When last we saw the Belhaven Blazers — on May 14 of last year — they were walking off the Smith-Wills Stadium turf following an 8-7 loss to Oklahoma Wesleyan. That heartbreaking defeat, in an NAIA opening round regional, ended BU’s season at 42-21. Today, the Blazers turn the page. They’ll walk back onto the Smith-Wills turf to start the 2015 season against Saint Francis (Ind.). Among Belhaven’s returning cast are two key position players: NAIA All-American Paul Pickerrell, who batted .345 with 44 RBIs, 48 runs and 38 steals, and Reagan Rutledge, a .278 hitter who swiped a school-record 64 bags, batted .278 and scored 60 runs. How those two go may well determine how the team goes. … Meanwhile, in Hattiesburg, William Carey also opens its season, facing NAIA nationally ranked Missouri Baptist at Wheeler Field, and a milestone watch begins in earnest. This is Bobby Halford’s 30th year as Carey’s coach, and he has 992 wins. The Crusaders (31-26 in 2014) are led by D.J. Johnson, who hit .305 last year.
Hunter Renfroe, the former Mississippi State standout from Crystal Springs, has been ranked as the ninth-best outfield prospect by mlb.com. Renfroe, a 2013 first-round pick by San Diego, has belted 27 homers in two seasons of pro ball. He reached the Double-A level last summer and played in the prospect-filled Arizona Fall League. Not yet on the Padres’ 40-man roster, he will go to spring training with the major leaguers.
Former East Central Community College standout Tim Anderson has been rated the No. 10 shortstop prospect in the minors by mlb.com. Anderson also has received an invitation to the Chicago White Sox’s major league spring training camp next month. A first-round pick in 2013, Anderson batted .301 with nine homers and 40 RBIs in an injury-interrupted 2014, finishing the season in Double-A. He also played well in the Arizona Fall League. … Other Mississippians who have received non-roster invites to big league camps include Petal High alumnus and former Mr. Baseball Anthony Alford (Toronto), Mississippi State product Hunter Renfroe (San Diego), ex-Hattiesburg High star Robert Carson (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Mississippi Gulf Coast CC alum Joey Butler (Tampa Bay). … Also of note: Former Mississippi Braves catcher J.C. Boscan has signed a minor league deal with Kansas City and will report to the Royals’ big league camp. P.S. Hinds Community College is ranked No. 2 in the NJCAA’s preseason poll, and Jones County Junior College is slotted at No. 11. Hinds, 40-21 and a Division II World Series finalist last year, opens on Feb. 7 against Mineral Area (Mo.) in Raymond. Jones, 46-11 and MACJC state champion in 2014, starts Feb. 7 against Jeff Davis (Ala.) in Ellisville.
Atlanta Braves fans looking for something to feel jazzed about do have this: Jose Peraza has been rated the No. 1 second base prospect in the minors by mlb.com. The speedy Peraza, who played for the Mississippi Braves last summer, could be playing in Atlanta sometime this season. Only 20, the right-handed hitting Peraza has batted .306 with 177 steals, 25 triples and 218 runs in 343 career minor league games. In 44 games for the M-Braves, he hit .335 with 25 steals and 35 runs. And, yes, his defense is good, too. If you didn’t see Peraza at Trustmark Park last summer, you’ve probably missed your chance. He’ll likely open 2015 at Triple-A Gwinnett.
Two players on Mississippi junior college rosters for this season batted over .420 in 2014. At least three reached the 10-homer plateau. Another stole 20 bases. There were several pitchers who posted an ERA under 3.00. There was a 9-game winner and a few who notched eight, including a certain right-hander who also had 10 saves. Those are some of the numbers that grab your eye from the NJCAA’s lists of top returning players in Division II Region 23. With the season fast approaching — most of the state jucos start on or about Feb. 7 — here are a few names (with numbers) to watch for from the MACJC: Trent Turner (Northeast Mississippi Community College), .423, eight homers, 50 RBIs; James Land (Gulf Coast), .422, 10 homers; Chase Hensley (Jones County JC), .373 and 8-1, 2.60 ERA; Marshall Boggs (Hinds), .366; Dalton Thomas (Meridian), .349, seven homers; Chad McNeil (Holmes), .341, 20 steals; Will Simon (Jones), 2.59 ERA; Goose Yates (Meridian), 6-2, 2.73; J’Daylin Jackson (East Mississippi), 8-1, 3.77; Austin Sanders (Hinds), 8-2, 2.95, 10 saves; Randy Bell (Hinds), 9-4; Brady Badon (Southwest), 3.18, seven saves.
Friday became Saturday and Saturday became Sunday and Jonathan Papelbon is still a member of the Philadelphia Phillies. The rumored trade that would have moved the former Mississippi State star to the Milwaukee Brewers is all but dead, a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel would seem to indicate. Money issues in Papelbon’s contract appear to be the snag. Papelbon, 34, has a no-trade clause and Milwaukee is on the list of destinations he must approve. Papelbon, who has 325 career saves (39 last year), would fill the Brewers’ need for a closer. He has said he wants to play for a contender, and the Brewers are much better positioned to contend in 2015 than are the Phillies. It seems like a move Papelbon would welcome, even if it meant making some concessions. P.S. The lists just keep on coming: Former Meridian Community College star Corey Dickerson, after a breakout year with Colorado, was rated the No. 8 left fielder in the game by MLB Network. Bobby Bradley, the Harrison Central High alum who had a sensational pro debut in the Cleveland system, was ranked the ninth-best first base prospect by mlb.com. And MSU alum Hunter Renfroe, who reached the Double-A level in 2014, is rated the No. 3 prospect in San Diego’s system by Baseball America and projected to make the majors by 2016.
