J.T. Ginn rolled the dice in 2018, turning down a reported $2.4 million signing bonus to pitch at Mississippi State and gamble that that kind of money would be available again after his college career. The gamble paid off for the former Brandon High star on Monday, when he signed for a reported $2.9M with the New York Mets. It’s the Mets who are rolling the dice now. Ginn, 21, had Tommy John surgery in February, so he won’t see the mound again until next spring. Many pitchers come back stronger from that surgery. Some don’t. That’s the gamble the Mets have taken by paying Ginn roughly twice the slot value of the 52nd pick. He was a first-rounder in 2018, going 30th overall to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Ginn, who posted a 3.22 ERA and 109 strikeouts in 89 1/3 innings at State, is a pure power pitcher. The 6-foot-2 right-hander throws an upper 90s fastball, a nasty sinker and a hard slider. The Mets are understandably excited about his potential. Old cranks might recall the excitement the Mets had about another right-hander from Mississippi whom they picked eighth overall back in 1993. That would be Kirk Presley, the prep phenom from Tupelo who chose pro ball – and a $900,000 bonus – over Mississippi State, where he planned to play baseball and football. The Mets heralded Presley as one of their young guns, along with fellow prospects Jason Isringhausen, Bill Pulsipher and Paul Wilson. Alas, Presley developed shoulder problems, had a couple of surgeries and ultimately retired in his fifth pro season, never pitching above A-ball. When it comes to pitchers and their arms, you just never know how it’s gonna play out.
Perusing the 60-man rosters released by most MLB teams on Sunday, there are a couple of surprises. One, Brian Dozier is NOT on San Diego’s list. Two, Tyler Keenan, drafted just this month, IS on Seattle’s. Dozier, the ex-Southern Miss star, signed a minor league deal with the Padres and was vying for the second base job in spring training, batting .227 in eight games. But the eight-year veteran is not currently in the pool of eligible players, though he reportedly could be added later. Ole Miss product Keenan, a fourth-round pick who signed late last week for $500,000, is among three 2020 draftees Seattle put on its list, which is replete with prospect types. Keenan is a lefty-hitting third baseman with big power. … USM alum Nick Sandlin, Mississippi State product Jack Kruger and ex-Ole Miss star Ryan Rolison are among the non 40-man roster players appearing in the 60-man pools. Sandlin, a reliever, is with Cleveland; Kruger, a catcher, with the Los Angeles Angels; and Rolison, a lefty starter, with Colorado. Rolison, a 2018 draftee, is the Rockies’ No. 2 prospect, per mlb.com. Minnesota did not release its list on Sunday, but speculation is former State standout Brent Rooker and possibly USM alum Matt Wallner could be on it. Teams start summer camp on July 1, though not all of the 60-man roster members will report to the big league stadium. The others will go to an alternate facility. P.S. It hasn’t been officially announced as a signing, but Blaze Jordan reportedly has agreed to a $1.7 million bonus with Boston, well above the slot value for the third-round pick. The DeSoto Central High product, a longtime MSU commit, was the 89th overall selection. … MSU alum Jordan Westburg has formally signed with Baltimore ($2.4M as a competitive balance pick after the first round), leaving only State’s J.T. Ginn and UM’s Anthony Servideo unsigned among the seven in-state players drafted June 10-11.
Major league baseball will happen this year. Or at least a version of it, one with no fans, a quirky 60-game schedule, the three-batter minimum, a universal DH and a silly extra innings rule. But it’s gonna happen. Well, maybe. With a month to go before the first games, nothing can be certain. While we wait, here’s a 6-pack of Mississippi-connected storylines to ponder:
1) How does Tim Anderson follow up on last season, when he won the American League batting title? The East Central Community College product isn’t just trying to lead the Chicago White Sox to better days; he has taken on a much larger duty. Bob Nightengale of USA Today describes Anderson as “the new leading voice in the African-American community of Major League Baseball, vowing to do everything in his power to change the game and lead a renaissance to recreate the game for kids and a hip audience.” “I don’t look at it as a responsibility,” Anderson told Nightengale, “but it’s something I’m so proud to do. I want to represent the black community, and everything that comes with it.”
