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.
Garrett Crochet, the only Mississippian ranked in MLB Pipeline’s new list of the Top 100 minor league prospects, provided a sneak preview of his potential last September. Not to get carried away, but it was a fairly jaw-dropping debut from the Chicago White Sox’s 2020 first-round pick. The 6-foot-6 left-hander from Ocean Springs by way of Tennessee pitched six scoreless innings over five appearances. He allowed three hits, struck out eight, walked none. He struck out the first batter he faced as a pro: a called third strike at 100 mph. But there’s so much more. To say Crochet throws hard sells him way short. According to a recent mlb.com article, there were 311 100 mph-plus pitches all told in 2020. Crochet threw 45 of those. And he only threw 85 pitches. “He’s already the hardest-throwing White Sox pitcher ever,” the mlb.com story said. He also throws a quality slider and a changeup. Crochet left his one postseason appearance with an arm injury that proved to be minor. There is great anticipation to see what he does this year for a strong White Sox team. Crochet likely will pitch out of the bullpen initially in 2021, but at some point he’ll move to the rotation, which was his role at UT. … Crochet is No. 56 on the top prospects list. (Obviously, it’s a tough crowd.) Former Mississippi Braves stars Cristian Pache (12), Ian Anderson (18) and Drew Waters (35) also made the list, as did Ke’Bryan Hayes (9), son of Hattiesburg native and ex-big leaguer Charlie. Pache, Anderson and Hayes had nice MLB debuts in 2020.
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.
Lance Lynn’s 104-71 career record is impressive, as is his 3.57 ERA. The ex-Ole Miss star has averaged 8.9 strikeouts per nine innings over a nine-year big league career. But perhaps the most impressive thing about the newest member of the Chicago White Sox’s rotation is his tenacity. He shows up for work and gives all he’s got. He made 13 starts for a last-place Texas team in the 60-game 2020 season, went 6-3 and averaged 6.5 innings per. On one memorable occasion, Aug. 14 at Colorado, the 33-year-old right-hander came into the Rangers’ dugout after the eighth inning, sitting at 98 pitches with a 3-2 lead, and proclaimed, “I’m finishing it.” He did, a complete-game two-hitter. From 2012-19, he made at least 29 starts each season, excepting 2016 which he missed after Tommy John surgery. Traded by the Rangers late Monday for two prospects, Lynn joins former East Central Community College standout Tim Anderson and Ocean Springs High alum Garrett Crochet on a White Sox team that could be scary good in 2021. P.S. Onetime Mississippi Braves outfielder Mel Rojas Jr. earned Korean Baseball Organization MVP honors for 2020. He hit .349 and led the league with 47 homers and 135 RBIs in 142 games for the KT Wiz. He fell five batting average points short of winning the Triple Crown. This was his fourth season in the KBO. He is reportedly looking for an MLB offer.
One of the behind-the-scenes stars of the San Diego Padres’ remarkable 2020 season was bench coach Bobby Dickerson, who was born in and still resides in Laurel. Dickerson, who helped the Padres improve their infield defense en route to making the postseason for the first time in 14 years, has been named Baseball America’s Major League Coach of the Year. BA described Dickerson like this: “Big motor, no-nonsense, motivating personality, no fear, creative, dedicated and unselfish enough that he will move mountains just to help a player improve even a few degrees.” The 2020 season was Dickerson’s first with the Padres. He had a heart attack in May but was with the team when the season began in late July. Dickerson played college ball at Nicholls State and minor league ball for several years before becoming a coach and manager. He managed in the Southern League for four years at West Tenn (2002-05). He landed a big league coaching job with Baltimore in 2011 and spent eight years with the Orioles and one with Philadelphia before joining Jayce Tingler’s staff in San Diego. Dickerson’s son Dustin, who played at West Jones High, was Southern Miss’ starting shortstop in 2020. … Baseball America previously honored former Mississippi Braves star Freddie Freeman as its MLB player of the year and ex-M-Braves skipper Brian Snitker as the manager of the year.
