Though his projected big league debut is two years away, Mississippi State product Justin Foscue is a player to keep an eye on in 2021. Foscue, drafted 14th overall by Texas last summer, has been rated the No. 8 second base prospect in the game by MLB Pipeline. Shortly after the draft, the Rangers put Foscue on their 60-man roster and invited him to the alternate training camp. Not every 2020 draft pick got that chance. He is already at their spring training facility in Arizona and, per an interview last week on milb.com’s “The Show Before The Show” podcast, is brimming with confidence as his first actual pro season approaches. “They told me they believe in my abilities,” Foscue said. “They believe in me. I appreciated them telling me that.” He said he has devoted a lot of off-season work on his defense. “That’s where I can take the biggest jump,” he said on the podcast. Foscue, who turns 22 on March 2, is likely to spend the ’21 season in the minors – “unless something crazy happens,” he said. When he eventually encounters the bright lights, big crowds and electric moments of the major leagues, his time at State and Dudy Noble Field will have him well-prepared. As Foscue said during the podcast: “(Dudy Noble) is the best place to play in college baseball. The best. By far. Not even close. … I’m so happy I got the opportunity to play there.”
Ready for some live baseball? Head for Blue Mountain on Jan. 30. The much-anticipated 2021 college season will commence in the Magnolia State two weeks from today, when Blue Mountain College hosts Rust College in a twinbill at the BMC SportsPlex. The Toppers are slated to play their first 19 games at home. BMC went 10-15 before play was abruptly halted in 2020, the NAIA program’s 11th season. … NCAA Division II members Mississippi College and Delta State are scheduled to open Feb. 6, as is NAIA Tougaloo. NAIA William Carey opens Feb. 12. Belhaven University’s schedule lists an invitational tournament, co-hosted with fellow NCAA Division III member Millsaps College, for Smith-Wills Stadium between Feb. 12-21. The NCAA Division I start date is Feb. 19, though the Big 3’s schedules have not been posted. Jackson State’s schedule lists the Tigers’ first game as Feb. 23 at Mississippi State.
Three Mississippi State products avoided arbitration hearings by agreeing to new MLB contracts on Friday. Brandon Woodruff, who has emerged as the ace of the Milwaukee staff, got a nice pay raise, jumping from a 2020 salary of $633,100 to a reported $3.3 million in his first year of arbitration eligibility. The right-hander from Wheeler, a 2019 All-Star, is 19-11 with a 3.66 ERA in three-plus seasons in the majors. He went 3-5, 3.05 in last year’s abbreviated campaign. Chris Stratton, also an MSU alum, got $1.1M deal from Pittsburgh in his first year of arbitration eligibility. The Tupelo native, who made $507,500 in 2020, is 18-18 with a 4.97 ERA over parts of five seasons and posted a 3.90 in 27 relief outings last season. Ex-State star Adam Frazier, Pittsburgh’s second baseman last year, agreed to a $4.3M contract as a second-year arbitration eligible player. The .273 career hitter made $2.8M last year, when he batted .230. There has been speculation he’ll be traded before the season starts.
For Luke Easter, it was Sept. 29, 1951. For Dmitri Young, it was May 6, 2003. Great days at the plate by those two Mississippi natives have been rated among the top 5 all-time single-game performances for their respective MLB teams. Writers for mlb.com compiled the lists. Jonestown native Easter’s big day came in at No. 4 for Cleveland and Vicksburg native Young’s was No. 4 for Detroit. Easter — who became on Aug. 11, 1949, the first black Mississippian to play in the major leagues — went 4-for-6 with two homers, a triple, three runs and five RBIs against Detroit on Sept. 29, 1951. One of his homers was a grand slam and the other a game-tying blast in the bottom of the eighth inning. Young went 5-for-5 with two homers, two triples and five RBIs on May 6, 2003, at Baltimore. His 15 total bases were one shy of Ty Cobb’s club record. On April 4, 2005, Young hit three homers on opening day for the Tigers. That rare feat – only three others have ever done it — didn’t make Detroit’s top five. … The Kansas City Royals’ page on mlb.com didn’t have a top 5 list as of Tuesday, but if one was produced, Frank White’s Aug. 3, 1982, performance would surely be on it. The Greenville native hit for the cycle with four RBIs. His fourth and final hit was a two-out triple in the bottom of the ninth that drove in the game-winning run against Detroit. P.S. Easter hit .274 with 93 homers in his brief big league career; he was 34 when he debuted. Young, who went to high school in California, hit .292 with 171 bombs and made two All-Star Games over his 13 seasons. White, who grew up in Missouri, was a .255 hitter, five-time All-Star, eight-time Gold Glover and a world champ (in 1985) who ought to be in the Hall of Fame.
