Patrick Ochs

Coast native Braxton Lee picked for AFL, then realized it starts days before his wedding

Former Picayune and Ole Miss standout Braxton Lee is headed to the Arizona Fall League after leading the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp to the Southern League playoffs.
Former Picayune and Ole Miss standout Braxton Lee is headed to the Arizona Fall League after leading the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp to the Southern League playoffs. Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp

From Biscuits to Jumbo Shrimp to Salt River Rafters, Braxton Lee is going to have one heckuva hat collection when his memorable 2017 finally winds down.

Following the conclusion of the Southern League’s playoffs, where Lee’s Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp were swept by the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, the Miami Marlins product was added to the team’s Arizona Fall League affiliate. It’s yet another opportunity for the former Picayune and Ole Miss standout to make an impression.

“It means a lot. It’s one of those cool things where ever since I’ve been in pro ball I’ve heard about it; the Arizona Fall League, that’s something huge for prospects,” Lee said Monday.

Lee’s honored to land on the Salt River Rafters, his AFL team whose roster is shared by the Marlins, Arizona Diamondbacks, Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee Brewers, but he’s going to try not to put too much on himself.

“I try not to think of it as anything other than a season, basically what I just did. I want to go out there and do the best I can. I try not to think of it as an all-star stature or anything different,” he said. “There’s more pressure, but if you put more pressure on yourself it’ll make it tougher. ”

The invitation to the AFL punctuates a “wild” 12 month period for the former Pearl River Community College product.

Year to remember

Coming off a disappointing 2016 where he hit a career low .209 with a .269 on-base percentage, the former Coast standout knew the 2017 season would decide a lot of things about his future. The former Tampa Bay Rays prospect got off to a hot start but was then traded to the Marlins.

The change could have derailed his season, but Lee was determined not to let the change of scenery throw him a curveball.

“I just tried to think of the same old things from before. I was telling myself, don’t let this affect you. I was just trying to make sure I kept everything the same way,” Lee said. “It was a new organization and new people, but there shouldn’t have been anything to mess me up. I’m very happy with the way I finished the season because it showed I stayed with my plan throughout the whole season.”

Whatever “the plan” was, it worked as Lee went on to win the Southern League batting title — more on that shortly — with a .309 average. He also boasted career-highs with a .395 on-base percentage, a .384 slugging percentage and three home runs.

During his disappointing 2016, Lee changed his swing almost as often as he did his socks and with each slump came a new approach. This year, Lee remained consistent regardless of the results.

“I mainly just made sure I was on time to hit the fastball no matter how hard they threw because if you’re on time for that, that’s what makes you successful,” he said. “If you can’t hit that then you’re not going to be able to hit a pitch that’s moving.”

SL Batting King

Lee had built such a high batting average by August that he never really gave much thought to “chasing” the Southern League’s batting title. By Aug. 25, with nine games remaining, he was still hitting a commanding .321. Then he hit what he called his only slump of the season, a 3-for-30 stretch, dropping his average to .307 heading into the season’s final day.

“I didn’t think about it much until the last two or three games because I got into maybe my first slump of the year. They were like, ‘dude, you just need one or two more hits and you have it secured.’ So I started thinking about it more, which probably wasn’t good,” Lee said. “The day before, they told me what was at stake and what I needed to do. I thought, that’s as much pressure as I’ve had the whole season.”

Heading into the seventh inning against the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, Lee was hitless. He needed just two hits to clinch the batting crown. Pressure that hadn’t been present all year, all of a sudden filled Lee’s mind.

“The at-bat where I got my first hit, they brought in a guy throwing extremely hard and I thought, Just hit the ball or don’t strike out at least. I ended up hitting it right through the six-hole,” Lee said. “My next at-bat I was the last out of the game in the ninth inning with two outs. I thought, Welp, this is it so you might as well do whatever you can.

“I actually tried bunting, which it was a 5-1 game so I don’t think it’s too bush league to do. But it got to a 3-1 count and I thought he can’t walk me here. I think I swung at a pitch inside that probably would have hit me in the chest, because I didn’t want to walk and I ended up hitting it down the line for a double.”

The double pushed Lee’s average to .30882 (or .309), which edged out Chattanooga’s Jonathan Rodriguez (.30876), who had previously been promoted to Triple-A. His 147 hits also led the SL.

“It’s definitely a huge accomplishment for me to be — I don’t want to say it this way because I don’t want to sound cocky, but — the best hitter in the Southern League,” Lee said. “It made me feel really good that I was able to accomplish that after coming from the year I just had.”

Wedding bells

As if getting the chance to showcase his ability in the prospect-heavy AFL wasn’t enough, Lee’s also getting married Oct. 14 in Pass Christian — seven days after the start of the fall league. When Lee was informed of his invite, he had a minor heart palpitation.

“Right when he told me, I was like, ‘I don’t mean to interrupt you but I’m getting married Oct. 14. I don’t know if that ruins anything or what,’” Lee said with a laugh. “He said, ‘We can figure things out around that. We really want you to go. Whatever you want is fine with me.’”

Lee said the plan is to fly out to Arizona for the start of the league, fly back just in time for the ceremony, and then drive back to Arizona with his new wife the very next day.

Big hopes

Looking ahead, Lee hopes his 2017 opened some eyes within the Marlins organization. He has received spring training invites from the Rays in the past, but they’ve only led to minimal playing time. When spring training rolls around in 2018, Lee hopes there’s more on the line.

“ I’m hoping I’ll be a big league invite where I’ll be there and they can see me play and see what they think of me. I hope I give them a lasting impression,” he said. “I just want to go out there and play hard and if they want me, then I hope I gave them enough to see I’m ready to play in the Bigs.”

Coast connections

Lee won’t be the only former Coast standout working in the Arizona Fall League. Harrison Central’s Bobby Bradley has been added by the Cleveland Indians to the Glendale Desert Dogs roster. Bradley, a third-round selection in 2014, just completed his first year at Double-A. He hit .251 with 23 homers, 89 RBIs, a .331 on-base percentage and .465 slugging percentage.

About the AFL

The Arizona Fall League is a six-team fall league that is meant to provide extra opportunities for top prospects to hone their skills against other elite talents.

Players will report around Oct. 8. Games begin Oct. 10 and will run until the league’s championship game on Nov. 18.

Patrick Ochs: 228-896-2321, @PatrickOchs

Braxton Lee’s statistics

Year/Team

Level

AVG/OBP/SLG

XBH

SB

2014/Hudson Valley Renegades

Class-A short-season

.287/.350.332

8

12

2015/Charlotte Stone Crabs

Class-A advanced

.281/.347/.305

8

23

2016/Montgomery Biscuits

Double-A

.209/.269/.256

15

13

2017/Biscuits+Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp

Double-A

.309/.395/.384

27

20

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