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.
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.
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.
If you’re looking for a potential breakout player among Mississippians in the majors for 2019, keep an eye on Dakota Hudson in St. Louis. The 6-foot-5 right-hander out of Mississippi State, who posted a 2.63 ERA for the Cardinals in 26 relief appearances last summer, could be poised for a bigger role this coming season. Though he isn’t currently listed in the rotation depth chart, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him earn a spot there. Recently named the Cardinals’ minor league pitcher of the year, Hudson was 13-3 with a 2.50 ERA in 17 starts at Triple-A Memphis. He was also the Pacific Coast League’s pitcher of the year and an All-Star Futures Game participant. He was the Double-A Texas League pitcher of the year in 2017. “He’s got a great attitude with how he approaches the game and he’s got confidence in his stuff because he’s had some success,” Memphis manager Stubby Clapp told milb.com. “When you add those two things together, anything good can happen.” Hudson blossomed as a junior in Starkville, going 9-5, 2.55 in 17 starts in 2016. St. Louis picked him with the 34th overall selection that summer, and he has zoomed up the ladder. Hudson doesn’t get a lot of strikeouts but does get ground balls with a hard sinker. He allowed just one home run all of 2018, none with the Cardinals. If Hudson were a stock, you’d buy it.
Lance Lynn did not have strong numbers in 2018, but his reputation as a workhorse may have been more important to Texas, which reportedly has signed the ex-Ole Miss star to a 3-year, $30 million contract. Lynn, 31, a former first-round pick by St. Louis, signed as a free agent with Minnesota last year and was acquired by the New York Yankees in a July trade. He did not have a big impact with either club. For the season, he was 10-10 with a 4.77 ERA, far off his career results (82-57, 3.57). The Rangers are looking to fortify a thin rotation. Lynn, who missed the 2016 season following Tommy John surgery, has worked at least 156 innings in each of his six full MLB seasons and twice topped 200. Lynn joins Billy Hamilton (Kansas City) and Louis Coleman (minor league deal with Detroit) as Mississippi-connected free agents who have signed for 2019. Brian Dozier, Drew Pomeranz, Tony Sipp and Kendall Graveman are still looking. Mississippi State product Graveman’s situation is complicated by the fact that he’ll miss much of 2019 after Tommy John surgery. P.S. The Rangers took another former UM pitcher, Chris Ellis (see previous post), in the major league phase of today’s Rule 5 draft. Ellis, who was in the St. Louis system, will try to earn a spot on Texas’ 25-man roster in spring training.
Billy Hamilton was not on the market very long. Non-tendered by Cincinnati on Nov. 30, the former Taylorsville High standout reportedly signed with Kansas City today. The deal is for one year and $5 million. The 28-year-old center fielder slumped in 2018, batting .236 and stealing just 34 bases. But his defense remains top shelf, which makes him a good fit in KC’s outfield. Hamilton has 277 career MLB stolen bases, most ever by a Mississippi native. He stole 155 bases in the minors in 2012, a pro record. The Royals’ current depth chart lists Brett Phillips, a former Biloxi Shuckers star, and Brian Goodwin as the top two center fielders.
Ole Miss product Chris Ellis, coming off a good 2018 minor league campaign, is getting some off-season work in the Dominican Winter League. The right-hander threw seven shutout innings to get a win on Wednesday and has yet to allow an earned run in three starts (17 2/3 innings) for Escogido. Ellis went 10-4, 3.93 at the Double-A and Triple-A levels in the St. Louis system in 2018. This was the fifth year in pro ball for Ellis, 26, a former third-round draftee (by the Los Angeles Angels) who starred for the Mississippi Braves in 2016. … Louis Coleman, the former Pillow Academy star from Greenwood, and Southwest Mississippi Community College alum Kade Scivicque have re-signed with Detroit on minor league deals. Veteran big leaguer Coleman, a right-handed reliever, had a 3.51 ERA in 51 games with the Tigers last season. Scivicque, a catcher, played in Triple-A in 2018. … Jackson Prep’s Jerrion Ealy and Southern Miss’ Matt Wallner, both outfielders, made mlb.com’s latest list of the top 50 2019 draft prospects. Ealy, a two-sport star and Ole Miss commit, is ranked No. 18, while Wallner, who has 35 homers in his two seasons in Hattiesburg, is No. 26. Ealy’s skill set is compared to that of Kyler Murray, the Oklahoma quarterback who has signed to play pro baseball with Oakland. … Former Mississippi State standout Hunter Stovall didn’t impress just with his bat during his pro debut this summer. He also played five different positions at rookie-level Grand Junction in the Colorado system, and he may add a sixth to his resume in 2019. Stovall, a catcher in high school before shifting to the infield at State, brushed up on his catching skills in Instructional League this fall. “He’s got a chance to be a true super-utility (player),” Rockies farm director Zach Wilson told Baseball America. The 5-foot-7, 170-pound Stovall, a 21st-round pick last June, homered in his first two at-bats for Grand Junction and wound up at .296 with 10 bombs and 41 RBIs in 49 games. He played primarily second base. … Charlie Hayes, the Hattiesburg native and ex-Forrest County AHS star, was a good big league third baseman for a long time. He batted .262 with 144 homers over 14 seasons and won a World Series ring with the 1996 New York Yankees. That’s a tough act for son Ke’Bryan to follow – but there are those who think he’s up to the task. Ke’Bryan Hayes, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first-round pick out of a Texas high school in 2015, was the organization’s minor league player of the year in 2018. He batted .293 with seven homers, seven triples, 31 doubles and 12 stolen bases in the Double-A Eastern League. He also won a Gold Glove and played in the All-Star Futures Game. “I think we’re looking at him long term to be the anchor in our infield and our lineup in Pittsburgh at some point,” farm director Larry Broadway told milb.com. That point could come in 2019.
Today’s subject: Bobby Etheridge. Etheridge’s first start in the big leagues came on July 17, 1967, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco — and it was one to write home about. Batting second for the Giants – behind Southern Miss alum Jim Davenport – Greenville native Etheridge went 2-for-5, including a two-run ninth-inning triple in a 4-3 loss to the Chicago Cubs. Etheridge didn’t play a lot that year (40 games) on a team that included Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry, but he made enough of an impression that his 1968 Topps card included one of those sweet All-Star Rookie gold trophies. Etheridge played a year at Mississippi State and another at Mississippi Delta Junior College (where he helped win a state title) before entering pro ball in 1964. He played his last MLB game in 1969, finishing with a .244 career average. Etheridge played four more years in the minors, finishing up with Double-A Memphis in 1973. He spent the rest of his days back in Greenville, where he worked for Mississippi Marine. He died in 2015; the obit described him as “humble,” “a man of integrity” and “an avid hunter.” He could also play a little ball.
Among the gaggle of big league players not offered contracts for 2019 were a couple of Mississippi-connected names of note: Billy Hamilton and Kendall Graveman. Ex-Taylorsville High star Hamilton was cut loose Friday by Cincinnati, for which he has been the starting center fielder most of the past five years, and Mississippi State product Graveman was non-tendered by Oakland, for which he was the opening day starter the last two seasons. They are now free agents. There are reports that both could be re-signed to minor league deals by their former clubs if they don’t land a job elsewhere. Hamilton, 28, is a spectacular outfielder and base stealer who just hasn’t hit (.236 in 2018, .245 career). Graveman, 27, had a brutal 2018, possibly related to injury. He underwent Tommy John surgery in July and is expected to miss most of the 2019 season. He was 1-5 with a 7.60 ERA in his seven big league starts this past season. His career ERA over five seasons is 4.38.