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.
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.
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.
Former Harrison Central High star Bobby Bradley recently made Cleveland’s minor league organization all-star team and will almost certainly make the Indians’ 40-man protected roster this off-season. When the fifth-year pro will make his big league debut is less certain. Bradley, a left-handed hitting first baseman with impressive power, reached Triple-A Columbus this past season at age 22. The Indians’ No. 7 prospect hit 27 homers and drove in 83 runs between Double-A and Triple-A. He batted just .224, however, and reportedly still needs to polish up his defense. “He’s just a kid, so he’s got plenty of time,” Indians farm director James Harris recently told milb.com. “We’re confident he’ll become an all-around better player.” The Indians have veteran Yonder Alonso at first base and under contract for 2019. Bradley figures to get significant playing time in spring training and then return to Triple-A, where he’ll wait in the wings. Four Mississippians debuted in the big leagues last season: Braxton Lee, Dakota Hudson, Cody Carroll and Spencer Turnbull. Bradley could be first up in 2019. P.S. Demarcus Evans, the former Petal High star, is on the East roster for Saturday’s Arizona Fall League Fall Stars Game, a showcase event for the showcase league. Evans is a power-armed pitching prospect in the Texas Rangers’ system. Also on the East squad are Atlanta prospects Cristian Pache, an outfielder, and Kyle Muller, a pitcher, and Milwaukee prospect Keston Hiura, an infielder. Pache and Muller played for the Mississippi Braves in 2018, and Hiura was with Biloxi. MLB Network will televise the Fall Stars Game at 7 p.m. … Former M-Braves star Ronald Acuna is on the team of big leaguers headed overseas next week for the MLB Japan All-Star Series. The first game is Nov. 8 in Tokyo. MLB Network will carry all the games live.
There are always some interesting names that pop up on the Caribbean winter league rosters. To wit: Anthony Lerew, who was the starting pitcher for the Mississippi Braves in their inaugural game in 2005, was back on the bump last week for La Guaira in the Venezuelan Winter League. The 35-year-old right-hander allowed three runs in five innings. Lerew, who was among the first wave of M-Braves to reach Atlanta, last pitched in the big leagues in 2010 with Kansas City and last worked in affiliated ball in 2014. Perhaps he is plotting a comeback. At least four other members of the M-Braves’ original 2005 roster played this year: Brian McCann, Blaine Boyer and Gregor Blanco in the big leagues and Iker Franco in the Mexican League. … Southern Miss product Scott Copeland, who made one appearance with the New York Mets this season, is wintering in the Mexican Pacific League with Hermosillo. Now a free agent, the 30-year-old Copeland took a loss on Sunday, yielding four runs in three innings. He pitched well between Double-A and Triple-A in 2018. … Ex-Ole Miss star David Goforth has made two scoreless appearances for Culiacan, also in the MPL. The Meridian native and erstwhile big leaguer, 30, posted a 3.46 ERA at Triple-A Syracuse in Washington’s system this season. … Former Mississippi State standout Jacob (Jake) Robson, a rising prospect in Detroit’s system, is playing for Estrellas in the Dominican Winter League. Robson, a lefty-hitting outfielder from Canada, batted .295 with 11 homers between Double-A and Triple-A in 2018.
There is a large gaggle of former Mississippi Braves currently with Atlanta, but eight was enough on Saturday to help the upstart Braves claim their first National League East title since 2013. Eight M-Braves alums got in the box score in the 5-3 win against Philadelphia at SunTrust Park. Freddie Freeman and Johan Camargo drove in two runs each, Ronald Acuna scored twice and Arodys Vizcaino notched his 16th save. What a bonus it’ll be for the Braves if Vizcaino can deliver consistently as a closer in the postseason. Freeman ought to get some MVP consideration, and Acuna is certainly a top rookie of the year candidate. And then there’s Brian Snitker, the 2005 M-Braves manager who has been in the Braves’ organization for 40 years. By all that is right, he should be named NL manager of the year. … Tim Anderson, the former East Central Community College star, hit his 20th home run on Saturday, becoming the first Chicago White Sox shortstop to post a 20 homer-20 steal season. Anderson has 26 stolen bases and is batting .242 with 63 RBIs. ChiSox broadcaster Hawk Harrelson said watching Anderson’s development this season has been one of his “greatest joys in baseball,” which covers a lot of ground. … Ex-Mississippi State standout Hunter Renfroe hit his 25th homer for San Diego on Saturday and leads all Mississippians in the majors in that category. Of Renfroe’s last 13 hits, six have left the park. He is hitting just .215 over his last 15 games. … Former Bulldogs star Jonathan Holder worked a scoreless inning for the New York Yankees, who beat Baltimore 3-2 in 11 innings and then celebrated clinching a postseason berth. Holder has a 2.97 ERA, a 1.29 in his last seven appearances. … Going the other way is Ole Miss alum Drew Pomeranz, who failed to retire a batter in the 11th inning for Boston and took the loss in Cleveland’s walk-off win. Pomeranz has an ERA of 9.00 in his last seven appearances and a 6.37 for the year. He is a pending free agent. … Kudos to Jesus Sucre, one of the five ex-M-Braves catchers currently in the big leagues. A part-timer for Tampa Bay, he hit his first homer of the season for the Rays, whose surprising late playoff push is going to come up short.
