The Miami Marlins, headed for a 10th straight losing season, are counting on their farm system to get things turned around. At short season Class A Batavia, Milton Smith II is clamoring to be a part of that rebuilding process. Starkville native Smith is leading the New York-Penn League in hitting with a .416 average through 22 games. The lefty-hitting outfielder, a 22nd-round pick out of Meridian Community College in 2018, has 15 runs and four steals and recently rang up a five-hit game. He hit .362 in his debut season. Smith is one of several Mississippians playing in the low levels of the Marlins’ system. Also on that Batavia club is Dustin Skelton, an 18th-round pick from Mississippi State last month. The catcher is 4-for-17 since joining the Muckdogs. A step up at low Class A Clinton is former McLaurin High and MCC star Davis Bradshaw, an 11th-round pick in 2018 who batted .354 in his debut campaign. The lefty-hitting outfielder has found the going a bit tougher in the Midwest League, batting .222 in 29 games. At high-A Jupiter, former Southern Miss pitcher Taylor Braley, a sixth-rounder in 2017, has a 3.45 ERA in 15 appearances (and 3.96 in his career), and ex-Ole Miss catcher Nick Fortes, a fourth-round selection in 2018, is hitting .212 with two homers and 18 RBIs. … Blake Anderson, a first-round pick out of West Lauderdale High in 2014 who converted from catcher to pitcher in 2017, is not currently listed on a Marlins minor league roster.
The college season in Mississippi ended with such cruel irony. Mississippi State, which won so many big games in comeback fashion, was eliminated from the College World Series by a bottom-of-the-ninth rally by Louisville. Having allowed time for the hangover to pass, we can now look back on the 2019 season as one with more than its share of thrills. State, under first-year coach Chris Lemonis, won 52 games, went 37-5 at the “New Dude” (renovated Dudy Noble Field), made its 38th NCAA Tournament appearance, hosted a regional and a Super Regional and made its 11th CWS trip. The Bulldogs earn top-of-the-class honors in the state, but quite a few others belong on the honor roll. Ole Miss made its 23rd NCAA appearance and fell one win shy of the CWS, losing at Arkansas in the Super Regional to end the year at 41-27. Southern Miss went on a late-season roll, winning the Conference USA Tournament and earning its 16th NCAA bid. The Golden Eagles fell in the Baton Rouge Regional to LSU and finished 40-21. Jackson State went 31-24, notching a 13th straight winning season under Omar Johnson. Delta State won another Gulf South Conference title and reached the Super Regional round of the Division II Tournament, falling out at Tampa. The Statesmen went 42-14 in what turned out to be the legendary Mike Kinnison’s last year as coach. Mississippi College also put up a second straight winning season (28-17) under fourth-year coach Jeremy Haworth and just missed a second straight D-II regional invite. Blue Mountain went 26-25-1 in the NAIA ranks, and Mississippi University for Women went 18-13 as a non-scholarship independent and made the USCAA postseason tournament. That’s eight four-year schools with winning seasons. William Carey (24-26), Millsaps (10-33) and Belhaven (11-29) endured rare down years, while Alcorn State (14-31), Mississippi Valley State (8-27) and Tougaloo (5-29) continue to seek the right formula for their programs. Fall ball will be here in a blink.
