Nice start for Austin Riley in Atlanta’s spring training opener against Tampa Bay. The former DeSoto Central High standout, playing third base and batting third, went 2-for-3 with an RBI. The Braves are counting on Riley to produce at third base with more consistency in his third MLB season. He hit .239 with eight homers last year and had a big bomb in the postseason. His career numbers are .232 and 26. “The thing that is encouraging about Austin is all the way through, since he’s been a pro, he’s made adjustments and figured things out,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters last week. “He’s gotten better every year.” … Ole Miss product Chris Ellis, in camp as a non-roster invitee, started that game for Tampa Bay and pitched a scoreless frame. Other spring debuts of note by Mississippians in the majors: Mitch Moreland got a hit in his first at-bat in an Oakland uniform. Hunter Renfroe went 0-for-2 in his first Boston appearance. Billy Hamilton, in the Cleveland lineup as the DH, went 0-for-1 with a walk and a run. Tim Anderson went 1-for-3 for the Chicago White Sox, and JaCoby Jones put up a 1-for-3 for Detroit. Jacob Lindgren registered two strikeouts in an inning of work for the White Sox. Ethan Small worked a clean inning and got a hold for Milwaukee. Grae Kessinger went 1-for-1 for Houston. Jacob Waguespack had a tough day for Toronto, yielding two home runs against the New York Yankees.
Here are a few Mississippians to keep an eye on in MLB spring training:
Bobby Bradley likely will get every opportunity to earn the first base job for Cleveland. A lefty-hitting first baseman, the former Harrison Central High standout has 147 minor league homers and put up 33 in Triple-A in 2019, the last year he actually played a real game. He got 45 at-bats with the Indians in 2019 but wasn’t invited to the team’s alternate camp last summer. He’s 24. His prospect clock is running out. It’s time to break through.
Anthony Alford is due some good luck. The former Mr. Baseball (and Football) from Petal was handed the center field job in Pittsburgh last summer after being claimed on waivers from Toronto. In his fifth game, he broke his elbow crashing into an outfield wall. Alford was dogged by injuries during his years with the Blue Jays and has only 83 MLB at-bats on his ledger dating to 2017. He is penciled in as the Pirates’ center fielder for 2021. Fingers are crossed.
After four humdrum seasons with St. Louis, Mike Mayers thrust himself into the Los Angeles Angels’ bullpen plans for 2021 with a spectacular September. The ex-Ole Miss star posted a 0.98 ERA, two wins, two saves and a .113 batting average against in 14 appearances. He was named the American League’s reliever of the month. The right-hander, who has a 5.69 career ERA, will try to keep the good times rolling this spring – and beyond.
Nate Lowe has gone from the best team in the American League in 2020 to the worst, but it might be a good career move. Texas traded with Tampa Bay for the former Mississippi State standout with the express intention of making him their regular first baseman. In 219 at-bats spread over two seasons with the Rays, the lefty-hitting Lowe batted .251 with 11 homers. The Rangers are in the midst of a rebuild, and Lowe could be a key building block.
The 2021 season will be the eighth in pro ball for Justin Steele, the former George County High star drafted by the Chicago Cubs way back in 2014. The left-hander, now 25, has battled injuries over the years and appeared in just 80 minor league games. He pitched in the old Southern League in 2019 and spent 2020 in the Cubs’ alternate camp. He has a 3.62 career ERA. The Cubs reportedly like his stuff. He might contend for a rotation spot this spring.
P.S. Former Petal High standout Demarcus Evans is rehabbing a right lat strain and reportedly will not be ready to open the season with Texas. He is following a throwing program in camp. Evans, a 6-foot-5 right-hander, made his MLB debut last season, working four innings and allowing one run, a homer by Albert Pujols. … Mississippi State alum Dakota Hudson is in St. Louis’ camp as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery. It’s possible though unlikely that he’ll pitch for the Cardinals in 2021. “Mentally, I’m waiting on September,” he told mlb.com. “I’m just trying to stay on pace to where that’s an opportunity to compete at the end of the year. Be available is the ultimate goal.” He has 19 wins in 40 starts over the last two seasons. … Olive Branch native Kendall Williams, who went to prep school in Florida, is in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ camp as a non-roster invitee. The 6-6 right-hander was a second-round pick by Toronto in 2019 and was traded last summer in the Ross Stripling deal.
