Who needs spring training? Ex-Ole Miss star Tim Elko, now a Chicago White Sox minor leaguer, homered in his first at-bat in the team’s Cactus League opener on Friday. Power is Elko’s thing. He blasted 28 homers across three levels of the minors in 2023 and has 33 in his two-year pro career. The first baseman/DH hit 46 in his four years at Ole Miss and helped the Rebels win the national championship in 2022. He reached Double-A last season and should get to Triple-A at some point in 2024. The season is several weeks away, but Elko looked ready on Day 1. Also making an appearance for the ChiSox was Southern Miss alum Chuckie Robinson, who went 0-for-1. The veteran catcher, who has some big league time, signed with Chicago as a minor league free agent this off-season. … Elsewhere in spring openers: Former Hattiesburg High standout Joe Gray Jr., now a Kansas City minor leaguer, went 1-for-1 with a walk and an RBI for the Royals against Texas, which trotted out three Magnolia State products: Mississippi State alum Nathaniel Lowe, the World Series-champion Rangers’ regular first baseman, was 0-for-2; Mississippi College alum Blaine Crim, a minor leaguer, went 0-for-2; and ex-MSU standout Justin Foscue, now on the Rangers’ 40-man roster, was hitless in two at-bats. … Ex-Pascagoula High star Willie Joe Garry Jr., a Minnesota minor leaguer, was 0-for-1 with two walks and two runs for the Twins, while USM product Matt Wallner, a starting outfielder for the Twins, put up an 0-for-2. … MSU alum Konnor Pilkington allowed a run in his one inning of work for Arizona. … And former DeSoto Central standout Blaze Jordan, who reached Double-A in 2023, played some third base and went 0-for-1 for Boston.
Major league spring training camps are open and buzzing in Florida and Arizona. Here’s the list of Mississippians (natives and school alums) who are or soon will be in MLB camps:
Nick Fortes (Ole Miss), Miami; Justin Foscue (Mississippi State), Texas; Adam Frazier (MSU), Kansas City; Grae Kessinger (UM), Houston; Nathaniel Lowe (MSU), Texas; Hunter Renfroe (MSU), Kansas City; Austin Riley (DeSoto Central HS), Atlanta; Brent Rooker (MSU), Oakland; Matt Wallner (Southern Miss), Minnesota; Jordan Westburg (MSU), Baltimore.
Garrett Crochet (Ocean Springs), Chicago White Sox; J.P. France (MSU), Houston; Kendall Graveman (MSU), Houston (injured); Dakota Hudson (MSU), Colorado; Lance Lynn (UM), St. Louis; James McArthur (UM), Kansas City; Michael Rucker (Columbus), Philadelphia; Nick Sandlin (USM), Cleveland; Ethan Small (MSU), San Francisco; Justin Steele (Lucedale), Chicago Cubs; Chris Stratton (MSU), Kansas City; Spencer Turnbull (Madison Central HS), Philadelphia; Colby White (MSU), Tampa Bay.
Blaine Crim (Mississippi College), Texas; Colt Keith (Biloxi HS), Detroit; Jake Mangum (MSU), Tampa Bay; Chuckie Robinson (USM), Chicago White Sox; Errol Robinson (UM), Baltimore.
Jonathan Holder (MSU) Texas; Zac Houston (MSU), Tampa Bay; Konnor Pilkington (MSU), Arizona; Drew Pomeranz (UM), Los Angeles Angels; Chad Smith (UM), New York Mets; Jacob Waguespack (UM), Tampa Bay; Hurston Waldrep (USM), Atlanta; Will Warren (Jackson Prep), New York Yankees.
Current free agents
Hitters: Tim Anderson (East Central CC); Corey Dickerson (Meridian CC); Billy Hamilton (Taylorsville); Pitchers: Mike Mayers (UM); Brandon Woodruff (MSU).
Former Petal High star Anthony Alford and ex-Ole Miss standout Drew Pomeranz have found new teams for 2024, Alford signing a minor league contract with Cincinnati and Pomeranz agreeing to a minor league deal with the Los Angeles Angels, per reports. … Alford, a 29-year-old outfielder, spent the last two seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization, batting .288 with 29 homers overall. He hit .209 over scattered parts of six MLB campaigns, including two games with Pittsburgh in 2022. He was a third-round draft pick out of Petal by Toronto in 2013, but his baseball career went on the back burner while he played football at Southern Miss and Ole Miss. Alford did not receive an invitation to the Reds’ big league camp in Arizona, according to redlegnation.com, but surely will get a look there. … Pomeranz, 35, who has been injured much of the last two years, reportedly will get a non-roster invite to the Angels’ Arizona camp. The tall left-hander has appeared in 289 MLB games, posted a 3.91 ERA, won a World Series ring and earned an All-Star game nod. A former fifth overall draftee (2010), he had a 1.75 ERA with San Diego in 2021. His four-year, $34 million contract with the Padres expired after last season.
