The third edition of the Mississippi Braves features a roster full of top prospects and a new manager. The Class AA M-Braves open the season on Thursday at Huntsville (7 p.m., 930 AM). They come home to play their first game at Trustmark Park in Pearl on Tuesday, April 10.
Leading the Braves' prospect parade is Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who returns for his second season and is Atlanta's No. 1 prospect according to Baseball America. The switch-hitting catcher struggled at times last season, hitting just .230 for the season with 39 runs batted in and nine home runs. But he hit .357 in July and .313 in August, so the Braves brass don't appear to be too worried. If Saltalamacchia progresses as expected, he will probably move up to Triple-A Richmond later this season.
"Salty had an off year last year," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox told MLB.com. "We still prize him as the best catching prospect in baseball."
No matter what Cox says, Saltalamacchia's position remains a question. Big-league catcher Brian McCann, himself a former M-Brave, recently signed a six-year contract extension. So odds are, Saltalamacchia will ultimately have to learn a new position if he's going to get into the Atlanta lineup. MLB.com reported some Braves officials indicated during the off-season that Saltalamacchia might soon start learning to play first base. But for now, he will remain behind the plate.
Another familiar name playing for the M-Braves is third baseman Van Pope. The Braves' fifth-ranked prospect is a former Terry High and Meridian CC standout. Pope hit .263 for Class A Myrtle Beach last season with 74 RBIs and 15 homers.
The roster also includes left-handed pitcher Matt Harrison (No. 3 prospect), outfielder Brandon Jones (No. 4), LHP Jo-Jo Reyes (No. 8) and relief pitcher Joey Devine (No. 9).
An intriguing name on the M-Braves roster is shortstop Brent Lillibridge, who was acquired by the Braves in the trade that sent Adam LaRoche to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Lillibridge is ranked among Baseball America's top 100 prospects. He hit a combined .305 with 13 homers and 71 RBIs in A and AA in 2006. He also stole 53 bases.
"I think I'm ready (for the majors)," Lillibridge told MLB.com. "I just need a little more time to get the at-bats and added experiences."
Trustmark Park will host the Southern League All-Star Game this season. The game is scheduled for July 9 at 7:05 p.m. Tickets are on sale at the M-Braves ticket office, the Mississippi Coliseum, Be-Bop Record Shops in Jackson and through Ticketmaster.
"One of our biggest goals for the game is to showcase Trustmark Park, which many people around the league still haven't seen," M-Braves General Manager Steve DeSalvo told MLB.com. "But beyond that, the game also serves as a thank-you to our fans. We've found that sometimes in other markets, the game is secondary to the promotions and the between-inning stuff. But in Pearl, we've found that the fans are really in tune with what's happening on the field."
The night before the game, the M-Braves will host an all-star gala at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum. The event will be open to fans as well as league officials, coaches and players. After the Hall of Fame event, the party will move to the adjacent Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Museum.
By coincidence, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum is located next door to Smith-Wills Stadium, the former home of Class AA baseball in Mississippi. The Texas League's Jackson Mets (1975-90) and Jackson Generals (1991-99) played at Smith-Wills for 25 seasons.
Phillip Wellman is the M-Braves third manager in their three seasons in Pearl. Wellman, 45, spent the last two seasons as Mississippi's hitting instructor. He's also a former Chattanooga Lookouts manager. Wellman succeeds Jeff Blauser.
Wellman is among three new managers in the Southern League. Another is former Atlanta Brave Brett Butler, who takes over in Mobile.
Ben Ingram will be joining Bryan Eubank in the M-Braves radio booth this season. M-Braves games are broadcast on WSFZ-930 AM.
Ingram, a Madison native, is a co-host of "Mississippi Sports This Morning" on WJDX-620 AM. He was the radio voice of the Jackson Senators in 2004 and broadcast the Eugene (Ore.) Emeralds, the San Diego Padres' Class A team, in 2005.