Matt Wallner belted his first pro home run on Thursday. Many more are expected. Wallner, Southern Miss’ career home run leader, hit a solo shot for the rookie-level Elizabethton Twins against the Bristol Pirates in an Appalachian League game. Wallner is batting .320 (8-for-25) in six games. Minnesota drafted the Minnesota native with the 39th overall pick earlier this month; it’s the highest any Golden Eagles player has been picked. Power is Wallner’s game. The 6-foot-5 left-handed slugger tied the USM single-season record for homers this year with 23 and finished his three years in Hattiesburg with 58. The Twins drafted Wallner in the 32nd round out of high school in 2016, but Minnesota’s Mr. Baseball opted to attend North Dakota, which abruptly dropped its program. He landed at USM, where he won several national freshman of the year awards in 2017 and earned All-America nods as a sophomore and junior. A prototypical right fielder, Wallner also has a big arm. USM occasionally used him as a closer his first two years. P.S. Mississippi State product Brent Rooker, Minnesota’s No. 7 prospect and another power bat in that system, was named to the International League roster for the Triple-A All-Star Game, scheduled July 10. The former SEC Triple Crown winner is batting .277 with 12 homers and 38 RBIs for Rochester. … Ex-State standout Reid Humphreys is back on the injured list at Double-A Hartford in Colorado’s system. The right-handed closer came off the IL on June 7, allowed 11 hits and five runs in four appearances and went back on the shelf on June 21. He had 39 saves in his first three pro seasons. … George County High alum Walker Robbins, who batted .170 with two homers over his first three pro seasons, is now pitching full-time at rookie-level Johnson City in the St. Louis system. The 21-year-old lefty, a fifth-round pick in 2016, has a 2.70 ERA in three relief appearances.
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.
As the Washington Nationals try to stay relevant in the National League East race, they’ve been getting a lot of production of late from a certain free agent signee. Over his last 15 games, he’s batting .327 with five homers and 12 RBIs. He homered in both games of a Wednesday doubleheader and drove in four runs as the Nationals swept Philadelphia to get to 35-38. Brian Dozier, the former Southern Miss star, has overcome a slow start with his new team to raise his average to .235. He’s got 12 homers, 28 RBIs and 28 runs. Dozier, who finished 2018 with the Los Angeles Dodgers, signed a one-year, $9 million deal with the Nationals, who are starting to get some bang for those bucks. For comparison sake, the marquee free agent who left Washington and signed with Philadelphia for 13 years and $330 million is in the throes of wicked slump. Bryce Harper, who went 0-for-4 in Wednesday’s twinbill, is hitting .208 with one homer in his last 15 games for a skidding Phillies team that has fallen to 39-34 and 4 games back of Atlanta in the NL East. Harper is batting .243 with 12 homers and 49 RBIs and is third in the NL in strikeouts with 91. (To be fair, he’s tied for second in walks with 47.) He’s even getting booed at home games. Philadelphia brass may not be feeling buyer’s remorse just yet, but they certainly aren’t getting the bang for the buck they expected. … Dozier’s 12th homer of the year accounted for one of the two runs the Nationals scored in a 2-0 win in Wednesday’s second game, the highlight of which was Max Scherzer’s seven brilliant innings the day after suffering a broken nose. “That’s why you put him in the category of one of the best, if not the best, in the game, the best of our generation,” Dozier told mlb.com.
The hits keep coming for Drew Waters. The Mississippi Braves star, the reigning Southern League player of the week, homered in Tuesday night’s SL All-Star game at Biloxi. The 20-year-old, switch-hitting outfielder finished the first half of his first Double-A season batting .338 with five homers, 27 RBIs, 42 runs, 10 steals, 23 doubles and eight triples. He currently has a 13-game hitting streak and a 25-game on-base streak. He also moved up to No. 45 on MLB Pipeline’s updated Top 100 Prospects list. How much longer will he be in Pearl? … Waters’ teammate Cristian Pache, another young outfielder also having a stellar season, is No. 14 on the Top 100, and M-Braves pitcher Ian Anderson is 27th. … Ryan Rolison, the ex-Ole Miss left-hander, moved up 22 spots to No. 70 on the Top 100 chart. The Colorado prospect went 2-1, 0.61 in low-A ball to start 2019 and is 2-3, 4.23 (with one terrible outing) at the high-A level. … Several of the top draft picks out of the state reportedly have signed pro contracts, including Southern Miss All-American Matt Wallner (Minnesota), Ole Miss All-American Grae Kessinger (Houston), Loyd Star High’s James Beard (Chicago White Sox), Ole Miss’ Cooper Johnson (Detroit) and Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s Brandon Parker (Atlanta). Also, Olive Branch native Kendall Williams, who pitched his prep ball in Florida, has signed with Toronto. Mississippi State All-American Ethan Small was the top pick from the state, going 28th overall to Milwaukee, but he is attending to other business in Omaha. … Ole Miss’ Doug Nikhazy, a freshman All-America pick, has been invited to camp with USA Baseball’s Collegiate National Team. … In MLB, Mississippi State product Chris Stratton was activated from the injured list by Pittsburgh on Tuesday; he didn’t appear in the Pirates’ game against Detroit. … Ex-Bulldogs standout Brandon Woodruff took a loss for Milwaukee on Tuesday, the first time in his last 10 starts that the Brewers have lost. Woodruff (8-2, 4.04) yielded four runs in six innings in a 4-1 loss to San Diego. On the positive side, he went 2-for-2 at the plate, raising his average to .364.
