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.
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.
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.
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.
Another Mississippian hit the MLB free agent market on Wednesday when ex-Mississippi State standout Jonathan Holder was not offered a 2021 contract by the New York Yankees. Holder, 27, a right-handed middle reliever, has a 4.38 career ERA over 157 games since his 2016 debut. His best season was 2018, when he put up a 3.14 in 60 appearances, but he has not been as effective the last two years. The Gulfport native, a sixth-round pick by the Yanks in 2014, piled up 37 saves at State and another 19 during his brief time in the minors. But he never got a single save opportunity with New York. Perhaps he’ll find that opportunity with another club. … Holder joins fellow former Bulldogs Mitch Moreland and Hunter Renfroe, Southwest Mississippi Community College product Jarrod Dyson and Taylorsville’s Billy Hamilton as veteran free agents. Ex-Southern Miss star Brian Dozier, released in August by the New York Mets, is also on the market. Moreland finished last season in San Diego, which did not pick up his option for 2021. He’ll have plenty of suitors. Renfroe was cut loose by Tampa Bay; his right-handed power should be attractive to some teams. The market for Dyson, Hamilton and Dozier may be tighter. Dyson, an outfielder, is slowing down at 36. Hamilton, 30, also a speed-and-defense outfielder, has been woeful at the plate the last several seasons. Second baseman Dozier is 33 and seems to be fading.
Speculation about Hunter Renfroe’s next home has included the Chicago Cubs and Houston, two clubs that might be in the market for right-handed power. The ex-Mississippi State star was designated for assignment by Tampa Bay on Friday and is apparently bound for free agency. Renfroe hit eight homers – plus two more in the postseason – during his one year with the Rays but batted just .156 and struck out in roughly a third of his at-bats. The Rays added several minor leaguers to their 40-man roster last week and needed to clear space. Renfroe was deemed expendable. He was expected to command about $3 million in arbitration for 2021. He is a .228 career hitter with 97 homers since his first MLB season with San Diego in 2016. … MSU product Nate Lowe, still on the Rays’ roster, has left his Dominican Winter League club, reportedly because of concerns about COVID-19. He was 3-for-16 in five games. A lefty-hitting first baseman, he smacked four homers in a brief stint in the majors in 2020. … Ex-Ole Miss star Lance Lynn is widely rumored to be on the trading block in Texas. The right-hander, 33, due to make about $9M in the last year of his contract, went 6-3 with a 3.32 ERA for a bad Rangers team last season. Starting pitching is an especially hot commodity this off-season.