10 Thoughts on Dragons Baseball, Pre-Spring Training Edition
Over the pre-season months, I have received many common questions from fans about the 2018 season, often related to information in the news. Who exactly is Hunter Greene? Why is Jose Siri not ranked higher on the prospect lists? Who are some players we can look forward to seeing in the future? Here are 10 thoughts on some of those common questions.
One of the biggest stories for the Dragons in 2018, and one of the biggest stories in our team's history, is going to be the arrival of highly-touted pitcher Hunter Greene, an 18-year-old phenom from Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, California. Greene attended the same high school as MLB slugger Giancarlo Stanton, former star pitcher Jack McDowell, former Dragon Chris Dickerson, and many famous non-athletes including Leave it to Beaver's Jerry Mathers and actress Kirsten Dunst. His hometown of Sherman Oaks (not a huge city with a population of 52,677) has also been the home to a long A-list of movie and television stars including Jennifer Aniston, Tom Selleck, the Olsen twins, Shia LaBeouf, Melissa Joan Hart, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and singers Paula Abdul and Demi Lovato.
Greene's baseball skills put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated before he graduated from high school, his photo above a caption that read "Meet Baseball's Next Great Prospect." His fastball has been clocked at 102 mph. He won the 2016 Home Run Derby at the Perfect Game All-America Classic, as a hitter, then was the starting pitcher for the winning team and threw the fastest pitch in the game in an all-star event featuring the top high school players in the country. He was the second overall pick in the draft in 2017 and will easily be the top pitching prospect in the Midwest League when he arrives in Dayton this season. He has been called a "generational talent" by Reds General Manager Dick Williams. Washington Post writer Dave Sheinin proclaimed that Greene "may be the most intriguing, most important baseball prospect to arrive in years, if not ever." The Dragons have had some players arrive in Dayton with high expectations over the course of their history, including Homer Bailey, Jay Bruce, and Nick Senzel. But there has never been anything like this.
Hunter Greene is listed by Baseball America, and most every other baseball publication that ranks prospects, as the #2 prospect in the Reds system. He is behind former Dragons third baseman Nick Senzel, who is expected to make his MLB debut with the Reds sometime this season. MLB.com ranks Greene as the 21st best prospect in all of baseball. ESPN has him at #22, and Baseball America lists him at #29. You may ask the question: Why Isn't He Higher?
Well, Green will not turn 19 years old until August. Every single player ahead of him on the Baseball America list is older and more experienced. In fact, Greene is younger than any player listed in the top 75 on Baseball America's list. The publications generally place players in the highest slots who are closer to being big league-ready. Hunter Greene has a grand total of four innings of professional pitching experience. The fact that Greene, with virtually no track record in the Minor Leagues, is rated in the top 30 among all prospects in baseball by the three major publications is striking.
If things unfold as expected, Greene will actually become the youngest American pitcher ever to appear in a game for the Dragons when he takes the mound in Dayton this summer at age 18. The last American pitcher for the Dragons to appear in a game at age 18 was Chris Gruler, the Reds first round draft pick in 2002, who appeared for the Dragons later that same summer, less than two months short of his 19th birthday. The average age of a Dragons pitcher over the last five years has been 21.7.
Greene's arrival date in Dayton is still a question mark. The issue revolves around the assumed desire by the Reds to limit his innings in his first full professional season to reduce the risk of injury, now or in the future. The four starting pitchers who spent the entire 2017 season with the Dragons, Scott Moss, Tony Santillan, Andrew Jordan, and Wennington Romero, all finished with between 128 and 136 innings for the year. Each skipped one start during the regular season to limit their innings, but each also compiled playoff starts. Typically, it could be expected that a Dragons starting pitcher who is with the team all season would log about 140 innings. The Reds have not expressed a desired innings total for Hunter Greene in 2018, and it is unlikely that they will share that information publicly once they come to a determination. But it is almost certain that they will want to keep Greene's innings for the year well below 140. Some observers have projected the number to be more like 110.
There are three simple ways that the Reds could get Hunter Greene to 110 innings. One way would be to decrease his pitch limit all season from the standard 90 for most starters to 70, meaning he would typically pitch about four innings per start with a maximum of five. A second way to achieve the same end result would be to cut his pitch limit for only the games in the first half of the season, and to reduce it to 50. That would result in Greene working three innings per start for the first half of the season. And the third method would be to simply hold Greene out of action for the first month of the 2018 season, and then allow him to pitch on a standard 90-pitch limit once he arrives.
If the Reds elect to employ either of the first two options, they would likely carry a reliever on the roster who is designated to "piggyback" with Greene each time through the rotation. This pitcher would be prepared in spring training to be a starter, who could provide five innings of work after Greene completed his outing each turn. If Greene does not arrive until early May, there would be no need, obviously, for that extra tandem reliever to be available. It remains to be seen how the Reds decide to coordinate Greene's workload, but the fact remains, Greene will pitch in Dayton, it is simply a matter of when.
