Click here for the entire list of feature stories on each of the 57 Dragons in the Major Leagues.
Sometime in 1981, Minnesota Twins Director of Player Development Jim Rantz planned to spend a day at a junior college ballpark where his son Mike was playing. Rantz, who only recently retired from baseball after more than 50 years in the game, oversaw the Twins farm system for decades, developing players who would help his team win two World Series. On that fateful day in 1981, unknown to Rantz, he would make a discovery that would become legendary. On the same field as young Mike Rantz was an aspiring baseball player for Trinity College named Kirby Puckett. Somewhat by accident, Rantz had managed to locate a future superstar. Months later, the Twins drafted Puckett, and he would one day go on to the National Baseball Hall-of-Fame.
Jim Rantz's discovery of Kirby Puckett might be the best example of a player being found by accident, but it is not the only one. In fact, there are many. One of them involves the 57th Dragons player to reach the Major Leagues, pitcher Pedro Villarreal.
In 2008, scouts were flocking to tiny Howard College in the remote Texas town of Big Spring to see a young shortstop named Tyler Ladendorf. Ironically, it was the Minnesota Twins who eventually drafted Ladendorf in the second round after he had earned Junior College All-American honors. But as scouts watched Ladendorf, they also noticed the Howard closer, though it was not a particularly good year to be the pitcher designated as the closer at Howard College. The team won 24 games that season by at least 10 runs, offering few save opportunities. The pitcher, Pedro Villarreal, eventually did get some chances at starting games. His productivity was not impressive as he posted a 6.67 earned run average and walked almost a batter per inning. But his fastball was clocked at 93-95 mph. He got only 27 innings of work that season, but the scouts saw enough. The Reds took Villarreal, a Dallas native, in the seventh round of the 2008 draft. Four years later, he would pitch in the Major Leagues.
Villarreal's professional career started slowly. He pitched just two professional innings in 2008 and only 50 in 2009. In 2010, he started the year with the Dragons, in the starting rotation. His first extended opportunity to pitch in a regular five-day routine was a success. Over the first half of the season, he made 14 starts and allowed two earned runs or less in 10 of them. His 3-4 record was not indicative of his performance. He posted a 3.34 ERA and walked only 22 batters in 73 innings while striking out 56. For a guy who had struggled at Howard College, it marked progress in his development as a pitcher.
At the season's midpoint, the Reds made a change. With former Dragons closer Donnie Joseph promoted to Lynchburg and Villarreal's innings total begin to build, they moved Villarreal from starter to closer. Villarreal, a quiet and soft-spoken but extremely pleasant personality, was now in the position of entering games in the ninth inning to protect leads in front of 8,000+ fans at Fifth Third Field. His nice-guy demeanor took some time to adjust to the intensity of the game situations, but he did take another step forward in his development. He finished his season in Dayton with a 4-7 record, two saves, and a 3.84 ERA.
Villarreal went 11-7 in 2011, splitting the year between Bakersfield and Double-A Carolina. He tied for second among all Reds Minor Leaguers in victories. In 2012, he opened the year with six starts in Double-A, pitched well, and moved on to Triple-A with Louisville to finish out the year. On September 4, he was promoted to the Reds. The next day, he made his Major League debut against the Phillies, striking out the first big league hitter he faced, and tossing a scoreless inning. No doubt that Reds scout Jerry Flowers, who had first seen Villarreal at Howard College in 2008, was pleased with his discovery.
Villarreal is ticketed to start the 2013 season back in Louisville, but he is on the Reds 40-man roster and would be an expected call-up should a need arise. He was the 57th Dragons player to reach the Major Leagues.
Who will be the 58th? Possibly Donnie Joseph, now with Kansas City, having an excellent spring. Possibly Reds prospects Daniel Corcino, Neftali Soto, or Donald Lutz, all on the 40-man roster as well. Or perhaps Billy Hamilton, who will also start the year in Louisville. Since 2008, anywhere from five to nine former Dragons players have jumped to the Major Leagues each year, and at least one has made it every year since 2001.
Starting with Brian Reith on May 16, 2001, and continuing with Pedro Villarreal on September 5, 2012, the pipeline to the Major Leagues has come through Dayton. From 2010 National League MVP Joey Votto to Ryan Snare, who pitched one inning of one game, their photos all hang in the main lobby at Fifth Third Field. They are 57 Dragons, and 57 big leaguers. Congratulations to them all. You saw each of them here in Dayton.
Click here for Pedro Villarreal's Major League statistics, photos, and video highlights.
Click here for Pedro Villarreal's Minor League statistics.