From the Where Did the Time Go Dept.: Charlie Morton, who has signed with Atlanta for 2021, pitched for the Mississippi Braves in 2007, the Double-A club’s third year in Pearl. The 37-year-old right-hander is the lone player from any of those first three teams still in the majors. A somber reminder of what a fleeting thing a pro baseball career truly is. The ’07 M-Braves’ roster also included Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Matt Harrison, Jo-Jo Reyes, Brandon Jones, Joey Devine and Brent Lillibridge, among other future big leaguers. Managed by Phillip Wellman, the ’07 M-Braves made the Southern League playoffs for the first time. Morton was not a real standout that year, going 4-6 with a 4.29 ERA mostly as a reliever, but he did throw a gem in the playoffs. He debuted with Atlanta in 2008, then was traded the next year. Morton’s MLB career really didn’t take off until 2017, when he helped Houston win the World Series. He nearly won another ring with Tampa Bay this season. He can help the Braves in what likely will be his final season.
Eleven years ago today, Chris Coghlan became the first and so far only Mississippi native or college alumnus to win an MLB rookie of the year award. Coghlan, a former Ole Miss star, claimed the trophy with the Florida Marlins in 2009. He is one of only three Magnolia State natives or college alums to win one of baseball’s three big individual player awards. Grenada native Dave Parker won the National League MVP trophy in 1978, and Meridian Community College product Cliff Lee was the American League’s Cy Young Award winner in 2008. … Former Mississippi minor league players raked in a nice haul of awards this year, including former Mississippi Braves standout Freddie Freeman winning NL MVP and Biloxi Shuckers alum Devin Williams NL rookie of the year. Williams also won the league’s Trevor Hoffman Award as reliever of the year. Freeman won a Silver Slugger, as did M-Braves alum Ronald Acuna. Former M-Braves pitcher Max Fried and ex-Shuckers outfielder Trent Grisham, who plays for San Diego, picked up Gold Gloves. … Freeman is the first M-Braves product to win an MVP but not the first former Jackson area Double-A player to do so. Former Jackson Mets star Kevin Mitchell was NL MVP in 1989 with San Francisco, narrowly beating out former Mississippi State star and Giants teammate Will Clark. The M-Braves have produced two rookies of the year, Acuna in 2018 and Craig Kimbrel in 2011, and Jackson Mets alum Darryl Strawberry took that honor in 1983. Mike Scott, a former JaxMets pitcher, won the Cy Young Award in 1986.
This was a no-brainer, really. Tim Anderson was the clear choice for the 2020 Cool Papa Bell Award, given here for the top performance by a Mississippian (native or college alum) in the major leagues. Former East Central Community College star Anderson, who also won the award in 2019, earned a Silver Slugger this season at shortstop in the American League, which, considering all the good players at that position, is quite an honor. In 49 games, Anderson batted .322 with 10 homers, 21 RBIs and a league-leading 45 runs. He helped the Chicago White Sox reach the postseason and went 9-for-14 in the wild card round. Anderson was the AL batting champion in 2019, a year when he also garnered a lot of attention for his demonstrative style, including some much-publicized bat flips. The White Sox have hired a new manager for 2021: Tony LaRussa, who is not just old at 76 but has a reputation as an old-school skipper. Anderson, for his part, said he won’t be constrained. “I won’t change my style, the way I play, for Tony. I will continue to be me,” he told reporters after winning the Silver Slugger award. We’ll see how that works out. … Previous winners of the Cool Papa Bell Award, which honors Negro Leagues legend Bell, the first Mississippi native to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, include Corey Dickerson (twice), Mitch Moreland, Brian Dozier (twice), Desmond Jennings, Lance Lynn, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt and Chris Coghlan. P.S. Kudos to Biloxi Shuckers alum Devin Williams on winning the National League Rookie of the Year award. He is the first relief pitcher to be named the loop’s top rookie since former Mississippi Braves star Craig Kimbrel in 2011.