The swarm of minor league free agents hitting the open market includes Demarcus Evans, the former Petal High star whose once promising career hit a pothole in 2023. Evans, who signed with the New York Yankees last year as a minor league free agent, went to spring training with the big league club but was sent to the minors and then missed the entire year with an undisclosed injury. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound right-hander, 27, has pitched in 29 MLB games, all with Texas from 2020-22, posting a 4.75 ERA while battling command issues. In the minors, he has piled up 444 strikeouts and a 2.76 ERA in 297 innings. So, he’s got some stuff. Drafted in 2015, he made it to the majors on Sept. 18, 2020. He was welcomed by Albert Pujols, who belted Evans’ second pitch over the wall in Anaheim for his 662nd career home run. If Evans is healthy, he figures to get another look. … Veteran big leaguers Billy Hamilton and Jonathan Holder are also now minor league free agents, along with fellow Mississippi products Zac Houston, Cooper Johnson, Tyreque Reed, Chuckie Robinson and Chad Smith. Taylorsville native Hamilton, 33, who appeared in three games with the Chicago White Sox this year, finished 2023 in Tampa Bay’s system. Gulfport’s Holder, 30, who last pitched in the majors in 2020, posted a 5.40 ERA in Triple-A with the Los Angeles Angels. Robinson, a Southern Miss alum with a touch of MLB experience as a catcher, hit .290 with 13 homers for Cincinnati’s Triple-A Louisville team; he has been playing in the Dominican Winter league. Ole Miss product Smith had a 6.59 ERA for Oakland this year and spent most of the season in the minors. Reed, former Itawamba Community College slugger from Houlka, missed the 2023 season in Boston’s system with an injury. In pro ball since 2017, he has a .268 average and 64 homers in 374 minor league games. Houston, a Mississippi State product, has a 3.18 career ERA in 230 minor league games and spent this season in the Yankees’ system. Ex-Ole Miss star Johnson batted .206 this season, playing in A-ball and Double-A in Texas’ organization. P.S. Ex-State star and 2021 College World Series hero Will Bednar has been pulled from the Arizona Fall League reportedly because of lingering back trouble. The San Francisco prospect allowed eight runs in 5 1/3 innings. He made only four rookie ball appearances this past season because of injury issues.
Marcus Thames’ whirlwind tour of MLB’s big markets reportedly will resume. The Louisville native reportedly has been hired as hitting coach for the Chicago White Sox. Thames, who hit 115 homers over a 10-year big league career that ended in 2011, was the hitting coach with the New York Yankees for several years, took a detour to Miami’s staff in 2022 and then spent 2023 with the Los Angeles Angels, who fired manager Phil Nevin after the season. Thames is a well-respected hitting coach, and the Angels’ offensive numbers in many categories improved under his watch. He will not get a chance to work in 2024 with fellow East Central Community College alum Tim Anderson. The White Sox recently declined an option on the veteran shortstop’s contract, making him a free agent. Anderson signed a seven-year deal ($37.5 million) after a promising rookie campaign in 2016, won a batting title and made two All-Star teams before suffering a dreadful 2023 season, batting .245 with one home run, 25 RBIs and a negative WAR. The outspoken Alabama native is also a lightning rod for controversy. P.S. Mississippi State alum Buck Showalter, dismissed by the Mets after his second year as manager, reportedly is a candidate for the Angels job, as is former Jackson Generals star Ray Montgomery. … Lance Lynn, the veteran pitcher out of Ole Miss, became a free agent after the Dodgers declined an option in his contract. Lynn had a tough year (5.73 ERA) that ended when he gave up four home runs in one inning in a playoff game against Arizona. … Kudos to ex-Mississippi State standout Nathaniel Lowe on winning a Gold Glove at first base for world champion Texas. Mauricio Dubon, who passed through Biloxi on his way to The Show, earned a Gold Glove as a utitity player for Houston. … Oakland outrighted Ole Miss product Chad Smith to Triple-A; he had a 6.59 ERA in 10 games for the A’s. … Olive Branch native Kendall Williams, a Dodgers prospect, pitched in the Arizona Fall League’s Fall Stars Game on Sunday and yielded a 433-foot home run to Kyle Manzardo.
