcher Christian Bethancourt, who played for the Missisisppi Braves the past two seasons, was No. 82, and right-hander Lucas Sims, who might make it to Pearl this season, was No. 60. Perhaps this is a sign that the Braves’ farm system is in need of some rebuilding. Or maybe the talent in the system is just very young and off the radar for now. We shall see. We’ve likely seen the last of Bethancourt in Mississippi. After hitting .277 with 12 homers in 2013, he’ll go to spring training with a shot, at least, of earning the backup catcher job behind ex-M-Braves star Evan Gattis. Sims, Atlanta’s No. 1 pick out of an Atlanta-area high school in 2012, went 12-4 with a 2.62 ERA in low-A ball last season. With a good start at high-A Lynchburg, it wouldn’t be a big surprise to see him make it to Double-A before 2014 is done. Sims is also the top-rated Braves prospect on Baseball America’s list. P.S. Former Jackson Generals ace Freddy Garcia has re-signed with the Braves; he had some strong outings down the stretch and in the playoffs last season. … Ole Miss product Chris Coghlan officially signed with the Chicago Cubs and will go to spring training on a minor league deal. Coghlan, a former National League rookie of the year, hit .256 in 70 games for Miami in 2013.
Bobby Abreu, who starred for the Jackson Generals 20 long years ago, can still swing it. Check out the numbers he has rung up in the Venezuelan Winter League: .322 average, three homers, 28 RBIs. The Philadelphia Phillies, for whom Abreu played nine seasons (1998-2006), apparently liked what they saw in the 39-year-old outfielder who didn’t play in the big leagues in 2013. They’ve signed him to a minor league contract with a spring training invite. It would be a neat little cap on a generally brilliant career if Abreu can make this comeback work. He’ll be 40 in March, and he hit just .242 in 100 MLB games in 2012. But don’t count him out. He has a .292 career average with 2,437 hits and 287 homers, and his winter ball work would seem to indicate he’s still got something left. He could be a threat as a lefty pinch hitter.
High school players from Mississippi who go directly to pro ball tend to have a tough time with the transition. (Yes, Billy Hamilton looks like an exception to that rule.) But don’t be surprised if a major league club rolls the dice come draft time on Ti’Quan Forbes, the standout shortstop from Columbia High. Forbes, a 6-foot-4, 175-pound right-handed hitter, could be a first-round pick in June, quite possibly the first Mississippian (prep or college) to be selected. Forbes is showing up on a number of draft prospect lists; Baseball America has him at No. 39 on its most recent Top 50. Forbes batted .391 with six home runs, 39 RBIs and 10 steals in 2013. His is a name to remember.
Brace yourself. The baseball season in Mississippi begins on Jan. 31 when Belhaven University hosts LSU-Alexandria at Smith-Wills Stadium. The NAIA teams will play a doubleheader the next day. This will be the 40th year that baseball in some form or another has been played at Smith-Wills, which opened in 1975 as the home of the Double-A Jackson Mets. A celebration of some form or another ought to be in order. P.S. Baseball America reports on its minor league transactions page the re-signing of Ole Miss product Justin Henry by Boston and ex-Rebels star Matt Tolbert by Philadelphia and the signing of Alcorn State alumnus Corey Wimberly by Minnesota. Henry batted just .210 in Triple-A for the Red Sox in 2013. Tolbert, a one-time big leaguer, hit .327 in 46 games in the lower minors last year as he battled back from injury. Wimberly, who spent some time in Atlanta’s system in 2013, will be entering his 10th pro season with his seventh different organization.
Jeff Francoeur may be running low on chances in baseball, but he’ll get at least one more. Cleveland has signed the former Mississippi Braves star to a minor league contract and invited him to spring training. The Indians’ outfield currently includes Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley, David Murphy and Ryan Raburn, which might be a tough group to crack. The right-handed hitting Francoeur, whose star burned out quickly in Atlanta, has played for the New York Mets, Texas, Kansas City and San Francisco over the past five seasons. He batted .204 overall in 2013 and was released twice (by the Royals and Giants). Francoeur, who turns 30 on Wednesday, is still a good outfielder and is a career .263 hitter with 140 home runs. True, he may face long odds of making the cut with the Indians. But, like Starkville native Julio Borbon — an outfielder who’ll go to camp with Baltimore as a Rule 5 draftee — and Pascagoula’s Joey Butler — a waiver claim who’ll get a look from St. Louis as a spare outfielder — Francoeur has a chance to make a big league roster. Sometimes that’s all you can ask. Sometimes that’s all you need.
While eagerly looking ahead to the start of the 2014 season, it’s the perfect time to note some significant anniversaries related to the Jackson area’s minor league clubs. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1984 Jackson Mets’ dominant season. That team swept both halves in the Texas League East Division and then claimed the franchise’s second pennant in the playoffs. The ’84 JaxMets, managed by Sam Perlozzo, featured the likes of Lenny Dykstra, Mark Carreon, Billy Beane, Greg Olson, Dave Cochrane, Al Pedrique, Steve Springer, Jay Tibbs, Calvin Schiraldi, Randy Myers and Floyd Youmans — all future big leaguers. Ten years later — and 20 years ago — the Jackson Generals won the TL East playoffs in one of Smith-Wills Stadium’s most unforgettable games. The Gens, down 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth of the decisive Game 5, got back-to-back home runs from Tom Nevers and Jeff Ball to stun rival Shreveport. The ’94 Generals, managed by Sal Butera, lost in the TL Championship Series. Bobby Abreu (still not retired) was the star hitter for that club. Of course, who could forget that in 2004 reports surfaced and were later confirmed that the Greenville Braves of the Southern League were going to move to a new ballpark in Pearl for the 2005 season. Hard to believe this will be the Mississippi Braves’ 10th season at Trustmark Park.