Five Mississippians made their big league debut in 2019: Chris Ellis, Nate Lowe, Austin Riley, Jacob Waguespack and Bobby Bradley. Who’ll be next to break through? Smart money would be on Demarcus Evans, the former Petal High standout who recently was added to Texas’ 40-man roster. A right-handed reliever – and strikeout machine — he hasn’t pitched above Double-A but will go to spring training with a chance to make the opening day roster. Minnesota has an opening at first base after non-tendering C.J. Cron, and ex-Mississippi State star Brent Rooker could well be among the candidates vying for the job come spring. Rooker has All-World credentials, having earned that designation with his performance in the World Baseball Softball Confederation Premier 12 tournament, during which he hit three homers in 20 at-bats, including a big game-winner (see previous post). The three-year pro batted .281 with 14 homers in 65 games in Triple-A in 2019. He isn’t currently on the Twins’ 40-man and didn’t play any first base last year but does have experience there. George County High product Justin Steele is still on the Chicago Cubs’ 40-man roster and is rated their No. 11 prospect (MLB Pipeline). But the left-hander is coming off an injury-dampened season that saw him go 0-6 with a 5.59 ERA in Double-A. About to enter his seventh pro campaign, he needs to break through soon. Delta State alum Trent Giambrone is not on the Cubs’ 40-man but had a solid Triple-A season (.241, 23 homers, 17 steals) and could be in the mix for a role as a utility player in 2020. He is No. 28 on the Cubs’ prospect chart. Former MSU star Jacob Robson, a lefty-hitting outfielder, batted .267 with nine homers and 25 steals in Triple-A for Detroit and figures to get a long look in the spring, as does Ole Miss product David Parkinson, a lefty starter who was 10-9, 4.08 for Philadelphia’s Double-A club. Robson is the Tigers’ No. 27 prospect, Parkinson the Phillies’ No. 18. Neither is on the major league roster. … Another debut to watch for is that of Ke’Bryan Hayes, son of Hattiesburg native and ex-Forrest County AHS and MLB star Charlie. The younger Hayes, who was born in Texas, is Pittsburgh’s No. 2 prospect and recently was added to the 40-man roster. A plus-defender at third base, Hayes batted .265 with 10 homers at Triple-A in 2019. He’ll probably be in the opening day lineup.
Add another twist to the Drew Pomeranz Trail. The former Ole Miss standout, who pitched for San Francisco and Milwaukee in 2019, has agreed to a contract with San Diego, where he was an All-Star in 2016 before being traded shortly thereafter to Boston. The free-agent deal is for a reported $34 million over four years. Pomeranz’s winding journey started in 2010, when the big left-hander was drafted fifth overall by Cleveland. He never pitched for the Indians, however. He was traded to Colorado in the summer of 2011 and made his MLB debut on Sept. 11 of that year. He was later traded to Oakland, then traded to San Diego, then traded to Boston. He won a ring with the Red Sox in 2018 – though he didn’t pitch in the postseason – and became a free agent last fall, signing a $1.5 million deal for 2019 with the Giants, who traded him in July to Milwaukee, where he shined. He became a free agent again at season’s end and was scooped up by the Padres. All told, Pomeranz, now 31, has changed organizations eight times in 10 years. He has a 4.04 career ERA and can start or relieve, which makes him a valuable commodity.
Kendall Graveman, who last pitched in the majors in May of 2018, will get a comeback opportunity with the Seattle Mariners next spring. Ex-Mississippi State star Graveman has signed a $1.5 million contract (plus a 2021 option) with the M’s, who would appear to have openings in their rotation. Coming off 2018 Tommy John surgery, Graveman signed as a free agent with the Chicago Cubs last year but made just two minor league appearances. He became a free agent again when the Cubs didn’t pick up his 2020 option. Graveman, 29 next month, has a 23-29 career record with a 4.38 ERA. Drafted in the eighth round in 2013 by Toronto, he made his big league debut for the Blue Jays in 2014, then moved to Oakland in a trade the next year. He was the A’s opening day starter in 2017 and ’18. “His makeup is off the charts,” Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto told mlb.com.
