It’s the type of headline that compels you to click: “The best hitter you know nothing about.” The mlb.com story is a statistical analysis of the very fine 2017 season put together by St. Louis rookie Jose Martinez, a hitter whom Mississippi Braves fans actually do know something about. Martinez played right field for the 2013 M-Braves, and he stood out – and not just because he is 6 feet 6. Martinez was one of the best hitters on that team, batting .285 with six homers and 39 RBIs. He became a minor league free agent after that year, his eighth in pro ball. The Venezuela native briefly returned to the Atlanta organization – playing in A-ball — in 2014. He finally made his MLB debut in 2016 with the Cardinals – at age 28 – then broke out last summer after a swing change, batting .309 with 14 homers and 46 RBIs in 106 games. P.S. Atlanta had eight players – including No. 1 Ronald Acuna (see previous post) — in Baseball America’s new Top 100 prospects rankings, most of any organization. … Four Mississippi products made BA’s list: Austin Riley (Braves) at 54, Anthony Alford (Toronto) at 60, Brandon Woodruff (Milwaukee) at 61 and Brent Rooker (Minnesota) at 92. … Riley, the former DeSoto Central High standout, is the No. 6 third base prospect in mlb.com’s position rankings. … Ex-Picayune High star T.J. House has signed a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox; the veteran left-hander got some big league time with Toronto in 2017 but spent most of the season in Triple-A.
There are no reports of Braves fans dancing in the streets of Atlanta today, but there is cause for some excitement. Ronald Acuna has been ranked the No. 1 minor league prospect for 2018 by Baseball America. The 20-year-old outfielder, who starred for the Mississippi Braves last summer, should make his MLB debut early this season, maybe even on opening day. Acuna blew through three levels of the minors last season, from A-ball to Triple-A, and batted .325 with 28 homers, 98 RBIs, 46 steals and seven assists. It’s hard to find any report on him that is less than glowing. There’s also this for Atlanta fans to chew on: Three Braves pitchers, all M-Braves alums, were ranked among the top 10 left-handed prospects by mlb.com entering 2018. Luiz Gohara is No. 4, Kolby Allard No. 7 and Max Fried No. 10. (Sean Newcomb was on this list in 2017.) Gohara, who reached Atlanta last year, has been pegged by Peter Gammons as a potential breakout player for the coming season. Fried also debuted with Atlanta last season. The 20-year-old Allard is expected to start at Triple-A Gwinnett this year. You have to believe that at some point, some of these young guns the Braves have stockpiled are going to lead a resurgence in the ATL.
Six Mississippians cracked Baseball America’s Top 10 Prospects lists for the 30 MLB organizations. (BA published the last of the lists today on its website.) Brandon Woodruff, the ex-Mississippi State star who made his big league debut in 2017 but still has rookie status, was rated No. 2 in Milwaukee’s system. The right-hander was 2-3 with a 4.81 ERA in eight starts last year and figures to compete for a rotation spot this spring. Anthony Alford, the former Mr. Baseball from Petal, was No. 3 in Toronto’s system, and Bobby Bradley, the ex-Harrison Central High standout, was Cleveland’s No. 3. Alford, an outfielder, had a cup of coffee with the Blue Jays last spring and is coming off a strong winter league showing. Bradley, a first baseman, has intriguing left-handed power but didn’t have a great season in Double-A and scuffled in the Arizona Fall League. Still, the 21-year-old is rated the No. 6 overall first base prospect by mlb.com, and he did get another invite to big league camp. DeSoto Central High product Austin Riley climbed to No. 6 on Atlanta’s chart. The power-hitting third baseman reached Double-A Mississippi last summer and likely will start 2018 in Triple-A. Brent Rooker, who had a monster season for MSU last spring, continued to rake (.281, 18 homers, 52 RBIs) in Minnesota’s system and earned a No. 7 rating. Dakota Hudson, another ex-Bulldogs star, is St. Louis’ No. 9 prospect after going 10-3 with a 3.01 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A in 2017. Not yet on the 40-man roster, Hudson probably will get some time in the big camp this spring. Worth noting: Ke’Bryan Hayes, son of Hattiesburg native and ex-big leaguer Charlie Hayes, is the fourth-rated prospect in Pittsburgh’s organization.
