Among the many Martin Luther King Jr. celebration activities in Mississippi is the Mississippi Dream Weekend, founded by major league veteran Curtis Granderson in partnership with the MLBPA-MLB Youth Development Foundation’s Players Going Home program. Children from across the state will participate in three camps that will center on baseball while also honoring the legacy of King, “who paved the way for people of all backgrounds to break barriers and turn their dreams into realities.” Former big leaguer Fred Lewis, who grew up in Wiggins and played at Stone High, will host a camp in Perkinston on Saturday and current Toronto outfielder Anthony Alford, a former Petal High star, will host one in Columbia on Sunday. The camp at Jackson State on Monday will be hosted by Granderson, who talked about the camps on MLB Network’s Hot Stove today. What, you may be wondering, is Granderson’s Mississippi connection? Well, a bit of research finds that his father, Curtis Sr., was born in Tchula and attended Coahoma Junior College and Mississippi Valley State.
Two noteworthy players with Mississippi ties remain on the free agent market, and they have a few things in common. Tony Sipp and Drew Pomeranz are left-handed pitchers, played college ball in Mississippi, were originally drafted by the Cleveland Indians and own a World Series ring. They are even in somewhat similar situations as they look for a new club in 2019. Sipp is 35 – he’ll be 36 in July – and is nearing the end of what has been a fine career. The former Moss Point High and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College star, a short reliever for all of his 10 years in the big leagues, has a 3.67 career ERA. After a couple of off years with Houston, he bounced back strong with a 1.86 ERA in 2018, demonstrating that he may still have something in the tank. Ole Miss product Pomeranz, a former first-round pick (fifth overall) in 2010, had a rough 2018, dealing with arm issues and posting a 6.08 ERA for Boston. He was on the Red Sox’s roster for their World Series triumph but didn’t get in a game. Pomeranz, 30, has had a career that’s been all over the place. He has been with five different organizations. He has started and worked in relief. He has had some very good years (All-Star with San Diego in 2016, 17 wins for the Red Sox in 2017) and has a career ERA of 3.92. But last season was such a clunker, his value surely took a hit. It’s likely that both Sipp and Pomeranz will get short-term deals for modest money and will head into spring training with something to prove, Sipp that he’s not done and Pomeranz that last year was an aberration.
Other contract offers for more money and years reportedly were on the table when Brian Dozier chose a 1-year, $9 million deal with Washington last week. The Southern Miss product from Fulton is betting on himself to rebound from a tough 2018 season that may have caused his stock to drop. “Going into this year, personally, you kind of have a chip on your shoulder,” Dozier said in an mlb.com story. Dozier, 31, hit .215 last year with 21 homers playing for Minnesota and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He admitted that a knee injury hampered him but says he is fully recovered now. The former All-Star also said he feels he is a good fit with the Nationals – who needed a second baseman — and likes the club’s prospects of contending for the postseason in 2019. He’ll be back on the market in 2020. … In an under-the-radar move over the weekend, the Chicago White Sox signed Biloxi native Jacob Lindgren to a minor league deal. The former St. Stanislaus High and Mississippi State star has missed the last two seasons with injuries. He had Tommy John surgery last spring. The 25-year-old left-hander was in Atlanta’s system in 2018 but was cut loose in October. A former second-round pick by the New York Yankees in 2014, he had a cup of coffee in the big leagues in 2015. … The Philadelphia Phillies signed Laurel’s Bobby Dickerson, formerly of Buck Showalter’s Baltimore staff, as their new first-base coach last week. Dickerson, coincidentally, has been a longtime mentor to free agent Manny Machado, whom the Phillies have been hotly pursuing. … What has 199 big league wins, 22 saves, 140 professional home runs, 1,417 minor league managerial victories and a World Series ring? The four featured guests – Roy Oswalt, Jay Powell, Hunter Renfroe and Chris Maloney, all Mississippi natives with impressive baseball pedigrees – at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame’s Hot Stove Hall of Fame Evening, set for Jan. 24 at the museum in Jackson. Tickets are on sale at the museum or online at www.msfame.com.