Drew Pomeranz, the former Ole Miss standout, celebrates his 31st birthday today. Soon, he’ll be celebrating a sweet free-agent contract. Coming off a bounce-back finish to his 2019 season, left-hander Pomeranz is considered one of the top relief pitchers currently on the market. As a starter in San Francisco last season, Pomeranz was mostly awful. The Giants moved him to the bullpen, where something clicked. Milwaukee traded for him, and Pomeranz became one of the key pieces in the Brewers’ drive to the postseason. In 26 1/3 innings down the stretch, Pomeranz posted a 2.39 ERA and, suddenly throwing much harder, fanned 45 batters. He made $1.5 million last year on a free agent deal he signed with the Giants after a bad 2018 season in Boston, where he made $8M in the final year of his three with the Red Sox. … Pomeranz leads a long list of Mississippians on the free agent market: Corey Dickerson, Brian Dozier, Jarrod Dyson, Billy Hamilton, Mitch Moreland, Kendall Graveman, Tony Sipp … . Petal High product Demarcus Evans (see previous post) was placed on Texas’ 40-man roster this week, and the big right-hander reportedly will compete for a big league bullpen job in the spring. … The Atlanta Braves have added outfielder Cristian Pache, catcher William Contreras, right-hander Jasseel De La Cruz and lefties Tucker Davidson and Phil Pfeifer – all Mississippi Braves alumni – to their 40-man roster. (Outfielder Drew Waters, the Southern League MVP with the M-Braves last season, does not yet have to be protected on the 40-man.) … The Detroit Tigers re-signed former Southwest Mississippi Community College (and M-Braves) catcher Kade Scivicque to a minor league deal. He played at the Double-A and Triple-A levels in 2019. … In case you missed it, Hattiesburg-based Rodney Richardson of RARE Design handled the rebranding of the Brewers’ logo and uniforms for 2020, when the club will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its move to Milwaukee. Richardson told mlb.com at Monday’s unveiling: “We want them to love it because we’ve fallen in love with their story, with their team, with what’s happening here. It’s not following any design trends or anything like that. It’s about representing this team and this place and their love for this game. We want to see that resonate.”
The list of first-timers on the baseball writers’ 2020 Hall of Fame ballot includes two notable names with Mississippi ties: Cliff Lee and Bobby Abreu, both of whom figure to get decent support. Neither, however, is likely to be named on 75 percent of the ballots to earn election. The real question is, will they get enough support to stay on the ballot for a second term? A player needs to appear on at least 5 percent of the ballots to do so — a bigger hurdle than you might think. Consider: Weir native and Holmes Community College product Roy Oswalt and former Jackson Generals Lance Berkman and Freddy Garcia were first-timers on the 2019 ballot, and none of them came close to making it for 2020. Both Lee, who pitched at Meridian Community College before going on to Arkansas, and ex-Generals star Abreu have some eye-catching numbers. Lee, a four-time All-Star and a Cy Young Award winner, went 143-91 with a 3.52 ERA over 13 seasons. Abreu, a two-time All-Star, batted .291 with 288 homers, 400 steals and eight 100-RBI seasons. But it’s a very crowded field. Still on the ballot is Billy Wagner, another ex-Gens star who has lasted five years. The little left-hander, who has 422 career saves (sixth all-time), got just 16.7 percent of the votes in 2019. The only Mississippi-connected players enshrined in Cooperstown are former Negro Leagues stars Cool Papa Bell and William Foster.
Following up on a fairly dominant 2019 season in Texas’ system, Demarcus Evans has posted seven scoreless outings in nine appearances in the Dominican Winter League. The big right-hander out of Petal High has a 2.60 ERA with nine strikeouts and seven walks in 10 innings for Escogido. In his fifth pro season, the 23-year-old Evans started 2019 in high Class A and finished it with Double-A Frisco, where he had an 0.96 ERA, six saves and 60 strikeouts in 37 2/3 innings. He was, according to Baseball America, the only minor league pitcher to record triple-digit strikeouts in 60 or fewer innings. BA named Evans as the relief pitcher on its all-classification Minor League All-Star team, and he also made MLB Pipeline’s Prospect Team of the Year. Oddly enough, Evans, who became a fulltime reliever in 2017, is not currently among the Rangers’ Top 30 in MLB Pipeline’s prospect rankings. He has a career 2.53 ERA and has averaged 13.7 punchouts per nine innings. … Ole Miss alum Chris Ellis has been extremely effective out of the bullpen for Monterrey in the Mexican Pacific League. He has a 0.50 ERA in 18 one-inning appearances. Ellis, 27, made one MLB appearance (for Kansas City) last season and spent the rest of the year with Triple-A Memphis in St. Louis’ system.
Of the many home runs he has hit in many different ballparks, the blast Brent Rooker struck in Japan’s Tokyo Dome on Friday is one that will likely stick with him. The Mississippi State product hit what was described as a “mammoth” homer that lifted Team USA to a 3-2 win over Chinese Taipei in the World Baseball Softball Confederation Premier 12 tournament. The victory in the must-win game kept Team USA in the hunt for a bronze medal in the event and a berth in the 2020 Olympic Games. Rooker’s third homer of the tournament was a two-run bomb in the seventh inning that gave his team its 3-2 lead. He reportedly punctuated the homer with an emphatic bat flip. “I had been holding my breath for about three innings,” Team USA manager Scott Brosius told The Japan Times. “So, he allowed me to breathe a little bit.” Rooker, a top prospect in the Minnesota Twins organization, has batted .353 in six games in the Premier 12 event. In his third pro season, the former SEC Triple Crown winner hit .281 with 14 homers in 65 Triple-A games, missing a chunk of time with injuries. He’ll likely make his big league debut in 2020.
