Entering Monday’s Cactus League game as a pinch hitter in the seventh inning, ex-Mississippi State star Jack Kruger announced his presence with authority, smashing a three-run home run. In the ninth, he added a three-run triple, helping the Los Angeles Angels beat Texas 12-11. Kruger, a catcher and the Angels’ No. 24 prospect (MLB Pipeline), is in camp as a non-roster invitee and is batting .400. “He’s just growing as an offensive player,” Angels skipper Brad Ausmus told mlb.com. Kruger reached Double-A Mobile last summer and hit. 304. Also in that Monday game, East Mississippi Community College product LeDarius Clark went 2-for-2 with a double, two runs and an RBI for Texas. He has been in the big camp as a minor leaguer after playing in A-ball in 2018. … Elsewhere in Arizona and Florida: Richton High alum JaCoby Jones went 2-for-2 with a homer for Detroit and is batting .269 this spring. … Ex-Taylorsville High star Billy Hamilton, batting leadoff for Kansas City, went 1-for-3 with a steal and is hitting .296. … MSU product Chris Stratton, vying for a job in San Francisco’s rotation, worked four innings, yielding one run and trimming his ERA to 5.40. … Nate Lowe, another State alumnus, went 0-for-4 and saw his average drop to .094 for Tampa Bay; he is in camp as a non-roster invitee after a monster 2018 minor league campaign. … Former Southern Miss star Brian Dozier took an 0-for-3 for Washington and is at .182 for his new club. … DeSoto Central product Austin Riley, a non-roster invitee in Atlanta’s camp, went 0-for-2 and is at .233. … Ex-Ole Miss standout Braxton Lee, getting time with the New York Mets as a minor leaguer, drew a walk in his lone at-bat and is hitting .182. He was waived in the off-season by Miami, for whom he made his MLB debut last April. P.S. Ole Miss alum Zack Cozart, sidelined with a calf strain, announced that he is “100 percent” sure he’ll be ready for Opening Day with the Angels.
Cristian Pache arrived in Mississippi with modest fanfare last summer. If he starts 2019 with the Mississippi Braves, as he is expected to do, there will be much more hubbub. Pache, only 20, has been starring in Atlanta’s big league camp, batting .455 (10-for-22) with two homers and eight RBIs. He hit the bombs on Friday and Saturday in Grapefruit League action. And keep in mind that it’s his defense in center field that is considered to be his best skill. “This kid just keeps doing it,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said in an mlb.com story. “He just keeps improving. It’s been a good camp for him.” The Dominican Republic native is rated Atlanta’s No. 4 prospect and No. 37 overall by MLB Pipeline. He was named to the Arizona Fall League’s All-Prospect team last fall and is a two-time organization All-Star for the Braves. He lists at 6 feet 2, 185 pounds and reportedly has added some weight. In 29 games for the Double-A M-Braves last year, Pache hit .260 with one homer, cooling off after a hot start. He figures to be the centerpiece of the 2019 club, which begins play April 4 on the road with the home opener slated April 10 at Trustmark Park. Pache might not be in Pearl very long. As Snitker said, “If you’re at Double-A, you’re in play.” P.S. Former DeSoto Central (and M-Braves) star Austin Riley played some first base in Atlanta’s game on Sunday. Riley, the team’s No. 5 prospect as a third baseman, also has been rumored to possibly see some outfield duty at Triple-A Gwinnett this season.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s 14-letter surname was the longest in MLB history. He also had a few distinguishing moments on the field. “Salty” was Atlanta’s No. 1 prospect when he arrived in Double-A Mississippi in 2006, and though the switch-hitting catcher didn’t really live up to that heady billing, he did play parts of 12 seasons in the majors and won a World Series ring. He announced his retirement on Monday. He batted .232 with 110 home runs and 381 RBIs for seven different clubs. He hit 25 homers for Boston in 2012 and drove in 65 runs for the Red Sox the next year, helping them win the championship. With the M-Braves in 2006, Saltalamacchia batted .230 with nine homers. He returned in 2007 and hit .302 with six bombs in 22 games before being called to the big leagues. … Former M-Braves star Ronald Acuna, the 2018 National League rookie of the year with the Braves, was selected in a fan vote to appear on card No. 1 in Topps’ 2019 basic set. Other recent recipients of this honor include Mike Trout, Aaron Judge and Kris Bryant, each of whom was on the ballot for 2019, along with Mookie Betts and Bryce Harper. Acuna, who homered in his first at-bat for the M-Braves in 2017, was honored with a Bobblehead Night at Trustmark Park last summer. … Twenty-four of the 40 players on Atlanta’s current roster are M-Braves alums, and 10 of the 20 non-roster invitees to spring camp played in Pearl the last couple years. Former DeSoto Central standout Austin Riley – one of eight Top 100 prospects (by mlb.com) in Atlanta’s system – received a non-roster invite for the second straight year. He spent parts of 2017 and ’18 in Pearl.
