Starting Strong

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Kevin Cron put on a show in Jackson’s first series of 2017 (Cody Cunningham)

A lot is new for the Generals in 2017. The team is in its first year of a brand new affiliation with the Arizona Diamondbacks after three years as Seattle’s Double-A affiliate. While the team is coming off a 2016 Southern League Championship, none of the Generals actually played for the team last season.

Something that is the same–at least in the early going–is very good baseball. The Generals opened up the season with four wins out of five versus Birmingham. The team’s starters combined to allow just three earned runs in 26 innings (1.04 ERA), and the offensive numbers are staggering. The Generals lead the Southern League in average (.348), home runs (10), doubles (14), hits (65) and runs (43).

Five games is much too soon to draw any meaningful conclusions, but those numbers are mighty impressive. Every General had at least three hits over the first four games, so it’s not just one or two guys. But there were some truly impressive performances over the weekend.

We saw some prodigious power from Tyler O’Neill last year. I would not want to saddle anyone this early with being compared to the 2016 Southern League MVP, but even O’Neill did not do what Kevin Cron did on Saturday night. Cron hit three home runs in one game, becoming the first General to do so since 2013.

Cron hit a solo blast in the second inning off of top White Sox prospect Michael Kopech. With the team down 7-4 in the eighth inning, he hit another solo shot to bring the Generals within two. He completed the trifecta with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to tie the game and force extras. Jackson would lose in extras 8-7 despite the heroic effort at the plate.

I got a chance to speak with Kevin about the feat. It was the first time as a pro he had hit three home runs in a game even though he led the Southern League with 26 bombs last year.

That wasn’t it for Cron, either. In his first at-bat on Sunday, the slugger went yard again. It was the fourth time in six at-bats that he homered.

And that began a historic afternoon for the Generals. The team hit six home runs as part of a 20-run, 22-hit effort in a 20-5 win over the Barons. The six long balls were one shy of tying a Southern League record. The last time the Generals scored 20 runs was in 2009 (Box Score), and the last time the team had more than 22 hits was in 2006 (Box Score).

Stewart Ijames and Dawel Lugo each went deep twice, while Colin Walsh and Cron added one apiece. The team scored in each of its first seven trips to the plate. Every General had at least one hit and a run scored, while seven knocked in a run.

Had Birmingham centerfielder Hunter Jones not made a spectacular diving catch to rob Jamie Westbrook of a potential walk-off double Saturday night, the Generals would likely be undefeated. Alas, they’ll settle for 4-1.


The Generals embark on their first road trip of 2017 Wednesday. Fittingly, it will be to Mobile. The BayBears had been Arizona’s Double-A affiliate for the past decade prior to this year. Sixteen of the 27 players to begin the season with the Generals spent time with Mobile last year.

The BayBears are now an affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Angels had been in Little Rock, Arkansas. Now the Arkansas Travelers are home to Seattle’s Double-A club, bringing everything full circle (as the Generals/Diamond Jaxx had been affiliated with the Mariners for the previous ten seasons).

So the series features the only two teams in the circuit to change affiliations this offseason. And Mobile features the only truly new team in the Southern League, as the Angels had been a part of the eight-team Texas League from 2001 to 2016. We all caught up?

Anyways, should be a fun time. Hope you can tune in on Radio Willie in Jackson and online via the TuneIn Radio App. Wednesday’s game gets started at 6:35 pm CT.

Your 2017 Generals

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One of many awesome photos Cody Cunningham will take this year.

We are officially close to the start of the 2017 Southern League season. The Diamondbacks unveiled Jackson’s Opening Day roster on Monday. It is tough to take too much away from a list of names, but we have to talk about something until Opening Night.

Prospecting: The roster features seven of the top 30 prospects in Arizona’s system according to Baseball America — No. 3 Dawel Lugo, No. 7 Taylor Clarke, No. 8 Brad Keller, No. 11 Alex Young, No. 19 Jared Miller, No. 23 Víctor Reyes and No. 25 Josh Taylor. Five of those seven are pitchers, so expect the staff to be a strength to start the season. Clarke is slated to get the ball on Opening Night, and he’ll be joined by Keller, Young and Taylor in the rotation. Third-ranked Domingo Leyba would likely have started in Jackson as well, but he was injured at the end of Spring Training and will miss up to two months.

Experience is Everything: Double-A won’t be new to almost the entire Opening Day roster in Jackson. Just three of the 27 total players will be making their debut at the level in 2017. Four players — LHP Eric Jokisch, C Óscar Hernández, INF Travis Denker and INF Colin Walsh — have played in the bigs before.

New Faces: With a brand new front office in Arizona, it is no surprise that the organization has brought in a lot of new players. Fourteen of the 27 players on the roster were originally drafted or signed by the D-backs, which means that almost half the team started their pro careers somewhere else.

Toolbox: A number of the Generals have skill-sets that caught the attention of Baseball America. Dawel Lugo is considered the Best Hitter for Average, Kevin Cron the Best Power Hitter, Gabriel Moya has the Best Changeup, Óscar Hernández is the Best Defensive Catcher and Evan Marzilli is ranked the Best Defensive Outfielder.


For a more in-depth look at the Opening Day Roster and the Diamondbacks, be sure to listen to the second episode of Generally Speaking. We spoke with the excellent Nick Piecoro (@nickpiecoro), Arizona’s beat writer for azcentral.com, about the start of the year in the desert and the organization as a whole.

Two Decades A Team: Celebrating The 20th Year of Baseball in Jackson

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Think back to what you were doing 20 years ago. Some of us were in college. Others were not yet parents or grandparents. A few people hadn’t even been born yet. But in 1998, West Tennessee became a proving ground for an important question: could the sunset side of the Volunteer State sustain multiple minor league baseball teams? It hadn’t been tried in almost 50 years.

