High School Sports

With Marlins within reach, this Coast ‘underdog’ is trying to remain focused

Former Picayune High, Pearl River Community College and Ole Miss outfielder Braxton Lee had a standout Arizona Fall League as one of the Miami Marlins’ top prospects.
Former Picayune High, Pearl River Community College and Ole Miss outfielder Braxton Lee had a standout Arizona Fall League as one of the Miami Marlins’ top prospects. Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp

Braxton Lee’s name still doesn’t appear on any of the big top prospect lists. And why should it?

Maybe because the Picayune native continued to rake after being traded from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Miami Marlins and finished as the Southern League’s batting champion.

Not enough?

Well the Marlins thought enough of the former Pearl River Community College and Ole Miss outfielder that they sent him to face some of baseball’s top prospects in the prestigious Arizona Fall League.

Anyone who’s followed Lee’s ascension through the minor leagues likely won’t be surprised by this next line: The speedy Lee continued to hit. And hit. Even after taking a brief hiatus in the middle of the AFL to get married Lee finished among the league’s top hitters and earned spots in both the all-star game and on the Top Prospects Team.

Still, no rankings — at least not yet.

The 24-year-old Lee was, however, added to the one lists that really matters in baseball: The Marlins’ 40-man roster. That means the Coast native is one — big — step closer to achieving his dream.

“That means the world. That means the Marlins know I mean something to them. I couldn’t be happier,” Lee told the Sun Herald on Friday. “That changes peoples lives. It’s one more step to get me to where I need to be. It’s not the end, I still have to make it there, but it’s a great step and I’m so thankful the Marlins gave me that opportunity.”

Lee believes his successful fall season was a big reason for his inclusion on the list.

In 20 games, Lee hit .347 with a .398 on-base percentage and .400 slugging percentage. He also stole eight bases in 10 attempts, third-best in the AFL.

“The numbers don’t lie, I guess. I did what I could and I did like I have the whole season,” said Lee, fresh off of hitting .309 in 127 games with the Montgomery Biscuits and Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp. “I just worked hard and made sure every single day that I was locked in to be sure that I’m ready to produce as a leadoff hitter. I feel like I did that in every way.”

Competing against top prospects from other organizations, often several years younger and with higher draft records than the 12th rounder, Lee said he continues to be motivated by his perceived lack of prospect status.

“All the prospects there actually helped me out. For me not being a prospect and never been one, it was nice for me to be there because I felt like an underdog,” he said. “I know that feels good for a lot of people and sparks something more inside of them to just showcase their ability. I really enjoyed it.”

Lee isn’t unfamiliar with being overlooked. As a 5-foot-9, 140-pound outfielder for the Maroon Tide, Lee hit .494 his senior year but went to PRCC after no four-year schools were interested. He continued to hit and went on to Ole Miss before being drafted in 2014. Lee said it’s the drive he learned as a kid that still propels him today.

“Me being the way I am, being from Picayune, a little town in Mississippi, I have always been a super hard worker,” he said. “Nothing like that has changed.”

As a high-minors outfielder in an organization that just traded off two star outfielders — with possibly more moves on the horizon — Lee said he does his best to ignore the headlines. He deleted his social media account, but his phone still buzzes with texts every time Miami auctions off another star to cut salary.

“I try to keep (my mentality) the same. It’s tough because of what’s happening. I have my agent and everybody telling me this is my opportunity and every list that comes out they’re saying you’re going to be the next outfielder for the Marlins,” Lee said. “I could start in the big leagues and never come back. Obviously it’s hard to keep the emotions down, but I just go into spring training with the same mindset I have always had.

“I need to stick to my game and not do anything differently just because you’re getting talked about more and people are noticing you.”

Lee participated in spring trainings with the Rays but after being added to the 40-man, Lee will likely get to actually play this year. The difference in the two opportunities isn’t lost on Lee, despite his best attempts to stay out of his own head.

“It’s in the back of my mind now since I’m so close but I still try not to worry about it because I don’t want to cloud my head with all this that’s happening and ruin everything for myself,” he said. “I would put all the blame on myself because I let it get to me.”

Lee said he plans to try to take some time off to hunt, fish and live the married life after returning home from the AFL. He said he won’t begin ramping up conditioning for spring training for at least a couple weeks, but it may be hard for him to stay away from the diamond for too long with the opportunity that awaits in 2018.

Marlins pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report Feb. 13 with position players arriving Feb. 18. The Marlins will open spring training Feb. 23 against the St. Louis Cardinals in Jupiter, Florida.

Patrick Ochs: 228-896-2321, @PatrickOchs