Milwaukee doesn’t appear to need a lot of help in its starting rotation at the moment, but should a need arise, Ethan Small is showing signs of being ready for the call. The ex-Mississippi State standout threw seven shutout innings — his longest career outing — in Double-A Biloxi’s 13-1 victory against Rocket City on Friday night. Small (2-2, 1.96 ERA) allowed three hits, one walk and fanned nine in his eighth start for the Shuckers. A 6-foot-4, 215-pound left-hander, he has struck out 67 batters in 41 1/3 innings, including a 12-K performance last week against the Mississippi Braves. Small was the SEC’s pitcher of the year at State in 2019 and Milwaukee’s first-round pick that summer. He threw just 21 innings in the low minors in 2019 and spent last season in the Brewers’ alternate camp. MLB Pipeline rates Small the No. 4 prospect in the Milwaukee system and projects his MLB arrival as 2021. That’s looking like a real possibility.
You wouldn’t necessarily go to a Mississippi Braves game to watch Shea Langeliers play catcher, but you’d probably come away impressed. Take Wednesday night’s game, for instance. Langeliers, Atlanta’s No. 3-rated prospect, threw out two would-be base stealers in the Double-A team’s 2-1 win against Birmingham at Trustmark Park. (For the record, before throwing out Laz Rivera for the second time, Langeliers appeared to pick him off first base; the umpire called Rivera safe.) Langeliers has thrown out 17 of 29 attempted base thieves. That’s 59 percent. A 30-percent rate is considered good. The 2019 first-round pick has just two passed balls and two errors over 29 games. From MLB Pipeline’s scouting report: “His athleticism and agility allow him to be a plus blocker and receiver and he perhaps has the best arm of any catcher in the Minor Leagues, one that allowed him to throw out 41 percent of potential basestealers in 2019.” Oh, and he is also the M-Braves’ best hitter. … No. 4 prospect Braden Shewmake, hitting just .127, did drive in one of the M-Braves’ runs, his 11th RBI. No. 25 prospect Justin Dean (.242) picked up the other, his 14th RBI. Elsewhere in the Atlanta system: No. 5 prospect Kyle Muller became the latest M-Braves alum to advance to the big leagues, working an inning for the Braves in their 10-8 loss to Boston. Muller allowed four hits and two runs in relief of former M-Braves star Ian Anderson, who gave up four runs in four innings. All of that was before M-Braves alum A.J. Minter yielded a game-turning grand slam to Christian Arroyo. Such is the state of the big Braves’ pitching staff. … At Triple-A Gwinnett, No. 1 prospect – and erstwhile Atlanta center fielder – Cristian Pache is hitting .300 since being sent down on May 29. No. 2 prospect Drew Waters, the 2019 Southern League MVP who has yet to get a big league look, is batting .279 with three homers and eight steals. … At High-A Rome, No. 6 prospect Jared Shuster threw four shutout innings Wednesday in a 5-0 win. The left-hander out of Wake Forest is 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in five games. … At Low-A Augusta, two Mississippi products, both 2019 draft picks, are feeling their way in pro ball. Brandon Parker, a Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College standout from Saucier, is batting .160 with five bombs and 19 RBIs in 30 games. Right-hander Jared Johnson, the No. 29 prospect out of Smithville High, allowed three runs with four strikeouts in 2 2/3 innings in his only appearance to date.
