Luis Hernandez, who was the starting shortstop for the Mississippi Braves for their inaugural opening day in 2005, is currently playing second base for Caribes de Anzoategui in the Venezuelan Winter League. (Yes, it’s amazing the number of familiar names one runs across while scanning winter league box scores.) Hernandez, a Venezuela native, is one of the six members of the M-Braves’ opening day lineup to make the big leagues and one of just a handful from that team still playing at any level. He is 33 now and has been in pro ball since 2002; his last stint in affiliated ball was with the Los Angeles Angels’ Triple-A club in 2015. Hernandez played for 14 different minor league clubs and four different MLB teams. The 5-foot-10 switch-hitter batted .243 (with five triples) for the 2005 M-Braves and .268 the next season. He reached the majors in 2007 with Baltimore. P.S. From looking back to looking ahead: Alay Lago is a name to watch for when the M-Braves’ 2018 roster is announced. Lago, a second baseman/third baseman, led the Class A Florida State League in hitting at .303 last season for the Florida Fire Frogs. A Cuba native, Lago is 26 but will be playing just his second season in the States in 2018. He played in Mexico in 2016. Other 2017 Fire Frogs who could arrive in Pearl next April include first baseman Carlos Castro (.283, 10 homers); outfielder Anfernee Seymour (.280, 17 steals); catcher Brett Cumberland (.269); and outfielder Braxton Davidson, a onetime touted prospect who hit just .217 with seven homers last year.
One month from today, Blue Mountain College, an NAIA member, will get the ball rolling. The Toppers will be the first Mississippi college team to hit the field for a game in 2018, opening at LSU-Shreveport on Jan. 26. The major college season begins on Feb. 16, and for Mississippi State and Southern Miss, it won’t be a soft opening. The old rivals will meet that day in the first game of a three-game series in Hattiesburg. Taylor Park is where State ended USM’s 2017 season in a wild regional final that won’t soon be forgotten. What better way to start 2018? … State was the last of the Big 3 to close the book on fall ball, playing its Fall World Series on Nov. 17-19 at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson. Though he’s certainly not expected to fill Brent Rooker’s shoes, junior shortstop Hunter Stovall was named the MVP. He went 5-for-8 with two runs and a steal in the three-game set. Stovall batted .288 for the Bulldogs in 2017 and played well in the Cape Cod League over the summer. … Ole Miss finished its fall campaign in late October with the Pizza Bowl, a game notable mainly for the fact the two squads combined for 20 runs over 11 innings. A precursor perhaps for 2018, which will start on Feb. 16 with a home game against Winthrop? The Rebels surely hope so. They were last in the SEC in hitting and 12th in runs in 2017. A Thomas Dillard grand slam in the 11th was the big blow in the Pizza Bowl. Cooper Johnson had a four-hit game, and Wil Golsan doubled, tripled and homered. … Alcorn State again starts its season in the MLB Urban Invitational in New Orleans. The Braves’ first game is against Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Feb. 16. … Jackson State will open at the University of New Orleans on Feb. 20, then return home for a marquee game against Mississippi State at Braddy Field. Champing at the bit for the Tigers is Lamar Briggs, who had a standout summer for the DC Grays in the Cal Ripken League, batting .400 with two homers, 24 RBIs, 22 runs and eight steals in 38 games. He made first team all-league. … William Carey and Tougaloo, also NAIA schools; NCAA Division III Millsaps; and Division II Delta State open on Ground Hog Day, Feb. 2. Carey is at home against Ave Maria University, Tougaloo on the road vs. Talladega, Millsaps at Huntingdon, and Delta State at Lynn. … D-II Mississippi College will host Lindenwood for a doubleheader on Feb. 3. … MUW launches its inaugural season on Feb. 9 at the University of Dallas. D-III Belhaven starts the season at Centenary on Feb. 9.