Zack Cozart is in comeback mode as he enters Year 2 of his 3-year, $38 million free agent contract with the Los Angeles Angels. The 2018 season was a big disappointment for the ex-Ole Miss standout. He hit .219 with five home runs in 58 games and was done following shoulder surgery in June. In 2017, his last year in Cincinnati, he put up career numbers (.297, 24 homers, 63 RBIs) and made the All-Star Game at shortstop. The Angels signed him, initially to play second base, then shifting him to third. Heading into spring training, it’s unclear where Cozart, now 33, will play or if he’ll even play full-time. The team depth chart on mlb.com lists him at both second and third. Younger players are nipping at his heels. From halohangout.com: “His 2017 season was a fluke in many ways, from his sudden explosion of power to his ability to hit for average and even his durability.” With Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Albert Pujols and Justin Upton in the lineup, the Angels are an intriguing club desperate to make the postseason. They’d no doubt welcome a return to 2017 form from Cozart. P.S. Asked at a recent team event about the Chicago White Sox’s pursuit of Manny Machado, East Central Community College product Tim Anderson had this to say to mlb.com: “He would play a great role in what we are trying to do as far as winning a championship. He definitely brings that talent.” Machado’s preferred position is shortstop, which happens to be where Anderson has played, very capably, the past three seasons. … Former DeSoto Central star Austin Riley is on the MLB Pipeline list of the Top 10 third base prospects for a fourth straight year, checking in at No. 3 in 2019. He has 71 homers over four minor league seasons and finished 2018 with 12 in 75 games at Triple-A Gwinnett. The 21-year-old’s path to The Show is currently blocked by veteran Josh Donaldson, signed as a free agent by Atlanta in November.
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.
The Josh Donaldson signing adds a potentially potent bat to the middle of Atlanta’s lineup and is a clear sign the Braves are eyeing more than just a division title in 2019. The move also could be seen as a signal that the Braves don’t think Austin Riley, the former DeSoto Central High star, is quite ready for everyday duty at third base. Riley spent the latter half of 2018 at Triple-A Gwinnett, where he batted .282 (.346 on-base percentage) with 12 home runs in 75 games. He has 71 bombs in four pro seasons. His defense reportedly is big league-caliber. But there’s no need to rush him. Atlanta’s No. 5 prospect (per MLB Pipeline) is only 21 — he’ll be 22 in April – and isn’t yet on the 40-man roster. Riley struck out 95 times and walked 26 over 291 at-bats at Gwinnett, so there’s still room for improvement. It’s possible that if Donaldson struggles, as he did in an injury-plagued 2018, Riley could get a midseason call-up. Though he’s never played anywhere but third base, the Braves also could try Riley in left field at Gwinnett as a way of finding him a spot. Regardless, his time will come. Mississippi baseball aficionados will just have to wait a bit. P.S. Ole Miss alum Braxton Lee cleared waivers and was outrighted to Double-A Jacksonville by Miami. Lee, a speedy outfielder, hit .176 in eight big league games last season and .233 in the minors.
