Dragons 2012 Preview: Catchers
Dragons 2012 Team Preview
Part 1 of 8 in the Dragons 2012 Positional Preview
In 2011, the Dragons broke the franchise record for victories in a season, going 83-57. Most of the players on the 2011 Dragons will move up in the Cincinnati Reds organization, but manager Delino DeShields and hitting coach Alex Pelaez return for their second seasons in Dayton. New pitching coach Tom Browning joins the Dragons in 2012.
Minor league pitchers and catchers report to spring training today in Goodyear, Arizona. The rest of the players report on Tuesday, March 6th. On Monday, March 12th, spring training games begin for the Reds minor league clubs. And on March 31st, rosters will be set for the Dragons and the other three Reds full-season affiliates (Louisville, Pensacola, and Bakersfield). The Dragons open the 2012 season on Thursday, April 5th vs. the West Michigan Whitecaps at Fifth Third Field.
Most of the players who will form the Dayton opening night roster will be players who played one level below the Dragons on the Reds affiliate chain in 2011, with the Billings Mustangs of the Pioneer League. With that being the case, it should be noted that the Mustangs posted a record of 44-32 in 2011, their best record since the 2006 season. Most of the 2006 Mustangs also came to Dayton in 2007, and the Dragons won the Eastern Division First Half title with that group that included Drew Stubbs, Chris Heisey, Chris Valaika, Justin Turner, Logan Parker, Jordan Smith, and Travis Webb among others.
Today we begin an eight-part look at the candidates to play for the Dragons in 2012 and look at the catcher position.
Hands on Deck: Yovan Gonzalez, Nick O'Shea, Danny Vicioso, Rafael Vera.
From the Reds' first-ever draft pick of Bernie Carbo in 1965 through the 2006 draft, 42 years of drafts, the team selected only two catchers in the first round. They picked Dan LaMar, a high school player from Texas in 1979 with the hopes that he would eventually replace Johnny Bench at Riverfront Stadium. LaMar topped out at the Double-A level and by 1985, his career was over. And they took Dan Wilson out of the University of Minnesota with the seventh overall pick in 1990. Wilson got to the big leagues in 1992 but had just 110 at-bats with the Reds before he was traded to the Mariners in a blockbuster deal that brought all-star second baseman Bret Boone to Cincinnati. Wilson also played in an all-star game with Seattle and had a 14-year big league career, an eternity for catchers, before retiring in 2005. He ranks 56th in baseball history in career games played at the catcher position.
After taking only two catchers in the first round in 42 years, the Reds selected catchers in the first round in both 2007 and 2010. Devin Mesoraco, a high school prospect from Pennsylvania, was the pick in '07. He spent most of 2008 with the Dragons and is now universally-regarded as one of the top two catching prospects in all of baseball (along with Jesus Montero of Seattle), poised to take over as the Reds starter in 2012, or at least share the number one job with former Dragon Ryan Hanigan. In 2010, the Reds drafted Yasmani Grandal out of the University of Miami, and he was dealt to San Diego over the winter as part of the trade that brought starting pitcher Mat Latos to the Reds.
In addition to Mesoraco in 2008, the Dragons have seen some fine catching talent in recent years. Unheralded Kevin Coddington, a 44th round draft pick, was an all-star for the Dragons in 2009, playing outstanding defense and keeping his batting average over the .300 mark for most of the year. Coddington will likely play for the Reds new Double-A club in Pensacola this season. In 2010, former University of North Carolina catcher Mark Fleury was the Dragons catcher, and he likely will join Coddington in Pensacola this season.
Last season, Tucker Barnhart, the 2009 Indiana Mr. Baseball honoree, was the Dragons starting catcher. Barnhart's major league-quality defensive skills earned him the selection as the catcher on the Gold Glove team for all of Minor League Baseball as selected by milb.com. Barnhart hit .273 with three home runs and 43 runs batted in as a 20-year-old, and he is expected to play for Bakersfield at the Advanced-A level in 2012.
With so many catchers already in the organization, the Reds did not sign a single pure catcher from the 2011 draft. But with Mesoraco graduating to the big leagues and Grandal traded, the number of available backstops throughout the system is down, and the Reds signed three minor league veteran free agent catchers in the off-season to help at Double-A and Triple-A.