3 – Wins by Ole Miss against top 10 teams in the State Farm College Baseball Showdown, earning the Rebels their first No. 1 ranking by Baseball America and D1baseball.
11 – Combined RBIs by Mississippi State’s Luke Hancock and Rowdey Jordan in a 2-1 finish at the State Farm event in Texas.
45 – Strikeouts by Southern Miss pitchers in going 2-1 against Northwestern State; Hunter Stanley and Ben Etheridge combined for 25 K’s.
7 – Home runs by Pearl River Community College’s Tate Parker, leading NJCAA Division II. Northwest CC’s Peyton Mills is second with six.
11 – Hits by Kirkland Trahan, who has two homers, six RBIs and seven runs, for 2-4 Delta State.
8 – Hits by Ken Scott, who has a homer and four RBIs, for 0-6 Mississippi College.
11 – Runs by Nick Lucido, who is 11-for-22, for 4-2 Belhaven.
8 – RBIs by Mason Little, who is 9-for-21, for 2-4 Millsaps.
2 – Wins in two starts by Connor Adams, who has a 2.70 ERA, for 4-2 William Carey.
0 – Combined runs by Jackson State (0-3) and Mississippi Valley State (0-2); Alcorn State hasn’t gotten on the field yet.
Full squad workouts are under way in Florida and Arizona. Actual spring training games begin Sunday. Here’s a look at Mississippians in camp:
40-man roster members
Anthony Alford (Petal), Pittsburgh; Tim Anderson (East Central CC), Chicago White Sox; Bobby Bradley (Harrison Central), Cleveland; Corey Dickerson (Meridian CC), Miami; Adam Frazier (Mississippi State), Pittsburgh; JaCoby Jones (Richton), Detroit; Nate Lowe (MSU), Texas; Mitch Moreland (MSU), Oakland; Hunter Renfroe (MSU), Boston; Austin Riley (DeSoto Central), Atlanta; Brent Rooker (MSU), Minnesota
Garrett Crochet (Ocean Springs), Chicago White Sox; Demarcus Evans (Petal), Texas; Kendall Graveman (MSU), Seattle; Jonathan Holder (MSU), Chicago Cubs; Dakota Hudson (MSU), St. Louis (DL); Lance Lynn (Ole Miss), Chicago White Sox; Mike Mayers (Ole Miss), Los Angeles Angels; Drew Pomeranz (Ole Miss), San Diego; Cody Reed (Northwest CC), Tampa Bay; Justin Steele (George County High), Chicago Cubs; Chris Stratton (MSU), Pittsburgh; Spencer Turnbull (Madison Central), Detroit; Jacob Waguespack (Ole Miss), Toronto; Bobby Wahl (Ole Miss), Milwaukee; Brandon Woodruff (MSU), Milwaukee
Gavin Collins (MSU), Cleveland; Nick Fortes (Ole Miss), Miami; Justin Foscue (MSU), Texas; Trent Giambrone (Delta State) Chicago Cubs; Billy Hamilton (Taylorsville), Cleveland; Grae Kessinger (Ole Miss), Houston; Jack Kruger (MSU), Los Angeles Angels; Jacob Robson (MSU), Detroit
Ben Bracewell (MSU), Oakland; Cody Carroll (Southern Miss), Baltimore; Chris Ellis (Ole Miss), Tampa Bay; Jacob Lindgren (MSU), Chicago White Sox; Kirk McCarty (USM), Cleveland; David Parkinson (Ole Miss), Philadelphia; Ryan Rolison (Ole Miss), Colorado; Nick Sandlin (USM), Cleveland; Ethan Small (MSU), Milwaukee
NCAA Division I schools in Mississippi have not yet started playing ball, but we already have a theme for 2021. Pitching. The state’s Big 3 are loaded with quality arms, and Jackson State has a couple to crow about, as well. Ole Miss’ Gunnar Hoglund and Doug Nikhazy and Mississippi State’s Christian MacLeod, Eric Cerantola and Will Bednar are showing up on various lists of top MLB draft prospects for this summer. Hoglund, Nikhazy and MacLeod are on the 55-player Golden Spikes Award watch list. Hoglund has been selected to — at last count — four preseason All-America