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Leading Off: Jackson’s First 2017 Podcast and Radio Segment

 

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Generals broadcaster Brandon Liebhaber enters his third year calling play-by-play for the team. (Photo credit: Cody Cunningham)

Minor League Baseball’s Opening Day is set for next Thursday, April 6th. Before the lights come on, Brandon and I sat down to introduce (or re-introduce) ourselves, chat about the Generals’ new affiliation with the Arizona Diamondbacks, and highlight what we enjoy about the early part of the baseball year. Jeff Wiser, a.k.a. @OutfieldGrass24, was our first 2017 guest on the Generally Speaking Podcast, and he brought some color to a lot of the ideas we had about the new affiliation.

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Lugo, Leyba lead D-backs prospects poised to produce in Jackson

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Third baseman Dawel Lugo hit 13 home runs in 79 games at Visalia last year, earning mid-season California League All-Star honors. (Photo by Ken Weisenberger http://www.strike3photos.com)

Part of the Jackson Generals’ run to the 2016 Southern League title–their first in over a decade–was consistency in the infield. Second baseman Tim Lopes and shortstop Benji Gonzalez each amassed more than 500 at-bats last season, injecting some critical stability into the Jackson lineup.  Between the two of them, Lopes and Gonzalez scored 152 runs, 24% of Jackson’s season total.  They were key cogs in the trophy-hoisting Jackson machine.

You won’t see Lopes and Gonzalez this season. They’re not here, nor are any of their Seattle Mariners-affiliated teammates and coaches. But identifying lineup-stabilizing anchors is no less important in the Arizona Diamondbacks’ organization, and they’re sending Jackson the players to prove it.

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Old Friends

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Hard to believe that the season is just around the corner. The Generals open things up two weeks from Thursday with a game against the Birmingham Barons April 6. But we are far from the doldrums of Spring Training. Sure, there are relatively pointless games going on and everyone is talking about Tim Tebow. But there has been compelling action almost nightly thanks to the World Baseball Classic.

The international tournament has featured fantastic players, drama and emotion not seen during much of the MLB regular season. It’s not often that we get to see that kind of enthusiasm in March.

One of the more effusive players in the tournament is none other than former General Edwin Díaz. Less than a year, ago he was Jackson’s Opening Day starter. Now, he’s throwing 100 miles per hour while closing games for the Mariners and Puerto Rico.

Díaz pitched a pair of scoreless innings Monday night, earning the win that sends Puerto Rico to the finals Wednesday night. In the semifinal round, he earned a save against the American team with strikeouts of Buster Posey and Paul Goldschmidt.

The rest of the world is starting to see what Southern League hitters had to deal with last year.


Some other familiar names are making headlines in Spring Training. Though this is our first year with the Diamondbacks, we’ll be keeping a close eye on happenings in Seattle. With the amount of talent that came through Jackson last year, there will be a lot of guys in that organization who make noise at the Major League level.

Tops on the list of players we’re watching in 2017 is Tyler O’Neill. The Canadian slugger rewrote the Jackson record book last year en route to a Southern League MVP award. He’ll more than likely begin the year in Triple-A, but hopefully he’ll get a shot to play in the majors sometime this season. He gave everyone a taste of what he can do last week with this absolute bomb against Clayton Kershaw.

To recap: Last week, a 2016 General struck out Paul Goldschmidt and another one homered off of Clayton Kershaw. Not bad.

Later this week, we’ll look ahead at some of the guys we can expect to see in Jackson this year. But after winning a championship, looking back ain’t so bad.

Dispatch from D-backs Spring Training

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The bad news is that we’re within a month of the season starting and it’s only a few degrees above freezing in Jackson. The good news is that it has to warm up at some point, right?

One place where it is much warmer is Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, Arizona’s gorgeous Spring Training facility in Scottsdale. I was fortunate enough to take in some Diamondbacks’ Spring Training last week.

As the season approaches, Tyler and I will do our best to introduce you all to Jackson’s new parent club. After a successful 10-year run with Seattle culminated in a Southern League championship, the Generals and Diamondbacks agreed to a four-year player development contract in September. It’s a partnership that everyone in the organization is excited about.

A good place to start is Mike Bell. Bell has been with the organization for more than a decade. He currently serves as the Vice President, Player Development. I got a chance to sit down with him at Salt River Fields to talk about some of the things we can expect to see in West Tennessee this year.

While much of what we see on the field will be different in 2017, there are some familiar faces in Arizona’s clubhouse thanks to a number of recent trades between the Diamondbacks and Mariners. The D-backs acquired a pair of former Generals in Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte in an offseason trade with Seattle. Infielder Jack Reinheimer and pitcher Tom Wilhelmsen are also in big league camp at the moment.

Walker could play a big role for Arizona this year. Fans in West Tennessee remember him anchoring a pitching staff that took the Generals to a Southern League Championship Series (One that the team coincidentally lost to an Arizona affiliate in Mobile). After spending much of the past two years in Seattle’s rotation, he was traded last November.

So far, things have gone well to put it lightly. Obviously, it’s just Spring Training but Walker has impressed the folks in Arizona. In three starts, he has struck out 13 batters while walking just one in nine scoreless innings. Last Friday, he retired the first 11 batters he faced and struck out eight in four hitless frames.

Randy Johnson was on the Fox Sports Arizona telecast while Walker was pitching, and noted that going from Seattle to Arizona isn’t a bad trajectory for a pitcher. We’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on Taijuan.


More baseball to come for sure, but I also wanted to say how stellar everything was in Scottsdale. The facilities really are second-to-none, and the Diamondbacks were fantastic to work with. If you have a chance to make it to the Cactus League, I can’t recommend Salt River Fields at Talking Stick enough.

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