Though Mitch Moreland, arguably the most highly regarded Mississippian to hit the free agent market this year, remains unsigned as 2020 draws to a close, it hasn’t been a quiet off-season for state-connected players. A flurry of activity has seen Lance Lynn, Hunter Renfroe, Jonathan Holder and Nate Lowe change uniforms, Kendall Graveman quickly re-sign with his 2020 club and several minor leaguers find 2021 teams. To recap: Ole Miss product Lynn was traded from Texas to the Chicago White Sox. … Ex-Mississippi State star Renfroe signed a free agent deal with Boston. … MSU alum Holder signed as a free agent with the Cubs. … MSU alum Lowe was traded from Tampa Bay to Texas. … Graveman, another MSU product, returned to Seattle’s fold a day after the Mariners declined his option. … While we eagerly await Moreland’s signing, don’t forget that also left on the MLB market are Jarrod Dyson and Billy Hamilton (and for that matter, Brian Dozier and Zack Cozart). … On the minor league front: State college alums Tyreque Reed (Boston), Chuckie Robinson (Cincinnati) and Errol Robinson (Reds) moved to new systems in the Rule 5 draft. Ole Miss product Aaron Barrett, who battled back from myriad injuries to make five MLB appearances the last two years, re-signed a minors deal with Philadelphia. More recently, Itawamba Community College alum Tim Dillard re-signed with Texas and ex-UM standout Chris Ellis signed with Tampa Bay. Veteran right-hander Dillard, 37, has made 584 professional appearances dating to 2003 but hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2012. Ellis, a former Mississippi Braves star, has found some success in the Dominican Winter League with a 2.35 ERA over five appearances this season. Pitching for Gigantes del Cibao, right-hander Ellis is 1-0 with 24 strikeouts in 23 innings. He made one MLB appearance (with Kansas City as a Rule 5 pick) in 2019, then finished the season with St. Louis’ Triple-A Memphis club. He was released by the Cardinals this summer.
Momentum, whatever it might be worth in baseball, doesn’t really carry over from one season to the next. The fact that Ole Miss finished the 2020 season on a 16-game winning streak is cool but will mean nothing on the field to start 2021. However, the cred the Rebs established has carried over. UM is ranked fifth in Collegiate Baseball Magazine’s preseason poll after finishing third, with a 16-1 record, in the final poll of 2020 last March. The Rebels earned the lofty ranking despite the loss of two star players, Tyler Keenan and Anthony Servideo, to the MLB draft. UM returns pitchers Doug Nikhazy and Gunnar Hoglund, both high draft prospects, and hitters Hayden Leatherwood (.361), Tim Elko (.354) and Payton Chatagnier (.311, four homers). The Rebels’ ranking is also a nod to coach Mike Bianco, who was Collegiate Baseball’s 2020 coach of the year. Though some Ole Miss fans might argue that he hasn’t won enough big games, Bianco has certainly won a lot of games. He ranks 16th on the list of winningest active coaches in NCAA Division I, according to a recent Baseball America chart. In 19 seasons in Oxford plus three at McNeese State, Bianco has 867 victories. He has led the Rebels to 767 wins, six Super Regional berths and one College World Series, where they made a serious run at the national title. It’s interesting to note that during Bianco’s tenure at UM, Mississippi State has had six different coaches. … MSU is ninth in CB’s new poll, and Southern Miss is 29th. The Division I season is tentatively set to start on Feb. 19.
Today’s subject: Don Hopkins. Back in the mid-1970s, the Oakland A’s had a thing for pinch-running specialists, with Belzoni native Herb Washington being the most famous of the bunch. Hopkins, a West Point native, also made a mark, stealing 21 bases and scoring 25 runs in 82 appearances (most as a pinch runner) in 1975, when he and Washington were briefly teammates. Unlike Washington, a world-class track star, Hopkins was a ballplayer, though the A’s rarely used him as a hitter or outfielder. Like Washington, Hopkins moved with his family from Mississippi to Michigan as a child. He ran track in high school but also played baseball well enough to be signed by the Montreal Expos. Hopkins hit .250 in the minors and swiped 269 bases over eight seasons. He got six at-bats (and one hit) in the majors and made three putouts in the field. He played his last MLB game in 1976 and was out of the game after 1977.