2) Will Brandon Woodruff take another step forward as one of the most dominant pitchers in the National League? Ex-Mississippi State star Woodruff, a 2019 All-Star who has a star-quality fastball, went 11-3 with a 3.62 ERA and 143 strikeouts in 22 starts for Milwaukee. (He missed six weeks with an oblique injury.) Athlon Sports in its 2020 season preview noted: “Woodruff’s breakout last year was real, and it was spectacular. He allowed one of the lowest barrel rates in baseball while striking out nearly five for every walk … .”
3) How will Hunter Renfroe fare in his new setting, Tampa Bay and the American League East? The former State standout blasted 33 homers last year and 89 in three-plus seasons with San Diego, which traded him for Tommy Pham in a curious move in the off-season. Renfroe, a former first-round draft pick, is just a .235 career hitter (.289 OBP) who strikes out a lot. Pham, also an outfielder, is a better all-around player. The Rays’ motivation for the deal, which also brought them touted prospect Xavier Edwards, was partly financial. But they expect to contend for the postseason, and they’ll expect Renfroe to contribute.
4) What does Brian Dozier have left? The Southern Miss alum signed a minor league deal with San Diego after an uneven 2019 season with Washington. Dozier, only 32, has 192 homers, an All-Star appearance and a Gold Glove on his eight-year MLB resume, but he has faded the last couple of seasons as he moved from Minnesota to the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Nats. He hit .238 with 20 homers a year ago but scarcely played in the postseason. Still, he’s probably the best second baseman in the Padres’ camp.
5) How does Kendall Graveman’s comeback go in Seattle? Graveman, a former State standout, missed most of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery. Once the No. 1 starter in Oakland, he hasn’t pitched in the majors since May of 2018. The 29-year-old right-hander, 23-29, 4.38 for his career, is penciled as part of the Mariners’ largely unheralded rotation. “I feel like my stuff has gotten a lot better from right before I got injured …,” Graveman told mlb.com months ago on the eve of spring training. “I’m excited with where it’s at.”
6) What does Year 2 hold for Austin Riley? It was a tale of two seasons in 2019 for the DeSoto Central High alum, who batted .273 with 14 homers in May and June but then crashed, finishing at .226 with 18 long balls. The rookie third baseman/outfielder, who also spent time on the DL late last year, hit just .132 in September and was basically a non-factor down the stretch. Riley entered spring training battling Johan Camargo for the starting job at third. The switch-hitting Camargo might be a better fielder but doesn’t have Riley’s power.
The expansion of MLB rosters for the 2020 season to 60 eligible players – 40-man roster members plus a taxi squad of 20 – might open the door for some Triple-A level players to get their first MLB opportunity. Mississippians who fall into that category include non-roster spring invitees such as Trent Giambroni (Cubs), Jack Kruger (Angels), Jacob Robson (Tigers) and Brent Rooker (Twins) along with Zac Houston (Tigers), Dalton Moats (Rays), Errol Robinson (Dodgers) and Bradley Roney (Braves). The 60-man rosters are to be announced by Sunday. … With 30 players to be active for the first two weeks of the season, the chances of Petal High product Demarcus Evans making Texas’ opening day roster would seem to be enhanced. Evans, 24, a hard-throwing reliever, made the 40-man for the first time this off-season but was optioned to the minors just before the shutdown. He has a 2.53 career ERA and has averaged 13.7 strikeouts per nine innings. … In addition to the MLB taxi squads, there is a tentative plan for a group of veteran free agents to play a short season of games in Nashville starting in late July. The Tennessean newspaper reported that Triple-A Nashville Sounds GM Adam Nuse has a list of about 70 free agents who might participate. Those players would provide another pool of talent for MLB teams to draw from down the stretch. Ole Miss products Zack Cozart and Chris Ellis and ex-Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College star Tony Sipp are current free agents with big league experience. … Add former Southern Miss star Taylor Braley and Meridian CC alum Milton Smith II to the lengthy list of minor league players released in recent weeks. Braley, a right-hander from Hattiesburg, had a career ERA of 3.86 over three years in Miami’s system, having reached high Class A in 2019. Starkville native Smith batted .326 with 27 steals in two years in the low minors with the Marlins.