Awards season has begun for the colleges. To recap what’s happened so far: Mississippi State’s Ethan Small has been named the College Baseball Foundation’s national pitcher of the year. J.T. Ginn, the State star from Brandon, was named Perfect Game’s freshman of the year and a Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American. Ole Miss’ Grae Kessinger was named the nation’s top shortstop, winning the Mizuno-sponsored Brooks Wallace Award. Southern Miss’ Matt Wallner and State’s Small were tabbed first-team All-Americans by Baseball America, which also honored Bulldogs Jake Mangum and Justin Foscue as second- and third-teamers, respectively. That MSU trio made Collegiate Baseball’s All-America list, as well. Delta State’s Jake Barlow and Hunter Riggins have earned NCAA D-II All-America honors, and Mississippi College’s Blaine Crim, the Gulf South Conference player of the year, was named a D-II Academic All-American. Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s Brandon Parker was an NJCAA Division II first-team All-America, Northwest CC’s Ben Van Cleve made the second team and Itawamba’s Houston Harding and Pearl River’s Wiley Cleland were on the third team. … Former Mississippi Braves are getting a lot of respect from voters in the early returns from the MLB All-Star Game ballots. Ozzie Albies led National League second basemen and Tommy La Stella, now with the Los Angeles Angels, led the AL at the same position. Brian McCann was second among NL catchers and Dansby Swanson second on the shortstop list. Freddie Freeman (first base) and Ronald Acuna (outfield) came in third at their respective positions. (Unfortunately, Austin Riley is not on the ballot.) East Central Community College product Tim Anderson, who has been at or near the top of the AL batting race all season, was fourth in the shortstop voting. … Former Mississippi State standouts Brandon Woodruff and Dakota Hudson likely will get consideration for the NL pitching staff, while Madison Central product Spencer Turnbull and Ole Miss alum Lance Lynn could be candidates in the AL. Pitchers are chosen by a vote of fellow players. … The current Mississippi Braves are slated to send seven players – five pitchers plus outfielders Drew Waters and Cristian Pache — to next week’s Southern League All-Star Game at MGM Park in Biloxi. Nine Shuckers – yes, nine — are on the South roster.
Nick Sandlin has made a rapid ascent in the Cleveland organization. A second-round pick and the fourth player drafted out of Mississippi in 2018, the ex-Southern Miss ace was promoted to Triple-A last week and has made two relief appearances for the Columbus Clippers. He allowed two runs in his debut but worked a clean inning on Saturday. The 22-year-old right-hander posted a 1.56 ERA in 15 games at Double-A Akron this year. He climbed through four levels of the minors last summer, finishing with a 3.00 ERA and five saves. He has 67 strikeouts in 43 2/3 pro innings. Rated the No. 17 prospect in the Indians’ system by MLB Pipeline, Sandlin could make the big league team this season. … The first Mississippian chosen in 2018, Ole Miss alum Ryan Rolison, is now with Colorado’s advanced Class A Lancaster club. The lefty, the Rockies’ No. 3 prospect, is 2-2 with a 2.96 ERA in nine starts and has made the California League All-Star Game. … Forecast by many as a first-round draft pick in 2018, Mississippi State’s Konnor Pilkington slipped to the third round, where he was plucked by the Chicago White Sox. The East Central High alum, who moved from low-A Kannapolis to high-A Winston Salem in mid-May, is 1-1, 6.16 in four starts at the new level. He had a 1.62 ERA at the low-A level. … Hattiesburg’s Joe Gray, the top high school pick from the state last year who signed a pro contract (first-rounder J.T. Ginn of Brandon went to State), is already rated the No. 7 prospect in Milwaukee’s system though he has yet to play above the rookie level. The 2018 second-rounder hit .182 with two homers in 24 games in the Arizona League, playing through a bout of pneumonia. He’ll likely go to the Pioneer League this summer. “He has the tools, no doubt about it,” Rafael Neda, Gray’s manager last year, told Baseball America this spring. “He’s a really athletic kid with a high ceiling. We’ve started to see that.”
