Part 2 of 8 in the Dragons 2012 Positional Preview
All minor league players in the Cincinnati Reds organization were due in Goodyear, Arizona earlier this week, and the first official workouts have begun. Dragons manager Delino DeShields immediately commented on the fact that players throughout the organization clearly prioritized their strength and conditioning programs over the off-season.
"I was really proud of the way the guys worked over the winter," said DeShields. "They came to camp stronger and ready to go."
Interestingly, DeShields will begin the spring overseeing not the Dayton club, but the Bakersfield Blaze, the Reds Advanced-A affiliate. Why? Because most of the players he will be working with this season have been assigned to workout with the Bakersfield team at the outset of camp. The domino effect that occurs every spring will take place later in March, when the Reds cut their roster from the 56 players currently assigned to the big league club down, eventually, to 25. That will push virtually a whole team of minor leaguers down the ladder one level, with a trickle-down effect all the way through the system. So wisely, the Reds have DeShields working with the players he will have after April 5. If you are in Arizona as a fan, it might be hard to tell the difference. Players wear practice jerseys in the spring games that do not reflect a particular affiliate name or logo.
Today we continue an eight-part look at the candidates to play for the Dragons in 2012 and look at the first base position.
Hands on Deck: Sean Buckley, Robert Maddox, Nick O'Shea.
On June 9, 2003, a 19-year-old kid from Canada was told by his manager that his time with the Dayton Dragons was over, at least for 2003. He was heading back to Billings, with a batting average of .231 along with one home run and 20 runs batted in after 60 games. He would return the following season as a much more accomplished player, a year older and more confident. In 2004, he hit .302 in 111 games with the Dragons, belting 14 home runs and driving in 73 runs. The player, of course, was future National League Most Valuable Player Joey Votto.
Not many minor league cities can boast the opportunity to showcase a future superstar, as Votto has become with the Reds. Ironically, while 52 Dragons players have reached the major leagues, no Dragons first baseman since Votto has gotten there. That may be about to change.
Votto was replaced in 2005 at first base in Dayton with Tonys Gutierrez, and Gutierrez put up a solid year, batting .324. But the seven homers that Gutierrez hit in Dayton that season turned out to be his career high, and following the 2008 season, his career was over, topped out at the Double-A level.
Habelito Hernandez (2006), Logan Parker (2007), Michael McKennon (2008), and Humberto Sosa (2009), followed over the next four seasons, all providing competent play at first base, but none reached double figures in home runs. In 2010, Chris Richburg was the Dragons first baseman, and he responded with 14 home runs to go along with a .251 average.
Then in 2011, the Dragons struck gold. Over the first three months of the season, Dominic D'Anna received most of the playing time at first base, earning a spot in the league all-star game, and solidifying the batting order from the # 3 spot. D'Anna hit .286 with eight homers and 58 RBI in 91 games before suffering a season-ending injury.
When D'Anna went down, Donald Lutz, who had been primarily a designated hitter along with occasional starts at first base, took over on an everyday basis, and Lutz came up big. He emerged as perhaps the most dangerous hitter in the entire league by season's end, finishing at .301 with 20 home runs and 75 RBI. Only one other player in Dragons history had ever hit at least .300 with at least 20 home runs-Austin Kearns, 11 years earlier, in 2000. Lutz was rewarded with a spot on the Reds 40-man roster. Lutz figures to play at Bakersfield in 2012, but the likeable kid from Germany might enter the picture at Double-A Pensacola at some point this summer.
Additionally, power prospect Neftali Soto, who played mostly third base for the Dragons in 2008 and is now a first baseman, is knocking on the door to the major leagues. Soto hit 31 home runs in less than 400 at-bats last season, spending most of the year at the Double-A level.
First base should be a position of strength for the Dragons again in 2012, with excellent power potential coming from three different candidates.
Sean Buckley played third base at Billings last season, but the Reds are considering a move to first base for Buckley in 2012. Buckley is the son of Reds Amateur Scouting Director Chris Buckley, and as the story is often told, Sean and Chris originally felt it best that Sean enter professional baseball with an organization other than the one employing his father. But after Reds scouts watched Sean Buckley play last spring, highly impressed with what they saw, they persuaded Chris to draft Sean when he was still on the board in the sixth round. The results were very satisfying.
Last spring, at St. Petersburg College, Sean Buckley hit .362 with 10 home runs in less than 200 at-bats. At Billings in his first season of professional baseball, Buckley whacked 14 home runs in just 225 at-bats, batting .289, to earn a selection to the Pioneer League's full-season all-star team. He played third base at Billings. Buckley spent two years at the University of South Florida in 2009-'10, but was limited by injuries to just 60 at-bats.
Baseball America reports that Reds scout Mark Snipp compares Buckley to a young Matt Holliday. The magazine projects Buckley to have "plus power," ranking him as the #24 prospect in the Reds organization. Buckley will be an everyday player somewhere for the Dragons in 2012 and should be one of the league's most dangerous power threats. A corner outfield spot is a possibility for Buckley, but appearances are that he will first be given a look at first base.
Robert Maddox is another major power threat and a candidate for the Dragons first base job. Maddox's raw power is compared to 2011 Dragons outfielder Juan Duran, who often pounded batting practice home runs high off the scoreboard at Fifth Third Field. Maddox is a left-handed hitter while Duran swung from the right. Maddox lost a close battle with Dominic D'Anna for the Dragons first base job in 2011 and remained in extended spring training when the season opened in April. He then spent the regular season at Billings and finished second in the Pioneer League in home runs with 16 in 63 games, averaging a homer every 16 at-bats. He hit .282 and drove in a team-leading 51 runs.
Maddox, from Euclid, Ohio near Cleveland, played at Villa Angela-St. Joseph High School, the same school that produced former Ohio State basketball star David Lighty and current Washington Redskins All-Pro linebacker London Fletcher. Maddox was drafted by the Atlanta Braves after high school, but instead went on play at Ohio University. With the Bobcats, he led the Mid American Conference in home runs with 21 in 2010 and set a school record with 74 RBI in a 55 game season, the fourth highest total in the history of the conference.
Maddox, an 18th round draft pick in 2010, will enter his third professional season in 2012 and is 23 years old. With Maddox featuring a rather advanced experience level, it is possible that he will go to Bakersfield if Buckley claims the Dragons first base job, where Maddox would play for former Dragons hitting coach Ken Griffey Sr.
Nick O'Shea was profiled as a catcher in part one of our preview series. He split his time between first base and catcher last season at Billings, but the former University of Minnesota power hitter may have more opportunity at the catcher position with the Dragons in 2012.
Next up: Second base preview.