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Top Prospects in Dragons History: the Story of Chris Gruler

October 31, 2012 - Midwest League (MWL) Dayton Dragons

In the Dayton Dragons 13-year history, two players were ranked as the # 1 prospect in the Cincinnati Reds organization while they played for the Dragons. Who were those players, and what became of them?

If you guessed Jay Bruce or Adam Dunn or Billy Hamilton, guess again. All three players were rated as the #2 prospect in the Reds system by Baseball America at the time they played for the Dragons. Bruce, Kearns, Todd Frazier, and Devin Mesoraco were all Reds #1 prospects after playing for the Dragons.

In 2005, Dragons starting pitcher Homer Bailey was the #1 prospect in the Reds organization and a member of the Dayton Dragons. Bailey, in fact, was the organization's #1 prospect for three consecutive years and has since started 110 games for the Reds, winning 38. The other #1 prospect in Dayton? Right-handed pitcher Chris Gruler.

Gruler was the third overall selection in the first round of the 2002 draft, selected by the Reds immediately after Tampa Bay picked B.J. Upton and a few picks before Zach Greinke and Prince Fielder were taken. The Reds second round pick that year was Joey Votto. Gruler stands as the second highest draft pick in Reds history, trailing only shortstop Kurt Stillwell, the second overall pick in the first round in 1983. Stillwell had a nine-year Major League career, but was traded by the Reds to Kansas City after the arrival in Cincinnati of Barry Larkin.

Gruler was drafted out of Liberty Union High School in Oakley, California. Ten years later, the $2.5 million signing bonus given to Gruler by the Reds still ranks as the largest in franchise history for a drafted player. As one would expect for a player drafted that highly, expectations for him were sky-high. Hall-of-Fame catcher Johnny Bench watched Gruler work out at Cinergy Field in Cincinnati and came away very impressed, going so far as to compare Gruler favorably to another former Reds pitcher who made it to the Hall-of-Fame. Bench said Gruler "has a better breaking ball and better change-up than Tom Seaver."

Grant Griesser, the Reds Assistant Director of Player Development from 2000-'07, remembers Gruler. "He had a 95 mile per hour fastball, a quality curve, and a clean delivery," says Griesser. "He was an unhittable high school pitcher on a below average high school team. I recall a spirited internal discussion on whether to take him with that third overall pick."

Major League Baseball's official website offered a scouting report on Gruler and compared him to yet another Hall-of-Famer in this summary: "Good body. Large, raw-boned frame, similar to Jim Palmer. Fastball bores in on righties. Hard, tight-rotating curveball. Splitter with some sink, used as off-speed pitch. Mound presence. Great kid."

Before Gruler had thrown a pitch, he was $2.5 million richer and had drawn comparisons to Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer.

Gruler's professional career began at Billings in the summer of 2002. He made four excellent starts for the Mustangs, allowing just two earned runs in 16.2 innings. Before the end of July, the 18-year-old Gruler was promoted to Dayton, just two months out of high school. He made seven starts for the Dragons, allowing three runs or less in all but one. On August 20th at Fifth Third Field, he fired six no-hit innings against Cedar Rapids, striking out six and walking just two. All signs pointed forward, but sadly, that would be as good as it would get for Chris Gruler.

When the 2003 season opened, Gruler was back with the Dragons, rated as the #1 prospect in the Reds organization by Baseball America. But his first three starts in early April indicated something was terribly wrong. In just five and two-thirds innings, he allowed 19 runs. Reconstructive shoulder surgery would soon follow, the first of three for Gruler. He came back briefly in 2004, then missed all of 2005 after another shoulder surgery. He threw 15 innings on a rehabilitation assignment in 2006, and that was the end. In February, 2007, Gruler was released by the Reds at the age of 23. He tried throwing for some other organizations but his shoulder would not hold up to the strain.

"He was a great kid and he tried everything and worked hard to come back from the injuries, but it was just not in the cards for him physically," says Griesser. "It is impossible to say what would have been if Gruler had remained healthy. Certainly as an 18-year-old his ceiling was high, but many high school pitchers, no matter how highly-touted, no matter how high they are drafted, exit pro baseball early due to arm injury. Unfortunately that is what happened to Chris."

Chris Gruler never got the chance to compete above the Single-A level as shoulder injuries robbed him of the opportunity to become the pitcher that many projected. His final career numbers showed less than 100 innings, all but 33 at the Rookie level.

"I tried everything in the book," he said in a story published at mlb.com. "You tend to believe what you read about guys being overworked when they're young. But, you know, I wanted to pitch. I wanted to show my stuff. There's no right or wrong. I won't play the blame game. That's not me."

Gruler has made a successful transition to the business world. He and his father founded ProtegeBranding.com, a company that works with athletes, businesses, and individuals at creating branding, logos, and web site sales. At age 29, his future is bright.

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