Opening day is always a special occasion. Belhaven University’s 2019 opener on Feb. 8 at Smith-Wills Stadium has taken on added significance. It’ll be the first game of the last season of Hill Denson’s illustrious coaching career. Denson announced via the school website that he has decided to retire after more than 50 years of coaching at the prep and college level. He has won more than 1,200 games all told, collected a bundle of trophies and awards and been elected to numerous Halls of Fame, including the American Baseball Coaches Association just last year. A former Southern Miss player, he helped lay the foundation for what that program has become during his 14 seasons as the coach there; the field at Taylor Park is named in his honor. He also took Belhaven baseball to new heights, including a trip to the NAIA World Series, over his 19-year tenure. During one memorable year (2005), he coached the Blazers and managed Jackson’s independent pro team, the Jackson Senators. Denson is a down-home, good guy who has had a wide-ranging impact on baseball in this state. This final season is one to celebrate all that, yes, but it’ll be tinged with sadness. Games at Smith-Wills won’t be the same without him.
Brian Dozier, the former Southern Miss star, has agreed to a 1-year, $9 million deal with the Washington Nationals, published reports say. Dozier, 31, batted .215 with 21 homers and 72 RBIs last season, which the second baseman split between Minnesota and the Los Angeles Dodgers. The former All-Star looks like a good fit in a Nationals lineup that includes – at the moment – Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, Trea Turner and Ryan Zimmerman and on a team that likely will contend in the strong National League East. P.S. Petal High product DeMarcus Evans was named Texas’ minor league reliever of the year and will be honored at the Dr Pepper Texas Rangers Winter Warmup on Jan. 25 in Arlington, Texas. Evans, a 25th-round pick in 2015, was 4-1 with nine saves, a 1.77 ERA and 103 strikeouts in 56 innings at Low Class A Hickory. The 6-foot-5, 275-pound right-hander also pitched in the Arizona Fall League. … Former William Carey star Tyler James was rated the fastest prospect in Kansas City’s system in a recent mlb.com article. A 25th-round selection in 2017, James led the rookie Arizona League with 31 steals in 2017 and the rookie Pioneer League with 38 last summer, when he also batted .312.
With its recent trade for ex-Ole Miss star Bobby Wahl, Milwaukee has added an intriguing piece to what was one of the best bullpens in baseball in 2018. Wahl, 26, was one of three players the Brewers obtained from the New York Mets for Keon Broxton. Wahl was a fifth-round pick by Oakland back in 2013 whose advancement has been stalled by injuries. The right-hander, who once threw 100 mph, has worked just 13 innings (6.92 ERA) in the big leagues the last two seasons. He had a good 2018 campaign in the minors – making the Pacific Coast League All-Star Game before the A’s sent him to New York – and he’ll go to spring camp with the Brewers bidding for a job with a club that went to the NLCS last fall. “(W)e certainly anticipate he’s a person who will contribute for us at the major league level this year,” Milwaukee GM David Stearns told mlb.com. A writer from brewcrewball.com recently offered this assessment: “Wahl’s pure ‘stuff’ screams dominant relief ace, but his middling command … may cause the kind of frustrating inconsistency that holds him back from locking down a late-inning relief role.” Wahl aims to join a Milwaukee staff that includes ex-Mississippi State standout Brandon Woodruff and several Biloxi Shuckers alumni.