The Mississippi Braves have scratched out a 6-9 record despite being last in the Double-A South in runs, batting and on-base percentage. As fans of “Bull Durham” might ask, How’d they ever win six? One reason would be the play of Justin Dean, the diminutive leadoff batter. Dean has reached base in each of the 14 games he has played; his OBP of .426 ranks fifth in the league. He is batting .262 and has scored nine runs, driven in four and stolen five bases. Speed is the prime tool for the 24-year-old center fielder, who goes 5 feet 6, 185 pounds. He swiped 47 bases (with nine triples) at Class A Rome in 2019 and earned league All-Star honors and a trip to the Arizona Fall League. A 17th-round pick out of NCAA Division II Lenoir-Rhyne in 2018, he is batting .283 over his three pro seasons. MLB Pipeline ranks Dean 26th among Atlanta’s prospects, noting that “he has the chance to be a table-setter type, perhaps with a career as a fourth outfielder the most likely.” Dean will look to set the table tonight when the M-Braves play Chattanooga in the fourth game of a six-game set at Trustmark Park. P.S. On Chattanooga’s roster is a pair of former Southern Miss stars: Pitcher J.C. Keys, drafted by Cincinnati in 2019, and Chuckie Robinson, a catcher who was plucked by the Reds from Houston in the Rule 5 draft in December. Keys took the loss in relief on Wednesday but has a 1.69 ERA in four games. Robinson is 4-for-16 in five games this season and is a .249 career hitter over five pro seasons. Notably, he has caught two of Nick Lodolo’s starts and Hunter Greene’s last one, a 10-strikeout gem. Those are two top prospects in Cincy’s system. … There are several other Mississippi products scattered around the Double-A South. Ex-Columbia High standout Ti’Quan Forbes and Mississippi State alum Konnor Pilkington are with Birmingham, former State star Ethan Small is at Biloxi, ex-Ole Miss standout Wyatt Short is with Tennessee, UM product Nick Fortes plays for Pensacola and former Delta State star Dalton Moats is at Montgomery.
It’s not hard to imagine seeing, a few years down the road, in a major league stadium, a rematch of the duel that took place on Friday night in Oxford. Two highly regarded MLB draft prospects — Ole Miss’ Doug Nikhazy and Vanderbilt’s Kumar Rocker — went toe-to-toe in a scouts’ delight before a wild and crazy crowd at Swayze Field. Nikhazy got the win this time, holding second-ranked Vandy to five hits and two walks with 10 strikeouts over seven innings in a 3-1 victory. Rocker also went seven, allowing five hits (including homers by Kevin Graham and TJ McCants) and one walk with eight K’s. The big right-hander lost for just the second time against 11 wins. His ERA rose to 2.44. With Gunnar Hoglund out for the year with an arm injury, Ole Miss, ranked 17th by Baseball America, needs more stuff like this from lefty Nikhazy (7-2, 1.89 ERA) with the SEC Tournament and NCAAs ahead. In MLB Pipeline’s latest prospect rankings, the 6-foot Nikhazy, who relies more on breaking stuff than an overpowering fastball, checked in at No. 100. The 6-4 Rocker, who throws very hard, was No. 3. They certainly didn’t look that far apart on Friday night.
There will be nights, Mississippi Braves manager Wyatt Toregas says, when his team will look like a major league club. They’ve got those skills. There will also be nights, he cautions, when their youth and inexperience will show. It is Double-A, after all.
Above and beyond any of that, however, is the simple fact that there will be pro baseball at Trustmark Park again. Real games. For the first time in more than 600 days.
The M-Braves open the much-anticipated 2021 season – the club’s 16th in Pearl — tonight against Pensacola, the first game of a six-game Double-A South series that runs through Sunday.
There are a lot of new off-field rules and regulations in place due to COVID-19 protocols, but the game on the field hasn’t changed. “The guys are excited to get the season started,” said Toregas, new to the Atlanta organization this season. “It’s time to play ball again.”
The roster features several of Atlanta’s top-rated prospects, including catcher Shea Langeliers (No. 3 by MLB Pipeline) and shortstop Braden Shewmake (No. 4). Both are 2019 first-round picks out of major college programs who appear to be on a fast track to the big leagues.
The team also includes outfielder Trey Harris (No. 14), pitcher Victor Vodnik (No. 15), first baseman/outfielder Greyson Jenista (No. 19), third baseman C.J. Alexander (No. 20) and outfielder Justin Dean (No. 26). Shewmake, Harris, Alexander and Jenista all spent time with the M-Braves in 2019, when minor league teams last played.
“We’re strong in a lot of different areas,” Toregas said.
Despite the compressed spring training for minor leaguers, Toregas, a former major league catcher who managed in the Pittsburgh system for five years, said he felt quickly accepted into the Braves fold by the players, whom he called “a lively group.” He said he also had enough time with the players to get to know them and get a feel for their skills. “They’re very coachable,” he said. “As skilled as these guys are, they’re very open to advice.”
