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Dayton Dragons 2020 Preview, Part 1: Catchers

March 4, 2020 - Midwest League (MWL) - Dayton Dragons News Release

Eric Yang with the Billings Mustangs
Eric Yang with the Billings Mustangs
(Dayton Dragons, Credit: Paul Ruhter / Billings Mustangs)

This is the first of a nine-part series previewing the 2020 Dayton Dragons. We will look at the candidates at each position who are competing for spots on the Dragons 25-man roster. The Dragons will open the Midwest League season on Thursday, April 9th against the Great Lakes Loons at 7:00 p.m. at Day Air Ballpark.

This preview includes players who are expected to be candidates for positions on the 25-man roster of the Dayton Dragons and is an unofficial projection. Minor League rosters are not established until April 5. Spring training variables including performance, injuries, trades, and additional player acquisitions will impact the roster accordingly.

With 163 minor league players in camp and more than 60 in Major League camp, the Reds essentially have about 225 players in Arizona competing for 126 jobs. There are four Reds farm clubs that open their seasons on April 9, and each team has 25 roster spots, along with 26 players that make the big league roster. The competition will be fierce.

The first spring training games for minor league players will take place on March 18. Minor League rosters will change almost daily throughout the spring. As the Reds trim their Major League spring roster, it will create a domino effect with the Minor League rosters. For example, when a player is sent down from big league camp and assigned to the Triple-A Louisville Bats spring roster, a player from the Louisville team will be sent to Double-A Chattanooga, and so on. The Dayton roster will not be set until the end of spring training.

Again this season, all 140 Dragons home and road games can be heard on radio on WONE 980 AM and on the internet at wone.com and the Dragons Mobile App. The Dragons will again televise 25 games on the Dayton CW.

There is a complete listing of all Minor League players in camp with the Reds here at RedsMinorLeagues.com:

https://redsminorleagues.com/2020/02/17/cincinnati-reds-minor-league-spring-training-roster-2020/ This list does not include players in Major League camp with the Reds, many of whom will eventually be assigned to Minor League affiliate rosters.

The Catchers

Candidates: Eric Yang,

Luke Berryhill,

James Free.

Player Age B/T Ht. Wt.

Eric Yang 22 R/R 5'11" 185

Luke Berryhill 21 R/R 6'1" 227

James Free 21 S/R 6'2" 205

The Reds drafted two catchers out of strong college programs last June and signed another college catcher as a higher profile non-drafted free agent. All three could be with the Dragons in 2020. They will replace the Dragons catchers from 2019, Pabel Manzanero, Jay Schuyler, and Morgan Lofstrom. Schuyler and Lofstrom should advance in the system and Manzanero became a free agent last fall (Manzanero actually moved up a level from the Dragons before the 2019 season ended).

Eric Yang was the highest-drafted catcher by the Reds in 2019, taken in the seventh round, the same round where the Reds selected Schuyler the previous year. Yang played at UC Santa Barbara, helping his team to the Big West Conference championship last spring and a trip to the NCAA Regional. The Big West is a good conference that has produced many Dragons players over the years. Former Dragons all-star Chris Valaika also played at UC Santa Barbara. Other Big West schools that have produced Dragons players include Cal State Fullerton (Michael Lorenzen, Justin Turner, Josh Fellhauer, Daniel Renken), Long Beach State (Devin Lohman), Cal State Northridge (Dominic D'Anna), and UC Irvine (Taylor Sparks).

Yang spent three years at UC Santa Barbara and was the starter in 2018 and '19, his sophomore and junior years. He had a huge season in 2019 when he was selected 2nd Team All-American (Baseball America), Big West Conference Player of the Year, and a finalist for the Buster Posey Award as college baseball's best catcher. He played in all 56 of his team's games and batted .368 with seven home runs and a .545 slugging percentage. After signing with the Reds, Yang went to Billings, made the all-star team, and hit a home run in the all-star game. He played in 51 games for the Mustangs, batting .290 with four home runs and a .420 slugging percentage. He was selected by Baseball America as the #19 prospect in the Pioneer League, the second highest ranking among catchers.

Yang is a Los Angeles area native and had a notable high school career at El Camino Real Charter School (Christopher Knight, who was Peter in the Brady Bunch, is one of many famous ECR alumni). His team won the Los Angeles City Section championship at Dodger Stadium in both his junior and senior years, and he was the LA City Section Player of the Year in 2015, selected from among athletes at about 100 high schools.

