November 13, 2012 - Midwest League (MWL) - Dayton Dragons
He loved playing at Fifth Third Field so much that he named his daughter Dayton. After reaching the big leagues, he frequently returned to the home of the Dragons on off-days, just to watch a game here. He has referred to Dayton as his "absolute favorite place to play." He was the 11th Dragons player to reach the Major Leagues. This is the story of relief pitcher Todd Coffey.
Of all players drafted and signed by the Reds in the last 25 years, only one has made it to the Major Leagues despite being selected after the 35th round. Other than catcher Ryan Hanigan, who was completely bypassed in the draft, Coffey was the biggest longshot who actually made it. He was a 41st round pick by the Reds in 1998. Today, the draft no longer continues for 41 rounds. It ends at round 40. Believe it or not, 1,219 players were taken before Coffey's name was finally called in 1998. Six players from the first round that year never reached the big leagues, but Coffey became the latest-drafted Reds prospect to reach the Majors since catcher Glenn Sutko, a 45th round pick in 1987, who eventually logged 11 at-bats for the Reds. Coffey not only reached the Major Leagues, but he is still there and has now appeared in 461 games over eight big league seasons.
When the Reds drafted Coffey out of a North Carolina high school in the 41st round in 1998, their plan was not to actually sign him, but to continue to monitor his progress in junior college under a practice called the "draft and follow" that allowed teams to hold onto a drafted player's rights for 11 months before making a decision on whether to sign him. The "draft and follow" is no longer in existence, but in 1998, it was commonplace.
There was one requirement, however, to hold a player's rights. The big league club had to make at least a minimal offer. According to ESPN.com, the Reds offered Coffey a small $1,000 signing bonus, fully expecting that he would reject that offer and go to junior college. Coffey accepted the offer.
"The way I saw it, I had two choices," Coffey explained to Tony Jackson of ESPN.com. "I could go to college and spend three years learning to play the college way, then get drafted and spend several more years relearning how to pitch in the majors before I got there. Or, I could go to the minor leagues and learn the major league way right away. For me, it was a no-brainer.''
The first four years of Coffey's professional career showed little progress. He missed the entire 2000 season after undergoing elbow surgery. By 2002, he had made his way to Dayton in his fifth year of professional baseball. The results were good. He made 53 appearances for Donnie Scott's Dragons, a team led by slugging third baseman Edwin Encarnacion and outfielder Noochie Varner. Coffey went 6-4 with a respectable 3.59 earned run average at the age of 21. The next season, 2003, Coffey again returned to the Dragons and continued to get better. In 39 relief appearances, he allowed just 14 earned runs, posting a 2.25 ERA with nine saves. That earned him a promotion on to the Carolina League to finish out the year, and in 2004, he was in Double-A with Chattanooga. He picked up 24 saves that season and finished the year in Triple-A. He had already far surpassed the typical production of a 41st round draft pick.
Coffey started 2005 in Triple-A, but before the season was three weeks old, he was in Cincinnati. He made his Major League debut against the Cubs on April 19 at Great American Ballpark.
As a rookie, Coffey pitched in 57 games, improving as the season went along, and finishing with a decent ERA of 4.50. In 2006, he was a key part in Jerry Narron's bullpen, pitching in a team-leading 81 games, sixth most in the National League. His ERA improved to 3.58. At times, he was the Reds closer, finishing with eight saves.
Coffey battled inconsistency for the Reds in 2007 and again in 2008 before being claimed off waivers by the Milwaukee Brewers. He bounced back in a big way with the Brewers in 2009, posting a career-best ERA of 2.90 in 78 relief appearances, the most on the Milwaukee club. Over the next two years, Coffey pitched in 138 games, again with the Brewers in 2010 and then with the Washington Nationals in 2011. In 2012, he joined the Dodgers and after a slow start, was rolling in early July. After going the entire month of June without allowing a single run, Coffey took the mound against his former teammates, the Reds, on July 2nd. On a pitch to former Dragon Todd Frazier, Coffey injured his elbow, ending his season, and underwent the second "Tommy John" surgery of his professional career. He should be back in action sometime in 2013, still young enough at the age of 32 to enjoy many more seasons as a Major League reliever.
Coffey is well-known for his full-speed sprints from the bullpen to the mound. During his years with the Brewers, the scoreboard at Miller Park recorded Coffey's time for every sprint. The recorded number, known as "Coffey Time," captured the attention of the fans.
While many former Dragons players often speak in glowing terms of their time in Dayton, Coffey has been the most outspoken in his praise. He held nothing back as he spoke to Tom Archdeacon of the Dayton Daily News.
"In the minor leagues, Dayton's special," said Coffey. "The people sell this place out every night and cheer you, win or lose."
Archdeacon wrote about Coffey when the Reds played at Fifth Third Field in an exhibition game in 2007, and Coffey entered the game as a member of the Reds.
"I got out there and saw the green backstop and the Dragons fans beyond it and I knew my wife was sitting in the middle of them just like she used to...only this time with our two girls," he told Archdeacon. "I completely forgot I was wearing a Reds jersey. It felt like old times. I'm comfortable here."
Of all the Dragons pitchers to reach the Major Leagues, Todd Coffey has appeared in the most big league games. Once referred to as the "Mayor of Dayton" by then Reds manager Jerry Narron, he was the 11th Dragons player to reach the Majors. Next up: William Bergolla.