Brian Dozier, who seemingly would be a nice catch for some team, hasn’t generated a lot of buzz on the free agent market. The second baseman out of Southern Miss has had talks with the Washington Nationals and may also be on Milwaukee’s radar, per various reports, but otherwise there has been little news or even rumor. Dozier, 31, has both an All-Star Game appearance and a Gold Glove on his resume. Though just a .246 career hitter, he has 172 homers and 102 steals over his six-plus seasons in the big leagues. He made $9 million last year when he played for Minnesota and the Los Angeles Dodgers. A knee problem may have been a factor in a late-season slump that carried into the postseason. … Ole Miss product Drew Pomeranz and Pascagoula native Tony Sipp are also unsigned major league free agents. UM’s Lance Lynn (Texas), Taylorsville’s Billy Hamilton (Kansas City) and former Mississippi State star Kendall Graveman (Chicago Cubs) have found homes for 2019, though Graveman isn’t likely to have an impact until 2020. The right-hander will make $575,000 this year while he rehabs from Tommy John surgery; an escalator clause will boost it to $2 million if he makes the big leagues in 2019. The team holds a $3M option for 2020. Graveman is 23-29, 4.38 ERA for his MLB career, spent mostly with Oakland. He was 1-5, 7.60 in 2018 before ultimately being shut down for the surgery. Interestingly enough, his one win last season came against the New York Yankees. It was his final big league start of 2018, on May 11 at Yankee Stadium, and he yielded just one earned run on three hits over six innings. … Hunter Renfroe, the ex-State standout and current San Diego outfielder, continues to see his name pop up in trade rumors. Renfroe, who’ll be 27 this month, started slowly in 2018 and also endured an injury but rebounded to hit .248 with 26 home runs and 68 RBIs over 117 games. He belted 18 homers and drove in 41 runs over the last two months. He’s not likely to ever be a high-average hitter – though he did hit .300 in Triple-A in 2016 — but he does have serious pop.
Atlanta made quite a few changes to its minor league field staff for 2019, but Jackson native Chris Maloney will be back for a second tour as manager of the Double-A Mississippi Braves. The formal announcement was made on Wednesday. Pitching coach Dennis Lewallyn and hitting coach Carlos Mendez will also return. Maloney, a longtime minor league manager and big league coach, is a former Mississippi State player and son of former Jackson Texas League franchise owner Con Maloney. The 2018 M-Braves, who endured a lot of roster changes, especially among pitchers, finished 67-71 overall but contended in the Southern League South into the final days in the second half. The team Maloney will manage this year won’t be settled until April, but there’s a good chance it’ll feature several intriguing prospects. Foremost among them is Cristian Pache, an outfielder who was with the M-Braves for 29 games last summer. The Braves’ No. 6 prospect, who played – and starred — in the 2018 Arizona Fall League, is a defensive whiz who is still developing as a hitter. He hit .260 with the M-Braves. William Contreras, the No. 13 prospect, is a 20-year-old catcher who reached high-A last year and might be on a fast track. The younger brother of the Chicago Cubs’ Willson Contreras, he hit .285 with 11 homers in 2018. Then there’s Drew Waters, the No. 8 prospect. A switch-hitting outfielder, he reached high-A at age 19 in just his second pro season. Described by MLB Pipeline as a “veritable toolshed,” Waters batted .293 with nine homers and 23 steals last season. No. 3 prospect Ian Anderson, a right-hander, made it to Mississippi late last season and went 2-1 with a 2.33 ERA in four starts. He could be back, along with Thomas Burrows, a left-handed closer and ex-Alabama star who arrived in Pearl late and posted a 1.42 ERA and six saves. Worth mentioning, too, is Braxton Davidson, a big first baseman and former first-round pick who has fallen off the prospect charts but got an AFL assignment – and hit a walk-off home run in the league title game. He clubbed 20 homers at high-A Florida in 2018 but batted .171 and struck out over 200 times. P.S. The M-Braves will launch their 15th season, on the road, on April 4, taking on the Tennessee Smokies in the opener of a five-game series. The first home game is April 10. … The M-Braves have reached the postseason four times, most recently in 2016, since the franchise relocated from Greenville, S.C., to Pearl in 2005. The club won its only SL pennant in 2008 under Phillip Wellman. … The Braves will have new managers at Florida, Rome and Danville this season. Former M-Braves infielder Barrett Kleinknect is the new skipper of the high-A Fire Frogs.
