01 Feb

winter’s classic

The star attraction in the Caribbean Series — the seven-team international event that begins today in Miami — is National League MVP Ronald Acuna Jr., who’ll play for his native Venezuela. Among the other current and former big leaguers dotting the rosters is Bobby Bradley, the ex-Harrison Central High star who’ll play for Mexico. Bradley hit .281 with three homers and 19 RBIs in a short stint with Monterrey in the Mexican Pacific League this season. The power-hitting first baseman has belted 216 homers in his nine-year pro career, including 17 in the big leagues with Cleveland. He hit 30 for Charleston in the independent Atlantic League last summer. Mexico opens round-robin play today against Curacao. Acuna, a former Mississippi Braves standout who hit .337 with 41 homers, 106 RBIs and 70 steals for Atlanta in 2023, will lead Venezuela against the Dominican Republic tonight in what ought to be a rousing affair. (ESPN-plus is carrying all the games.) On the D.R. roster is Jairo Asencio, who racked up 28 saves as the closer for the Southern League champion M-Braves in 2008, when he was known as Luis Valdez. Other notable M-Braves alumni on the rosters: Christian Bethancourt (now with the Miami Marlins) will play for Panama, Andrelton Simmons for Curacao and Jonathan Morales for Puerto Rico. P.S. On the home front today, William Carey University hosts Missouri Baptist; Blue Mountain Christian welcomes Lane College; and Southeastern Baptist (of Laurel) visits Southern-New Orleans to launch the season for the state’s four-year colleges.

26 Jan

new man in charge

The list starts with Brian Snitker — who has gone on to achieve a measure of fame — and will conclude in 2024 with Angel Flores. The Atlanta Braves have named Flores manager of the Double-A Mississippi Braves, who’ll end their 20-year run at Trustmark Park in Pearl this summer. Flores, who played minor league ball in the Detroit system, managed the High-Class A Rome Braves last season and previously served as a coach on Bruce Crabbe’s M-Braves staff in 2022. “I am well aware that this is the team’s last year in Mississippi, and our goal is to make it a special one for the city that has opened its arms to us for so long,” Flores said in a release from the M-Braves. Snitker, the award- and World Series-winning manager of the big-league Braves, was the team’s first skipper back in 2005. He was followed by Jeff Blauser, Phillip Wellman, Rocket Wheeler, Aaron Holbert, Luis Salazar, Chris Maloney, Wyatt Toregas/Dan Meyer, Crabbe and Kanekoa Texeira. Wellman managed the 2008 Southern League championship team, and Meyer, who replaced Toregas at midseason in 2021, skippered that club to the franchise’s only other pennant. At Rome last year, Flores managed several top Braves prospects who could be in Pearl this season, among them David McCabe, a corner infielder/DH; catcher Drake Baldwin; shortstop Ignacio Alvarez; and infielders Keshawn Ogans and Gerald Quintero. … The M-Braves will begin the 2024 season on the road on April 5 and play their home opener on April 9 against Biloxi.