Four Mississippians made their big league debut in 2017: ex-Petal High star Anthony Alford, Ole Miss products Bobby Wahl and Stuart Turner and Mississippi State alum Brandon Woodruff. Turner, who stuck with Cincinnati as a Rule 5 draftee, was the first of that group to break through, getting a start at catcher on April 6. Woodruff had the most significant impact, going 2-3 with a 4.81 ERA in eight starts down the stretch for a Milwaukee team that contended for a playoff berth. Who’ll be the first Magnolia State product to debut in 2018? Odds are it’ll be ex-State standout Dakota Hudson, a top 10 St. Louis prospect who reached Triple-A last year in his first full pro season. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound right-hander was 10-5, 3.01 overall between Double-A and Triple-A in 2017. MLB Pipeline forecasts Hudson, 23, to make the majors sometime this year. Heading into spring training, the Cardinals have at least one spot to fill in their rotation, with Ole Miss product Lance Lynn having moved on as a free agent. If the season started today, Braxton Lee apparently would be Miami’s center fielder. The Ole Miss alum from Picayune is currently listed as the starter on the depth chart on mlb.com, though he isn’t listed among the Marlins’ top 30 prospects. Lee, a 2014 draftee by Tampa Bay, won the Double-A Southern League batting title in 2017, hitting .309 between Montgomery and Jacksonville. He was traded in midseason. Lee also played well in the star-studded Arizona Fall League, making the All-Prospect Team. Another intriguing possibility for Next Mississippian Up is Austin Riley, the former DeSoto Central High star who finished his 2017 campaign with the Mississippi Braves, then went on to shine in the AFL. “His power was as prolific as any prospect in the AFL, both in terms of raw strength and his ability to get to it,” Baseball America wrote. “Defensively Riley is in better shape and moves better than he did when he was drafted, and now he’s actually an asset at third base.” Riley is only 20 – he turns 21 in April – but Atlanta has been fast-tracking its prospects of late, so he figures to get a long look in spring camp. It’s notable here that the Braves released Adonis Garcia earlier this week. Riley batted .275 with 20 homers and 74 RBIs between high-A and Double-A in 2017. A much longer shot to debut in 2018 is Brent Rooker, the ex-State All-American who had a very solid debut in pro ball last summer. The outfielder/first baseman, 23, belted 18 homers in the low minors and is already rated Minnesota’s No. 7 prospect by Baseball America.
Jeff Francoeur turns 34 today. He was a mere 21 when he arrived in Mississippi in 2005 as one of the game’s top-rated prospects. At 6 feet 4, 220 pounds, he looked like a ballplayer on the field, and he had the kind of infectious personality that made him a presence in the Mississippi Braves’ clubhouse, too. “Frenchy” debuted in Atlanta later that same year and famously made the cover of Sports Illustrated after an impressive start. But his star turn was short-lived. He was found wanting in Atlanta by 2009 and was traded away. He played for seven other MLB clubs before retiring to the broadcast booth – with the Braves – last year. There are plenty of haters out there who’ll dismiss Francoeur’s career as a big bust. True, he was never an All-Star and didn’t lead Atlanta to a championship. But he hit .261 with 160 home runs over a 12-year period. Those aren’t table-scrap numbers. He hit 29 bombs in one season and twice drove in more than 100 runs. He hit .293 one year and .285 in another. Twice he had 40 or more doubles in a season. He had a 22-steal season. He won a Gold Glove in right field and three times led his league in outfield assists. On this day, his birthday, he deserves some props.
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.
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).