Now that the old Negro Leagues are being formally recognized as major leagues and players’ stats included in MLB records, one has to wonder: Where does Cool Papa Bell fit in among Mississippi natives on the all-time charts? The Hall of Famer from Starkville, a legendary speedster, played in the Negro Leagues for 21 years between 1922 and ’46. According to seamheads.com, the foremost authority on Negro Leagues numbers, Bell batted .324 for his career. That would be tops among Mississippians. The leader was Buddy Myer, an Ellisville native who played from 1925-41 and hit .303 (.3028 to be precise). Bell’s career stolen base total of 297 would trail only Billy Hamilton’s 305; Jarrod Dyson drops to third at 256. Bell’s best single-season steal total was 52 in 1929, when he played 102 games. That would rank second on the Magnolia State chart. Hamilton stole 59 in 139 games in 2017. Bell banged out 82 career triples, which trails only Myer’s 130 on the state list. Bell was credited with 1,636 hits, well short of Dave Parker’s 2,712, though, again, Bell played far fewer games. In 1,273 games, Bell also scored a remarkable 1,208 runs. That ranks a close third behind Parker’s 1,272 (in 2,466 games) and Ellis Burks’ 1,253 (2000 games). … William (Bill) Foster, a Hall of Famer and one of the greatest Negro Leagues pitchers, isn’t a Mississippi native but did move to Rodney as a child and grew up there (see previous posts). His numbers are worthy of a look. The left-hander, a former Alcorn State player and coach, won 150 games (per seamheads.com) between 1923-46 with a 2.59 ERA and 1,263 strikeouts. Only three Mississippians rank above him in wins: Guy Bush (176), Roy Oswalt (163) and Claude Passeau (162). Only Oswalt (1,852) had more K’s, and only Reb Russell (2.33 from 1913-19) had a better ERA.
The competition for innings was fierce in the New York Yankees’ bullpen in recent years. Jonathan Holder might find more opportunity with the Chicago Cubs, who have signed the Mississippi State product as a free agent. The deal is for one year and $750,000, according to the Chicago Tribune, if Holder makes the roster in spring training. Holder was non-tendered by the Yankees after posting a 4.98 ERA in 18 games during a rollercoaster 2020 season. The Gulfport native, 27, has a 4.38 career ERA in 157 big league appearances, all with New York, since 2016. A standout closer at State, Holder has no career MLB save chances. Holder’s competition in Chicago could include former George County High star Justin Steele, who has been in the Cubs’ system since 2014 but has yet to make his big league debut. Left-hander Steele was actually drafted a round ahead (the fifth) of Holder in ’14.
On a windy April day at Frontier Field in Rochester, N.Y., in 2019, Mississippi State alumnus Brent Rooker hit a home run. He has hit a lot of those as a pro, including one as a big leaguer in 2020, but this April 13, 2019, homer is significant because it was one of 15 balls that flew out of the park that day in a record-setting Triple-A game between Lehigh Valley and the host Red Wings. Pitchers and perhaps purists might cringe at this, but the folks at milb.com picked that game as the sixth-best of the decade (2011-19) in the minor leagues. Lehigh Valley won it 20-18, though the Iron Pigs were out-hit 22-21 by the Red Wings. Rooker went 3-for-6, and the homer was his third of that young season. … The No. 1 game on milb.com’s top 10 list also involved a Mississippi college product — and also featured a lot of offense. Ex-Ole Miss star Ryan Rolison started for Class A Lancaster (Calif.) on Aug. 14, 2019, and allowed one earned run over five innings against visiting Lake Elsinore. He departed with a 3-2 lead. But the young left-hander would get no win this day. Down 13-3 in the ninth, Lake Elsinore scored 10 times with two outs to tie it and then won 14-13 with a 10th-inning tally.
Five of the top 50 draft prospects for 2021 will be based in Mississippi, according to mlb.com. Seven months out from the MLB draft, a new Top 100 draft prospects list features Ole Miss ace Gunnar Hoglund, Mississippi State’s projected weekend rotation of Christian MacLeod, Will Bednar and Eric Cerantola and Madison Central High two-way star Braden Montgomery. Hoglund, a 6-foot-4 right-hander who was drafted 36th overall out of high school in 2018, is ranked No. 30. MacLeod, a big lefty, and Bednar, a righty, are Nos. 40 and 41 and Cerantola, a 6-5 righty from Canada, is No. 50. Checking in at No. 44 is Montgomery, a switch-hitting, righty-throwing outfielder/pitcher who has signed with Stanford. Montgomery reportedly impressed at the Perfect Game All-American Classic in September. … Cerantola tops the latest prospectslive.com draft list at No. 22. Hoglund, MacLeod and Montgomery are also in that site’s top 50 along with Ole Miss left-hander Doug Nikhazy. Another site, prospects365.com, projects Cerantola, MacLeod and Hoglund all going in the first round next summer. … The draft, expected to be 20-30 rounds in 2021, is set for July 11-13 in conjunction with the MLB All-Star Game. A new element in play for 2021 is the MLB Draft League, a six-team loop for draft-eligible college, juco or prep players who might want more exposure.