The centerpiece of the team is Langeliers. The former Baylor star, the ninth overall pick two years ago, played in A-ball in 2019 (.255 with two homers and 34 RBIs in 54 games), went to Atlanta’s alternate camp last summer and was a non-roster invitee to big league camp this spring. He is said to have the best throwing arm in the Braves’ system.
“Man, he’s got some skills,” Toregas said. “It’s an honor for me … I’m looking forward to working with him. He’s got a chance to be really good for a really long time. … He can really throw. He’s got some pop in his bat, and he’s a leader. The guys gravitate to him.”
Langeliers said his main goals this season include gaining experience with the one knee-down catching style as well as learning more about calling a game. “I have some high expectations,” he said. “I expect myself to be successful. But it’s a long season, and it can be a grind. In pro ball, it’s a big difference playing every night.”
The 6-foot-4, 190-pound Shewmake, a former Texas A&M standout drafted 21st overall in 2019, hit .300 with three homers, 40 RBIs and 13 steals at two levels in 2019, finishing that season in Pearl.
“You can definitely tell why they took him so high in the draft,” Toregas said. “He’s got speed, the ability to hit. He’s a lefty bat in the infield. Plays solid defense, and he’s a bright kid. His skills can take him a long way.”
Harris is another player to watch. A former 32nd-round pick from Missouri, he is a .317 career hitter in the minors and was the Atlanta organization’s minor league player of the year in 2019, when he moved through three levels.
Left-hander Hayden Deal is the scheduled starter tonight, getting the nod over the more highly touted Vodnik and Nolan Kingham, an M-Brave in 2019. Deal was 5-10 with a 3.24 ERA at Class A Florida in 2019 and is 17-13, 2.87 for his minor league career. The Braves signed him as a free agent out of Presbyterian College in North Carolina in 2017.
“I wasn’t expecting to start opening day,” he said, “but it’s a huge honor. I’m super excited about that. I’m ready to see what this year holds.”
“I think everybody’s ready to get out there and compete again,” Toregas said. “I’m looking forward to that. … I’m looking forward to one-run games in the ninth inning, when everybody gets nervous and every play means a little more. It’s the best feeling in the world, and it’s time to get back to it.”
Pensacola is a Miami Marlins affiliate. The Blue Wahoos’ roster includes former Ole Miss catcher Nick Fortes as well as right-hander Max Meyer, the third overall selection in the 2020 draft. He enters the season as the No 3 prospect in the Marlins’ system and No. 28 overall, per MLB Pipeline.
In the new-look minors, the Double-A South includes eight teams. Mississippi is in the South Division with Pensacola, the Biloxi Shuckers (Brewers) and Montgomery Biscuits (Rays). The North Division includes the Birmingham Barons (White Sox), Chattanooga Lookouts (Reds), Rocket City Trash Pandas (Angels) and Tennessee Smokies (Cubs).
Former Mississippi State star Ethan Small, the Brewers’ first-round pick in 2019, is on the Biloxi roster. Lefty Small is rated the No. 4 prospect in the Milwaukee system by both MLB Pipeline and Baseball America.
Ole Miss right-hander Gunnar Hoglund is the top-rated draft prospect in the state, per MLB Pipeline’s new Top 150 announced Wednesday. Hoglund, 3-2 with a 2.73 ERA, is No. 10. He pitched well but took the loss in the Rebels’ 5-2 defeat against Mississippi State in Starkville last Friday. Hoglund was opposed as the starter by Bulldogs left-hander Christian MacLeod (3-2, 2.83), MLB Pipeline’s No. 66 prospect who also pitched well but got no decision. UM lefty Doug Nikhazy (4-1, 1.86), who threw the brilliant one-hitter at State on Saturday, is No. 100 in the new draft list. Will Bednar (2-1, 3.55), who took the loss for the Bulldogs in that game, is No. 34 on the list. (That’s the kind of power-packed series it was last weekend.) The only other Mississippi product on the list is Madison Central High senior Braden Montgomery, who sits at No. 54. The switch-hitting outfielder (.469, three homers) and righty pitcher (6-0, 0.22) is committed to Stanford. The draft is in July. The ratings will change before then. “This is a really tough draft,” a scout said in the mlb.com story. “It’s a year of challenges (due to COVID-19 restrictions) with mixed opinions on a lot of guys.”
