Sports Illustrated’s ranking of the Top 100 players in the big leagues includes Southern Miss alum Brian Dozier (41), who “lacks the exposure he deserves” in Minnesota; ex-Ole Miss star Zack Cozart (87), who left Cincinnati for the Los Angeles Angels; and as-yet-unsigned UM product Lance Lynn (93). Former Mississippi Braves standout Freddie Freeman is No. 22. … Ole Miss product Matt Tracy, whose one MLB appearance came three years ago, reportedly has signed a minor league contract with Toronto. Tracy, 29, was drafted by the New York Yankees in 2011 and made a two-inning appearance for the Yanks on April 11, 2015. The left-hander, who has a 4.03 career ERA in 151 minor league games, pitched in Minnesota’s system last year (7.64 ERA in Triple-A). … MUW notched its first-ever win – and then added another – by sweeping Crowley’s Ridge, 5-4 and 11-1, on Thursday at Columbus. Johndavid Birdsong, who got a walk-off hit in Game 1, is 5-for-10 with three RBIs for the Owls (2-3). … Vicksburg native Dmitri Young and former Jackson State star Marvin Freeman, both ex-big leaguers, are among the dignitaries expected in New Orleans for this weekend’s Andre Dawson Classic, formerly known as the MLB Urban Invitational. Alcorn State is in the field. … MGM Park in Biloxi, home of the Shuckers, has an interesting doubleheader slated for March 14: William Carey vs. Mississippi College followed by Mississippi State vs. Southeastern Louisiana. … Luke Wallner, brother of USM star Matt Wallner, is a freshman pitcher on Meridian Community College’s roster. The 6-foot, 195-pound right-hander pitched at Forest Lake (Minn.) High last year. … Baseball America ranks Gulfport High No. 40 in its Top 50 preseason prep poll. The Admirals were 33-6 in 2017 and finished runner-up (to Tupelo) in the MHSAA Class 6A playoffs. Outfielder Joe Gray of Hattiesburg High made BA’s All-America first team.
You’re dating yourself if you admit to remembering when Freddy Garcia pitched at Smith-Wills Stadium. Hillary Clinton’s husband was president, “Saving Private Ryan” hit the theaters and the second Harry Potter book was published. It was 1998. Garcia, who’ll be 42 in April, is still out there pitching. On Saturday, in Guadalajara, Mexico, he started for Venezuela in its 15-4 win against the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean Series. Garcia threw four shutout innings before running into trouble in the fifth, when he had to leave one out shy of qualifying for the win. The big right-hander was a standout for the ’98 Jackson Generals before Houston sent him to Seattle as part of the big Randy Johnson trade. Garcia made the big leagues in 1999 and won 156 games, plus an ERA title, over 15 seasons. He last pitched in the majors for Atlanta in 2013, including a postseason start. … There are a handful of familiar names in the Caribbean Series, including former Mississippi Braves Christian Bethancourt (three hits for the D.R. on Saturday) and Joey Meneses (with Mexico). P.S. Southern Miss product Cody Carroll, who had a brilliant showing (0.00 ERA, four saves in 11 2/3 innings) in the Arizona Fall League after reaching Double-A last season, has received a non-roster invitation to the New York Yankees’ big league spring camp. Carroll, 25, was a 22nd-round draft pick in 2015.
Billy Wagner gained some support in the Hall of Fame balloting this year — but just a little. The former Jackson Generals star was named on 11.1 percent of the ballots, getting 47 votes. He was named on 10.2 percent (45 votes) in 2017. The cutoff for election is 75 percent. It would appear that Wagner, who ranks sixth on the all-time saves list, isn’t going to rise to that benchmark. The little left-hander is among five former Jackson Mets or Generals to rank in the MLB top 20 in career saves. None of the others – Jeff Reardon, Randy Myers, Todd Jones, Rick Aguilera – came close to making the Hall. With 422 saves, a 2.31 career ERA and seven All-Star Game appearances over 16 seasons, Wagner has great credentials. But tickets to Cooperstown are hard to come by, especially for closers. Trevor Hoffman, No. 2 on the all-time saves list, became just the sixth reliever to make the Hall of Fame when he was announced on Wednesday. P.S. There are no former Jackson area Double-A players — JADAPs — in the Hall of Fame, though recently retired ex-Generals outfielders Bobby Abreu and Lance Berkman surely will get strong consideration when they become eligible. And there are a couple of ex-Mississippi Braves still out there building a case, including a closer: Craig Kimbrel, who is still in his prime in Boston and ranks 29th on the saves chart. Catcher Brian McCann, nearing the end of his brilliant career, should get in someday. … Worth noting: Mississippi State alum Jonathan Papelbon, ninth on the saves list and not yet officially retired, could also be a viable Hall candidate down the road.