It went in the box score as a hold (H, 20 to be precise), but that designation doesn’t do justice to what former Biloxi Shuckers star Josh Hader did for Milwaukee on Monday night. In a huge game at Wrigley Field, Hader struck out all six batters he faced in the seventh and eighth innings, preserving the Brewers’ one-run lead in what ended as a 3-2 win against the Chicago Cubs. The Brewers cut the Cubs’ lead in the National League Central to 1 game heading into tonight’s contest, the second of the three-game set. In the eighth inning, Hader cut down Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez. That’s big time. A lefty with vicious stuff, Hader now has 127 punchouts, a Brewers record for relievers. “To have any type of record is a great feeling,” he told mlb.com. Hader pitched, as a starter, in Biloxi in 2015 and ’16. In the latter season he gave a preview of what was to come in The Show, posting a 0.95 ERA with 73 strikeouts in 57 innings. … In San Francisco, the fingerprints of former Mississippi Braves were all over Atlanta’s 4-1 win against the Giants, which moved the Braves 5 games ahead of Philadelphia atop the NL East. Ozzie Albies went 2-for-4 (with a triple) and scored twice, driven in both times by Dansby Swanson (sac fly, squeeze bunt). More significant perhaps was the pitching of three left-handers, all M-Braves alums. Sean Newcomb worked six innings for the W, moving to 12-8 with a 3.82 ERA. Jonny Venters tossed a scoreless eighth inning for his 12th hold, and A.J. Minter closed it out for his 14th save. Though he has had some notable hiccups, his ERA is now 3.36. Minter was in Mississippi in 2016 and ’17, pitching mostly in middle relief. He had only two saves in his minor league career.
The Mississippi Braves started their 2018 season with a win in April and ended it with a win on Labor Day. But there weren’t enough W’s in between for the Double-A club, in its 14th season in Pearl, to make the Southern League playoffs. A late run in the second half came up short of what would have been a fifth playoff appearance. Managed by Jackson native Chris Maloney, the M-Braves finished 67-71 overall. A bunch of prospects appeared on the roster: 13 of Atlanta’s Top 30 as rated by MLB Pipeline, five of the top seven. Most came and went quickly. Pitching once again was the M-Braves’ calling card. The team finished second in the SL in ERA, allowed the fewest homers and ranked fourth in strikeouts. Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson, Kyle Wright and Ian Anderson, among others, took star turns on the bump. But Trustmark Park can be tough on hitters, and they didn’t hit well on the road, either, which is a bad combination. The M-Braves’ .308 on-base percentage ranked 10th — last — in the league, as did their home run total. They were ninth in runs. Luis Valenzuela, at .282, was the only M-Braves batter to rank in the league’s top 20 in batting average. Travis Demeritte had the most interesting numbers: 17 homers, 22 doubles, 63 RBIs with a .222 average and 140 strikeouts. Tyler Marlette, Tyler Neslony and Ray-Patrick Didder had some moments. Cristian Pache, a top 10 prospect added late in the season, showed promise and might be a centerpiece of the 2019 team. … Meanwhile, Biloxi has enjoyed a big year, sweeping both halves in the SL South and claiming the MVP, pitcher and manager of the year awards. The Milwaukee-affiliated Shuckers, managed by Mike Guerrero, are slated to host Pensacola tonight at MGM Park in Game 1 of the South Division Series. Corey Ray, who led the league in homers and steals, was the MVP, and Zack Brown, the ERA champ, was voted top pitcher. If there were a closer of the year award, Nate Griep (34 saves) would’ve won it.
Though there is no opening at third base in Atlanta at the moment, former DeSoto Central High star Austin Riley continues to build his resume, prepping for an opportunity that can’t be far off. Riley, 21, one of the Braves’ highest-rated prospects, is batting .283 with 11 homers and 46 RBIs at Triple-A Gwinnett. He extended his hitting streak to nine games on Thursday with a 3-for-5, five-RBI effort that included his fourth homer in his last eight games. He has 18 bombs this season, including six he hit at the start of the year in Double-A Mississippi. Riley’s progress this season, his fourth in pro ball, was stalled by a knee injury in early June. It took a while, but he seems fully recovered now. “I think the biggest thing was trusting that my leg was 100 percent … and being able to put all my weight on it pressure-wise, whether it’s a swing or defense,” Riley said in an milb.com story. “Just being able to trust that it’s 100 percent.” Riley isn’t on the Braves’ 40-man roster – and M-Braves alum Johan Camargo is handling third base very well — so a September call-up isn’t a foregone conclusion. But Riley stands ready. “I think he’s more than capable of helping that club win right now,” Gwinnett manager Damon Berryhill told the Gwinnett Daily Post. P.S. Former M-Braves pitcher John Gant homered for St. Louis — while also throwing 5 2/3 shutout innings to notch a win – and is now 2-for-36 in his MLB career, both hits homers. His other bomb came earlier this month and was the first since high school for the eight-year pro.