While Hunter Greene was a great two-way player in high school as a pitcher/shortstop, he is expected to be utilized exclusively as a pitcher in the Reds organization, at least in the foreseeable future. The demands are simply too great on any player to attempt to play a position and pitch at the professional level, when games are played seven days a week. In fact, it is not really the games themselves that make this proposition prohibitive, but the practice required. Consider the day in the life of a minor league player.
For a 7:00 p.m. game, some hitters will be in the batting cage as early as noon, putting in extra work before practice officially begins. Coaches will often schedule defensive early work on the field before regular practice begins, giving players a chance to spend time with their defensive position coach or one of the Reds roving instructors or special assistants like Barry Larkin or Eric Davis. Middle infielders may work on getting a little quicker on the double play, or a first baseman might practice digging low throws out of the dirt. Outfielders may work on hitting the relay man or fielding balls hit into the corners. This may go on for up to 90 minutes before regular practice starts around 3:00. Then the entire team takes infield practice together, then batting practice on the field, when all elements of hitting are included, such as bunting, hit-and-run, hitting the ball to the right side to advance a runner, or getting a ball into the air to score a runner from third with less than two outs. Meanwhile the starting pitchers are into their own pre-game routines. Their practice time includes conditioning to keep their legs strong between starts, and one extended bullpen session every fifth day in which all pitches are thrown and extra work is given to areas of need. There is also time spent going over the opposing hitters with the catcher to determine a game plan of attack. All of this takes place before the games even start.
For one player to do everything the hitters do, AND everything the pitchers do, every day, all season, at a level that is competitive with the other players, would seem almost impossible. It is not the in-game activities that would prevent an athlete from being a two-way player, it is the preparation that is required, the time it takes to get ready for the games, with the understanding that since less than 10 percent of all players signed to a contract eventually reach the Major Leagues, you have to make every day of practice count. A two-way player would have to go through the full day that every hitter endures, time in the batting cage, on the field working on defense, and all the drills, and then match all the preparation of the pitchers. And do it for 140 games in 152 days.
Beyond Hunter Greene, the Dragons roster is expected to include at least three other players who are considered to be top-15 prospects in the Reds organization. They are infielders Jeter Downs and Jose Garcia and center fielder Stuart Fairchild. We will go into detail about each of these players in our position-by-position preview starting in a few weeks, but all three are very highly-regarded. Downs and Garcia are both listed as shortstops, so one will likely move to second base.
Downs was the Reds supplemental first round draft pick in 2017, the 32nd overall pick in the draft out of Monsignor Pace High School in the Miami area. He was selected with an extra pick the Reds were awarded between the first and second rounds of the draft, known as a Competitive Balance pick (six teams in the smallest revenue markets were awarded extra picks between the first two rounds). Garcia is a tall, lean Cuban prospect who was signed to a big contract as an international free agent by the Reds last summer. He has not yet played in an official Minor League game. Fairchild was the Reds second round pick in 2017 out of Wake Forest. In Doug Gray's ranking of Reds prospects at redsminorleagues.com, he has Downs at #11 in the Reds system with Garcia at #12 and Fairchild at #13. Considering the tremendous depth of the Reds system within the top 10, these are three strong prospects.
Speaking of Jeter Downs and extra draft picks between the first and second rounds, it is worth looking at some other prospects who have passed through Dayton that have been taken in the supplemental round of the draft. In 2017, outfielder Taylor Trammell was a star for the Dragons after being selected right where Downs was taken, one year earlier. Trammell was a Competitive Balance round pick in 2016 out of high school in suburban Atlanta. In 2013, pitcher Michael Lorenzen was taken in the supplemental first round out of Cal State Fullerton, and he pitched briefly for the Dragons later that summer. He has spent the last two years in the Reds bullpen. In 2012, outfielder Jesse Winker was taken in the supplemental first round out of high school in Orlando. Winker starred for the Dragons in 2013 and made his MLB debut with the Reds last summer. He looks poised to take on a greater role in 2018. These extra picks have paid off in recent years.
As many of the top-10 prospect lists have been released in recent weeks, there has been some surprise that Dragons 2017 star Jose Siri has not been a little higher. Siri, who went into the 2017 season completely unranked in the Baseball America list of top 30 prospects in the Reds system, enjoyed what could be classified as one of the two biggest years in Dragons history in 2017 (only Austin Kearns' 2000 season could compare). Baseball America ranked Siri at #7 in the Reds system. Other credible lists have him at #8 or #9. Why would he not be higher?
First of all, if you look at the players who ARE higher, it is a tough group to crack. After Senzel and Greene, there is Trammell, Winker, and starting pitcher Tyler Mahle who make up the top five on almost every list. Siri is in the next group, with pitcher Tony Santillan, second baseman Shed Long, and catcher Tyler Stephenson.