It’s the type of headline that compels you to click: “The best hitter you know nothing about.” The mlb.com story is a statistical analysis of the very fine 2017 season put together by St. Louis rookie Jose Martinez, a hitter whom Mississippi Braves fans actually do know something about. Martinez played right field for the 2013 M-Braves, and he stood out – and not just because he is 6 feet 6. Martinez was one of the best hitters on that team, batting .285 with six homers and 39 RBIs. He became a minor league free agent after that year, his eighth in pro ball. The Venezuela native briefly returned to the Atlanta organization – playing in A-ball — in 2014. He finally made his MLB debut in 2016 with the Cardinals – at age 28 – then broke out last summer after a swing change, batting .309 with 14 homers and 46 RBIs in 106 games. P.S. Atlanta had eight players – including No. 1 Ronald Acuna (see previous post) — in Baseball America’s new Top 100 prospects rankings, most of any organization. … Four Mississippi products made BA’s list: Austin Riley (Braves) at 54, Anthony Alford (Toronto) at 60, Brandon Woodruff (Milwaukee) at 61 and Brent Rooker (Minnesota) at 92. … Riley, the former DeSoto Central High standout, is the No. 6 third base prospect in mlb.com’s position rankings. … Ex-Picayune High star T.J. House has signed a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox; the veteran left-hander got some big league time with Toronto in 2017 but spent most of the season in Triple-A.
There are no reports of Braves fans dancing in the streets of Atlanta today, but there is cause for some excitement. Ronald Acuna has been ranked the No. 1 minor league prospect for 2018 by Baseball America. The 20-year-old outfielder, who starred for the Mississippi Braves last summer, should make his MLB debut early this season, maybe even on opening day. Acuna blew through three levels of the minors last season, from A-ball to Triple-A, and batted .325 with 28 homers, 98 RBIs, 46 steals and seven assists. It’s hard to find any report on him that is less than glowing. There’s also this for Atlanta fans to chew on: Three Braves pitchers, all M-Braves alums, were ranked among the top 10 left-handed prospects by mlb.com entering 2018. Luiz Gohara is No. 4, Kolby Allard No. 7 and Max Fried No. 10. (Sean Newcomb was on this list in 2017.) Gohara, who reached Atlanta last year, has been pegged by Peter Gammons as a potential breakout player for the coming season. Fried also debuted with Atlanta last season. The 20-year-old Allard is expected to start at Triple-A Gwinnett this year. You have to believe that at some point, some of these young guns the Braves have stockpiled are going to lead a resurgence in the ATL.
Four Mississippians made their big league debut in 2017: ex-Petal High star Anthony Alford, Ole Miss products Bobby Wahl and Stuart Turner and Mississippi State alum Brandon Woodruff. Turner, who stuck with Cincinnati as a Rule 5 draftee, was the first of that group to break through, getting a start at catcher on April 6. Woodruff had the most significant impact, going 2-3 with a 4.81 ERA in eight starts down the stretch for a Milwaukee team that contended for a playoff berth. Who’ll be the first Magnolia State product to debut in 2018? Odds are it’ll be ex-State standout Dakota Hudson, a top 10 St. Louis prospect who reached Triple-A last year in his first full pro season. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound right-hander was 10-5, 3.01 overall between Double-A and Triple-A in 2017. MLB Pipeline forecasts Hudson, 23, to make the majors sometime this year. Heading into spring training, the Cardinals have at least one spot to fill in their rotation, with Ole Miss product Lance Lynn having moved on as a free agent. If the season started today, Braxton Lee apparently would be Miami’s center fielder. The Ole Miss alum from Picayune is currently listed as the starter on the depth chart on mlb.com, though he isn’t listed among the Marlins’ top 30 prospects. Lee, a 2014 draftee by Tampa Bay, won the Double-A Southern League batting title in 2017, hitting .309 between Montgomery and Jacksonville. He was traded in midseason. Lee also played well in the star-studded Arizona Fall League, making the All-Prospect Team. Another intriguing possibility for Next Mississippian Up is Austin Riley, the former DeSoto Central High star who finished his 2017 campaign with the Mississippi Braves, then went on to shine in the AFL. “His power was as prolific as any prospect in the AFL, both in terms of raw strength and his ability to get to it,” Baseball America wrote. “Defensively Riley is in better shape and moves better than he did when he was drafted, and now he’s actually an asset at third base.” Riley is only 20 – he turns 21 in April – but Atlanta has been fast-tracking its prospects of late, so he figures to get a long look in spring camp. It’s notable here that the Braves released Adonis Garcia earlier this week. Riley batted .275 with 20 homers and 74 RBIs between high-A and Double-A in 2017. A much longer shot to debut in 2018 is Brent Rooker, the ex-State All-American who had a very solid debut in pro ball last summer. The outfielder/first baseman, 23, belted 18 homers in the low minors and is already rated Minnesota’s No. 7 prospect by Baseball America.
Jeff Francoeur turns 34 today. He was a mere 21 when he arrived in Mississippi in 2005 as one of the game’s top-rated prospects. At 6 feet 4, 220 pounds, he looked like a ballplayer on the field, and he had the kind of infectious personality that made him a presence in the Mississippi Braves’ clubhouse, too. “Frenchy” debuted in Atlanta later that same year and famously made the cover of Sports Illustrated after an impressive start. But his star turn was short-lived. He was found wanting in Atlanta by 2009 and was traded away. He played for seven other MLB clubs before retiring to the broadcast booth – with the Braves – last year. There are plenty of haters out there who’ll dismiss Francoeur’s career as a big bust. True, he was never an All-Star and didn’t lead Atlanta to a championship. But he hit .261 with 160 home runs over a 12-year period. Those aren’t table-scrap numbers. He hit 29 bombs in one season and twice drove in more than 100 runs. He hit .293 one year and .285 in another. Twice he had 40 or more doubles in a season. He had a 22-steal season. He won a Gold Glove in right field and three times led his league in outfield assists. On this day, his birthday, he deserves some props.