The Green Monster beckons for Hunter Renfroe. The former Mississippi State standout has signed as a free agent with Boston, where the iconic left-field wall has been an inviting target for many a right-handed slugger. Renfroe, 28, who reportedly got a 1-year deal worth $3 million-plus, hit two of his eight homers in 2020 at Fenway on Aug. 13 while playing for Tampa Bay. One of those bombs cleared the Monster. Renfroe has 97 homers in an MLB career that began in 2016. He hit just .156 for the Rays this season, dragging his career average down to .228. A good defender, he could be a fit in right or left field for Boston. The Red Sox actually drafted Renfroe in the 31st round in 2010 out of Copiah Academy, but he chose to go to State, where he became a first-rounder with San Diego in 2013.
Change was in the wind for several Mississippi-connected players on Thursday. On the big league front, ex-Mississippi State star Nate Lowe was traded from Tampa Bay to Texas, which has an apparent affinity for first basemen from MSU. In the Rule 5 draft’s minor league phase, three Mississippi college products changed organizations, with Ole Miss’ Errol Robinson and Southern Miss’ Chuckie Robinson going to Cincinnati and Itawamba Community College’s Tyreque Reed to Boston. Lowe, a lefty slugger who hit 11 homers in 71 games for the Rays over the last two seasons, projects as Texas’ first baseman in 2021. “I told him to expect competition, but we made this deal anticipating he would win the job and be our first baseman,” Rangers GM Jon Daniels told mlb.com. Former State star Rafael Palmeiro spent 10 of his 20 MLB seasons with the Rangers, and Will Clark manned first base for Texas for five years (between Palmeiro’s two stints there). Mitch Moreland, currently a free agent, spent the first seven of his 11 MLB seasons with the Rangers. … Errol Robinson, a shortstop, went from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Reds in the first round of the Rule 5 Triple-A phase, and Chuckie Robinson (no relation), a catcher, moved from Houston to the Reds in the third round. Errol is a .262 career hitter in four pro seasons and has reached the Triple-A level. “He’s a really good athlete. He’s extremely versatile,” Rob Coughlin, Cincinnati’s director of pro scouting, told mlb.com. Chuckie is a .249 hitter over four pro seasons and played at the Class AA level in 2019. He has a 15-homer season on his ledger. Reed, a storied slugger at Houlka High and ICC, was plucked out of the Texas system by the Red Sox in the first round of the Triple-A phase. “(W)e really believe in the power potential, so we’re excited to bring him into the organization,” Boston’s VP of professional scouting Gus Quattlebaum told mlb.com. Reed, a first baseman, is a .281 hitter with 41 homers in three pro seasons. He played high-A ball in 2019.
Trent Giambrone, former Delta State standout, doesn’t appear to have lost his hitting stroke despite many months away from facing live pitching. Giambrone, a Chicago Cubs farmhand currently playing in the Roberto Clemente (Puerto Rican) League, went 2-for-5 with two homers and four RBIs for Caguas on Wednesday. The 26-year-old infielder is 3-for-9 in two games since the league got under way. Giambrone was lighting up the Cactus League last spring, batting .458 with a homer and 12 RBIs in 15 games for the Cubs. Then, in mid-March, baseball came to a screeching halt. When MLB resumed in July, Giambrone was not among the 60 players in the Cubs’ pool for the 2020 season and thus never got any at-bats even in the team’s alternate camp. A 25th-round draft pick out of DSU in 2016, the 5-foot-8, 175-pound Giambrone reached Triple-A Iowa in 2019 and hit .241 with 23 homers and 17 steals. He’s a good glove man, having won a national defensive player of the year award at DSU. He isn’t on the Cubs’ 40-man roster, so he’s eligible to be plucked in today’s Rule 5 draft.