09 Jan

going, going … gone

It is not a shock to those who follow local baseball that Pearl is losing its Southern League franchise. You could see this coming. The Mississippi Braves have not drawn well at Trustmark Park during most of the club’s 20-year run there. The average attendance over the last three seasons, since the minor leagues came back from the lost year of 2020, has been about 2,300, ranking near the bottom in all of Double-A baseball. (And that 2,300 is an announced figure, not an actual turnstile count, which would be significantly lower.) The real surprise was that the city of Pearl got a team in the first place back in 2005. Nearby Jackson, which hosted a Texas League franchise for 25 years, lost its team in 1999 because of declining attendance — and rising operating costs — at Smith-Wills Stadium. As Con Maloney, the former TL franchise owner said just after he sold the club, “There are a lot of good baseball fans here — just not enough of them to support a minor league team.” The Double-A Generals, a Houston Astros affiliate, averaged roughly 2,500 fans in their best season, 1996. (The turnstile count that year was 1,866.) In their final, lame-duck year of 1999, the team drew 1,416 per game — though 4,367 turned out for the final game that year. The independent DiamondKats moved in in 2000, drew about 700 a game and promptly folded up shop. The independent Senators arrived at Smith-Wills in 2002 and averaged about 1,700 per game for four years, opting to fold after the 2005 season, when the Braves began playing — to much initial fanfare — at Trustmark Park. It took an odd confluence of events and the involvement of some powerful people to get Trustmark Park built and get the Atlanta Braves to move their Southern League franchise from Greenville, S.C., to Pearl. But it happened. The team drew relatively well at first: over 3,500 per game (announced) the first three seasons at the 5,500-seat TeePee. But attendance dropped under 3,000 a game in Season 5 and was down to 2,600 per in 2010. They averaged 2,378 in 2023; the national MiLB average last season was 4,076. Rocket City (Huntsville, Ala.) led the SL at 4,911 per game. Bottom line, the M-Braves are averaging roughly what the Generals averaged in their best years — and that wasn’t enough to sustain the franchise. For the record, the Jackson Mets, who preceded the Generals at Smith-Wills (from 1975-90), never averaged more than 2,000 a game in announced figures. So, with the Trustmark Park lease up after this season, Diamond Baseball Holdings, which bought the franchise from Atlanta in 2021, is moving it to Columbus, Ga., into a renovated ballpark that — oddly enough — once housed the Astros team that moved to Jackson in 1991. Going back to 1953, when the original Jackson Senators pulled up stakes after their downtown stadium was destroyed by a tornado, central Mississippi has been jilted by six baseball teams. Will there be a seventh marriage?

18 Dec

tagging up

Kudos to Austin Riley, the DeSoto Central High product, for making the All-MLB first team for the second time in three years. Atlanta third baseman Riley is joined on the first team by fellow former Mississippi Braves Ronald Acuna Jr. (also recently named the Hank Aaron Award winner), Freddie Freeman and Spencer Strider (who should have gotten stronger Cy Young Award consideration). M-Braves alum Ozzie Albies was a second-team selection, as was Biloxi Shuckers product Devin Williams. … Luke Waddell, Jesse Franklin V, Luis De Avila, AJ Smith-Shawver and Drake Baldwin — 2023 M-Braves alums — were selected by milb.com as Atlanta Organization All-Stars. David McCabe, Ignacio Alvarez and Keyshawn Ogans — stars at High-Class A Rome — also made that team and likely will make it to Mississippi in 2024 (see previous post). … With the addition of free agent Hunter Renfroe, the Kansas City organization is practically overflowing with Mississippi connections. Former Mississippi State standout Renfroe, the veteran outfielder, joins fellow Bulldogs alum Chris Stratton, another recent signee, and Ole Miss product James McArthur, a 2023 rookie, on the Royals’ big league roster. Stratton and McArthur are both relievers. KC added ex-Hattiesburg High star Joe Gray Jr., an outfielder, to its farm system in the Rule 5 draft, plucking the once-highly touted outfielder from Milwaukee. Also in the minors are recent draft picks Dustin Dickerson (Southern Miss), Eric Cerantola (MSU), Hayden Dunhurst (UM), Brandon Johnson (UM) and Brennon McNair (Magee). … Good to see that former USM standout Chuckie Robinson has signed a minor league contract with the Chicago White Sox. A catcher who has some MLB experience, Robinson hit .290 with 13 homers in Triple-A for Cincinnati this past season and had been playing in the Dominican Winter League.