The likely delayed start of spring training for most minor leaguers scuttles what might have been a cool scene this spring in Fort Myers, Fla., site of Boston’s spring training facility. Imagine a batting practice session that includes three big dudes from Mississippi, each a newcomer to the Red Sox, each with a well-earned reputation as a masher. Imagine Hunter Renfroe, Tyreque Reed and Blaze Jordan taking their hacks in a group. Wouldn’t that be something to see? Renfroe, 6 feet 1, 230 pounds, from Crystal Springs by way of Mississippi State, has 97 home runs over his four-plus big league seasons. The Red Sox signed him as a free agent in December. Reed is from Houlka and an Itawamba Community College product. The 6-1, 250-pound first baseman has hit 41 bombs in two-plus minor league seasons at the rookie and A-ball levels. The Red Sox took him from the Texas organization in December’s Rule 5 draft. Jordan, from prep powerhouse DeSoto Central, was drafted in the third round in 2020 and jumped in as the organization’s No. 15 prospect. The 6-2, 220 third baseman has yet to play a game above the high school level, but he has been making headlines as a slugger since he was a pre-teen. He won the high school home run derby at the 2019 MLB All-Star Game. Renfroe, Reed and Jordan, launching missiles into the Florida sky at JetBlue Park. Maybe next year. P.S. Baseball America has reported that Double-A and Class A level players won’t start spring training until after the big league and Triple-A clubs have left. That means a later start and finish to the season for the lower minors, including the Class AA Mississippi and Biloxi teams. Additionally, there will be no postseason at those levels. MLB, now running the streamlined minor leagues, has not released any schedules.
Professional baseball will return to Mississippi in 2021. Presumably. The Double-A Mississippi Braves and Biloxi Shuckers are selling season tickets, though the Southern League doesn’t have a schedule up yet. The cancelled 2020 minor league season left central Mississippi without a pro team for the first time since 2001 and just the second time since 1975, when the old Jackson Mets moved into Smith-Wills Stadium. The Texas League franchise departed in 1999 and the independent DiamondKats played just one season (2000) before folding. The indy Senators began their four-year run at Smith-Wills in 2002. But there was a pro team playing in the state 20 years ago. This year will mark the 20th anniversary of the swan song of the Greenville Bluesmen. The independent team played at Legion Field from 1996-2001 in first the Big South League and then the Texas-Louisiana League (along with the DiamondKats). The Bluesmen are remembered in some circles as the team that made a 1998 trade for a pitcher involving 10 pounds of catfish. (You can look it up.) They also won back-to-back Big South titles in 1996 and ’97. Alas, their Texas-Louisiana League years weren’t so good. They finished last every season, going 34-62 overall in 2001. Patrick O’Sullivan was the best player on that team; the former New York Mets draft pick, who played many years of pro ball, hit .323 with 18 homers. Tunica native Keith Dunn won 11 games. Southern Miss alum Danny Stout and Jackson native Sim Shanks also played on that club. There’s rich baseball history in Greenville. It’s the birthplace of former MLB stars George Scott and Frank White, and the city hosted minor league clubs in various leagues going back to 1902.
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.