The Jackson Mets arrived at newly constructed Smith-Wills Stadium in 1975 and proceeded to send a boatload of players to the big leagues during the team’s 16-year run on Lakeland Drive. Lee Mazzilli, who was on the second JaxMets team in 1976, is generally regarded as the Double-A club’s first “star,” and he made the majors in September of ’76. But he was not the first JaxMets alum to reach the big leagues. Who was? The first Jackson Generals player to get the call was catcher Tony Eusebio, who went up briefly with Houston in 1991, the first year the Astros’ Double-A team played at Smith-Wills. (Neither the Jackson DiamondKats nor the Jackson Senators had a player advance to the big leagues, though both independent clubs employed a former big leaguer. Mark Carreon played for the D-Kats, and Jeff Ware pitched for the Sens.) Brian McCann was the first Mississippi Braves star to make The Show, going up to Atlanta in 2005, the first year the franchise operated in Pearl. Which brings us back to the trivia question: Who was the first Jackson Met to get the call? Answer: Bobby Myrick, the Hattiesburg native and former Mississippi State star who was on the original JaxMets roster in ’75. New York called him up from Triple-A in May of 1976, and the left-hander pitched parts of three seasons in the majors, posting a 3.48 ERA in 82 games. Injuries ultimately ended his pro career in 1981. He passed away in 2012.
Delta State won’t sneak up on anybody in 2018. The Statesmen, overlooked in most of the 2017 preseason polls before making a run to the NCAA Division II World Series, will start the new season ranked No. 1 by Collegiate Baseball. Mike Kinnison will need to plug a couple of holes in his pitching staff, but DSU’s lineup returns virtually intact from last year’s 45-13 club. Expectations should be running high all over the Magnolia State, according to Collegiate Baseball’s editors. Each of the Big 3 Division I schools is ranked in the magazine’s Top 40: Mississippi State is 13th, Southern Miss 25th and Ole Miss 38th. William Carey, which went to the NAIA World Series last year, will open at No. 6 in 2018, and Jones County Junior College is pegged No. 2 in the NJCAA Division II poll. East Central CC checks in at 17th.
You won’t find Anthony Alford’s name on the Toronto Blue Jays’ outfield depth chart that appears on mlb.com. But the former Petal High star will certainly get a long look in spring training, and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him make the opening day roster. Alford, 23, has enhanced his credentials with his play in the Mexican Pacific League, a winter assignment he reportedly asked for. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound right-handed hitter is riding a nine-game hit streak that has boosted his average to .344. He has two homers, 15 RBIs, 17 runs and eight steals in 23 games for Jalisco. “Anthony can make your day on and off the field on a regular basis,” Toronto general manager Ross Atkins recently told the Toronto Sun. Alford spent most of 2017 in Double-A, batting .310 with five homers. He played four games in the majors early in the season before being derailed by a hand injury. Expect his next big league stay to be much longer.
Atlanta would appear to have hit a home run with its new hire for manager of the Mississippi Braves. As baseball resumes go, it’s hard to beat what Chris Maloney brings to the table. The newly named skipper of the Double-A M-Braves is not only a local boy, but he has a wealth of managerial experience highlighted by championships and awards. Maloney, nicknamed “Hammer,” is a Jackson native and former Mississippi State star who played pro ball in the New York Mets and St. Louis systems. His father, local businessman Con Maloney, was a longtime owner of Jackson’s Texas League franchise. Chris Maloney was in his sixth year on the Cardinals’ major league staff when he was suddenly removed as third-base coach and reassigned back in June in a rather odd move. Maloney managed in the St. Louis system for 17 years, winning a Triple-A Pacific Coast League title with Memphis in 2009. He was manager of the year in the Texas League in 1998 while at Arkansas and was Baseball Weekly’s minor league manager of the year in 1993 when he was at Class A Savannah. He also managed in Houston’s system. He’s a great choice to run the M-Braves. Maloney succeeds Luis Salazar as the Southern League club’s seventh manager since it moved to Pearl in 2005. P.S. For the record, there are now seven Mississippi-connected managers in the big leagues: Ex-Mississippi State standout Buck Showalter (Baltimore), Ole Miss product Mickey Callaway (New York Mets), former Jackson Mets players Ned Yost (Kansas City), John Gibbons (Toronto) and Ron Gardenhire (Detroit), former JaxMets skipper Clint Hurdle (Pittsburgh) and former M-Braves manager Brian Snitker (Atlanta).