05 Dec

four months out

The 2023 Mississippi Braves deployed several position players who put up some nice numbers, but there really wasn’t a player who moved the needle on the excitement meter. No Michael Harris II or Ronald Acuna or Dansby Swanson type. Might there be one in 2024? Baseball America ranks three position players among Atlanta’s top 10 prospects, and it’s possible all three could be with the M-Braves when they open on the road on April 5. David McCabe, a corner infielder/DH, is No. 6; catcher Drake Baldwin No. 7; and shortstop Ignacio Alvarez No. 8. McCabe, 6 feet 3, 230 pounds, played at two Class A levels in 2023 and hit .276 with 17 homers and 75 RBIs, then hit .278 in the Arizona Fall League. A college draftee out of UNC-Charlotte, the 23-year-old McCabe is projected as Atlanta’s DH in 2027. Baldwin, a Missouri State alum, is rated as the top power-hitting prospect in the Braves’ system after mashing 16 homers at three levels in 2023. A lefty hitter, he played 14 games (.321, one homer) for the M-Braves late last season before finishing in Triple-A. The most dynamic of those three prospects is Alvarez, the highest rated position player (at No. 8) on Atlanta’s Top 30 by MLB Pipeline. The 20-year-old Alvarez, drafted out of a California junior college, played at High-Class A Rome last season and hit .284 with seven homers, 66 RBIs and 16 steals. BA rates him the best overall hitter in the Atlanta system. Also worth keeping an eye on are infielders Keshawn Ogans and Gerald Quintero, both of whom had solid seasons at Rome in 2023 and could move up. Quintero is a second baseman in the Ozzie Albies mold — 5 feet 5, 155 pounds — who stole 29 bases while batting .251 for the R-Braves. He has 96 career steals in three years. Ogans, out of Cal-Berkley, hit .266 with nine homers at Rome and .299 in the AFL, where he made the Fall Stars Game. … The M-Braves’ best position players in 2023 included infielder Luke Waddell, a Southern League postseason All-Star who batted .290 and stole 26 bases, and outfielder Cody Milligan — injured for a chunk of time — who hit .280. Cal Conley, a middle infielder, has dropped to No. 21 (per MLB Pipeline) on the Braves’ prospect chart after batting .219 (with 32 bags) in 2023. Outfielder Jesse Franklin V — projected by Baseball America as Atlanta’s starting left fielder in 2027 — hit .232 with 15 homers and 21 steals last season and is now rated the No. 22 prospect. P.S. Former Jackson Mets catcher — and MLB manager — John Gibbons and ex-M-Braves outfielder Antoan Richardson have been named to the New York Mets’ coaching staff as bench coach and first-base coach, respectively.

18 Oct

gold rush

Austin Riley, the former DeSoto Central High star now manning third base for Atlanta, and ex-Mississippi State standout Nathaniel Lowe, Texas’ first baseman, are among the finalists for Rawlings Gold Glove Awards. Both have previously been recognized for their hitting prowess, Riley winning a Silver Slugger in 2021 and Lowe taking one in 2022. Also making the top three at each position (in each league) were former Mississippi Braves Michael Harris II (center field), Dansby Swanson (shortstop) and Freddie Freeman (first base) and Biloxi Shuckers alum Mauricio Dubon (both second base and utility). Ke’Bryan Hayes, son of Hattiesburg native and ex-big leaguer Charlie Hayes, is among Riley’s competition at third base in the National League. Riley’s defensive metrics don’t compare well to Hayes’ or Ryan McMahon’s, but the ex-M-Braves star committed just 11 errors in 393 chances in 2023 and routinely made outstanding plays (see Game 2 of the NL Division Series). Gold Glove winners will be announced on Nov. 5. Of note: Bryson Stott, Philadelphia’s second baseman, is a finalist in his first year after moving from shortstop to second. Stott has credited Laurel native Bobby Dickerson with helping him make the transition. Dickerson, a former minor league player and longtime MLB coach, is in his second year as Phillies infield coach. He also has worked extensively with third baseman Alec Bohm and Bryce Harper, who learned to play first base at midseason. Bohm made several outstanding plays in the Phillies’ 10-0 win Tuesday in Game 2 of the NL Championship Series. “As much as we have a lot of really great hitters, games are won on defense,” Bohm told mlb.com.