Thirteen years ago, fans of the Mississippi Braves got a glimpse of the pitcher Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash calls a “postseason stud.” They enjoyed a preview performance from the pitcher columnist Mike Lupica recently hailed as Big Game Charlie Morton. Morton is the Rays’ starter for Game 3 of the World Series tonight. Now 36 years old, he has battled through myriad injuries to become a very effective pitcher, with 93 wins and a 4.08 ERA over 13 seasons. In the postseason, he has been even better. He is 7-2 overall and 3-0 this year, including a win in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series against Houston. In 2017, pitching for the Astros, he won Game 7 in the ALCS and won another Game 7 in the World Series, beating the Dodgers with a four-inning relief effort. That’s when he picked up the nickname “Charlie Freakin’ Morton,” which has become a popular t-shirt slogan. Morton credits his postseason success to being “more anxious,” having “a little more energy” or “extra adrenaline.” Whatever it might be, M-Braves fans witnessed it firsthand back in 2007, on Sept. 7 to be precise, in Game 2 of the Southern League South Division playoffs. Morton had very modest numbers that season, his sixth in Atlanta’s system, going 4-6, 4.29 working as both a starter and reliever. With the M-Braves down 1-0 in the best-of-5 series against Montgomery, Morton got the call to start Game 2 at Trustmark Park. It was his first postseason start as a pro. Facing future big leaguer Jake McGee, Morton was brilliant, yielding just three hits and two walks while fanning eight over seven innings. He left with a 3-1 lead, which reliever Sung Ki Jung squandered in the eighth. A five-run response won the game for the M-Braves. Pitching coach Derek Botelho said postgame that Morton might have altered the direction of his career with that big-game effort. He made the big leagues the next year. P.S. Former Mississippi State standout Adam Frazier is a Gold Glove finalist at second base in the National League. Frazier, in his fifth MLB season with Pittsburgh, committed only one error in 41 games and ranked second in the league in fielding percentage (.994), double plays and assists. Other finalists include former M-Braves Max Fried, Dansby Swanson, Ronald Acuna and Jason Heyward and Biloxi Shuckers alum Trent Grisham. … M-Braves product Freddie Freeman was the Players Choice Awards winner for 2020 Player of the Year and NL Outstanding Player.
In addition to Crystal Springs native and Mississippi State alum Hunter Renfroe, Tampa Bay’s right fielder and cleanup batter tonight, there are several other Magnolia State connections on this year’s World Series clubs. Former Mississippi Braves standout Charlie Morton, who pitched for the Southern League playoff team in 2007, is likely to start Game 3 for Tampa Bay. The veteran right-hander has seven career postseason wins and is 3-0 in this year’s playoffs. The Rays’ roster also includes former Biloxi Shuckers outfielder Brett Phillips, a self-anointed player-coach of sorts. “I’m looking around and I’m like, we got the manager and the bench coach, and the analytical guy, but we don’t have the keep-it-simple guy,” Phillips said in a recent Sports Illustrated story. “So I call myself the keep-it-simple guy. I consider myself a player-coach.” Phillips played for the Shuckers in 2015 and 2016, belting 16 homers the latter season. He has been with four organizations in his brief pro career and batted .150 in 20 at-bats for the Rays this season. The Los Angeles Dodgers have a couple of Mississippi ties: left-hander Alex Wood, a onetime M-Braves star, and, behind the scenes, Director of Player Health Ron Porterfield, who was the trainer for the Double-A Generals when the Houston farm team first arrived in Jackson in 1991. Wood pitched at Trustmark Park in 2013, going 4-2 with a 1.26 ERA in 10 starts before earning a promotion to Triple-A. He has an MLB career ERA of 3.45. Porterfield, a widely acclaimed trainer, spent 12 years in the Rays’ organization before joining the Dodgers in 2017.