Going Back-to-Back: Will Kevin Cron Be The Generals’ Second Straight Southern League MVP?

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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…

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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.

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Generals’ offense re-loads on the road

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Kelly Dugan spanked two home runs in the Generals’ first two road games at Montgomery. The Generals are 14-5 on the road this year. (Photo credit: Cody Cunningham)

If you looked at the 24-19 Jackson Generals, your eyes would probably widen slightly in peeking at two stats in particular: comebacks, and home/road splits. The Generals, despite scoring the most runs of any team in the league (220), have not yet proven to be a team that rallies well.

Huh?

(Hang on, we’re getting there.)

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Homer-happy approach has Generals’ offense leading Southern League

 

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Rudy Flores went deep for the fourth time this year on Wednesday, helping the Generals beat Tennessee 2-0. (Photo credit: Cody Cunningham)

The Jackson Generals reclaimed first place in the Southern League’s North Division on Wednesday, and they did it in familiar fashion. To begin, Kelly Dugan bopped a home run in the third inning off the scoreboard beyond right-center field. Four innings later, Rudy Flores whistled a shot down the right field line that cleared the wall by inches. They were the 24th and 25th solo homers that Jackson has propelled out of the park in their first 32 games, marking an even 40 blasts as a team in total.

There is a reason Baseball America’s first-month data says the Generals have the minor leagues’ premier offense so far: Jackson has hit the ball a long way, and they have done it a lot. You wouldn’t easily score 164 runs in 32 games without knowing how to dinger, and they do. Remember, the 2016 Mobile BayBears jacked a league-best 109 homers, and that team featured 10 position players who are now Generals.

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Series Preview: Generals bound for Biloxi

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Generals right-hander Brooks Hall was one of four Jackson starters to complete five innings in the series against Montgomery. Hall pitched for the Biloxi Shuckers in 2015 and 2016. (Photo credit: Cody Cunningham)

Shucks!

(You’re laughing, I can tell. No, really, I see you doing it. It’s all good!)

That one-syllable interjection kind of encapsulates both the week gone by and the week ahead for the Jackson Generals (9-5). For the second time in as many weeks, the Generals are leaving town to visit a coastal opponent, matched up with the Biloxi Shuckers (6-8), the Double-A affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers.

Because the Brewers and Arizona Diamondbacks (Jackson’s new parent club) are both National League teams, Saturday will mark the first time the Jackson franchise has batted their pitchers in over a decade. On September 4, 2006, Chicago Cubs farmhand J.R. Mathes threw a complete game victory for the West Tenn Diamond Jaxx at Pringles Park, allowing one run to Chattanooga while batting three times with two strikeouts.

Two and a half hours to the east of Mathes’ complete game, a 26-year-old first baseman was busy collecting a pair of hits, scoring a run and driving in another to help the Round Rock Express get a 10-4 win in Nashville. J.R. House batted cleanup for the Express in that game, and while the Generals’ new manager would probably prefer his pitchers to hit more like him than Mathes, that’s far from his first concern at present.

Since their 53-run jetpack ride in the season-opening series with Birmingham, gravity has done a number on the Generals. They scored just 23 runs in a 4-1 series at Mobile, and the five-day crucible that followed against Montgomery gave Jackson a window to the opposite end of the spectrum. The Generals produced only 17 runs against the Biscuits, netting one victory in four games. Thursday night’s 9-5 loss was a difficult final note, going off key during an eight-run eighth inning for Montgomery. The fifth scheduled contested was postponed until May due to rain, denying the Generals a chance to end the series on a win.

To be fair, House’s team made many positive steps against Montgomery, a talented and detail-minded opponent. All of Jackson’s starting pitchers completed five innings, with none giving up more than three earned runs. Three of those arms (Josh Taylor, Brooks Hall, and Brad Keller) departed with a lead or while the game was tied; the fourth, Taylor Clarke, allowed just one earned run–on a bunt single–in a frustrating 1-0 loss. There was also a late-inning comeback, as the Generals rallied from a 7-3 deficit in the final two innings for a walk-off 8-7 win on Wednesday.