28 Sep

down the stretch

Another wild night in Atlanta saw another clinching for the Braves, another amazing milestone for Ronald Acuna and another crippling loss for the Chicago Cubs. Former Mississippi Braves star Acuna stole his 70th base on Wednesday night — notching the first 40 homer-70 steal season in MLB history — and scored the game-winning run on an Ozzie Albies hit in the 10th inning as the Braves topped the Cubs 6-5 at Truist Park. (If Acuna doesn’t win MVP, it’s a crime.) Atlanta clinched the top seed and home-field advantage in the National League postseason. M-Braves alum Albies homered and drove in three runs all told; he has 33 and 107. The Cubs, suffering a second straight heart-breaking defeat in the ATL, are now tied for third in the NL wild card race with Miami, which holds the tiebreaker. In other games of note: Former Mississippi State standout Kendall Graveman pitched a tidy fifth inning in relief and plucked the win as Houston beat Seattle 8-3 and clung to the third wild card in the American League, 1.5 games ahead of the Mariners. Graveman has two wins, four holds and a 2.45 ERA in 22 games for the Astros, who have won just five of their last 15. (Nothing has been clinched in the AL West, which Texas still leads.) Baltimore, with MSU product Jordan Westburg contributing a hit and an RBI walk, beat Washington 5-1 and reduced its magic number for clinching the AL East to 1. Rookie Westburg is batting .261. P.S. Milwaukee, which has clinched the NL Central, recalled former State standout Ethan Small from Triple-A Nashville. The former first-rounder did not pitch Wednesday. … Four Biloxi Shuckers and two M-Braves made milb.com’s Southern League All-Star team. The Shuckers’ Carlos F. Rodriguez (9-6, 2.77 ERA) was named the pitcher of the year, and outfielder Jackson Chourio, catcher Jeferson Quero and utilityman Tyler Black also made the team. The M-Braves were represented by pitcher Luis De Avila and second baseman Luke Waddell. … Mississippi State ranks 10th and Ole Miss 11th in Collegiate Baseball’s 2024 recruiting rankings. Arkansas’ class was rated No. 1, and 10 of the top 11 are SEC schools (if you include Texas). Southern Miss did not crack the top 50.

02 Sep

watch for it

Featuring an upper-90s fastball and three other pitches, Hurston Waldrep has what Baseball America called “tantalizing upside potential” in evaluating the right-hander’s MLB draft prospects. Atlanta took him with the 24th overall pick in July, and tonight the onetime Southern Miss standout is slated to make his Double-A debut for the Mississippi Braves at Trustmark Park in Pearl. Waldrep, rated the Braves’ No. 2 prospect by MLB Pipeline, has made four previous pro starts, all in A-ball, posting a 1.20 ERA with 25 strikeouts in 15 innings. The Georgia native averaged 13.9 K’s per nine innings in three years of college ball, two at USM and last season with Florida. He went 10-3, 4.16, for the Gators and helped them reach the College World Series finals. When he toes the rubber tonight (6:05) against Rocket City, Waldrep will join a list of Mississippi connections to play for the M-Braves that includes current outfielder Brandon Parker plus Zack Bird, Brent Leach, Van Pope, Jay Powell, Austin Riley, Michael Rosamond and John Thomson. P.S. Colton Ledbetter, a 2023 draftee out of Mississippi State, went 2-for-4 with a run Friday night as Low-Class A Charleston clinched a Carolina League playoff berth by beating Myrtle Beach. Ledbetter is batting .324 in 11 games for the Tampa Bay affiliate. … In MLB, former MSU standout Nathaniel Lowe extended his hitting streak to 13 games Friday for Texas, which lost at home to Minnesota and remained a game back of Seattle and Houston in the American League West. … Hunter Renfroe went 0-for-5 in his Cincinnati debut as the Reds split a doubleheader with the Chicago Cubs. MSU product Renfroe started the opener, playing right field and batting cleanup; he entered Game 2 as a pinch hitter. … Ex-Ole Miss star Grae Kessinger was activated from the injured list by Houston and former Rebels standout James McArthur was recalled from Triple-A by Kansas City as MLB rosters expanded to 28. … Jackson Prep’s Konnor Griffin went 2-for-3 with a walk as Team USA beat Spain 6-2 in the U-18 World Cup at Taipei, Taiwan. The U.S. team is 2-0 in the tournament’s opening round.