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.
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.”
Only one in-state player – Mississippi State’s Justin Foscue — is projected by mlb.com to get picked in Wednesday’s first round of the MLB draft. The junior second baseman is pegged to go to Minnesota as the No. 27 pick in the latest mock draft. Former Ocean Springs High star Garrett Crochet, a big left-hander now at Tennessee, is predicted to go 14th overall to Texas. ESPN’s latest mock draft has Crochet going to Texas at 14, Foscue to the New York Mets at 19 and State shortstop Jordan Westburg to the Los Angeles Dodgers at 29. … The highest any state college player has been picked is second: State’s Will Clark in 1985. The top high school pick is Ted Nicholson, taken third overall out of Laurel’s Oak Park in 1969. … Nine in-state players appear in mlb.com’s Top 200 draft prospects list, with DeSoto Central High’s Blaze Jordan the highest rated prep player at No. 42. All the attention given Jordan in recent years doesn’t seem to have gone to his head. In an interview published by Baseball America last summer, Jordan said he “would describe myself as being respectful to the game and just always hustling and playing hard. … Wearing my jersey right and making sure everything is done right.” Jordan said his favorite player is Miguel Cabrera, and he thinks his swing is similar to the former Triple Crown winner’s. Jordan, the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year and a Mississippi State signee, has prodigious power, ranking among the top 10 power hitters in the draft per MLB Pipeline. … Colt Keith, who played at Biloxi High the last two years after moving from Arizona, is considered one of the best two-way players in this year’s draft class. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Keith is a right-handed pitcher and a left-handed hitting shortstop/third baseman. He is an Arizona State signee. His approach to the game? “I think for me, and I encourage other baseball players too, always play like it’s your last game,” he told WXXV-TV of Gulfport. … Columbia Academy’s Slade Wilks and Brandon’s Kellum Clark are other possible high school picks in this year’s abbreviated five-round draft. … The lone state juco player in mlb.com’s Top 200 is lefty Dalton Fowler (No. 154), a sophomore at Northwest Mississippi CC in 2020. The 6-foot-6 Fowler, from Tennessee, was picked in the 27th round in 2019 by the New York Mets but didn’t sign. He was 4-0 with a 1.89 ERA this season and 6-2, 3.76 as a freshman.
Demarcus Evans might not rank among the Texas Rangers’ top 30 prospects, but no prospect in the Rangers’ system has a better fastball than the former Petal High star, according to MLB Pipeline. Evans, 23, now on the 40-man roster and in big league camp, throws serious gas: In his five pro seasons, he has 369 strikeouts in 242 1/3 innings. If he improves his command, the 6-foot-4, 270-pound right-hander can be an impact arm out of the Texas bullpen. … Power is Bobby Bradley’s thing; the former Harrison Central High standout has said that he takes an assassin’s mentality to the plate: “I’m about to hit this ball as hard as possible. If you don’t have that certain kind of mentality, you’re already beat.” Rated by MLB Pipeline as the top power-hitting prospect in Cleveland’s system, Bradley, 23, has 147 homers over six minor league seasons and belted one during his 15-game MLB stint in 2019. … Mississippi State product Brent Rooker was given the nod as the top power prospect in Minnesota’s system. Rooker, who hit 36 homers in his three years in Starkville, has 54 in his three minor league campaigns, including 14 in Triple-A last year despite missing about half the season with injury. He smacked a monstrous homer for Team USA in Tokyo last fall that fans there may still be buzzing about. … As for the fastest running prospect in each organization, it came as no real surprise that James Beard topped the MLB Pipeline list for the Chicago White Sox. A fourth-round pick out of Loyd Star High last summer, Beard was considered the swiftest player available in the draft, drawing comparisons to Billy Hamilton. Beard, bigger than Hamilton at 5-10, 170, stole nine bases in 31 games at the rookie level in 2019.