Cincinnati Reds' Youth Movement: 10 Prospects To Watch in 2011
Since ownership of the Reds changed hands in 2006, the common belief was always that the Reds were building for a winner in 2011.
Well, apparently no one told the players.
Fueled by young, hungry talents up and down the roster, the 2010 Reds surprised everyone in the baseball community by beating out the reigning Cardinals for the National League Central division crown.
With key pitchers like Johnny Cueto, Edinson Volquez, Homer Bailey, and Mike Leake, and sluggers Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs, and Joey Votto all under 27, the Reds are positioned to sustain their 2010 success for at least the next several years.
Additionally, though Cincinnati projects to lose aging players at key positions (Scott Rolen, Bronson Arroyo, Ramon Hernandez) eventually, a core of young talent is waiting in the wings.
Here's a look at the ten Reds prospects we should all be watching in 2011.
10. Kyle Lotzkar
After reviewing the talent across all levels of the Cincinnati farm system, it is evident that the organization’s strength is not its pitching. However, the lack of upper-echelon arms in the Reds’ Minor League system paints the organization’s pitching talent in a misleading light.
Most of the recent Reds’ top pitching prospects (Homer Bailey, Johnny Cueto, Travis Wood, Mike Leake) have since ascended to the big show, leaving the system’s cupboards a bit bare of arms. Of course, the worry here is the sustainability of the franchise’s pitching pipeline. The good news, however, is the Reds shouldn’t need to fret for awhile – five of its top six starters (Cueto, Bailey, Wood, Leake, and Edinson Volquez) are Major League-ready, and all are under 27. This cushion of burgeoning young talent at the top should give youngsters like Kyle Lotzkar time to progress in the Minors.
Lotzkar, 21, looks to be right on schedule to take over when guys like Volquez and Cueto decide they’d rather play for the Yankees. A hard-throwing right hander, Lotzkar’s battle with injuries and his command have been his only limiting factors in his young career. Durability issues aside, if Lotzkar can continue to find the strike zone (his walks per innings pitched went from 0.65 in 2008 to 0.32 in 2010), he’ll bring an electric fastball and several other plus pitches with him to the big leagues. Look for your first Lotzkar sighting sometime in ’13.
9. Chris Valaika
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One of a few options to take over once the sun sets on the Brandon Phillips era, Chris Valaika could, at the very least, fill the void competently. Valaika, 25, has hit well at every stop he’s made in the Minors (minus a .235 snag in 2009 at AAA Louisville) and proved in his late 2010 Majors call-up that he could also handle a glove.
However, for Valaika to be more than a role player for the Reds, he’ll need to improve upon his poor strikeout-to-walk ratio (72 K’s with Louisville in 2010, compared to only 19 BB’s) and boost his on-base percentage (.330).
Expect Valaika to continue to improve in Louisville for at least the early portion of the 2011 season, with another late-season call-up a distinct possibility.
8. Juan Francisco
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The book on Francisco reads like this: “power, power, power.”
Named by Baseball America as the best power hitting prospect in the Cincinnati system, the 23-year old Francisco has been viewed for the past few years as the Reds third baseman of the future. Francisco would be higher on the list if it weren’t for lingering questions about his plate discipline. Like many of the Reds young sluggers, Francisco strikes out way more than he walks (about five times as much). However, what sets Francisco apart at the end of the day (and the reason he remains a top prospect) is his natural, jaw-dropping power.
A few short years ago, Reds media would constantly rave about the batting practice exhibitions put on by Reds sluggers Wily Mo Pena and Adam Dunn. Well, Juan Francisco can hit the ball just as far.
After two brief Major League stints in ’09 and ’10, Francisco will try to harness his talent enough to crack the Reds’ opening day roster and split time at third with the aging Scott Rolen.
7. Yorman Rodriguez
Growing up, I had an Eric Davis poster hanging in my basement. I loved that poster, not because he was wearing a suit and tie over red stirrups and cleats, and not because he was standing next to a gun the size of a car. I loved that poster because it was of Eric Davis, one of the most amazingly talented athletes to ever don a Reds uniform.
Much to my delight, Yorman Rodriguez has often been compared to Davis (the 44 Magnum himself.)
Over the past several years, the Reds have begun to extend the reach of their scouting operations in hopes of identifying and signing young, Latin American talent. Sure enough, in August of 2010 those efforts began to pay dividends (when some guy named Chapman came in and pitched pretty fast.) Fast forward to April 2014; the Reds hope to see a similar return out of another “out-on-a-limb” type signing in Rodriguez.
Still raw at 19, Rodriquez has a ways to go before he starts wowing us at a Major League level. Baseball America projects him to be the Reds Opening Day left fielder in 2014.
I’ll take it.
6. Yasmani Grandal
At this point we don’t know a whole lot about the 22-year old Yasmani Grandal. What we do know is the Reds used the 12th overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft to select the switch-hitting catcher out of the Univeristy of Miami, and that they couldn’t be happier about it.
Despite the encouraging progress of their first round choice in 2007, catcher Devin Mesoraco, the Reds couldn’t pass up Grandal. A .412 hitter for the Hurricanes his senior year, Grandal threw out over 40% of attempted base stealers.
