Nice start for Austin Riley in Atlanta’s spring training opener against Tampa Bay. The former DeSoto Central High standout, playing third base and batting third, went 2-for-3 with an RBI. The Braves are counting on Riley to produce at third base with more consistency in his third MLB season. He hit .239 with eight homers last year and had a big bomb in the postseason. His career numbers are .232 and 26. “The thing that is encouraging about Austin is all the way through, since he’s been a pro, he’s made adjustments and figured things out,” Braves manager Brian Snitker told reporters last week. “He’s gotten better every year.” … Ole Miss product Chris Ellis, in camp as a non-roster invitee, started that game for Tampa Bay and pitched a scoreless frame. Other spring debuts of note by Mississippians in the majors: Mitch Moreland got a hit in his first at-bat in an Oakland uniform. Hunter Renfroe went 0-for-2 in his first Boston appearance. Billy Hamilton, in the Cleveland lineup as the DH, went 0-for-1 with a walk and a run. Tim Anderson went 1-for-3 for the Chicago White Sox, and JaCoby Jones put up a 1-for-3 for Detroit. Jacob Lindgren registered two strikeouts in an inning of work for the White Sox. Ethan Small worked a clean inning and got a hold for Milwaukee. Grae Kessinger went 1-for-1 for Houston. Jacob Waguespack had a tough day for Toronto, yielding two home runs against the New York Yankees.
Here are a few Mississippians to keep an eye on in MLB spring training:
Bobby Bradley likely will get every opportunity to earn the first base job for Cleveland. A lefty-hitting first baseman, the former Harrison Central High standout has 147 minor league homers and put up 33 in Triple-A in 2019, the last year he actually played a real game. He got 45 at-bats with the Indians in 2019 but wasn’t invited to the team’s alternate camp last summer. He’s 24. His prospect clock is running out. It’s time to break through.
Anthony Alford is due some good luck. The former Mr. Baseball (and Football) from Petal was handed the center field job in Pittsburgh last summer after being claimed on waivers from Toronto. In his fifth game, he broke his elbow crashing into an outfield wall. Alford was dogged by injuries during his years with the Blue Jays and has only 83 MLB at-bats on his ledger dating to 2017. He is penciled in as the Pirates’ center fielder for 2021. Fingers are crossed.
After four humdrum seasons with St. Louis, Mike Mayers thrust himself into the Los Angeles Angels’ bullpen plans for 2021 with a spectacular September. The ex-Ole Miss star posted a 0.98 ERA, two wins, two saves and a .113 batting average against in 14 appearances. He was named the American League’s reliever of the month. The right-hander, who has a 5.69 career ERA, will try to keep the good times rolling this spring – and beyond.
Nate Lowe has gone from the best team in the American League in 2020 to the worst, but it might be a good career move. Texas traded with Tampa Bay for the former Mississippi State standout with the express intention of making him their regular first baseman. In 219 at-bats spread over two seasons with the Rays, the lefty-hitting Lowe batted .251 with 11 homers. The Rangers are in the midst of a rebuild, and Lowe could be a key building block.
The 2021 season will be the eighth in pro ball for Justin Steele, the former George County High star drafted by the Chicago Cubs way back in 2014. The left-hander, now 25, has battled injuries over the years and appeared in just 80 minor league games. He pitched in the old Southern League in 2019 and spent 2020 in the Cubs’ alternate camp. He has a 3.62 career ERA. The Cubs reportedly like his stuff. He might contend for a rotation spot this spring.
P.S. Former Petal High standout Demarcus Evans is rehabbing a right lat strain and reportedly will not be ready to open the season with Texas. He is following a throwing program in camp. Evans, a 6-foot-5 right-hander, made his MLB debut last season, working four innings and allowing one run, a homer by Albert Pujols. … Mississippi State alum Dakota Hudson is in St. Louis’ camp as he rehabs from Tommy John surgery. It’s possible though unlikely that he’ll pitch for the Cardinals in 2021. “Mentally, I’m waiting on September,” he told mlb.com. “I’m just trying to stay on pace to where that’s an opportunity to compete at the end of the year. Be available is the ultimate goal.” He has 19 wins in 40 starts over the last two seasons. … Olive Branch native Kendall Williams, who went to prep school in Florida, is in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ camp as a non-roster invitee. The 6-6 right-hander was a second-round pick by Toronto in 2019 and was traded last summer in the Ross Stripling deal.
3 – Wins by Ole Miss against top 10 teams in the State Farm College Baseball Showdown, earning the Rebels their first No. 1 ranking by Baseball America and D1baseball.
11 – Combined RBIs by Mississippi State’s Luke Hancock and Rowdey Jordan in a 2-1 finish at the State Farm event in Texas.
45 – Strikeouts by Southern Miss pitchers in going 2-1 against Northwestern State; Hunter Stanley and Ben Etheridge combined for 25 K’s.
7 – Home runs by Pearl River Community College’s Tate Parker, leading NJCAA Division II. Northwest CC’s Peyton Mills is second with six.
11 – Hits by Kirkland Trahan, who has two homers, six RBIs and seven runs, for 2-4 Delta State.
8 – Hits by Ken Scott, who has a homer and four RBIs, for 0-6 Mississippi College.
11 – Runs by Nick Lucido, who is 11-for-22, for 4-2 Belhaven.
8 – RBIs by Mason Little, who is 9-for-21, for 2-4 Millsaps.