Roy Oswalt, recently elected to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, is arguably the best major league pitcher the Magnolia State has ever produced. The right-hander from Weir won 163 games, posted two 20-win seasons, won an ERA title, made three All-Star teams, won an LCS MVP award and pitched in the World Series. His career ERA was 3.36, and he had over 1,800 strikeouts. For what it’s worth, his career WAR is 50.1, which is higher than that of Jack Morris, who went into the National Baseball Hall of Fame last summer. Oswalt was on the ballot for the first time for the 2019 class. As good as he was – and his stuff was unhittable at times — his Hall chances probably aren’t so good. The numbers just don’t rise to that level. Consider this: Guy Bush, the Mississippi Mudcat from Aberdeen, won 176 games – most by a Mississippi native — from 1923-38 and added another 34 saves. Four times he won 18 or more games. His ERA was 3.86, and he played in a hitters’ era. He pitched in two World Series, including 1929, the year he won 18 games and saved eight for the Chicago Cubs. Bush was on the HOF ballot one year and got 1 percent of the vote from the writers. Tough crowd, those writers. There are no Mississippi-born major league players in the National Baseball Hall of Fame – Cool Papa Bell and William Foster were Negro Leagues stars – and while Oswalt will get some voter support, that’s likely to remain the case in 2019. … The HOF ballots were due Dec. 31, and the announcement of new electees will be made on Jan. 22. P.S. Former Jackson Generals Lance Berkman and Freddy Garcia were first-timers on the ballot for 2019 and ex-Gens star Billy Wagner was a notable returnee. A case can be made for both Wagner and Berkman making the grade at some point. No ex-Gens (or Jackson Mets, for that matter) are enshrined in Cooperstown.
Seven state schools, including the Big 3 NCAA Division I schools, are ranked in Collegiate Baseball Magazine’s preseason polls, which came out this week. There might be a tendency to take such news for granted – aren’t there a bunch of Mississippi schools ranked every year? – but we really should not do that. Let’s put this in perspective. Mississippi ranks among the least populous states – 34th in 2018, according to World Atlas – and is smaller, population-wise, than any other Deep South state. It produces good players: 16 Mississippi high school products appeared in big league games in 2018. Per capita, that figure is among the best in the nation. But there isn’t a large volume of talent. And there are 30 senior and junior colleges playing baseball in the state. College coaches here can’t just roll out the balls and bats and win games. Over the years, they’ve mined and refined the state’s talent to build winning programs and grow tremendous fan support. They’ve developed tradition and created brands that are attractive to out-of-state talent. Twenty-two state college alumni, including 11 who played high school ball in other states, appeared in big league games in 2018. Each of the state’s Big 3 had a player in the World Series this year: Mitch Moreland (Mississippi State) and Drew Pomeranz (Ole Miss) with Boston and Brian Dozier (Southern Miss) with the Los Angeles Dodgers. That’s pretty impressive stuff for what Willie Morris used to call “poor old whupped-down Mis’ippi.” So when these polls come out, sprinkled with Mississippi schools, don’t just shrug. Smile and be proud. … Collegiate Baseball pegged Ole Miss, SEC Tournament champ in 2018, at No. 11 in NCAA Division I. Mississippi State, which went to the College World Series last summer, is No. 27 and Southern Miss, 2018 C-USA champion, is No. 30. Delta State, coming off yet another NCAA regional appearance, is No. 10 in Division II, while Mississippi College, the Gulf South Conference Tournament champ in 2018, got votes in the D-II poll. Meridian Community College, runner-up in the Region 23 Tournament last season, is No. 9 in the NJCAA D-II poll, with defending state champion Pearl River checking in at 13th and Jones County 15th. … MSU’s Jake Mangum and USM’s Matt Wallner made CB’s first-team All-America list, while UM’s Parker Caracci and Ryan Olenek were second- and third-team picks.