Cincinnati Reds' Top 10 Prospects Heading into Spring Training
The Cincinnati Reds farm system isn't quite what it used to be. Over the past five seasons, what was once a deep system—from top to bottom—has dropped into the middle of the pack.
The system suffered from numerous prospect graduations, including players like Joey Votto, Jay Bruce, Zack Cozart, Todd Frazier, Devin Mesoraco, Johnny Cueto, Homer Bailey and Tony Cingrani.
This year, the Reds' system looks as though it's starting to rebound. The back end of this list is loaded with intriguing arms—though all of them are right-handed—and the top half is comprised mostly of young outfielders.
Former top prospect Billy Hamilton is still here, but he'll graduate out of this list very quickly as he exhausts his rookie eligibility.
Even so, the Reds still have some good prospects, including Robert Stephenson—a fringe-top 20 overall minor-league prospect—and Phillip Ervin, who could find his way onto a top-100 list this season.
The Reds have a decent system, but a lot depends on the development of those young arms at the back end of the top 10. If they pan out, the Reds could have enough to replenish their pitching staff for years to come.
The outfield prospects are much closer to being considered sure things, and with Billy Hamilton and Jay Bruce already at the big-league level, the Reds have the potential to build one of the best outfields in Major League Baseball.
If those back-end pitching prospects flop into the bullpen or turn into back-end starters, then the Reds will likely stay right around the middle-of-the-pack in terms of system rankings.
So, with that said, here's my take on the top-10 prospects in the Reds' farm system for 2014.
All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.
10. Nick Travieso
Position: Starting Pitcher
DOB: 01/31/1994 (Age: 20)
Height/Weight: 6'2", 215 pounds
Drafted: First Round, 2012 (Archbishop McCarthy HS, FL)
Built on an ideal frame for pitching, Nick Travieso has some issues to work out before he can actualize his potential at the big-league level.
The 20-year-old has strong legs, but he also has a reluctancy to use his lower half.
Travieso has a strong enough upper body to overpower this, and his fastball generally settled in the 89-92 mph range during the 2013 season. With a bit more involvement in his lower half, Travieso could bump his fastball back up to the 93-96 mph range, where it would operate as an above-average pitch.
Travieso's secondary offerings are even more limited than his first. The young righty throws a slider and changeup, but neither pitch rates as even an average offering at this point.
Unless the level of his secondary pitches is raised significantly over the next two seasons, Travieso may be billed for a spot in the back-end of the Reds' bullpen. However, they'll continue to develop him as a starter given the vast level of untapped potential in the young righty.
Travieso is still very young, and it's important to keep that in mind as his development continues. Heading into his age-20 season, Travieso can expect to see some time at High-A Bakersfield this season.
Projection: No. 3 starter
9. Ben Lively
Position: Starting Pitcher
DOB: 05/05/1992 (Age: 21)
Height/Weight: 6'4", 190 pounds
Drafted: Fourth Round, 2013 (University of Central Florida)
After dominating in his senior season at UCF, the Reds scooped up Ben Lively during the fourth round of the draft last summer. The 21-year-old has a projectable frame and adds some deception to his throwing motion to compensate for the lack of pure stuff.
Lively's fastball sits in the low-90s, sometimes scraping 95. With better use of his lower-half, Lively could sit in the mid-90s. That, coupled with the deception in his throwing motion, could provide for a plus-plus pitch at the big-league level. But for now, his fastball rates as above-average.
Lively's repertoire features three other average pitches, while his slider has the makings of an above-average offering at maturity.
Lively will spend the next few seasons in the minors while working on the development of his secondary pitches. To this point, he's been able to compensate for the lack of plus pitches with good velocity and outstanding command against less-experienced hitters.
The 2014 season will be telling for Lively, who will likely rejoin Low-A Dayton to start the year. Should he even come close to repeating his outstanding professional debut, Lively will make the jump to High-A Bakersfield very quickly.
Projection: No. 3 or 4 starter
8. David Holmberg
Position: Starting Pitcher
DOB: 07/19/1991 (Age: 23)
Height/Weight: 6'3", 225 pounds
Drafted: Second Round, 2009 -by Chicago White Sox- (Port Charlotte HS, FL)
Holmberg stands in at a stout 6'3" and 225 pounds. This frame suggests the potential for above-average velocity, yet Holmberg's reluctancy to involve his lower half results in an average fastball that sits in the high-80s and tops out in the low-90s.
Holmberg's fastball plays a grade up from its velocity, though, as he has displayed the ability to run or sink the pitch while commanding it well on one side of the plate.
Holmberg's best secondary offering is a fading changeup. The 23-year-old sells the pitch well with fastball-like arm speed, and his repeatable arm action gives the pitch its fading path toward the plate.
Holmberg also throws a below-average to average curveball and a below-average slider, and while they both have the potential to develop into average pitches, neither are remotely close to the current level of his go-to fastball-changeup combo.
His value rests in his ability to command all of his offerings and also in his ability to locate them on either side of the plate.
