After winning both halves of their division race, the Biloxi Shuckers will begin pursuit of an elusive pennant tonight when the Southern League South playoffs start at MGM Park. The Shuckers went 82-55 overall in 2019. They play wild card qualifier Pensacola in the best-of-5 division series. Biloxi made the postseason in 2015, its first year on the Coast, and again last year but did not capture the league title. Milwaukee’s Double-A club last won the SL pennant in 2001, when it was in Huntsville. (The Mississippi Braves, who just completed their 15th year in Pearl, have won one SL pennant, that coming in 2008.) Biloxi will be without league pitcher of the year Trey Supak, who was promoted in July, and All-Star first baseman Patrick Leonard, who is injured. All-Star closer Nate Griep (1.98 ERA, 22 saves) is still around, as is the power-hitting foursome of Weston Wilson (19 homers), Cooper Hummel (17), Jake Gatewood (13) and Dillon Thomas (13). C.J. Hinojosa is the leading hitter at .280, and Luis Aviles Jr. stole 27 bags. Alec Bettinger (5-7, 3.44) is slated to start Game 1. Former Mississippi State standout Daniel Brown (3.19) works out of the Biloxi pen, as does Clayton Andrews (2.59), who also plays some outfield (.281). … The M-Braves finished 62-74 overall and, despite a prospect-filled roster, didn’t seriously challenge in either half in the South. The M-Braves also had three players make the All-Star team: pitcher Ian Anderson and outfielders Cristian Pache and Drew Waters, who was the league’s MVP. Waters became the fifth Jackson area Double-A player to win a player of the year honor. Tim Leary, a pitcher for the Jackson Mets, won the Texas League award in 1980, a year when the league did not have a separate award for pitchers. Darryl Strawberry (1982) and Gregg Jefferies (1987) also won the TL award as JaxMets, and Roberto Petagine won it in 1993 with the Jackson Generals. Javy Lopez in 1992 was the last Braves prospect to win the SL MVP; the team was in Greenville, S.C., at that time.
Fans of Double-A baseball in the Jackson area have seen some great hitters put up some great numbers over the years. Think Darryl Strawberry in 1982 or Roberto Petagine in 1993 or Ernesto Mejia in 2011. Picking one particular season as THE best is a very subjective exercise, but suffice it to say that current Mississippi Braves star Drew Waters belongs in the conversation. Waters, 20, leads the Southern League in hitting at .324. He also leads in doubles (35), triples (nine) and runs (62). He is third in on-base percentage (.369), fourth in slugging (.490) and has five homers, 41 RBIs and 13 steals in 105 games. Those numbers compare favorably to the luminaries of the past. Strawberry, playing for the Jackson Mets at Smith-Wills Stadium in ’82, put on a show worthy of the hype he was already receiving as the No. 1 overall draft pick of 1980. He hit a modest .283 but slugged .602 with 34 homers, 19 doubles and nine triples. He also stole 45 bases and drove in 97 runs. He was the Texas League’s player of the year. Gregg Jefferies won the TL award in 1987 after a season that topped Strawberry’s in some respects. Jefferies hit a ridiculous .367 with a .598 slug; he added 20 homers, 48 doubles and five triples while also stealing 26 bases and driving in 101 runs. Petagine, playing for the Jackson Generals in ’93, also was a TL POY and won the league batting title with a .334 average. He hit 15 homers and 36 doubles (.529 slug) and drove in 90 runs. A year later, Bobby Abreu put up a .303 average with 16 homers, 73 RBIs, 25 doubles, nine triples and 12 steals. Mejia, playing for the M-Braves at Trustmark Park in 2011, batted .297 with 26 homers, 99 RBIs and 37 doubles. He slugged .531. He did not win Southern League MVP, however. That went to some guy named Paul Goldschmidt. In 2013, Tommy La Stella of the M-Braves hit .343 but didn’t have the other big numbers (21 doubles, four homers, seven steals). In 2016, the M-Braves’ Dustin Peterson enjoyed an MVP-caliber season (Tyler O’Neill won the award) with a .282 average, 12 homers, 88 RBIs and 38 doubles. Waters doesn’t have the big homer and RBI totals, but he should certainly be in the running for league MVP. (The last Atlanta prospect to win it was Javy Lopez in 1992, when the franchise was in Greenville, S.C.) Win it or not, Waters has had an unforgettable season.
Drew Waters, who grew up in Woodstock, Ga., rooting for the Atlanta Braves, is living the dream – and it’s moving fast. In the span of a few weeks in 2017, Waters led Etowah High School to a state championship, was drafted by the Braves in the second round (41st overall) and started his pro career with the Gulf Coast League Braves. He started 2018 at the low Class A level, finished it in high-A and will begin his second full season, at age 20, with the Double-A Mississippi Braves.
“I’m a little surprised (to be here),” the 6-foot-2, 185-pound outfielder said at the team’s media day. But know this: He isn’t the least bit intimidated by the big jump. “I feel confident in my ability, that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “I know the pitching is good. You’ll see 95 to 100 (miles per hour) with plus breaking stuff here. It gets better at every level. … But my belief in myself is strong.”
A switch-hitter, Waters batted .303 with nine homers and 20 steals at low-A Rome last year, then hit .268 in 30 games at high-A Florida. The Braves invited him to big league camp this spring, and he went 4-for-13 with a double and an RBI. “He had a great spring,” said M-Braves manager Chris Maloney. “He’s an exciting player. Plus defender. He’s got a lotta life in his bat. He’s a good runner. He can steal a base, a tough base. We’re glad he’s here.”
Waters is one of nine players on the 2019 M-Braves roster rated in the Top 30 of Atlanta prospects by mlb.com. He checks in at No. 8. Right-hander Ian Anderson, slated to start tonight’s opener at Tennessee, is No. 3 and outfielder Cristian Pache is No. 4. The others are outside the top 10. Pache, who finished 2018 with the M-Braves, is considered one of the best defensive outfielders in the minors. Like Waters, he profiles as a center fielder.
“I’ll do some switching between center and right is what they’ve told me,” Waters said. “That’s fine with me. Just getting the opportunity to play with Pache is going to be awesome. He’s an 80-grade defender (on the scouts’ 20-80 scale), and you don’t see that too often. It’ll be awesome.”
Maloney said he had his team together long enough this spring to get a good feel for it. “I think we’re a pretty strong defensive team,” he said. “We’re solid up the middle, at the corners and behind the dish. I like the defense a lot.”
The development of the prospect-loaded rotation, which will include Anderson, Joey Wentz, Kyle Muller and Tucker Davidson, looms as another key to the M-Braves’ success. “We’ve got some young guys that we like,” Maloney said. “I expect them to improve as we go along. Last year we had Touki (Toussaint), Kyle Wright and Bryse Wilson. They struggled early but figured it out and wound up in the big leagues. As a young player, that’s what you want to do. We’ve got some experience in the bullpen. I like this club. There’s good spirit on this team. I like the vibe.”
There are M-Braves veterans like Ray-Patrick Didder, Luis Valenzuela and Alejandro Salazar among the established hitters on this team, and 30-year-old Andy Wilkins has 150 professional homers, one in the major leagues. Pache showed needed improvement with the bat in his brief Double-A fling last season and in big league camp.
But the catalyst of the offense very well could be Waters, the likely leadoff batter. From MLB Pipeline: “He has the chance to be a dynamic, elite-level performer, and seeing a young outfield of (Ronald) Acuna, Pache and Waters … in Atlanta should excite all Braves fans.”
“I don’t set many goals,” Waters said of his expectations for 2019. “I’ll play hard and try to win.”