Luke Berryhill spent the 2019 college season at the University of South Carolina before being drafted by the Reds in the 13th round. After years of contending for a national title (and winning two in a row in 2010-11), South Carolina struggled to a 28-28 record last spring, their first non-winning season of the century. Still, Berryhill faced the strongest level of competition that college baseball can offer, playing in the Southeastern Conference, which placed eight teams in the final top-20 national rankings including the national champion, Vanderbilt. Berryhill played in all 56 of his team's games, batting .271 with 12 home runs and a .538 slugging percentage. He served as South Carolina's cleanup hitter. Berryhill's teammate, outfielder T.J. Hopkins, was also drafted by the Reds and could play for the Dragons in 2020 as well.

After playing his final 2019 college game on May 21, Berryhill did not sign with the Reds until just before the deadline on July 12. He was assigned to Greeneville and played in his first professional game on July 16. He appeared in just eight games with the G-Reds, batting .240 with a home run. The long layoff between his last college game and first pro game, along with the extremely small sample size, should be taken into account when looking at his first-year numbers.

Berryhill is a native of Atlanta and played at River Ridge High School, where he was selected Cherokee County Player of the Year in a strong baseball area that has also produced former Dragons Tyler Stephenson and Taylor Trammell. Berryhill's high school success led to his selection for the prestigious Perfect Game All-American Classic at Petco Park in San Diego in 2015. An opposing pitcher in that game was a young Nick Lodolo, the Reds #1 draft pick four years later (see the Lodolo connection below to the third catcher in this preview, James Free). Berryhill played a season at Georgia Southern University and one year of junior college baseball before transferring to South Carolina. He is considered to be a good athlete and an above-average runner, unusual qualities for a catcher. He played some outfield at South Carolina.

James Free signed with the Reds as an undrafted free agent last June after a successful three-year career at the University of the Pacific. The fact that Free was not selected in the 40-round draft was a surprise to some; he was projected by Baseball America as a player who would be taken in the first 10 rounds. Like Yang and Berryhill, Free faced high-level competition in college, playing in the West Coast Conference. That conference includes several traditionally-strong programs that have produced Dragons players including Pepperdine (Zach Vincej), University of San Diego (Jay Schuyler), and Loyola Marymount (Cassidy Brown and Jeff Stevens).

Free had a huge freshman season at Pacific in 2017 when he posted an OPS of over 1.000 while leading the conference in both home runs (14) and RBI (54) and batting .343 in 52 games. Those numbers earned him NCAA Freshman All-American honors. He fell off as a sophomore in 2018 to .283 with seven home runs but bounced back in 2019. As a junior last spring, he hit .335 with eight home runs in 49 games with a .541 slugging percentage.

After signing with the Reds, Free was assigned to Billings, where he played in 43 games and got off to a tremendous start to his professional career before a late-season slump weakened his final numbers. As late as August 17, Free was batting .312 and had compiled a .624 slugging percentage. He had seven home runs in 93 at-bats. Those impressive numbers came in 27 of the 43 games he would eventually appear in. But over his final 16 games, he went 9 for 62 (.145) to finish at .245, a statistic that looked nothing like what Free had produced for most of his time with the Mustangs. His final slugging percentage of .452 was the best on the team among players with at least 100 plate appearances. Free did blast a home run in Billings' three-game playoff series. Free started all three playoff games and hit third in the Billings lineup, playing first base or designated hitter as Yang handled the catching duties in all three contests.

Free is a native of Walnut, California, about 25 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. He played at Damien High School and was a teammate for all four seasons with Nick Lodolo, the 2019 Dragons pitcher who was the Reds #1 draft pick last summer. Former Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire and the late former Reds pitcher Frank Pastore are also products of Damien High School. Free was a high school star and in 2015, he was selected to play in the WWBA World Championships in Jupiter, Florida, earning All-Tournament Team honors. Among his teammates was 2019 Dragons starting pitcher Lyon Richardson, who was also a high school star at the time from Florida. Baseball forms connections everywhere. Richardson and Lodolo will no doubt offer some perspective to Free on the big crowds in Dayton before he arrives to play for the Dragons.

Next up: First Basemen





Images from this story

Eric Yang with the Billings Mustangs
Eric Yang with the Billings Mustangs

(Paul Ruhter / Billings Mustangs)
  

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