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Michael Perez has started behind the plate in eight of the Generals’ 14 games, bringing some offensive punch to the lower third of the Jackson lineup. (Photo credit: Cody Cunningham)

The Generals’ search for consistency at the plate and in the bullpen looks like a continuing theme for the early part of the season. Montgomery scored nearly as many runs against the Generals’ relief corps (15) as the Generals scored overall in the series. Offensively, only three of the team’s twelve position players–Victor Reyes, Michael Perez, and reigning Southern League Player of the Week Colin Walsh–have batted over .300 in Jackson’s last 10 games.

The Biloxi series will be a stiff test for Jason Camilli’s hitters. The Shuckers’ staff features the second-best team ERA in the Southern League (2.59, as of Friday afternoon) and a league-leading 138 strikeouts, a rate of ten-and-a-half punch-outs every nine innings.

Generals right-hander Brooks Hall pitched for Biloxi in each of the last two seasons, so at least one General will recognize a few of the faces in the opposing dugout. Four Generals hitters on the active roster–Kevin Cron, Rudy Flores, Evan Marzilli, and Kevin Medrano–finished the 2016 season with on-base percentages of at least .300 against Biloxi, when each player suited up for the Mobile BayBears. Additionally, Jackson will be able to call on fresh muscle tomorrow night, with right-handed relief pitcher Daniel Gibson added to the roster on Friday afternoon in place of Drew Muren.

The pitching matchups for the series are listed below. You can hear each of the first four games of the series locally in Jackson on Radio Willie (94.1 and 94.3 FM, 1390 AM) and RadioWillie.com. Wednesday’s 10:35 am CT finale will be available only on the Jackson Generals Baseball Network, which you can find on the TuneIn Radio app (available for free download on most smartphones).

SATURDAY: 6:35 pm CT first pitch

Pitching Matchup: LHP Alex Young (1-0, 0.90 ERA) vs. RHP Aaron Wilkerson (2-1, 2.30 ERA)

SUNDAY: 1:05 pm CT first pitch

Pitching Matchup: RHP Taylor Clarke (1-1, 3.86 ERA) vs. RHP Jorge Lopez (1-1, 2.57 ERA)

MONDAY: 6:35 pm CT first pitch;

Pitching Matchup: LHP Josh Taylor (1-1, 3.00 ERA) vs. RHP Taylor Williams (0-0, 1.13 ERA)

TUESDAY: 6:35 pm CT first pitch;

Pitching Matchup: RHP Brooks Hall (0-0, 8.10 ERA) vs. RHP Luis Ortiz (0-2, 4.50 ERA)

WEDNESDAY: 10:35 am CT first pitch;

Pitching Matchup: RHP Brad Keller (2-0, 1.20 ERA) vs. RHP Taylor Jungmann (0-1, 4.50 ERA)

Make sure to get your tickets now to see the 20th season of professional baseball in Jackson, and the first for the team as an affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks! Call the team at (731) 988.5299, stop by The Ballpark or go online to jacksongeneralsbaseball.com to secure your seats now!

Series Preview: Montgomery visits the league-leading Generals

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Generals reliever Yuhei Nakaushiro threw 4.1 innings in relief over the Generals’ trip to Mobile, earning a win and a save in the process. Jackson leads the Southern League North Division at 8-2. (Photo credits for this article: Cody Cunningham)

Did somebody say “Biscuits”, or was that my stomach growling? Either way, it’s breakfast time, and we’re here to bring you a first look at the Generals’ second home series of the year!

After ten games in 2017, the Jackson Generals (8-2) hold the high ground in the Southern League’s North Division as they await the arrival of the Montgomery Biscuits (5-5). New manager J.R. House has found multiple ways to coax wins out of his team so far, and that’s in part because the roster has already changed.

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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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