The New York Yankees have a lot of history. A whole lot. To have your name associated with part of that history is pretty special. On this date in 1962, Jack Reed enjoyed his shining moment in the big leagues, one that endures in Yankees lore. The Silver City native hit a home run – his only big league homer – in the 22nd inning to give the Yankees a win over Detroit at Tiger Stadium in a game that lasted 7 hours. It remains the longest game in Yankees history by innings and time. Reed entered the game in the 13th inning and was 0-for-3 when he took Phil Regan deep for a two-run bomb. The game story in the New York Daily News called Reed “the weakest hitter on the club.” A two-sport star at Ole Miss, Reed had a 19-homer season in the minors, so he could hit a little. But in parts of three seasons with the talent-laden Yankees, he was used primarily as a defensive replacement in the outfield (often for Mickey Mantle), a pinch hitter and pinch runner. In 222 career games – just 18 starts – he batted .233 in 129 at-bats. He appeared in – but, alas, did not bat in — the 1961 World Series, which the Yankees won.
Some locally familiar names popped up in an mlb.com article entitled “Rookie greats who never reached that level again.” Every Mississippi Braves fan knows the tale of Jeff Francoeur. Old Jackson Generals fans surely recall Mitch Meluskey, and Ole Miss faithful no doubt remember Chris Coghlan. Coghlan was an All-SEC outfielder in Oxford and a .339 career hitter who was drafted 36th overall by the Florida Marlins in 2006. Three years later, he won National League rookie of the year honors. Hampered by injuries, he played eight more years in the big leagues – winning a ring with the Chicago Cubs in 2016 – but never really captured his ROY magic again. Meluskey was a switch-hitting catcher who showed great promise during his time at Smith-Wills Stadium. He was on the 1996 Texas League pennant-winning team and batted .340 with 14 homers and 46 RBIs for the Double-A Gens the next year. He stuck with Houston as a semi-regular in 2000 and hit .300 with 14 homers. But, the mlb.com story notes, Meluskey didn’t fit in well with the Astros and was traded after that season, got hurt and rather quickly faded away. Francoeur arrived in Mississippi in 2005 as a highly rated prospect, heated up after a sluggish start at Trustmark Park and was promoted to Atlanta in July of that year. His sensational start in the ATL landed him on the cover of Sports Illustrated as “The Natural” and generated all manner of over-the-top hype. Though Francoeur never quite achieved the “greatness” many predicted, he did have a solid career: .261, 160 homers and 698 RBIs over 12 seasons.
Ocean Springs High alum Garrett Crochet, the 11th overall draft pick out of Tennessee by the Chicago White Sox, has signed for a $4.5 million bonus. The 6-foot-6 left-hander was 10-9 with a 4.64 ERA and 13 saves over three seasons with the Vols, though he made just one appearance this spring. He joins fellow Mississippians Justin Foscue and Colt Keith in an odd sort of limbo: All signed up with no place to go. Foscue, the former Mississippi State standout, signed a reported $3.25 million deal last Friday with Texas, which drafted the infielder 14th overall on June 10. With no pro camps open – and no minor league season underway – Crochet, Foscue and Keith are limited to working out on their own. “My mindset is to wait for somebody to tell me what to do and then I will do it. I am not worrying about it too much,” Foscue told mlb.com. Foscue, one of the first of the 29 first-round picks to sign, was batting .321 with two homers and 16 RBIs in 16 games for the Bulldogs when the 2020 season was halted in mid-March. Former Biloxi High star Keith, a fifth-round pick by Detroit, signed last week for a $500,000 bonus.