There can be no denying the fact that in terms of tools and production, no one can match Siri. If you base your grade on the five basic tools (hitting for average, hitting for power, speed, defense, throwing), Siri would be #1 in the Reds organization with ease. In fact, he would probably be #1 of any Reds prospect in the last 15 years or more. You may have to go back to Eric Davis to find a similar Reds prospects in terms of tools. And if you base your grade on production, well, again, Siri had a monster year, ranking first in the Midwest League in six major categories. He became the first Midwest League player in 35 years to hit at least 20 home runs and steal at least 40 bases in a season. There was all of that, plus his number one calling card of all, his league-record 39-game hitting streak. So what gives?
Some prospect publications downgrade Siri a bit on his age. He was 21 years old for most of the 2017 season, which ranks right around Midwest League average. Often, the very top prospects are players who excelled at their level despite being younger than most of the competition. You could counter the age objection with the fact that Senzel was also 21 when he played in Dayton in 2016 when Senzel was the #1 prospect in the Reds system, but in fairness, Senzel was getting his first taste of pro ball, while Siri had played in 241 previous games before 2017 over four seasons in the lowest levels of the Reds system. Siri's great year came after he had struggled mightily with the Dragons in a short stint the previous year.
Secondly, if you saw Siri play in 2017, you likely saw the one weakness in his game, the one sticking point with those scouts who want to play devil's advocate. That is, his tendency to chase breaking balls out of the strike zone, usually sliders low and away. While Siri did make massive improvements in this area of his game, there is still a concern that as he moves up to higher levels and faces pitchers with the command to consistently hit their spots with their secondary pitches, that Siri's one weakness would be exposed.
Which all brings us to this question: What are the prospect lists really based on? Are they a ranking of which player could be the best big leaguer? No, because again, if that were the case, Siri would be #1. Are they a ranking of which player has the best chance to just reach the Major Leagues? No, because in that scenario, almost every Triple-A player would rank higher than almost any Single-A player, even if the Triple-A player's time in the majors was to be limited to a cup of coffee. In fact, Winker and Mahle would rank at the very top because they have already reached the big leagues, though they will still be classified as rookies in 2018.
The answer is somewhere in the middle. In recent years, Baseball America has actually added two grades to every player's ranking. The first is a number between 20 and 80 that measures what they call "the player's realistic ceiling," with 50 being an average major league starting player, 60 being an occasional all-star, 40 being a back-up in the big leagues. Siri's ranking in this category would be very high. Then they also give each player a "Risk Factor," which indicates the chances of the player actually reaching his realistic ceiling. The categories range from "Low" (a player likely to reach his ceiling, almost guaranteed to have some big league career) to "Extreme" (a younger player with tools, but with a significant hurdle to overcome). Siri would fall on the higher side of the risk factor scale.
Siri has followed a great season in Dayton with a great winter season in the Dominican Republic in which he was the very youngest player on a veteran team but emerged as a star against much more experienced competition. Because of his 2017 season in Dayton (and the hitting streak that drew national attention), he will be a fascinating prospect to monitor going forward. Siri is a very confident player, and I am sure he looks forward to answering those who have questions about his long-term potential.
One of the most popular and well-liked players in Dragons history, Todd Frazier, will be returning to the National League in 2018 with the Mets after two years in the A.L. with the White Sox and Yankees. Frazier loved playing in Dayton. In fact, at the Reds Futures Game at Fifth Third Field in 2009, I spoke with Frazier just seconds after the final out in a game in which he had delivered a long home run while playing for the Futures Team. Frazier, unprompted, said to me, "If they would pay me a million dollars a year, I would stay in Dayton and play the rest of my career." We appreciate the kind words, but of course, that would not have been a great business decision. Frazier would go on to become a National League All-Star and win the Home Run Derby at the ASG in 2015 in Cincinnati...and make a lot more than a million dollars per year.
On an organizational note, the Dragons School Assembly program is in full swing, out to dozens of local elementary schools throughout the Miami Valley over the next two months with a high-energy program themed on "Teamwork." Schools can contact Carl Herzberg of the Dragons for more information at (937) 228-2287, ext. 160.
Lastly, do not forget that the Dragons 19th Annual National Anthem auditions are coming up on Saturday, February 24, sponsored by the Dayton Daily News. Stop by the Mall at Fairfield Commons between 11:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. on that date to check it out. The winner will perform the National Anthem at the Dragons Opening Night game on April 7, while other finalists will perform at other Dragons games this season.
And if you are looking for a Dragons Season Ticket package for 2018, call (937) 228-BATS (2287). Plans for families are available for five, eight, or nine games. Opening Night is April 7.
By Tom Nichols Dragons Broadcaster and Director of Media Relations
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