teams. Nikhazy, MacLeod and Southern Miss ace Walker Powell were pegged as second-team All-Americans by Collegiate Baseball, and Powell is the preseason pitcher of the year in C-USA. JSU features Nik Galatas, chosen as the SWAC’s preseason pitcher of the year, and Steven Davila, a top closer in the league. The considerable depth of the Ole Miss and State staffs will be tested right out of the chute this weekend in the State Farm College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, Texas, where they’ll face three nationally ranked Texas schools. USM opens at home Sunday with a doubleheader against Northwestern State; JSU is at Mercer in Georgia for a twinbill today. Defense wins championships in football. In basketball, shooting. In baseball, it’s pitching. Mississippi’s D-I schools are armed for the task.
Surely, sometime this season, when a decent number of fans are allowed back in Target Field, the Minnesota Twins will have a Brian Dozier Day of some sort. The former Southern Miss star, who announced his retirement on Thursday, deserves it. He was the face of the franchise for the better part of the seven years he spent with the team that drafted him out of USM in 2009. One Minneapolis columnist wrote that Dozier ranks as the third-best second baseman in the Twins’ long history, behind Hall of Famer Rod Carew and Chuck Knoblauch. Dozier hit more homers than any Twins second baseman in history and tied an MLB record for homers by a second baseman in a single season when he launched 42 in 2016. With 192 career bombs, Dozier ranks fifth all-time among Mississippi-born players. He topped 1,000 career hits and 100 career steals. But of course, he was about a lot more than numbers. He won several leadership and community service awards during his time in Minnesota. “He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever been around in my life,” Ron Gardenhire, one of Dozier’s managers, said in a Zoom call tribute arranged by the Twins on Thursday. It seems a shame that Dozier is done at 33, apparently healthy after barely playing in 2020. Players get old quick these days. But he said during a very upbeat Zoom call that he is at peace with his decision and is looking forward to spending more time with his wife and two young kids. He even joked about heading off to have a beer rather than to a ballfield. Dozier crammed a lot into his nine MLB seasons. He was an All-Star, a Home Run Derby participant, a Gold Glove winner and a World Series champion (with Washington in 2019). He deserves to be celebrated.
After what felt like an oddly long wait, Mitch Moreland has a job for 2021. The former Mississippi State standout will play for Oakland, having agreed to a $2.25 million deal. He’ll likely be the DH for a team that expects to contend in the American League West. The A’s have slick-fielding Matt Olson at first base but recently traded away Khris Davis, their primary DH last year. Moreland, 35, has been in the big leagues since 2010 and carries a .252 average with 176 home runs. He hit 10 bombs last season, split between Boston and San Diego. P.S. Add the names of Grae Kessinger (Houston), Kirk McCarty (Cleveland), Jacob Robson (Detroit), Trent Giambrone (Chicago Cubs), Ryan Rolison (Colorado), David Parkinson (Philadelphia) and Cody Carroll (Baltimore) to the list of Magnolia State college alums headed to big league camps as non-roster players.
