Things to look for this weekend when – weather permitting! — the NCAA Division I schools launch their season: At Mississippi State, ranked in the top 10 in just about every preseason poll, J.T. Ginn is the acknowledged ace, coming off a season that saw the right-hander claim national freshman of the year honors. But almost every other significant contributor from the 2019 College World Series pitching staff is gone. It’ll be interesting to see how roles start to shake out in the opening series against Wright State at Dudy Noble Field. … At Ole Miss, there is a lot of buzz about top-ranked Louisville coming to Oxford for the opening series, but there might be just as much about Rebels freshmen Jerrion Ealy and John Rhys Plumlee. What will the roles be for the football players doing double duty this spring and how much impact will they have on the diamond? Both were highly touted baseball prospects in high school – some considered Ealy the best prep player in the state – and both play center field. … At Southern Miss, the playing surface at Taylor Park is now artificial (Field Turf), which will play a little differently than grass and dirt. The Golden Eagles will break in the new field against Murray State in a three-game set. Minus Matt Wallner and a couple of other mashers from last year’s C-USA Tournament champs, the lineup will also have a new look. “We’re probably going to be a little bit different team in the fact that we’re going to have to manufacture some runs. On-base percentage is going to be very crucial for us,” coach Scott Berry said at media day last month. P.S. In the SWAC, Jackson State is at home against Southern Illinois, Alcorn State opens with Prairie View in New Orleans in the Andre Dawson Tournament (formerly the Urban Invitational) and Mississippi Valley State travels to McNeese State. … Alcorn’s second game in New Orleans, against Southern University on Saturday, will be televised by MLB Network at 1 p.m. … On the Trustmark Park College Series docket: USM and State play in Pearl on March 4, USM and Ole Miss meet there on March 31 and the Ole Miss-State Governor’s Cup clash is set for April 21. … Mississippi State will play Texas Tech in a two-game series at MGM Park in Biloxi on March 10-11. The matchup features teams that have gone to the College World Series in each of the last two seasons. … The C-USA Tournament is slated for Biloxi’s MGM Park May 20-24 of this year, its fourth year at the Double-A Shuckers’ home. A scheduling glitch was resolved when Overtime Sports, which is currently managing the C-USA tourney, reportedly agreed to pay the Shuckers to move a Southern League game from May 20 to another date (May 17) as part of a doubleheader. There is some question as to whether the C-USA event will continue in Biloxi beyond 2020.
Jarrod Dyson, who’s had to scrap for playing time over most of his 10-year big league career, may well begin the 2020 season as Pittsburgh’s starting center fielder. The Pirates reportedly have agreed to a contract with the McComb native, who spent last year with Arizona and batted .230 with 30 steals in a career-high 130 games and 400 at-bats. Dyson is 35 and has had some injury issues in recent seasons, but when healthy he brings plus-speed on the bases and in the field. He had a very productive 2019, setting career-highs for hits, runs, home runs and total bases. He’s a career .247 hitter (.319 on-base percentage) with 250 steals, second all-time (to Billy Hamilton’s 299) among Mississippi natives. A 50th-round draft pick out of Southwest Mississippi Community College by Kansas City in 2006, Dyson won a ring with the Royals in 2015.
Another potential landing spot for free agent Brian Dozier appears to have been eliminated. The Chicago Cubs, in the market for a second baseman, have signed Jason Kipnis to a minor league deal. The Cubs were reported to be interested in ex-Southern Miss standout Dozier, who is no doubt seeking a major league contract. Several teams have been linked to Dozier. One of those was Arizona, which opted to trade for Starling Marte and make Ketel Marte its regular second baseman. Miami is another; the Marlins’ current starter is Isan Diaz, who batted .173 in 49 games as a rookie last year. Dozier, 32, hit .238 with 20 home runs in 2019 for Washington, though he got only six postseason at-bats as the Nationals rolled to the World Series title. Over his eight-year career, Dozier is a .245 hitter (.326 on-base percentage) with 192 homers. He made $9 million in 2019.
While the Pittsburgh Pirates were sinking to the bottom of the National League Central last season, Chris Stratton may have kept his career afloat with his work out of the Bucs’ bullpen. The former Mississippi State star from Tupelo was traded twice in a two-month span in 2019, by San Francisco to the Los Angeles Angels during spring training and from the Angels to Pittsburgh in May. His numbers for the Angels weren’t good: an 8.59 ERA working primarily as a starter. He went straight to the bullpen in Pittsburgh and delivered a 3.66 ERA over 28 appearances with only a couple of truly bad outings. The 29-year-old right-hander would appear to have a good shot at winning a bullpen job in spring training. A Pirates-centric website, rumbunter.com, named Stratton a breakout candidate for 2020. A first-round pick by the Giants in 2012, Stratton’s stuff is reputed to be top drawer; the spin rates on his curveball and fastball are among the best in the game, according to rumbunter. But his career hasn’t taken off; he is 16-17, 4.88 in 83 MLB games dating to 2016. This might be the year. P.S. Billy Hamilton, the speedy center fielder from Taylorsville, is called “a perfect fit for Oracle Park,” by nbcsports.com/bayarea. First of all, Hamilton, signed to a minor league deal by San Francisco on Friday, will have to make the big league roster this spring. Hamilton doesn’t hit much but, at 29, is still a factor with his legs, glove and arm. The Giants are shrinking the outfield in Oracle Park — from 399 in center to 391 and from 421 to 415 in the right-center field alley — but speed in center field is still a priority. The team currently lists rising star Mike Yastrzemski as the starter there and also has speedy Steven Duggar as an option.