The New Albany-based Cotton States League is under way, with the Tippah County Tribe, featuring several Blue Mountain College players, off to a 3-1 start. Among the league’s top hitters to date are Northeast Mississippi CC alum Landon Wilkerson (.500, eight RBIs for the Tupelo Thunder) and Belhaven’s Nathan Herron (.500, homer, nine RBIs for the Golden Triangle Jets). Northeast CC alum Nikolas Wilcher is 2-0, 1.80 ERA for 3-2 Tupelo. This is the CSL’s 11th season. … In the Texas Collegiate League, the Acadiana Cane Cutters’ roster is replete with Mississippians: Southern Miss’ Hunter LeBlanc, Fisher Norris, Josh Lewis and Drew Boyd, Delta State’s Kris Peet, Hunter Stafford and Bailey Hargrave, Hinds Community College alum Noah Hughes and Jones JC product Trace Henry. … The Cape Cod League season starts today, though none of the Mississippi State or Ole Miss players slated for the high-profile summer league are there yet for obvious reasons. One of the main attractions in the Cape figures to be J.T. Ginn, who starred as a freshman (8-4, 3.36 ERA) for State this season after being a first-round MLB draft pick last summer. Ginn is ticketed to pitch for Orleans. After a star-studded career as a two-way player at Brandon High, Ginn was drafted 30th overall by the Los Angeles Dodgers but passed on the pro opportunity to play at State with no apparent regrets. The Hyannis team has a distinct Mississippi flavor, with three MSU players and one from Ole Miss listed on the club’s preseason roster. Bulldogs Tanner Allen, Rowdey Jordan and Jordan Westburg are joined by the Rebels’ Anthony Servideo. UM’s Tyler Keenan and former Ocean Springs High star Garrett Crochet, now at Tennessee, will play for Harwich, and State’s Justin Foscue is on the Wareham roster.
Too bad fans don’t get to pick whom they’d like to see in the MLB Home Run Derby. San Diego fans – and no doubt a bunch of folks in Mississippi, too – would surely cast votes for Hunter Renfroe, the ex-Mississippi State star from Crystal Springs. Not only can the 6-foot-1, 220-pound outfielder really mash, but he is deserving of the recognition, ranking among the MLB leaders in homers with 18. He hit his latest on Thursday, a 422-footer at Petco Park that helped the Padres beat Washington 5-4. In this year of the long ball, Renfroe is on pace to shatter his season-best of 26, a mark he reached each of the last two seasons. He has 74 career homers, averaging one every 14.3 at-bats. (Giancarlo Stanton’s average is 13.8.) Injuries have thinned the Padres’ once-crowded outfield, and Renfroe has reaped the benefits of regular duty. He is batting .250 with 35 RBIs and 26 runs in 57 games. … Southern Miss alum Brian Dozier, who was the last Mississippian to participate in the home run derby in 2014, hit his ninth homer of the year Thursday for the Nationals. Grenada native Dave Parker won the first derby competition in 1985. The only other Mississippians to compete are Ellis Burks in 1996 and Rafael Palmeiro in 2002. The 2019 derby is set for July 8 at Cleveland’s Progressive Field.