The Dragons starting catcher in 2012 is expected to be 22-year-old Yovan Gonzalez, a native of Puerto Rico who was drafted in the 30th round by the Reds in 2009 out of Wabash Valley Junior College in Illinois. Gonzalez had earned Conference Player of the Year honors in '09 as a college player and hit .429 with 10 home runs that spring. Now three years into his professional career, Gonzalez is set to come to Dayton.
Last season at Billings, Gonzalez hit .262 with two home runs in 141 at-bats. He threw the ball extremely well from behind the plate, nailing 52 percent of opposing base stealers to easily lead the league (the Pioneer League average was 31 percent). Gonzalez is known as a very solid defensive catcher and will have the opportunity to start to build some credibility with the Dragons in his first year in a full-season league in 2012. He could be a similar player to what Dragons fans saw from Barnhart in 2011, which would be a good thing. Gonzalez is a right-handed batter.
Nick O'Shea, like the previously mentioned Dan Wilson, is a former Golden Gopher from the University of Minnesota. The Reds drafted O'Shea in the 24th round last June, and he spent his first professional season at Billings. At Minnesota, O'Shea was primarily a first baseman, but he split his time almost equally between first base and catcher at Billings. O'Shea's best season in college came in 2010, his sophomore year, when he was selected 1st Team All-Big Ten, batting .360 with 13 home runs and 60 RBI. In the spring of 2011, he hit .299 with seven home runs and 34 RBI. Last summer at Billings, he played in 41 games and batted .255 with seven home runs and 21 RBI, posting a .462 slugging percentage. He was actually hitting .302 in late August, but might have worn down a bit at the end of what amounts to a double-season for college draftees. He went 2 for his last 29 as his average fell 47 points. O'Shea was an outstanding student at Minnesota who studied mechanical engineering. He posted a staggering 3.96 GPA in high school. O'Shea, at 6'3", 220 lbs., is said to have tremendous power. He is a right-handed hitter who will likely see time at catcher, first base, and designated hitter. He threw out 21 percent of opposing base stealers at Billings last season.
Danny Vicioso is a native of the Dominican Republic. He is 23 years old and a right-handed batter. Vicioso has spent four years in the Reds organization but has never gotten more than 91 at-bats in a season. He has always hit for average but has shown limited power and his defensive skills are not considered to be as advanced as those of Gonzalez. Last year at Billings, Vicioso had his best season, batting .341 with three home runs and 19 RBI, posting a solid .516 slugging percentage, in 28 games as a back-up to Gonzalez. He threw out 24 percent of opposing base stealers. Over his last three seasons combined, Vicioso has hit .310 with six HR in 232 at-bats. The Reds might look for other ways to get Vicioso's bat into the lineup in 2012.
Versatile defender Rafael Vera is the fourth candidate to earn a spot on the Dayton roster at the catcher position in 2012. Vera, 24, was born in Venezuela but played high school baseball in Sarasota, Florida and then attended Manatee Community College in Florida. He was drafted twice by the White Sox but did not sign, then eventually signed with the Indians as a non-drafted free agent. He played two years in the Indians organization, then was released and signed with the White Sox, who still remembered him. After two years with the Sox, he was picked up by the Reds in the off-season. Vera has literally played all over the diamond. In 2008, he was primarily a first baseman but also saw significant time at second base. In '09, his primary position was shortstop. In 2010, he was a third baseman and started to see action at catcher, which became his primary position in 2011. He has also played both left field and right field. Vera has spent the last one and one-half seasons in the South Atlantic League, a circuit equal to the Midwest League in competition level. He had a solid year in 2010, batting .283 with five home runs and 45 RBI between Kannapolis and Great Falls, but he fell all the way to .186 with no homers at Kannapolis last season.
Two or three of these four players will start the 2012 season with the Dragons. If the Reds decide to send three catchers to Dayton, it would give manager Delino DeShields the luxury of getting two of their bats in the lineup and still have a backup catcher on the bench for protection. The club employed a similar situation early in 2010, when Coddington began the year as a returning starter from the '09 club, Fleury was mainly used as a DH and occasionally got a start behind the plate, and Jordan Wideman was also on the roster. Eventually, Coddington moved up, and Fleury got most of the starts at catcher.
Next up: First base preview.