Brian McCann, the first player to advance from the Mississippi Braves to Atlanta, back in the summer of 2005, is coming back to the Braves for 2019 after several years in other uniforms. McCann, now 34, was a highly rated prospect when he arrived in Pearl for the M-Braves’ inaugural season and lived up to the hype in the big leagues, quickly rising to stardom and putting up numbers that may someday put him in the Hall of Fame. McCann hit .265 with seven home runs and 26 RBIs in 48 games for the ’05 M-Braves, typically hitting fifth behind Jeff Francoeur and Scott Thorman in the middle of a very good lineup under manager Brian Snitker. McCann had a lot of big hits in his short time with the M-Braves, but none was bigger than the one he produced on April 30, 2005, at Trustmark Park. West Tenn’s Rich Hill — yes, that Rich Hill — and three relievers had no-hit the M-Braves for 8 2/3 innings. The Diamond Jaxx held a 1-0 lead when McCann came up with a runner on to face lefty Yorkin Ferraras. As West Tenn manager — and Laurel native — Bobby Dickerson said after the game: “McCann is the one guy we didn’t want to face right there.” On a 2-2 pitch, Ferraras left a fastball out over the plate and McCann deposited it over the right-field wall for a 2-1 victory. “I’ve never had a feeling like that as long as I’ve been playing sports,” McCann said afterward. It still has to rate as one of the great moments in TeePee history. If you were there, you remember it.
The MLB Manager of the Year awards will be announced today, and there’s a good chance former Mississippi Braves manager Brian Snitker will win the National League honor. Snitker, skipper of the first M-Braves team in 2005, guided the 2018 Atlanta Braves to a division championship, exceeding most expectations. Ronald Acuna, a former M-Braves player, was a key piece on this year’s Braves club and won NL rookie of the year honors on Monday. Acuna is the third former Jackson area Double-A player to win the top rookie honor, following M-Braves alumnus Craig Kimbrel (2011) and former Jackson Mets star Darryl Strawberry (1983). Ole Miss alum Chris Coghlan took that award in 2009. Four other Mississippi-connected managers have won the top managerial award. Ex-Mississippi State star Buck Showalter has won three American League awards; former Jackson Mets manager Davey Johnson owns two trophies (one from each league); and Clint Hurdle, another JaxMets manager, and former JaxMets player Ron Gardenhire have won once each. Former Meridian Community College star Cliff Lee and JaxMets alum Mike Scott won the Cy Young Award, which will be handed out on Wednesday. The MVP awards go out Thursday. Mississippi native Dave Parker claimed one of those, as did ex-JaxMets star Kevin Mitchell. For the record, adopted Mississippian Dizzy Dean also won an MVP, back in 1934.
Three Mississippi products reached the 20-home run plateau in the big leagues in 2018, and there’s more Magnolia State power on the way. Four Mississippi prep or college alumni are rated by MLB Pipeline as the No. 1 power prospect in their big league organization. DeSoto Central High grad Austin Riley, Harrison Central product Bobby Bradley and ex-Mississippi State stars Brent Rooker and Nathaniel Lowe, each on the cusp of making the majors, made the list. MLB Pipeline’s writers note that the choices were made based on “usable” power, not just “raw” power. Atlanta prospect Riley hit 19 home runs in 2018, six for the Double-A Mississippi Braves before moving to Triple-A, and slugged .522. He could be the Braves’ third baseman by next spring. Bradley belted 27 homers between Double-A and Triple-A in Cleveland’s system and has 114 round-trippers in five pro seasons. Rooker hit 22 home runs in Double-A for Minnesota after blasting 18 in his pro debut in 2017. Lowe, a Tampa Bay prospect, hit 27 homers and slugged .568 over three levels of the minors, finishing in Triple-A in an amazing breakout season. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see all four of them in The Show at some point in 2019. P.S. In the 2018 All-Mississippi Home Run Derby in MLB, Hunter Renfroe, the former State star from Crystal Springs, led the way with 26 homers. Southern Miss alum Brian Dozier hit 21 and East Central Community College alum Tim Anderson whacked 20.
Curious to see what’s next for Jacob Lindgren, the ex-Mississippi State star from Biloxi who has been removed from Atlanta’s 40-man roster and outrighted to Triple-A. Lindgren had Tommy John surgery – his second one – last March and missed all of the 2018 season. The left-hander also missed all of the 2017 season and pitched just seven innings in 2016. The Braves signed him as a minor league free agent after the 2016 season. The future seemed so bright for Lindgren in 2014. After a dominant season at State (0.81 ERA, 100 strikeouts in 55 innings), he was picked in the second round of the draft by the New York Yankees. He made his big league debut in May of 2015. Shortly thereafter, the arm problems began. Some pitchers have returned from two Tommy John surgeries, but the odds aren’t great.