If you saw Tommy La Stella play for the 2013 Mississippi Braves, you knew he could hit. The lefty-swinging infielder batted .343 in 81 games. The power he’s displaying in 2019 isn’t something anyone has seen before. Now with the Los Angeles Angels, La Stella belted his 10th home run of the season in a victory at Minnesota on Monday night. That’s as many as he had hit in his previous five MLB seasons combined. La Stella – which means “The Star” in Italian – has more homers this year than Angels stars Mike Trout or Albert Pujols. With 24 RBIs, he trails only Trout on the club. La Stella also has more homers than any other M-Braves alum in the majors; Ronald Acuna is second in that pack with eight. After his big year in Pearl in 2013 (when he hit four homers), La Stella made it to Atlanta the next season. He was dealt to the Chicago Cubs in November of 2014 for Arodys Vizcaino and spent four years with the Cubbies, winning a ring in 2016. The Angels acquired him last November. His emergence as a regular has taken at-bats away from Ole Miss alum Zack Cozart, who is mired in a deep slump (.136, no homers). P.S. Former M-Braves star Dansby Swanson is the second-most improved hitter in the big leagues this year, behind only Cody Bellinger. That’s according to a detailed analysis by mlb.com’s Mike Petriello. After a couple of disappointing years in Atlanta, Swanson is currently batting .268 with six homers and 25 RBIs – plus, according to the mlb.com piece, striking out less, walking more and hitting the ball harder and higher.
The Mississippi Braves will trot out a highly rated prospect to start their home opener tonight at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Tucker Davidson, whose scheduled Double-A debut was washed out on Monday, is Atlanta’s No. 22 prospect (per MLB Pipeline), a hard-throwing left-hander coming off a solid season in A-ball (7-10, 4.18 ERA). But here’s the thing: This M-Braves staff has three other starters rated more highly than Davidson, yet another example of just how rich Atlanta’s system is in quality arms. Opening day starter Ian Anderson, the Braves’ No. 3 prospect and the third overall pick in the 2016 draft, is slated to start Thursday’s game. The right-hander worked four innings at Tennessee last week, allowing three hits and a run with seven strikeouts. Drawing the opening day start for the M-Braves has been a harbinger of big things. The rather impressive list from the previous 14 seasons includes Anthony Lerew, Sean White, Matt Harrison, Jonny Venters, Mike Minor, Randall Delgado, Luis Avilan, Jason Hursh, Lucas Sims, Max Fried and Kyle Wright, all of whom made the big leagues. P.S. Joey Wentz (No. 12 prospect) and Kyle Muller (No. 13) also pitched well in limited innings on the 1-3 road trip, but the bullpen was a little leaky. … Jonathan Morales hit .364 and drove in five runs, and No. 8 prospect Drew Waters batted .316. Veteran minor leaguer Andy Wilkins hit the team’s lone homer. … Tonight’s game against Mobile starts at 6:35, the new weekday starting time for 2019.
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.”
The full breadth of 15 years of Mississippi Braves baseball was on display at SunTrust Park on Monday night when Atlanta played its home opener. There was Brian McCann, the first M-Braves player to get the big league call back in 2005, starting at catcher and delivering a big hit in his much-anticipated return to Atlanta. There was Freddie Freeman, M-Braves Class of 2009, manning first base as he has pretty much every day since he arrived in the ATL in 2010. (And over in the other dugout was Freeman’s M-Braves cohort Jason Heyward, now a Chicago Cubs outfielder but once a Braves star himself.) And also making their presence felt in the lineup was the Braves’ array of new stars: Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies and Dansby Swanson, all M-Braves of more recent vintage. Each of them drove in a run in the 8-0 victory, Acuna, the reigning National League rookie of the year, with his first homer of 2019. And the five pitchers who combined to shut out the Cubs are all M-Braves alums, from recent big league arrivals Sean Newcomb, Wes Parsons, Jesse Biddle and Chad Sobotka to the relatively old hand, Arodys Vizcaino. The Double-A M-Braves, who have sent more than 140 players to The Show, begin their 15th season on Thursday at Tennessee. The home opener is April 10 at Trustmark Park in Pearl. There will be more highly rated prospects on the roster, prepping for the big leagues, waiting their turn. The beat will go on.
The road has been a winding one for Chris Ellis over the last six years, but it has led him to the big leagues. The former Ole Miss and Mississippi Braves star officially made Kansas City’s 25-man roster on Thursday. He did not pitch in the Royals’ opener. Ellis was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels out of UM in the third round in 2014. He was traded to Atlanta, making the Southern League All-Star Game with the M-Braves in 2016, then traded to St. Louis, then chosen in the Rule 5 draft of minor leaguers last December by Texas, which promptly traded him to Kansas City. The Royals will have to keep the 6-foot-5 right-hander on their active roster all season or offer him back to St. Louis. Ellis is 40-35 with a 4.47 ERA in his minor league career and went 6-4, 3.76 at Triple-A Memphis in 2018. Primarily a starter in the minors, he apparently will work out of the bullpen for KC.
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.