Believe it or not, the All-Star Break is right around the corner. After wrapping up a series in Chattanooga against the Lookouts, the Generals have just ten more games until the midpoint of the 2017 campaign.
After a quick 19-9 start to the season, the Generals have slowed down some. Going into the finale in Chattanooga Thursday night, the team is just a game above .500 and 3.5 games back in the North Division. The team is still alive for a playoff spot, but they’ll need to make a run quickly.
Even with the team scuffling some, things have been good around the Generals. We were fortunate enough to have both Tony La Russa and Mike Bell in town for the series against Mississippi. La Russa doesn’t need much of an introduction, especially in West Tennessee. He ranks third all-time in managerial wins among MLB skippers, has three World Series Rings and is in the Hall of Fame. He has been in Arizona’s front office since 2014.
La Russa could not have been nicer or more welcoming. I know the coaches and players enjoyed having him around. He took ample time to chat with me in the interview below.
Mike Bell is the Vice President, Player Development for the D-backs. He is in charge of all things minor leagues in the organization. I spoke with him about some of the standout performers for the Generals in the First Half of the season and what we can expect to see as the year goes on.
The 2017 Southern League All-Star Game is Tuesday, June 20 in Pensacola. Six Generals were named to the initial North Division roster earlier this week. Congrats to those guys!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.