MLB Network’s list of the top 10 center fielders in the game does not include Billy Hamilton. Rest assured, there are any number of teams that would love to have the Collins native and ex-Taylorsville High star – but he has work to do to crack the list of elite center fielders. Hamilton, in his first full MLB season with Cincinnati, stole 56 bases, scored 72 runs, drove in 49, hit six homers and legged out eight triples in 152 games. In the field, he made just two errors while registering 342 putouts and 10 assists. But Hamilton batted just .250, put up a sub-par .292 on-base percentage and drew just 34 walks while fanning 117 times. The apparent leader in the National League rookie of the year race much of the season, he scuffled late and wound up second to New York pitcher Jacob deGrom. For sure, Hamilton’s speed is off the charts. If he can get on base more in 2015, he just might climb into that top 10 chart heading into 2016. P.S. Connor Barron’s stock may be rising, which is good news for Southern Miss fans. The former Sumrall High star, a third-round MLB draft pick in 2011 who went undrafted last summer, has been rated the No. 8 senior in the country by Perfect Game. Barron was the Texas Collegiate League player of the year last summer after batting .344. The former shortstop, now playing center field for the Golden Eagles, hit .246 (.316 in C-USA play) with four homers and 20 RBIs as a junior. … Also on the rise is Greer Holston, a right-hander at St. Stanislaus High. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior reportedly made a big impression on scouts at last weekend’s Under Armour Preseason All-America Tournament in Arizona.
To borrow a line from the movie “Moneyball,” when someone hits a ball to left field against Atlanta this season, will there be anyone there to pick it up? The trade of Justin Upton opened the door in left for Evan Gattis, the former Mississippi Braves slugger. But now Gattis, too, has been dealt away. Who plays left? Zoilo Almonte? Say it ain’t so. Perhaps, ex-M-Braves standout Joey Terdoslavich will get a long look in spring training. The 6-foot-2, 200-pound switch-hitter doesn’t show up on the prospect charts, but he has power, which Atlanta needs, desperately. Terdoslavich, who hit .315 with five homers for the Double-A M-Braves in 2012, is rated the best power hitter in Atlanta’s minor league system by Baseball America. He hit 33 homers the last two seasons at Triple-A Gwinnett. Todd Cunningham, who also played in Pearl in 2012, could vie for Atlanta’s left-field job, but he’s not a power guy and looks better suited to center field. Also out there are Cedric Hunter, who had a good year for the M-Braves in 2014, and Cuban signee Dian Tascano, though neither is on the 40-man roster. … The Gattis trade did bring into the Atlanta system a candidate for the M-Braves’ third-base job: Rio Ruiz. Ruiz hit .293 with 11 homers at high Class A Lancaster in Houston’s system in 2014. Now entering his fourth pro season, he could be ready for Double-A. A 6-2, 215-pound lefty hitter, Ruiz also becomes the “third baseman of the future,” with Kyle Kubitza also having been traded.
After finishing last season in Japan, Joey Butler will get another shot at sticking with an MLB club this spring. The former Pascagoula High and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College standout recently signed a minor league contract with Tampa Bay. A right-handed hitting corner outfielder, Butler, 28, has a chance to crack the Rays’ 25-man roster in the spring, some reports say. The Rays’ current projected outfield starters are former Itawamba CC star Desmond Jennings in center, veteran David DeJesus in left and newly acquired rookie Steven Souza in right. Butler, who has played just 14 MLB games (with Texas and St. Louis), is a career .293 hitter in the minors. He goes 6 feet 2, 220 pounds and has averaged almost 11 homers a year in seven minor league seasons. P.S. Props to Ole Miss alum Lance Lynn on signing a 3-year, $22 million deal with the Cardinals.
Today’s subject: Chico Walker. Jackson native Walker, given name Cleotha, had a rather unremarkable big league career. Drafted out of a Chicago high school by Boston in 1976, he played parts of 11 years in The Show but got into only 526 games. A 5-foot-9 switch-hitter, he batted .246, hit 17 homers, stole 67 bases. However, Walker’s name does appear on a noteworthy list — a list that includes Ole Miss alum Steve Dillard and ex-Jackson Mets star Dave Magadan, other familiar names like Ryne Sandberg, Bill Madlock, Davey Lopes and Ron Cey and forgettable ones such as Carmen Fanzone, Domingo Ramos, Ty Waller and Augie Ojeda. Chicago Cubs fans might recognize these names as belonging to the subset of players who toiled at third base at Wrigley Field between Ron Santo’s departure in 1974 and Aramis Ramirez’s arrival in 2003. Among the throng who got that opportunity, 44 of them appeared in at least 50 games at the hot corner. Chico Walker was one of them. His best season was 1991, when he batted .257 with six homers, 34 RBIs and 13 steals in 124 games for the Cubbies. He made 47 starts at third that year and 10 more appearances there. P.S. Former Ole Miss star Lance Lynn, now with the St. Louis Cardinals, could get a record reward in salary arbitration if he goes that route. The record, as mlb.com reports, is $4.35 million for a first-year arbitration-eligible starting pitcher. Right-hander Lynn won 15 games for the Cards in 2014 and has 49 W’s in four years; he’s going to get a nice contract, whether in arbitration or pre-arbitration negotiation.