Millsaps College and Belhaven University, NCAA Division III programs in bounce-back mode, are slated to open the 2020 season today. The Majors, 10-33 in 2019, are hosting LeTourneau at Twenty Field on their Jackson campus, while the Blazers, 11-29 in Hill Denson’s final season as coach, play a pair of games (Randolph-Macon and Huntingdon) in a tournament in Montgomery, Ala. For BU, today’s games mark the debut of coach Kyle Palmer, previously director of baseball operations at California Baptist and an assistant at East Texas Baptist prior to that. The Blazers’ top player is Justin Milam, a former Madison Central and Northwest Mississippi Community College standout who hit .296 with five homers and 27 RBIs in 2019. At Millsaps, Jim Page enters his 32nd season with a 774-498-3 record but coming off what he calls “the toughest year we’ve ever had.” The bar for success is high at Millsaps, which has made eight D-III regional appearances under Page and in 2013 went to the College World Series. The Majors’ undoing in 2019 was a pitching staff that posted a 7.48 ERA, but Page said in a school-produced video that he is encouraged by what he saw in fall workouts. He wants his pitchers to throw strikes and trust the defense to make plays. “It’s going to come down to that,” he said. Lefty Taylor Sullivan was a bright spot in 2019, going 3-0 with a 4.11 ERA. With Mason Little (.331) on the shelf with an injury, the top returning hitter is Jimmy Johnstone, who batted .304.
The addition of a 26th roster spot for major league clubs this season could help former Delta State star Trent Giambrone land a job with the Chicago Cubs this spring. Giambrone has received a non-roster invite to big league camp and figures to compete for a utility role. The fifth-year pro, who goes 5 feet 8, 175 pounds, can play virtually anywhere and has some power, having hit 23 homers in Triple-A last year. He is a .250 career hitter and played well in the Cubs’ camp last spring. Also on the Cubs’ NRI list, for the first time in his five years in pro ball, is ex-Ole Miss left-hander Wyatt Short, who posted a 2.95 ERA and nine saves between Double-A and Triple-A in 2019. Ethan Small, the first player from Mississippi picked in last summer’s draft (28th overall out of Mississippi State), will be in Milwaukee’s camp as an NRI. The left-hander, already rated among the Brewers’ top prospects, pitched only 21 innings in the low minors last year. Ex-Ole Miss standout Ryan Rolison, Colorado’s first-round pick in 2018, received his first invite to Rockies’ camp, while MSU alum Brent Rooker, a supplemental first-round choice by Minnesota in 2017, will be back in the Twins’ camp for a second year. Other NRIs from the state include: Cooper Johnson (Ole Miss), Detroit; Jack Kruger (MSU), Los Angeles Angels; Henri Lartigue (Ole Miss), Philadelphia; Chuckie Robinson (Southern Miss), Houston; Jacob Robson (MSU), Detroit; Kade Scivicque (Southwest CC), Detroit; Tim Dillard (Itawamba CC), Texas; and Jacob Lindgren (MSU), Chicago White Sox.
Rodney Batts checked off wins Nos. 1 and 2 as Delta State coach over the weekend and, perhaps, relaxed a little bit. There are tough acts to follow, and then there’s the Delta State job. Batts took the reins from Mike Kinnison, recent American Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee who won 981 games and a national championship at the NCAA Division II school in Cleveland. No. 2 on the DSU wins list is Dave “Boo” Ferriss, another ABCA Hall of Famer who won 639 games and is immortalized by a bronze statue that stands in front of the DSU playing facility that bears his name. No. 3 on the DSU wins list is the coach whose eight-year tenure bridged the Ferriss and Kinnison eras: Bill Marchant, who won 283 games, including a school record 53 in 1996, and made two trips to the College World Series. Batts played for Marchant. Batts’ first DSU team entered the season ranked as high as 11th nationally and pegged to win the Gulf South Conference. Go get ’em. After splitting a Saturday doubleheader with East Central (Okla.) in Cleveland, the Statesmen took Sunday’s rubber game 8-6 as Wyatt Pratt went 4-for-5 with three runs and Kevin Granger homered. In other opening acts: Mississippi College took a series from Harding in Clinton, getting quality starts from Luke Files and David Dunn in Saturday’s twinbill sweep and some hot hitting from Caleb Reese, who was 5-for-9 with a homer, four RBIs and two runs in the series. … William Carey took a pair from Missouri Baptist in Hattiesburg on Saturday, outscoring the visitors 18-2. Sloan Dieter and Jay Simpson picked up wins with dominant starts, and Quartez Brown went 5-for-8 with four runs. … Blue Mountain is 0-4 after losing two doubleheaders to visiting William Wood.