Lance Lynn might have been an under-the-radar free agent signee by Texas last off-season, but his performance in 2019 did not go unnoticed. Former Ole Miss standout Lynn, a 16-game winner for the Rangers, finished fifth in the voting for the American League Cy Young Award won Wednesday night by Houston’s Justin Verlander. Coming off a rough 2018 campaign split between Minnesota and the New York Yankees, Lynn signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Rangers and quickly emerged as the staff ace. In 33 starts, the 32-year-old right-hander went 16-11 with a 3.67 ERA and worked 208 1/3 innings, striking out 246 batters, fourth-most in the AL. His most memorable moment might have come in the Rangers’ final game ever at Globe Life Park on Sept. 29. Lynn went 7 1/3 for the win, holding the Yankees to two hits and punching out 10. (An aside: In the first game at that Arlington stadium in 1994, Mississippi State product Will Clark hit the first Rangers home run.) … Three former Mississippi Braves hurlers got Cy Young votes: Tampa Bay’s Charlie Morton, one of the three AL finalists, finished third and Lynn’s Texas teammate Mike Minor eighth in the AL voting, while Atlanta’s Mike Soroka was sixth in the National League tally.
As baseball has become awash in new-age statistics, batting average has somehow been devalued. Yet even in this era of WAR, OPS+, hard-hit rate, et al., there remains something special about a batting title. Tim Anderson, the former East Central Community College standout, won one this year in the American League, adding his name to a list that includes, just from this decade, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Altuve, Mookie Betts and Josh Hamilton. Good company. Myriad Hall of Famers own batting titles: Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, Rod Carew and Wade Boggs, to name a few. There is nothing fluky about batting average. Anderson hit .335 in 2019, becoming the first Mississippian (native or college alum) to earn a batting crown since Dave Parker won the second of his two in the National League in 1978. The only others to do it: Buddy Myer (1935) and Harry Walker (1947). Anderson, a shortstop in his fourth MLB season for the Chicago White Sox, also hit 18 home runs, drove in 56 runs, stole 17 bases and scored 81 runs. For the record, he posted a 4.0 WAR. It was the kind of season that deserves to be recognized with a Cool Papa Bell Award, given here for the most outstanding performance by a Mississippian in MLB. Previous winners of the award, which honors Negro Leagues legend Bell, the first Mississippi native to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, include Corey Dickerson (twice), Mitch Moreland, Brian Dozier (twice), Desmond Jennings, Lance Lynn, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Chris Coghlan.
All that glitters isn’t gold – sometimes it’s silver. Three former Mississippi Braves were awarded their first Silver Slugger awards on Thursday: Freddie Freeman, Ronald Acuna and Ozzie Albies. Those three figure to represent the core of Atlanta’s lineup for years to come, something Braves fans, disappointed at how the 2019 season ended, can feel good about this winter. First baseman Freeman, 30, batted .295 with 38 homers, 121 RBIs and 113 runs, MVP-type numbers. (Hard to believe he hasn’t won a Silver Slugger before this.) Outfielder Acuna, at age 21, also had an MVP kind of season: .280, 41 homers, 101 RBIs, 127 runs and 37 steals. And all second baseman Albies, 22, did was bat .295 – leading the National League with 189 hits – with 43 doubles, 24 homers, 86 RBIs and 102 runs. … There may be more hardware coming for M-Braves alums. Mike Soroka, who went 13-4 for Atlanta this past season, is a finalist for NL rookie of the year honors, and Brian Snitker, manager of the inaugural M-Braves team in 2005, is a finalist for NL manager of the year, an award he won in 2018. The ROY winner will be announced on Nov. 11, the manager award on Nov. 12. … Cristian Pache, an M-Braves star last summer, has been pegged by mlb.com as the Braves’ best NL rookie of the year candidate for 2020. Pache, 20, a center fielder by trade, batted .278 with 11 homers and 53 RBIs in Mississippi before earning a promotion to Triple-A Gwinnett. Pache could have “Acuna-like impact in 2020” – if the Braves can find a spot for him, of course. … Love this quote (in an mlb.com story) from Chuck James, a soft-tossing former M-Braves ace who went 24-19 over five big league seasons: “I grew up in a small town and my college (Chattahoochee Valley Community College in Alabama) had a picket fence in the outfield. I had no expectations, because I didn’t know what to expect. But I got to be a kid longer than most, and it was everything they make it out to be.”