By Mike Christensen
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 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.