With repeatable and sound mechanics, Holmberg should have little trouble reaching his ceiling, but don't expect that ceiling to jump beyond the realm of a fourth or fifth starter at the big-league level.
Projection: No. 4 starter
Risk: Very Low
7. Carlos Contreras
Position: Starting Pitcher
DOB: 01/08/1991 (Age: 23)
Height/Weight: 5'11", 205 pounds
Signed: 2008 (Dominican Republic)
Despite his lack of a prototypical frame, Carlos Contreras has the chance to make a name for himself as a mid-rotation starter for the Reds. The 23-year-old stands in at 5'11", 205 pounds, but manages a plus fastball with good tailing action.
Contreras has two secondary offerings including a plus changeup and an improving breaking ball.
Contreras has struggled with his command, allowing a BB/9 rate of 4.7 over 134 minor-league starts, leading to the sentiment that he may be better served as a late-inning reliever. While the concerns are legitimate, the young righty's walk rate was better than his career average over each of the last two seasons.
If he can decrease his walk rate and sharpen the command of his arsenal, Contreras has a bright future as a mid-rotation starter. If not, then he will most likely become a late-inning reliever.
Contreras could join the rotation as an injury replacement during the 2014 season, but a more likely scenario has him joining the team as a reliever when the rosters expand in September.
Projection: No. 4 starter/late-inning reliever
6. Michael Lorenzen
Position: Relief Pitcher
DOB: 01/04/1992 (Age: 22)
Height/Weight: 6'3", 180 pounds
Drafted: First Round, 2013 (Cal State Fullerton)
Lorenzen, an athletic 6'3" reliever out of Cal State Fullerton, was drafted as a two-way player. The 22-year-old served as the Titans' closer and center fielder, but the Reds didn't seem to ever really entertain the idea of him being a two-way player at the minor-league level, as he's yet to appear in a game as a position player.
That's probably for the best, though, as Lorenzen profiles very well as a future closer.
Lorenzen has a power arm and a fastball that sits comfortably at around 94-99 mph. Due to a lack of usage at the collegiate level, Lorenzen is incredibly raw as a pitcher. This is especially noticeable in his curveball and his command.
The young right-hander has difficulty commanding his pitches—and you can see, it borders on effectively wild in the above video. When he spins it well, Lorenzen has a great curveball, but the inconsistencies in his arm motion and release point keep it from functioning as a plus-pitch at this point in his development.
Due to his young age and power arm, the Reds will try Lorenzen as a starter this offseason. Ultimately, though, Lorenzen's future lies in the bullpen. Should the Reds put him on the closer's track, Lorenzen will likely join the bullpen at some point during the 2014 season.
5. Jesse Winker
Position: Left Field
DOB: 08/17/1993 (Age: 20)
Height/Weight: 6'2", 210 pounds
Drafted: First Round, 2012 (Olympia HS, FL)
Jesse Winker might be the best pure hitter in the Reds' farm system. The 20-year-old has an impressive feel for the strike zone in comparison to his age and relative inexperience as a professional. Winker controls the strike zone well, and his advanced approach at the plate gives him the ability to hit the ball to all fields with relative consistency.
Winker popped 16 home runs last season in 417 at-bats, and although he doesn't profile as a major power threat, seasons of 15-20 home runs at the big-league level are far from out of the question. The slight leverage, ideal post-plate extension and his 6'2", 210-pound frame suggest the potential for additional power, but it's untapped at this point in time.
Defensively, Winker profiles best as a left fielder. The Florida prep product has a below-average arm, ruling him out as a right fielder—barring any unforeseen changes. Additionally, Winker's lack of speed keeps him from slotting in as a center fielder.
Theoretically, Winker could benefit from a move to first base, where he would fit the mold of a Yonder Alonso-type, but Joey Votto presents one of the biggest positional roadblocks in all of baseball. Even so, Winker should make for a solid left fielder.
Projection: Second-division left fielder
4. Yorman Rodriguez
Position: Right Field
DOB: 08/15/1992 (Age: 21)
Height/Weight: 6'3", 197 pounds
Signed: 2008 (Venezuela)
ETA: Mid-Late 2014
In 2013, Yorman Rodriguez finally started to actualize the potential scouts saw in him when the Reds signed him back in 2008. Unfortunately, for all the positives Rodriguez has shown, the 21-year-old has one major "if" hanging over his head.
Rodriguez's best present tools—aside from his raw power, which we'll discuss in a minute—are the ones he displays in the field. Rodriguez has the best outfield arm of any prospect in the system, and it grades out as an above-average tool with plus potential. Additionally, Rodriguez has showcased himself as a plus runner and has the range to be a well-above-average defensive player.
Rodriguez has raw power and the ability to showcase it to all fields. Rodriguez's raw power has the potential to develop into an above-average, and possibly even plus, tool. The only caveat to that is the fact that Rodriguez will need to make consistent contact in order for that potential to turn into actual output.
