Top Reds prospects bring plenty of promise
MLB Pipeline checks in following camp, unveils Cincinnati's Top 20 Prospects
GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Few farm systems can match the Reds' recent productivity.
The Reds have reached the playoffs in three of the last four seasons with predominantly homegrown clubs, establishing Tony Cingrani, Zack Cozart, Todd Frazier, Mike Leake and Devin Mesoraco as regulars along the way. They've also traded highly regarded prospects Yonder Alonso, Brad Boxberger, Yasmani Grandal and Didi Gregorius to acquire key pieces Shin-Soo Choo (since departed) and Mat Latos.
The quality of farm systems usually runs in cycles, and all of those promotions and trades have left Cincinnati's a little thinner than usual. What the Reds may lack in depth, they make up for with excitement, as they feature two of baseball's most dynamic prospects.
Right-hander Robert Stephenson was only the 17th pitcher selected (27th overall) in the loaded 2011 First-Year Player Draft, but his pure stuff is as good as any of them. He has one of the best fastball-curveball combos in the Minors, and after surging to Double-A last year, he could reach Cincinnati by midseason.
"Robert Stephenson is right there with all the big-name guys in terms of stuff," Reds farm director Jeff Graupe said. "His fastball and curveball are potential 70s [on the 20-80 scouting scale], but I don't think his changeup is talked about enough. His changeup is a weapon. It's every bit a 50 pitch."
Billy Hamilton needs no introduction, not after setting a professional record with 155 steals in 2012 and swiping 13 bases in 13 games during his first big league callup last September. Scouts can't recall a player as quick as Hamilton on the basepaths, and he'll take over as Cincinnati's center fielder this year.
Hamilton is part of the Reds system's greatest area of depth: outfielders. Sweet-swinging Phillip Ervin (a 2013 first-rounder) and Jesse Winker (a 2012 supplemental first-rounder) likely will start this season in high Class A and could arrive at Great American Ball Park next year. Yorman Rodriguez, Junior Arias and Jonathan Reynoso are very toolsy, and Cincinnati also is high on Donald Lutz and Kyle Waldrop, among others.
"Outfield depth is certainly something we have," Graupe said. "With our depth, we have a bunch of guys we see as potential everyday players. It's a good blend of upside, a mix of bats and athletes and defenders and speed and power. Everyone brings something different to the table. It will be fun to see how it all shakes out."
Three questions with Winker
The Reds selected Winker 49th overall in the 2012 Draft and paid him $1 million because of his offensive potential. He has justified that faith in his 1 1/2 seasons as a pro, with his .301/.402/.476 batting line reminiscent of what Jay Bruce did at the same stage of his career.
MLBPipeline.com: You weren't the only sandwich pick out of Olympia High (Orlando, Fla.) in 2012, because the Padres took right-hander Walker Weickel six picks after you. How much do you stay in touch? Did you face him in the Midwest League last year.
Winker: I run into him when we're playing and I see him sometimes when we're home. It was cool going through the Draft process with another guy; you could discuss how it was going. I did face him in the Midwest League, which was pretty cool after playing together all those years. I think I went 2-for-4 against him, with a walk.
MLBPipeline.com: Scouts praise your ability to produce for both average and power. Do you see yourself as hitter who has power or as a power guy who can hit?
Winker: A hitter who has power. I try to take a good approach every at-bat. I like to battle the pitcher. I don't see myself as just a free-swinging guy. I will take a single to left field. But I enjoy putting the ball up in the seats as well.
MLBPipeline.com: Scouts aren't as high on the rest of your game, your speed and defense. Have you heard that? And does that motivate you?
Winker: Personally, I take pride in my defense. I don't want to be a one-sided player. My goal is to one day be a Gold Glove outfielder. I want to get better every day.
Camp standout: Sal Romano
A product of Southington (Conn.) High -- which also produced former Reds All-Star Rob Dibble and Carl Pavano -- Romano lasted 23 rounds in the 2011 Draft because he was strongly committed to attend Tennessee. Cincinnati was able to lure him to pro ball for $450,000, knowing that his development would require patience.
Romano was relatively inexperienced as a high school pitcher from the Northeast, and he's still learning how to repeat his delivery with his big 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame. In his first two years as a pro, he has gone 12-17 with a 5.02 ERA while allowing more than twice as many baserunners (301) as he has strikeouts (141) in 184 2/3 innings.
Still just 20, Romano has shown more consistency this spring.
"He's had a really nice camp," Graupe said. "He's been throwing 92-93 mph with plus sink and a good curveball. He's been working on commanding his hard sinker and learning when to mix in his curveball."
Breakout candidate: Amir Garrett
Better known as a basketball player in high school, Garrett caused a stir shortly before the 2011 Draft. He wowed scouts as a 6-foot-5 left-hander who could reach 96 mph, and the Reds gambled on him in the 22nd round. They paid him a $1 million bonus while allowing him to play hoops at St. John's.
Garrett pitched just 77 2/3 innings in 2012-13 while juggling the two sports. When his playing time dipped as a sophomore at St. John's, he opted to transfer to Cal State Northridge, which meant he had to sit out this season per NCAA rules.
Garrett's hoops inactivity allowed him to report to Spring Training this year, and he arrived in Goodyear in mid-February. He says he hasn't given up on basketball yet, but his development could really take off if he focused solely on baseball.
"He's been outstanding," Graupe said. "He's going to go to [low Class A] Dayton and be in the Opening Day rotation. He's an impressive kid who throws hard, has a plus slider and a fringy changeup that's going to get better with time. It's a fresh arm, a power arm. You can really dream on him. There are not many 6-foot-5 left-handers with his athleticism and arm."