Goodbye, Southern League. The Mississippi Braves will play this season in the Double-A South league, specifically in the South Division of the Double-A South. Biloxi is also in the division. Under the new configuration set up by Major League Baseball, which has taken over minor league operations, there is no more Pacific Coast League. No Texas League. No Carolina League. Gwinnett, Atlanta’s Triple-A club formerly of the International League, will play in the Triple-A East Southeast Division. There is also a Double-A Northeast Southwest Division and a Low-A Southeast West Division. Could get confusing. But at least there will be minor league ball in Mississippi in 2021. Montgomery and Pensacola join the M-Braves and Shuckers in the Double-A South South. The Double-A South is essentially the old Southern League minus two teams: Jacksonville moved to Triple-A and Jackson (Tenn.) no longer has a team. As part of the revamped minor leagues, players will get salary increases, facilities will get needed upgrades and travel will be decreased. All good. Minor league schedules are not out yet, but it is expected that the Southern League – er, Double-A South – will start play in May and run through September.
It would be an understatement to say Pearl River Community College has come out swinging. The 4-0 Wildcats, ranked seventh in the NJCAA preseason poll, hit 11 homers in a doubleheader sweep of Mississippi Gulf Coast on Sunday and have 16 bombs on the season. Van Seibert hit four homers on Sunday, three in Game 1, when the Wildcats set an apparent school record with eight. “It’s just what we do around here,” Seibert said in a release. … East Mississippi, which went 1-13 in 2020’s abbreviated campaign, is also 4-0, including a sweep of Northwest, ranked fourth by the NJCAA. Meridian moved to 4-0 with a sweep of Copiah-Lincoln on Sunday. … Delta State, starting Year 2 under coach Rodney Batts, dropped two of three games at Shorter over the weekend despite the efforts of Jones juco transfer Kirkland Trahan, who went 6-for-12 with two homers and five RBIs. … Mississippi College was outscored 18-2 in a Sunday doubleheader loss to Valdosta, nationally ranked in NCAA Division II. Game 3 of the Gulf South series is today in Clinton. … William Carey University won its opener on Sunday thanks to a walk-off double by Jake Lycette, a freshman from Brandon, then completed a sweep against Clarke (Iowa) behind the pitching of Carlo Graffeo and Connor Adams. Game 3 is today. … Blue Mountain College, stung by the tragic death of pitcher Chris Maurin in a Jan. 28 accident, is slated to open its season Tuesday at home against Tougaloo. The Toppers have had five games either postponed or cancelled. … Belhaven University is now slated to open with a three-game series against Piedmont College starting Thursday at Jackson’s Smith-Wills Stadium. … Millsaps opens with back-to-back twinbills at Hendrix on Saturday and Sunday. P.S. Trivia time: Who was the one and only manager of the Jackson DiamondKats, the ill-fated independent club that played at Smith-Wills Stadium in 2000? Answer: Steve Dillard, the former Ole Miss star and big leaguer who turns 70 today. Dillard, an infielder, hit .243 over parts of eight years in the majors and managed in the affiliated minors in addition to his year with the D-Kats.
Former Southern Miss standout Nick Sandlin, whose rapid rise in Cleveland’s system was stalled by injury in 2019, has received an invitation to big league spring training as a non-roster player. Mississippi State product Gavin Collins, a catcher who played in high Class A in 2019, also got an invite to the Indians’ camp in Goodyear, Ariz. Teams are beginning to announce their non-roster invitees as it appears spring training will begin as scheduled in a couple of weeks. Sandlin, a sidearm-style right-hander, was a second-round pick in 2018 and reached Triple-A early in 2019 before a stress fracture in his arm ended his season. Sandlin got work in the Indians’ alternate camp during the 2020 season. He has a 2.68 ERA and seven saves in 49 pro games. Collins, a 13th-round pick in 2016, is a .257 hitter with 24 homers in 295 minor league games. P.S. As part of a series on minor league record-holders, milb.com featured Esix Snead as the modern day leader in career stolen bases with 507. Second on the list, somewhat surprisingly, is Trenidad (Trent) Hubbard, who was the second baseman on the first Jackson Generals team in 1991. Hubbard swiped 488 bags in a career that spanned 20 seasons (1986-2005) and included some big league time. (Note: Taylorsville’s Billy Hamilton, who set a minor league single-season record with 155 steals in 2012, has 396 minor league bags in 505 games.)