Rodriguez struggles making consistent contact due to below-average pitch recognition skills. Even in the limited sample provided by the video above, you can see a tendency for Rodriguez to commit early to breaking balls and off-speed pitches.
Should Rodriguez straighten out his pitch-recognition issues and begin to square the ball up more consistently, the 21-year-old has the ability to develop into a Jay Bruce type player at the big-league level. For now, though, until he displays more refined pitch recognition skills and develops more consistency in his approach, it's best to temper expectations regarding his future.
Projection: Second-division right fielder
3. Phillip Ervin
Position: Center Field/Right Field
DOB: 07/15/1992 (Age: 21)
Height/Weight: 5'11", 190 pounds
Drafted: First Round, 2013 (Samford University)
Phillip Ervin went undrafted out of high school, but after three years in the collegiate circuit at Samford University, Ervin has quietly molded himself into one of the best hitters in the Reds' farm system.
Ervin has a short and compact swing, making for very repeatable swing mechanics with little to no holes. The 21-year-old is able to barrel the ball consistently, paying huge dividends in the power department, where his frame hardly suggests his current potential for 20-home run seasons at the major-league level.
Ervin's speed is also somewhat of a surprise given his thick lower half. Even so, Ervin is an above-average to plus runner and has the ability to steal 20-plus bases per season at the big-league level if he picks his spots well.
Ervin's awareness and ability to read fly balls lends itself better to a corner outfield position than it does to center field. Though the young outfielder played the position at Samford—and even at the big-league level to some extent—he tends to take less-than-ideal routes to fly balls in the gap.
Ervin's arm strength hovers between that of an average or above-average tool, but he has the bat and defensive ability to play right field at the big-league level.
The young outfielder will likely start the year in High-A Bakersfield and has the potential to appear at Double-A and Triple-A this season.
Projection: First-division right fielder
2. Billy Hamilton
Position: Center Field
DOB: 09/09/1990 (Age: 23)
Height/Weight: 6'0", 160 pounds
Drafted: Second Round, 2009 (Taylorsville HS, MS)
ETA: Debuted in 2013
Billy Hamilton is one of the most divisive prospects in the entire league. Because of that, we'll get the easy stuff out of the way first.
Hamilton is fast—like, really fast. It's not a stretch to argue that Hamilton may be the fastest player in the history of professional baseball.
Hamilton isn't just a runner, though. However, it's certainly worth noting that the 23-year-old converted on 13-of-14 stolen-base attempts after his September call-up in 2013. Furthermore, he was successful on 82.5 percent of his attempts as a minor-leaguer.
Hamilton's speed also helps him in the field, where he'll begin his second season as a center fielder. Hamilton is continuously improving his ability to read fly balls and take appropriate routes in the outfield, but his speed will always— literally always—cover up for mistakes in these areas.
Unfortunately, that's where the "sure things" in Hamilton's game end.
Hamilton was originally drafted and developed as a right-handed hitter. Since the 2011 season, though, the Reds minor-league staff has attempted to convert him into a switch hitter.
The young center fielder gets the bat through the zone quickly, but struggles with different aspects of hitting from each side.
From the left side, Hamilton displays increased leverage in his swing with the potential for greater gap power as he develops more consistency in his ability to barrel the ball. From the right side of the plate, Hamilton displays better pitch recognition skills. In 2013, Hamilton managed a 69:36 K/BB as a left-handed batter and a 38:4 K/BB as a right-handed batter.
Hamilton isn't going to draw many walks, and his on-base percentage will rely heavily upon his ability to log base hits. Because of his lacking a viable hit tool at this point in his development, Hamilton presents the team with a bit of a predicament, as he is projected to be atop the big-league lineup heading into the 2014 season.
Projection: Second-division center fielder
1. Robert Stephenson
Position: Starting Pitcher
DOB: 02/24/1993 (Age: 20)
Height/Weight: 6'2", 190 pounds
Drafted: First Round, 2011 (Alhambra HS, CA)
Robert Stephenson was fast-tracked through the farm system last year, and he responded outstandingly well.
The 20-year old uses his lower half well and generates tremendous arm speed, en route to using a fastball that sits in the mid- to high-90s and sometimes scrapes triple digits. Stephenson has a great feel for life on the mound and utilizes great arm action, a repeatable throwing motion and a consistent arm slot to exercise outstanding command over his fastball, working it well to both sides of the plate.
Stephenson's second-best offering is a devastating curveball, and it profiles as arguably the best breaking ball in the Reds' system. Stephenson locates his curve well, and as he matures, he'll lean heavily on it to generate swings and misses.
With two plus pitches in his repertoire, Stephenson will spend most of the 2013 season working to develop his changeup. Stephenson's changeup is currently an average offering, but it has the potential to develop into, at the very least, an above-average pitch.
With a plus fastball and plus breaking ball combo as well as a third above-average offering on the way, Stephenson has the makings of a frontline starter and should be ready to join the rotation as early as Opening Day 2015.
Projection: No. 1 or 2 starter