In recognition of Black History Month, here’s another tribute to Luke Easter — the first black Mississippian to play in the majors — and to the first home run of his all-too-brief MLB career. The 70th anniversary of that moment comes this year. Easter, born in Jonestown in 1915, debuted with Cleveland in 1949 (at age 34) but didn’t go yard in 45 at-bats that season. The left-handed slugger, who would become widely known for his prodigious bombs, didn’t get his first in the majors until May 6, 1950, in the first game of a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium. Easter hit a three-run shot off New York right-hander Allie Reynolds in the third inning, propelling the Indians to a 5-4 win. Easter’s second big league homer came in Game 2 of that Saturday twinbill, when he belted a two-run shot off Fred Sanford in the first inning. Easter hit 26 more home runs in 1950 and 91 more all told in a big league career that ended in 1954. He played well into his 40s in the minor leagues and hit, according to baseballreference.com, 345 professional homers, including five in two Negro League seasons in 1947 and ’48. He played several years of semi-pro ball before then.
A familiar visage will occupy the third-base coaching box during Mississippi Braves’ home games this season. Atlanta’s Double-A club announced Friday that Chris Maloney, a natural fit for the Pearl-based club, will return for a third season as M-Braves manager. Maloney grew up in Jackson and played at old St. Joseph High and Mississippi State; in 22 years as a minor league skipper, he has won 1,481 games. Ex-big leaguer Einar Diaz will serve as hitting coach; David Chavarria, son of an ex-big leaguer, will be the pitching coach; and Nestor Perez Jr. will be the third coach. So, with the field staff situation settled, the focus turns to players. Who’ll be in Pearl in 2020? The highest rated position player prospect likely will be catcher William Contreras, No. 8 in MLB Pipeline’s ranking of Atlanta’s top 30. Contreras, younger brother of the Chicago Cubs’ Willson Contreras, made his Double-A debut last summer and batted .246 with three homers in 60 games. Like his brother, he has good defensive skills. Also likely to return from the 2019 club are outfielders Trey Harris and Greyson Jenista, third baseman C.J. Alexander and shortstop Braden Shewmake, all top 30 prospects. Shewmake, a 2019 first-round draftee from Texas A&M and the No. 9 prospect, arrived in Mississippi very late in the season and played in just 14 games. He hit .300 in A-ball. Jenista, ranked 11th in the system, is a big lefty hitter who batted .243 with five homers in 74 Double-A games. Harris, rated No. 18, hit .282 in 41 games for the M-Braves after a late promotion. He batted .323 with 14 homers over three levels and was named Atlanta’s minor league batter of the year. Alexander, No. 19, started 2019 with the M-Braves but was injured much of the year, batting .103 in 24 games. At second base, No. 24 prospect Riley Delgado figures to be a candidate after batting .282 at high Class A Florida. The third outfielder could be Jefrey Ramos. Rated No. 28 in the system, he hit .241 with nine homers and 56 RBIs at the advanced A level. Drew Lugbauer, who mashed 16 homers for the Florida Fire Frogs, is a possible first baseman for 2020, with Braxton Davidson, out all of 2019 after a 20-homer season at Florida in ‘18, also in the mix there. The pitching staff could include two top 15 prospects: Jaseel de la Cruz and Freddie Tarnok. De la Cruz went 4-7, 3.83 ERA for the M-Braves last summer. The team’s 16th season at Trustmark Park launches on April 9.
Pittsburgh reportedly is considering Billy Hamilton, among others, to fill its vacancy in center field after the trade of Starling Marte. Taylorsville’s Hamilton, a free agent, is coming off the worst of his six full big league seasons, but at age 29 can still fly. He batted .218 overall with 22 steals last season, .268 with four bags in 26 games for Atlanta, which used him primarily as a pinch runner and defensive replacement after grabbing him on waivers from Kansas City. Hamilton finished second in the National League rookie of the year voting in 2014 with Cincinnati but hasn’t progressed as a hitter. A switch-hitter, he has a woeful .297 career on-base percentage but also 299 steals and a .995 fielding percentage with 55 assists. Oddly enough, Hamilton has not won a Gold Glove or a stolen base crown.