’Tis the season for the Rule 5 draft, which went down today without much hoopla. Former Jones County Junior College standout Lane Ratliff and Ole Miss alumnus Will Allen were picked in the minor league phase and will be changing organizations for the 2018 season. Ratliff, a left-hander, was taken by Arizona out of the Seattle system. A 2014 draftee by the Mariners, he spent most of 2017 in the Class A Midwest League. His career ERA is 5.98, but someone saw something they liked. First baseman/catcher Allen, a 2014 draftee by Detroit, was plucked by Miami. He played in the Class A Florida State League last season, batting .245 with nine homers and 40 RBIs at age 25. Allen had a big senior year in Oxford in 2014, hitting .339 with seven homers and 64 RBIs. P.S. Ryan Rolison’s ranking improved a notch in Baseball America’s latest list of the Top 100 college draft prospects for 2018. The Ole Miss left-hander is up to No. 6 after standing seventh in the magazine’s October ranking. Rolison went 6-3 with a 3.06 ERA for the Rebels in 2017 and pitched well in the Cape Cod League over the summer. Mississippi State’s ace lefty, Konnor Pilkington, slipped to No. 19 from 17th. Pilkington was 8-5, 3.08 last season. Rebels closer Dallas Woolfolk and State outfielder Jake Mangum are also in the top 100.
Ex-Ole Miss star Zack Cozart, one of several Mississippians on the free agent market, has a serious suitor in San Diego, according to reports. The Padres are looking for a shortstop, and Cozart is the best one out there looking for a team. Cozart batted .297 with 24 homers and 63 RBIs and made his first All-Star Game with Cincinnati in 2017. … There hasn’t been much news of late on other free agent Mississippians, a list that includes Lance Lynn, Mitch Moreland, Seth Smith, Jarrod Dyson, Tyler Moore and Alex Presley. … David Goforth, the former UM standout from Meridian, has signed a minor league deal with Washington. The onetime big leaguer spent most of last season with Milwaukee’s Triple-A club. He has pitched well in winter ball in the Mexican Pacific League, posting a 2.45 ERA and three saves in 29 games for Culiacan. … Taylorsville High product Billy Hamilton reportedly is drawing interest from several clubs wanting to trade with Cincinnati for the center fielder. Interested teams include San Francisco, Texas and Baltimore. Hamilton, a defensive whiz, hit .247 (.299 on-base average) with 59 steals this past season.
There’s clearly not much cooking on the Hot Stove when Rafael Palmeiro’s comment on making a comeback gets so much attention. Former Mississippi State star Palmeiro floated the idea in a published report that he can still play at the big league level. It’s hard to take this seriously. He is 53. He last played in an MLB game 12 years ago. True, he did go 2-for-4 in one appearance for the independent Sugar Land Skeeters in 2015. But it’s a long way from the Atlantic League to the major leagues. Palmeiro is in both the 500-homer and 3,000-hit clubs but not the Hall of Fame, mainly because of a failed drug test in 2005 that came not long after he defiantly wagged his finger at Congress during its inquiry into PEDs. Palmeiro fell off the Hall of Fame ballot in short order. “Maybe 12 years later, if I can come back and prove I don’t need anything as an older player with an older body, then people might think, OK, maybe he didn’t do anything intentionally,” Palmeiro told The Athletic. That sounds pretty far-fetched.
Limited to 81 games – four in the majors — in 2017 because of injury, Anthony Alford is making up for the lost at-bats in the Mexican Pacific League. The ex-Petal High star, a highly rated Toronto prospect, debuted for Jalisco on Nov. 22 and is batting .367 over his first 12 games. He has two three-hit games with a homer, six RBIs and eight runs. Alford, 23, jumped from Double-A to the big leagues last May but got hurt and spent the rest of the season in the minors. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound outfielder batted .310 with five homers in 68 games at New Hampshire. P.S. Detroit has signed veteran Leonys Martin, ostensibly to compete with Richton High product JaCoby Jones for the center field job. Jones batted .170 with three homers, 13 RBIs and six steals in 56 games with the Tigers. He was hit in the face by a pitch early in the season and spent time on the disabled list.