01 Sep

seizing the moment

On May 9, 2017, before a modest-sized crowd at Trustmark Park in Pearl, Ronald Acuna Jr. demonstrated the flair for the dramatic that has become a defining characteristic of the Atlanta Braves outfielder. In his first Double-A game — a big moment for every professional player — on the first pitch he saw, Acuna launched a home run over the left-field fence. He went 3-for-4 with three RBIs in that game, powering the Mississippi Braves to victory. That indelible memory bubbled up — yet again — while watching Acuna on Thursday night. Facing the Los Angeles Dodgers before a huge crowd at Dodger Stadium, the 25-year-old Venezuela native hit his 30th homer of the 2023 season, becoming the first player in MLB history to have 30 homers and 60 steals in the same season. More than that, the history-making homer was a grand slam — a 429-foot bomb to left-center in the second inning that gave the Braves a four-run lead en route to a hair-raising 8-7 win over a team it might just meet again for the National League pennant. Acuna, also a superb right fielder, later came within inches of robbing Mookie Betts of one of the two home runs he hit in fueling LA’s comeback. (And, yes, Acuna got married to his longtime girlfriend hours before the game. Talk about dramatic.) With a month left in the season, Acuna is on an MVP track, batting .337 with 30 homers, 83 RBIs, 120 runs and 62 steals. … Former M-Braves Austin Riley and Michael Harris II also homered for Atlanta against Lance Lynn, the warhorse out of Ole Miss who suffered his first bad outing in six for the Dodgers since being acquired in a trade. Lynn has allowed the most homers — 37 — in the majors this season. Spencer Strider, another M-Braves alum, went six innings for Atlanta, punching out nine, to get the win, his 16th, which leads MLB. He may well be on a Cy Young Award track.

30 Aug

bat for hire

A day after being placed on waivers, Hunter Renfroe did a little personal public relations work, going 3-for-4 with a home run and four RBIs in the Los Angeles Angels’ 10-8 win at Philadelphia. The hard-luck Angels waved the white flag on 2023 on Tuesday when they placed several key veterans on waivers, hoping they might be claimed — and their remaining salary picked up — by a contending club. Ex-Mississippi State star Renfroe showed what he is capable of against the Phillies, who happen to be a contender. He belted his 19th homer, a two-run shot in the second inning, and added a two-run single as part of an eighth-inning rally. He also had a double, his 31st. The Crystal Springs native, in a bit of a slump of late, is batting .242 with 56 RBIs. With 176 career homers, he ranks seventh on the all-time list among Mississippi natives. He also plays a mean right field, having registered eight assists this year and 65 career. Renfroe signed a 1-year, $11.9 million contract with the Angels as a free agent in the off-season, joining his fifth different team in five years. Another change of uniforms might be in the offing. P.S. Darius Vines, who went 7-4 with a 3.95 ERA for the Double-A Mississippi Braves in 2022, is set to join the long list of M-Braves alums to pitch in the majors. The right-hander is scheduled to start tonight for Atlanta — at Colorado, not exactly the place you’d pick for your debut. … Hurston Waldrep, the Braves’ first-round pick in July who joined the M-Braves on Tuesday, made four starts in A-ball, last pitching on Aug. 26. On four days rest, his next start would come Thursday, when the M-Braves play Rocket City at Trustmark Park. No announcement has been made. The Southern Miss alum, drafted out of Florida, has a 1.20 ERA so far this season.