November 16, 2012 - Midwest League (MWL) - Dayton Dragons
The 2000 Dayton Dragons had an interesting baseball cousin in the Midwest League. In a highly-unusual situation that, by rule, could not be repeated today, the Cincinnati Reds had two farm clubs in the same league. Without an agreement with a franchise in the California League, Carolina League, or Florida State League, the Reds were forced to put both of their full-season Single-A affiliations in the Midwest League.
One affiliation was located in Dayton in a brand new facility that was welcoming back professional baseball for the first time in half a century. The second affiliation was set up in Clinton, Iowa. The process of dividing up the players and assigning them to either Dayton or Clinton had to be an interesting one for the Reds.
The Dragons roster included Adam Dunn, Austin Kearns, former first round draft pick Ty Howington, and future Major Leaguers Ray Olmedo, Jose Acevedo, and Brian Reith. The Clinton roster included star pitcher Travis Thompson, but ironically, after Thompson started the season by going 5-1 with a 1.77 earned run average, he was reassigned to Dayton. Interestingly, Thompson's first start after being transferred to the Dayton roster came at Fifth Third Field against, of all teams, Clinton. His former teammates might have let their bats do the talking about how they felt about seeing Thompson moved to the home clubhouse during a visit to Fifth Third Field. They roughed him up for nine runs in five innings in that game. Thompson would finish the season with a 16-5 record.
The Clinton starting pitching rotation also featured a 19-year-old left-handed pitcher who struggled to a 4-13 record in what had to be a frustrating year. The next season, he would play for the Dragons, and eventually, he would play for three different big league clubs and start 30 games in the Major Leagues. This is the story of the 13th Dragons player to get to the Majors, John Koronka.
Koronka was just 17 years old when he was drafted by the Reds in the 12th round in 1998 out of high school in Groveland, Florida. His father, then a scout with the Florida Marlins, negotiated his first contract with the Reds. Koronka was so well-liked at South Lake High School that the school retired his number before he had turned 19 years old, in a ceremony at home plate before his second professional season in 1999.
After two seasons in Rookie-ball, he made 18 starts for that Clinton team in 2000 and despite the 4-13 record, he posted four complete games and an ERA of 4.33. In 2001, the Reds were no longer affiliated with Clinton, and Koronka opened the season with the Dragons. He made five starts with the Dayton club, pitching in the ballpark where he had appeared as a visiting player the previous season. His first start as a home team pitcher in front of the big crowds came on April 13 when he fired seven shutout innings with no walks and nine strikeouts. His record after five starts was 3-1 and his ERA was 0.75, prompting a promotion by the Reds to their new California League affiliate, poetically named the Mudville Nine. By mid-June, Koronka was 4-1 with Mudville, and the Reds promoted him again, this time to Double-A Chattanooga. Still only 21 years old, Koronka struggled with the Lookouts, going 1-5 with a 5.73 ERA in nine starts.
The 2002 season was a special one for Koronka. He started the year back in Single-A baseball with the same club previously known as Mudville, now renamed the Stockton Ports. Amazingly, after 11 starts, his record was 11-0, and despite being promoted back to Chattanooga before the season had reached its midpoint, he was named California League Pitcher of the Year for the full season. He went just 2-8 with Chattanooga, but after the season, the Texas Rangers snagged Koronka from the Reds in Rule V Draft and he went to camp with the Rangers in 2003. At the end of spring training, Texas did not have a spot for Koronka on its Major League roster, and the Reds reclaimed him for $25,000. He spent the 2003 season back in Chattanooga, and struggled to a record of 7-13.
At the end of August, 2003, the Reds traded Koronka to the Cubs for Major League reliever Phil Norton. Koronka played for the Cubs Triple-A club in 2004, Iowa, and posted a record of 12-9 with a 4.34 ERA. In 2005, he went back to Iowa to start the year. But on June 1, the Cubs and their manager, Dusty Baker, called Koronka to the big leagues. He started that day against the Dodgers and won his big league debut, going five innings and allowing three runs. He made two more starts and one relief appearance for the Cubs that season, finishing at 1-2 with a 7.47 ERA.
At the end of spring training, 2006, the pitching hungry Rangers traded for Koronka and gave him an extended opportunity in the big leagues. He went 7-7 over 23 starts with Texas, finishing third on the team in innings pitched despite a 5.69 ERA. He made two more starts for the Rangers in 2007 but spent most of that year in Triple-A. Koronka spent part of 2008 pitching in Japan, and then spent most of 2009 with the Marlins Triple-A club. He did get two Major League starts with the Marlins in '09 but lost both.
Koronka started the 2010 season with the Dodgers Double-A club but was eventually released and spent time in independent professional baseball. He threw just one inning in 2011, with Lancaster of the independent Atlantic League, at the age of 30. In December of 2011, he announced his retirement and joined the Chicago Cubs as a regional scout. His reports on Florida high school prospect Albert Almora contributed to the Cubs drafting Almora in the first round in 2012 with the sixth overall selection.
Koronka's professional career spanned 14 seasons from 1998-2011. He threw 1,400 innings in the Minor Leagues and another 158 in the Majors, earning eight big league victories. Certainly, those are impressive qualifications for his current job in scouting. Perhaps someday, Koronka will return to Fifth Third Field, seated behind home plate where the radar guns and clip boards are often visible, and he will recall the feeling of pitching before the huge crowds, both as a home teamer and a Dragons opponent. He became the 13th Dragons player to play in the Major Leagues. Next up: Edwin Encarnacion.