2 – Wins in two starts by Connor Adams, who has a 2.70 ERA, for 4-2 William Carey.
0 – Combined runs by Jackson State (0-3) and Mississippi Valley State (0-2); Alcorn State hasn’t gotten on the field yet.
Full squad workouts are under way in Florida and Arizona. Actual spring training games begin Sunday. Here’s a look at Mississippians in camp:
40-man roster members
Anthony Alford (Petal), Pittsburgh; Tim Anderson (East Central CC), Chicago White Sox; Bobby Bradley (Harrison Central), Cleveland; Corey Dickerson (Meridian CC), Miami; Adam Frazier (Mississippi State), Pittsburgh; JaCoby Jones (Richton), Detroit; Nate Lowe (MSU), Texas; Mitch Moreland (MSU), Oakland; Hunter Renfroe (MSU), Boston; Austin Riley (DeSoto Central), Atlanta; Brent Rooker (MSU), Minnesota
Garrett Crochet (Ocean Springs), Chicago White Sox; Demarcus Evans (Petal), Texas; Kendall Graveman (MSU), Seattle; Jonathan Holder (MSU), Chicago Cubs; Dakota Hudson (MSU), St. Louis (DL); Lance Lynn (Ole Miss), Chicago White Sox; Mike Mayers (Ole Miss), Los Angeles Angels; Drew Pomeranz (Ole Miss), San Diego; Cody Reed (Northwest CC), Tampa Bay; Justin Steele (George County High), Chicago Cubs; Chris Stratton (MSU), Pittsburgh; Spencer Turnbull (Madison Central), Detroit; Jacob Waguespack (Ole Miss), Toronto; Bobby Wahl (Ole Miss), Milwaukee; Brandon Woodruff (MSU), Milwaukee
Gavin Collins (MSU), Cleveland; Nick Fortes (Ole Miss), Miami; Justin Foscue (MSU), Texas; Trent Giambrone (Delta State) Chicago Cubs; Billy Hamilton (Taylorsville), Cleveland; Grae Kessinger (Ole Miss), Houston; Jack Kruger (MSU), Los Angeles Angels; Jacob Robson (MSU), Detroit
Ben Bracewell (MSU), Oakland; Cody Carroll (Southern Miss), Baltimore; Chris Ellis (Ole Miss), Tampa Bay; Jacob Lindgren (MSU), Chicago White Sox; Kirk McCarty (USM), Cleveland; David Parkinson (Ole Miss), Philadelphia; Ryan Rolison (Ole Miss), Colorado; Nick Sandlin (USM), Cleveland; Ethan Small (MSU), Milwaukee
NCAA Division I schools in Mississippi have not yet started playing ball, but we already have a theme for 2021. Pitching. The state’s Big 3 are loaded with quality arms, and Jackson State has a couple to crow about, as well. Ole Miss’ Gunnar Hoglund and Doug Nikhazy and Mississippi State’s Christian MacLeod, Eric Cerantola and Will Bednar are showing up on various lists of top MLB draft prospects for this summer. Hoglund, Nikhazy and MacLeod are on the 55-player Golden Spikes Award watch list. Hoglund has been selected to — at last count — four preseason All-America teams. Nikhazy, MacLeod and Southern Miss ace Walker Powell were pegged as second-team All-Americans by Collegiate Baseball, and Powell is the preseason pitcher of the year in C-USA. JSU features Nik Galatas, chosen as the SWAC’s preseason pitcher of the year, and Steven Davila, a top closer in the league. The considerable depth of the Ole Miss and State staffs will be tested right out of the chute this weekend in the State Farm College Baseball Showdown in Arlington, Texas, where they’ll face three nationally ranked Texas schools. USM opens at home Sunday with a doubleheader against Northwestern State; JSU is at Mercer in Georgia for a twinbill today. Defense wins championships in football. In basketball, shooting. In baseball, it’s pitching. Mississippi’s D-I schools are armed for the task.
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.
Momentum, whatever it might be worth in baseball, doesn’t really carry over from one season to the next. The fact that Ole Miss finished the 2020 season on a 16-game winning streak is cool but will mean nothing on the field to start 2021. However, the cred the Rebs established has carried over. UM is ranked fifth in Collegiate Baseball Magazine’s preseason poll after finishing third, with a 16-1 record, in the final poll of 2020 last March. The Rebels earned the lofty ranking despite the loss of two star players, Tyler Keenan and Anthony Servideo, to the MLB draft. UM returns pitchers Doug Nikhazy and Gunnar Hoglund, both high draft prospects, and hitters Hayden Leatherwood (.361), Tim Elko (.354) and Payton Chatagnier (.311, four homers). The Rebels’ ranking is also a nod to coach Mike Bianco, who was Collegiate Baseball’s 2020 coach of the year. Though some Ole Miss fans might argue that he hasn’t won enough big games, Bianco has certainly won a lot of games. He ranks 16th on the list of winningest active coaches in NCAA Division I, according to a recent Baseball America chart. In 19 seasons in Oxford plus three at McNeese State, Bianco has 867 victories. He has led the Rebels to 767 wins, six Super Regional berths and one College World Series, where they made a serious run at the national title. It’s interesting to note that during Bianco’s tenure at UM, Mississippi State has had six different coaches. … MSU is ninth in CB’s new poll, and Southern Miss is 29th. The Division I season is tentatively set to start on Feb. 19.
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.
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.