On this date in 2001, Vicksburg native Ellis Burks – the all-time home run leader among Mississippi-born players — hit three home runs in a game for Cleveland, accomplishing a pretty neat feat that’s not as rare as one might think. A three-(or four-)homer game has been done more than 600 times, with quite a few players having hit three in a game multiple times. (Johnny Mize and Sammy Sosa did it six times each!) The list of Mississippians with a three-jack game numbers seven. The first was Hal Lee from Ludlow, who slugged his way onto the list in 1934 while with the Boston Braves. The most recent was Hunter Renfroe, who hit three for San Diego on June 14 of last year, the second time the Crystal Springs native had managed the feat. He also did it as a rookie in 2017. Vicksburg native Dmitri Young is one of just four players to hit three bombs in his team’s Opening Day game; that happened in 2005, when Young was with Detroit. The others on this exclusive list: Bill Melton (1969), Larry Herndon (1982) and Brian Dozier (2016). P.S. Former Biloxi High standout Colt Keith, a fifth-round pick by Detroit, reportedly has signed for a $500,000 bonus. The third baseman/pitcher, originally from Arizona, was an Arizona State signee. … Pitcher Drake Nightengale, a Pearl River Community College alum from Sumrall, has signed as a non-drafted free agent (out of South Alabama) with the New York Mets.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League, and baseball had planned a season-long celebration before COVID-19 threw everything for a loop. For their part, the Mississippi Braves were slated to wear replica uniforms of the Atlanta Black Crackers for their April 25 game at Trustmark Park. Hopefully, that tribute will be rescheduled whenever minor league ball returns. For the record, the Black Crackers were a fine choice, but any of a large number of vintage uniforms would have been appropriate. Back in the day – before major league baseball integrated in 1947 with the debuts of Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby — Mississippians starred for the St. Louis Stars, Birmingham Black Barons, Kansas City Monarchs, Newark Eagles, Homestead Grays, Chicago American Giants and more. You could put together a pretty strong team of Mississippi Negro Leaguers, including a couple of Hall of Famers: legendary outfielder Cool Papa Bell of Starkville and left-handed pitcher William Foster, who grew up in Rodney and attended what is now Alcorn State. At catcher, you could go with Sam Hairston (Crawford). Put Bob “The Rope” Boyd (Potts Camp) at first base, Sherwood Brewer (Clarksdale) at second, Howard Easterling (Mount Olive) at third, Buddy Armour (Jackson) at shortstop and fill out the outfield with Bill Hoskins (Charleston) and Luke Easter (Jonestown). In reserve, there’s pitcher Rufus Lewis (Hattiesburg), outfielder Bubba Hyde (Pontotoc), pitcher/outfielder Dave Hoskins (Greenwood), outfielder Lacey Thomas (Meridian) and first baseman Henry McCall (Hattiesburg). This is a darn good bunch. Easter — a legendary home run hitter and the first black Mississippian to play in the majors — Boyd, Hairston and Dave Hoskins all got to the big leagues. Easterling was a perennial Negro Leagues All-Star, and Lewis was the ace of the Newark Eagles’ championship club in 1946. These guys deserve a celebration. P.S. You can donate to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at nlbm.com.
Good story now posted on milb.com about former Ole Miss star Grae Kessinger, now in the Houston Astros’ system, and the legacy he carries. Kessinger, a second-round pick by the Astros in 2019, is the grandson of ex-MLB All-Star Don, nephew of former big leaguer Keith and son of ex-minor leaguer Kevin. Grae leans on that family history. “It’s something that I think motivates me,” he said in the milb.com piece. “I think it motivates me that I know these people in my family, they gave it all they got every single day. They tell me about it and that makes me want to do it even more.” A .283 career hitter in Oxford, he played at two pro levels last summer, batting .224 with two homers and 17 RBIs in 50 games at low Class A Quad Cities. He played mostly shortstop — his UM position — but the 6-foot-2 Oxford native also got work at second and third base last season. He went 0-for-9 with a walk in big league spring action before the shutdown. P.S. Jordan Fowler, a former Ole Miss pitcher who played at Central Missouri this season, signed with Philadelphia for the $20,000 bonus available this year to eligible players not picked in the five-round draft. … The Tupelo Thunder sits atop the Cotton States League standings with a 5-0-1 record, led by Itawamba Community College alum Riley Davis (.538, four RBIs) and Blue Mountain College’s Easton Williams (2-0, 1.12 ERA).