While in the grip of postseason fever, here’s a well-deserved shout-out to Luther Hackman, the former Columbus High star who took MVP honors in back-to-back Taiwan Series in 2008 and ’09. (Stumbled across this compelling nugget of information while searching for something else on baseball-reference.com.) Hackman, a 6-foot-4 right-hander who pitched in the big leagues from 1999-2003, threw 17 shutout innings for the Uni-President Lions and won Games 4 and 7 in the ’08 Taiwan Series, the championship of the Chinese Professional Baseball League. In 2009, Hackman won Games 1, 4 and 7 of the series for the Lions. Hackman pitched in the CPBL for three years, 2010 being his last as a player. Drafted by Colorado in the sixth round in 1994, Hackman pitched in 149 big league games with three clubs and posted a 5.09 ERA. He also pitched in the independent Atlantic League, Mexico and Korea, with middling success. Yet he may still be a legend in the CPBL. P.S. A belated shout-out to umpire Lance Barksdale, the Brookhaven native who was behind the plate for Saturday’s Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. Barksdale missed just one call, according to umpscorecards.com, posting a 99 percent accuracy rate. The one miss: a called strike on a 3-2 pitch to Philadelphia’s Trea Turner in the third inning.
In what was probably — probably — the last game of Buck Showalter’s managerial career, the New York Mets’ disappointing season ended with a blowout loss — 9-1 to Philadelphia at CitiField. Former Mississippi State star Showalter announced before Sunday’s game that he would not be returning for a third season with the Mets. He was greeted with a standing ovation from Mets fans when he took out the lineup card pregame. A 101-win playoff team in 2022, the Mets suffered some key injuries and tumbled to 74-87 this year. “It’s not the ending I wanted, but I still love the city and the players,” Showalter told The Associated Press. He has won 1,726 games (.509 win percentage) over 22 years with five different clubs, claiming four manager of the year awards, including in 2022. His teams went 0-for-6 in postseason series, bowing out last year in a wild card series against San Diego. … The question about Showalter’s future in New York was one of several involving Mississippians in the majors headed into the off-season. To wit: Will East Central Community College alum Tim Anderson be back with the Chicago White Sox? The team holds an option on his contract, but the combustible former batting champ hit just .245 with one home run and scuffled on defense at shortstop. … Will ex-Mississippi State star Hunter Renfroe and Meridian CC product Corey Dickerson land jobs for 2024? Renfroe, who belted 20 homers in 2023, was waived in August by the Los Angeles Angels, claimed by Cincinnati and then released before season’s end. Dickerson, who hit .250 in 50 games, was released by last-place Washington in August. … What’s next for Spencer Turnbull? The former Madison Central High standout, who threw a no-hitter for Detroit early in 2021, missed all of 2022 after elbow surgery and endured more injury issues this season, which he finished in the minors. He was 1-4 with a 7.26 ERA for the Tigers, 0-1, 6.23, in the minors, pitching just twice in September. … Is Drew Pomeranz done? The Ole Miss product, 34, who has a 3.91 career ERA and a World Series ring, hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2021 because of injuries and made just seven minor league appearances this year. He is a free agent for 2024. … Two players who finished strong and possibly solidified their jobs for 2024: Ex-MSU star Brent Rooker and former Ole Miss standout James McArthur. Journeyman Rooker, an All-Star in his first year with Oakland, belted his 30th homer on Sunday; he hit. 306 with six bombs over his last 15 games. McArthur, a rookie in his first year in Kansas City’s system, notched a two-inning save against the Yankees on Sunday. In his last seven appearances, the tall right-hander went 1-0 with four saves and did not allow a run in nine innings.
The last day of September was eventful, to say the least, and the MLB postseason picture is settled. Well, sorta. Five teams clinched the remaining playoff berths on Saturday, and six Mississippians took part in those celebrations. Start with Nathaniel Lowe, the ex-Mississippi State standout who has been running cold at the plate of late. In Texas’ 6-1 win at Seattle, Lowe knocked in the first run with a single and scored the third in a four-run third inning that launched the Rangers into the postseason for the first time since 2016. Former MSU star Chris Stratton did not pitch for the Rangers on Saturday but did get to take part in the muted party. The American League West title remains unsettled because Houston also won, 1-0 at Arizona, and remained a game back of first-place Texas. MSU product Kendall Graveman notched a wobbly hold for the Astros, loading the bases with one out in the seventh before Hector Neris bailed him out. Fellow former Bulldogs pitcher J.P. France, who was scratched from a scheduled Friday start because of a “family emergency,” was available in the Astros’ bullpen Saturday but didn’t get in. Neither did ex-Ole Miss star Grae Kessinger, a versatile bench piece. (The AL wild card seedings are also up in the air; Toronto clinched a spot, either second or third, despite losing to Tampa Bay.) In the National League, Miami clinched a wild card spot with a 7-3 victory against Pittsburgh. Ole Miss product Nick Fortes, a platooning catcher for the Marlins, didn’t play in the clincher. Miami’s win eliminated the Chicago Cubs and former George County High star Justin Steele, who is slated to pitch today’s finale. Despite losing to the Astros, Arizona clinched a wild card because Cincinnati lost. (The NL wild card seedings are also unsettled. Depending on today’s results, Miami may have to return to New York on Monday to complete Thursday’s suspended game against the Mets.) … A total of 12 Mississippians are likely to be on postseason rosters, with Adam Frazier (Baltimore), Jordan Westburg (Orioles), Matt Wallner (Minnesota), Austin Riley (Atlanta), Brandon Woodruff (Milwaukee) and Lance Lynn (Los Angeles Dodgers) having previously celebrated division titles. The postseason begins on Tuesday.