It will be interesting to monitor the progress of both Grandal and Mesoraco (profiled in a later slide) throughout the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Look for Grandal to start out at low-A ball for the Reds, but don’t be surprised if his talent carries him quickly up the ladder.
5. Todd Frazier
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File this one under “Stock: falling”.
For several years Todd Frazier, 25, has been regarded as a player to watch in the Reds organization, posting impressive OPS totals at each of his Minor League stops. More recently, however, in Frazier’s first full season as a Louisville Riverbat he posted a middling .258 BA, paired with a .781 OPS.
Frazier remains a promising Major League prospect, if for no other reason than his versatility (proficient at the corner infield and outfield spots), but the Reds player development team will undoubtedly be eying his 2011 performance carefully.
Similar to 2010, Frazier will be invited to Spring Training, but will likely end up at AAA Louisville to start the year.
4. Devin Mesoraco
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When the Reds drafted Devin Mesoraco in 2007, you could almost feel a sigh of relief rippling throughout the Greater Cincinnati area. A franchise used to stellar catchers (Johnny Bench in the 70's, Joe Oliver and Eddie Taubensee throughout the '90's) had fallen on hard times, forced to appreciate Jason Larue for what he was: a .200 hitter who did his best to make up for it with all-out hustle.
In Mesoraco, 22, the Reds finally had a complete catching prospect who had all the tools to hold his own at the plate and excel behind it.
However, any build up of enthusiasm regarding Mesoraco quickly deflated as soon as he started playing professionally. In his first Minor League season in the Gulf Coast League, Mesoraco hit .219 with one home run. He followed that by hitting .261 with 8 homers and .228 with 8 homers in 2008 and 2009, respectively (both at A-ball).
All of a sudden, Jason Larue wasn't looking so bad.
Thankfully, (and somewhat mysteriously) Mesoraco's light came on in 2010. Across three levels of the Minors last season, Mesoraco hit .302, chalked up 26 HR's, and ended with a whopping .964 OPS. With that kind of production, Reds fans can begin to revisit their once lofty expectations for the 2007 first-rounder.
Mesoraco will mix it up in Spring Training with the big club, and has a great chance of earning a September call-up, assuming his production doesn't drop off.
3. Yonder Alonso
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Another draftee out of the U, (and a college teammate of Grandal), Yonder Alonso, 23, is considered by some to be the best first base prospect in the baseball. Unfortunately for him, he's blocked by baseball's best first baseman in 2010, Joey Votto. (Dear Albert Pujols: you lose.)
Still, having two phenomenal hitters at the same position is never a bad problem to have.
After turning in a good 2010 season, where he hit .268 at AA Carolina but then went .290 at AAA Lousiville, Alonso got to fly with the big guys for month in September.
Currently, Alonso's shining moment for the Reds is his double-fisted Budweiser celebration on the field of Great American Ballpark after the Reds clinched the division in August. However, if the Reds are able to work out the first base issue (don't look for answers here) he has the skillset to be a real contributor, and a force in the middle of the lineup.
For now, Alonso is stuck at AAA until he can force someone's hand.
2. Billy Hamilton
Since the departure of Barry Larkin after the 2004 season, the list of Reds Opening Day starting shortstops looks like this: Rich Aurilia, Felipe Lopez, Adrian Gonzalez, Jeff Keppinger, Alez Gonzalez, Orlando Cabrera.
Not exactly a who's-who of baseball legends.
In 2010 it looks like more of the same (either light-hitting Paul Janish or graybeard Edgar Renteria), but if the stars align over Cincinnati as many hope, the revolving door a the most important defensive position might come to a stop in the not-so-distant future.
Billy Hamilton, 21, is rated as the best athlete in the Cincinnati system, and though he ended 2010 at single-A Billings, his stock has risen rapidly since being drafted in 2009. Through a full 2010 season, Hamilton hit .318, recorded 48 steals, and notched a .839 OPS.
If all goes according to Reds General Manager Walt Jocketty's plan, the heir-apparent to Larkin* should arrive in Cincy and assume the lead-off spot no later than April, 2014.
* Some project Hamilton as a Major League second baseman, but his tools and the Reds' needs point to him ending up at short.
1. Aroldis Chapman
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Not much can be said about the Cuban Missile that hasn't already been said. When you throw a 105.1 mile-per-hour fastball in a Major League game, people tend to talk.
Since Aroldis Chapman's signing in January of 2010, the hard-throwing Cuban has done little to temper expectations in the Reds clubhouse and around the league. After working through some control issues in the first half of the 2010 season, Chapman, 23, ascended to the Majors in August amidst much fanfare, and didn't disappoint.
Through 15 games with the Reds, Chapman posted a 2.03 ERA and recorded 19 K's.
There is no question that Chapman is the top prospect the Reds have (we could have figured that out just by looking at his $16 million signing bonus), but he is not yet a sure thing. Questions remain about his control, (though his brief stint in the Majors went a long way toward quieting those concerns) and also, more importantly, about his role on the Reds going forward.
For the time being, Jocketty has indicated Chapman will remain in his role as the power lefty arm out of the Reds bullpen. However, it would be shocking if the Reds didn't make every effort to turn their prized arm into a top of the rotation starter. For the money the small market club is paying him, any other outcome (even his assuming the closer role) would have to be viewed as a loss.