Ronald Acuna, the former Mississippi Braves star, won’t be the only Mississippi-connected player vying for a Home Run Derby crown tonight in Cleveland. DeSoto Central High’s Blaze Jordan is in the final of the High School Home Run Derby, which is slated to be held between rounds 1 and 2 of the big league event at Progressive Field. Jordan hit 20 homers in Sunday’s competition to advance to the final against A.J. Vukovich from Wisconsin. Jordan, a Mississippi State commit, has reclassified to be eligible for the 2020 MLB draft and is expected to go high. The 6-foot-2, 218-pound corner infielder hit 10 homers in 37 games for DeSoto as a sophomore this season. He gained a measure of fame as a 14-year-old 8th-grader when he belted a 504-foot homer to win a national contest at Marlins Park in Miami. … For the record, Ole Miss’ Tyler Keenan finished second in the College Home Run Derby at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., on June 29. Keenan led the Rebels with 15 homers in 2019. … Acuna, who has 21 homers this year and 47 all told in his two MLB campaigns, famously homered in his first at-bat for the M-Braves in 2017. He faces Pittsburgh’s Josh Bell in tonight’s first round. … An mlb.com article rated Bobby Abreu’s victory in the 2005 Home Run Derby as the No. 9 “best moment” in Derby history, which dates to 1985 (when Mississippi native Dave Parker won the inaugural event). Former Jackson Generals star Abreu, who was with Philadelphia at the time, blasted 41 bombs to win the ’05 Derby at Detroit’s Comerica Park. He hit 288 career home runs over 18 MLB seasons. P.S. Current M-Braves star Drew Waters, who somehow didn’t make the roster for the All-Star Futures Game that was played in Cleveland on Sunday night, put on a show at Trustmark Park in Pearl with his fourth four-hit game of the season in a 10-1 win against Biloxi. Waters, 20, a switch-hitting outfielder, is batting .335 with five homers, 31 RBIs, 53 runs, 29 doubles and nine triples.
Bradley Roney, drafted by Atlanta out of Southern Miss in 2014, reached Triple-A in 2016 and put up nice numbers as a closer there. But his rapid progress was suddenly derailed by injuries that cost him a big chunk of the 2017 season, all of 2018 and some of this season. He may be getting back on track. Roney, 26, was promoted to the Double-A Mississippi Braves on Thursday after a dominating stint at Class A Florida, where he worked 14 1/3 scoreless innings with 18 strikeouts and three walks. Roney pitched for the M-Braves in 2016 and ’17. He had 30 career saves at USM and is 20-for-25 with a 13-7 record and 3.38 ERA in his six minor league campaigns. … The M-Braves, currently playing a series in Biloxi, return to Trustmark Park on June 25. P.S. Blast from the past: Among the handful of players still active from the first M-Braves team in 2005 is Iker Franco, who was the backup catcher to Brian McCann. Franco, now 38 and in his 20th year of pro ball, is playing for Oaxaca in the Mexican League. Franco batted .296 with three homers in 48 games for the M-Braves before earning a brief promotion to Triple-A. A native of Mexico, he has played in the Mexican League since 2008 and was the championship series MVP in 2011. He is currently batting .260 with three homers, including a walk-off shot on May 28.
The talent cultivated at Pearl’s Trustmark Park over the years has blossomed into something special in Atlanta. The surging Braves are 13-3 in June and 43-30 for the season, threatening to break away in the National League East. Former Mississippi Braves have led the way in this remarkable month, during which the big club has averaged 7.8 runs per game. Ronald Acuna, Ozzie Albies, Freddie Freeman, Dansby Swanson, Austin Riley – all have had productive months. “We’re so talented from top to bottom and we show up every night,” veteran catcher Brian McCann told mlb.com after Monday’s 12-3 blowout of the New York Mets. “This is a special team.” McCann, the first M-Braves alum to reach the big leagues back in 2005, has provided a boost on and off the field in his return to the ATL after several years away. He is batting .375 with four homers in 10 games this month. Acuna, moved back to the leadoff spot in mid-May, is hitting .378 with six homers and 18 RBIs in June. Albies is at .367 with four homers and 15 RBIs. Freeman: .333, six homers, 20 RBIs. Swanson: .279, three homers, 18 runs. Riley, the former DeSoto Central High star called up in May: four homers, 12 RBIs, 16 runs in June alone. Overshadowed has been the pitching of former M-Braves Julio Teheran (2-0, 0.53 ERA this month), Mike Soroka (3-0, 4.21), Sean Newcomb (0.93) and Jacob Webb (3.38). It’s been a fun time for old Braves fans, who can only hope the bloom holds into October.
Pearl River Community College takes the No. 1 seed into its NJCAA Division II World Series opener on Sunday at Enid, Okla. The Wildcats also take power bats and arms. Five Wildcats have nine or more homers: Dexter Jordan 18, Kasey Donaldson 13, Wiley Cleland and Reece Ewing 11 and Austen Izzio nine. Starting pitchers Shemar Page (7-1) and Miles Smith (8-3) have punchout stuff, Page averaging 10.13 strikeouts per nine innings, Smith 9.80. All of these players, save for Ewing, are Mississippi kids. … The Mississippi Braves have trotted out a new shortstop in the first two games of the current homestand, with recent addition Riley Unroe replacing the slumping Ray-Patrick Didder, who is hitting .123. Unroe, a minor league veteran taken in the Rule 5 draft by Atlanta in the off-season, was batting .304 at Class A Florida when promoted last week to the Double-A M-Braves, who are limping along at 21-24. Tonight at Trustmark Park, right-hander Jasseel De La Cruz is slated for his M-Braves debut. He threw a no-hitter for Florida on Saturday and was 3-1, 1.93 ERA for the Fire Frogs. … Austin Riley’s numbers through nine games in the big leagues are off-the-charts good: .389, five homers, 12 RBIs, eight runs, .833 slugging percentage. Atlanta’s record since the former DeSoto Central High star arrived: 7-2. Looks like he’ll be sticking around. … Seems like only yesterday – actually, it was Sunday – when the rumors were rampant that Mickey Callaway was going to be fired as manager of the New York Mets. The ex-Ole Miss star had just watched his club lose three straight to woeful Miami. The Mets went home and promptly beat Washington four straight, turning Nationals manager Dave Martinez’s chair considerably hotter. “He’s a hell of a manager,” Southern Miss product Brian Dozier, in his first year in Washington, said in an mlb.com story. “I got his back any day.” The Nats, with their huge payroll, are 19-31. … Things are also tough in Detroit, where former Jackson Met Ron Gardenhire’s Tigers just finished an 0-9 homestand to fall to 18-29. Said Gardenhire: “We have to stick together. We have to have each other’s backs.” Gardenhire has stuck with JaCoby Jones in center field; the Richton High alum is batting .173.
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.