Minnesota clinched its division; Milwaukee clinched a playoff berth with a 16-run outburst; Texas won its third straight and moved into first place in the American League West; and San Diego won its eighth straight to cling to its wild card hopes. Mississippians were involved in many of Friday night’s big events. At Minnesota, former Southern Miss star Matt Wallner drew a pair of walks and picked up an RBI in the Twins’ AL Central-clinching 8-6 win against the Los Angeles Angels. The Brewers, who lead the National League Central by 8 games, put up a 12-run second inning en route to pounding Miami 16-1. Ole Miss alum Nick Fortes had the misfortune to be behind the plate for the Marlins, whose NL wild card hopes took a blow. Former Mississippi State standout Brandon Woodruff (5-1, 1.89) goes to the mound today at loanDepot Park with Milwaukee a win away from clinching the division title. MSU product Nathaniel Lowe scored a run and drove in a run — his 80th RBI — to help Texas beat Seattle 8-5 and move a half-game ahead of Houston and 1 up on the Mariners in the crazy AL West. Ex-Ole Miss star James McArthur, a sudden sensation for Kansas City (see previous posts), got the last five outs for the last-place Royals as they beat Houston 7-5. McArthur, a rookie, is 1-0 with two saves and a 0.00 ERA in his last seven appearances. MSU alum Dakota Hudson, who has pitched well down the stretch for St. Louis, threw six innings, allowing two runs, but couldn’t stop San Diego, which rallied for a 4-2 victory. The red-hot Padres (76-78) are 4 games back of the third NL wild card and behind three other clubs. Former DeSoto Central High standout Austin Riley smacked his 37th homer and drove in four runs — 96 RBIs — as Atlanta beat Washington 9-6 and moved closer to clinching home field throughout the NL playoffs. The Braves (99-55) have a 4.5-game lead on the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost Friday. In games of lesser import: Former State star Brent Rooker homered for the third straight game and sixth time in his last nine, giving him 29 on the year for Oakland, which beat Detroit. Ocean Springs native Garrett Crochet, making his first MLB appearance since June 15, blew a save and took the loss for the Chicago White Sox against Boston. P.S. Billy Hamilton, the veteran big leaguer out of Taylorsville, went 1-for-3 with a run and stolen base as Triple-A Durham beat Gwinnett 3-0 and clinched an International League playoff berth. Hamilton, hoping for a call-up, is 4-for-13 with five steals in six games for the Tampa Bay affiliate.
Cincinnati, feverishly chasing a wild card berth with two weeks left in the National League season, will do so without Hunter Renfroe, who has been designated for assignment. The former Mississippi State star was claimed off waivers by the Reds from the Los Angeles Angels in late August with the hope that he would add some thump to their lineup. He hit one homer in 39 at-bats, struck out 12 times and batted .128. Renfroe, 31, likely has played his last game of 2023 and will be a free agent after the season. He hit .242 with 19 homers and drove in 56 runs for the Angels this year and has 177 career bombs, ranking seventh all-time among Mississippi natives in the majors. Oddly enough, he has played for six different teams the past five seasons. The Reds (78-73) are a half-game back of third place in the NL wild card standings as they welcome Minnesota for a meaningful three-game series beginning tonight at Great American Ballpark. The Twins (79-71), the American League Central leader, saw their magic number for clinching reduced to 5 when Kansas City rallied to beat second-place Cleveland today. (Ole Miss product James McArthur pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for his first career save for the Royals.) Ex-Southern Miss standout Matt Wallner, who is hitting .409 over his last seven games and has 12 homers on the year, is in the Minnesota lineup, batting seventh at the hitter-friendly Cincy park.