Can you name the last time a Southern League franchise had their players win Most Valuable Player awards in consecutive seasons?
We’d forgive Kevin Cron (or any Southern League player, for that matter) if they didn’t know. It hasn’t happened in this millennium, and you can barely say that it’s happened in Cron’s lifetime. Cron was a year and a few months old when Pittsburgh prospect Mark Johnson won it with the Carolina Mudcats in 1994; Cron had turned two by the time future Pirates catcher Jason Kendall won it for the Mudcats in 1995. Back-to-back MVPs from the same franchise happened twice in the 1980s and twice in the 1990s, actually, but it hasn’t happened since. That’s a credit to the rising quality of development among the many farm systems that feed Major League Baseball.
Cron, the 24-year-old first baseman for the Jackson Generals, has a strong chance to bring home the award in 2017. But sportsfolk, as history has proven, can define the word “valuable” in a number of different ways, and that may rob Cron of the league’s highest individual recognition. “MegaCron”–as a Generals fan on social media has appreciatively characterized him–has been essential to Jackson’s successes this year, and we’ll give him some printed-word respect on this page, regardless of how the league ends up voting.
First, though, a look at his competition for MVP:
JONATHAN RODRIGUEZ—FIRST BASEMAN—CHATTANOOGA LOOKOUTS OPS: .929
Like Cron, this is not the first season at Double-A for Rodriguez: he was a Texas Leaguer with Springfield (STL) in 2014, 2015, and 2016. Unlike Cron, Rodriguez has tasted Triple-A, posting a .770 OPS in 39 games with Memphis (STL) last season. The experience shows for Rodriguez: while he’s maintained the moderate-to-good level of power often expected of a first baseman or corner outfielder (19 HR, SL #2), he’s also walked more than any other season in his career (78, #2 SL). That combination has pushed Rodrgiuez’s OPS over .900 (as of 8/25), and he’s the only one up on that plateau. Five of the last six MVP winners in the Southern League have led the league in OPS, though 2016 winner Tyler O’Neill was the first to earn it without an OPS over .900. (In fairness, O’Neill’s .882 was still 80 points higher than the next highest OPS.)
Rodriguez is built a bit like Cron, but he has the benefit of playing heart-of-the-order-bat for the league’s winningest team in Chattanooga. Like Cron, his increased walk total has not cut into his strikeout total a lot, but it has rounded him into a better offensive piece.
JOE MCCARTHY—OUTFIELDER—MONTGOMERY BISCUITS OPS: .847
When the season began, McCarthy was manning first base for Montgomery, which is not the likely position he would be expected to play in the big leagues. That said, McCarthy played it adeptly (3 errors in 454 chances), and when fellow Rays prospect Dalton Kelly arrived from High-A Charlotte with a preposterously hot stick, McCarthy picked up right where he left off in left field. Though he’s only made two outfield assists in 55 games this year, McCarthy has yet to make an error out there, and that capable defense has been coupled with a league-high 82 walks, a total practically equivalent to McCarthy’s strikeouts (90). For a Double-A rookie, that excellent ratio is impressive by itself, and his increasing opportunities on base have given him ample time to steal bases (18). McCarthy’s not the first guy on the list for a Home Run Derby invitation (5 HR this year), but his league-best 8 triples and 31 doubles have helped him to record one of the five highest extra-base hit totals (44) in the circuit.
McCarthy’s OPS has mirrored Cron’s, though each has collected theirs differently based upon individual strengths. He’s not as highly rated as Chattanooga’s Nick Gordon or Pensacola’s Nick Senzel, but McCarthy’s 2017 performance may be the most balanced of any Southern Leaguer. It’s a big factor in why Montgomery’s league-best offense earned the North Division’s wild card berth in the playoffs, nippng at Chattanooga’s heels.
BRAXTON LEE—OUTFIELDER—JACKSONVILLE JUMBO SHRIMP OPS: .797
It’s pretty hard to collect a high OPS when you don’t hit for a lot of power, but Lee is proof that table-setting and experience do matter. A year after hitting just .209 with Montgomery, Lee has diced up Southern League pitching with a league-best .319 mark, and only 3 of his hits have cleared a fence. Lee’s trade from Tampa Bay to Miami played an inescapable role in the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp surging into the South Division lead late in the year. Without Lee, the Shrimp went 30-40 during the First Half, the worst mark in the South. With Lee (for all but the first five games of the Second Half), the Shrimp are 30-23, sporting a team batting average in July and August a full ten points above where it was before the All-Star Break.
Lee has stolen 8 bases since the trade and has only been caught twice, a much better mark than his flip-a-coin output before the move (12 SB/11 CS). His 17 outfield assists lead the entire league, and he’s spent the Second Half patrolling a center field in Jacksonville that extends 420 feet from home plate. The Shrimp have to hold off 3 South Division teams within 4 games of the division lead over their final 12 games, but if they do, you’ll see Lee in the postseason.
Three great players. All guys who have made adjustments to their games to get them here. Do you know if any of them have had a day off during the Second Half? We can think of someone who hasn’t…
KEVIN CRON—FIRST BASEMAN—JACKSON GENERALS OPS: .843
Since sitting out on April 24 at Biloxi, there has not been a day on which the Generals have played a game when Cron did not see action. That’s right: Cron hasn’t been given a day off in four months.
“Why?” you ask. “Isn’t that absurd?”
“Well,” the reply might simply go, “do you want to score runs?”
A run is one trip around four bases. For the second straight year, Kevin Cron has made more single-swing circuits of the bases than any other Southern League player, rocking 23 home runs this season. Cron led the Jackson onslaught through the season’s first two months, anchoring a lineup that hit 60 home runs in their first 52 games while scoring 4.8 runs per game. Cron, by the way, remains the league leader even now by good margins in extra base hits (57) and total bases (234). He also tops the charts in RBI (85).
But slowly, piece by piece, the Jackson lineup has been stripped of its armor. Of the 15 players who have homered for the Generals this season, only seven remain on the current active roster. Of those seven, only Victor Reyes has not spent time on the disabled list or been involved in a roster move that prevented him from playing. The offensive firepower that had helped Jackson fend off all its early-season challengers under the 2016 League Champions banner is in much shorter supply in August. As such, Cron and the Generals’ remaining pieces have had more loaded onto their shoulders, and the results have at times been unkind. The Generals are five games below a .500 winning percentage in the Second Half. In games where Cron didn’t start at first base this year (through 8/25), the Generals went 4-7.
After walking 38 times in his first 76 games (and setting a career high in the process), Cron took a free pass just 16 times in his next 50 games. That’s a bit of departure from the more selective Cron seen in the early season, but to his credit, it’s also really the only drop-off for a guy who has had 93% of his at-bats as a first baseman this year. There isn’t the same dugout retreat available to Cron the way it is for everyday players on DH-friendly American League affiliates. He leads the league in assists as a first baseman, and he’s made just nine errors despite receiving throws from 12 different infielders this season.
So what is “most valuable” to you? Is it the newfound plate discipline that has made Jonathan Rodriguez a more complete player? Is it the versatility displayed by Joe McCarthy? Is it Braxton Lee’s hustle and first-to-second-year improvement? Or is it perhaps the unmatched power and durability of Kevin Cron, who has played more Southern League games and hit more Southern League home runs in the last two years than anybody else?
It’s not hard to figure who Jackson fans would vote for. Whether he wins or not—whether he becomes part of this century’s first tandem of back-to-back Southern League MVPs from the same franchise—is out of his hands. Meanwhile, that pair of hands goes back to work.