The countdown towards the first pitch in 2017 at Fifth Third Field in Dayton is underway. This season, the Dragons will host the Reds Futures Game on Saturday, April 1 at 1:35 p.m. This game will match the big league Reds club (just two days before their Opening Day game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Great American Ballpark) against the Reds Futures team. The Futures club will consist of a collection of all-star prospects from all levels of the Reds system. Then on Thursday, April 6, the Dragons will officially open their Midwest League season against the Lake County Captains (Cleveland Indians affiliate) at Fifth Third Field at 7:00 p.m.
Major league spring training began one week earlier than normal this year due to the World Baseball Classic, an event that occurs every four years. The Reds have already played five spring training games. The Reds minor leaguers also train in Goodyear, Arizona at the same facility as the big leaguers. Some minor league players are already in Goodyear, and the rest will arrive shortly. Here is the list of reporting dates for Reds minor leaguers by position (though many players arrive in Goodyear earlier than they are required to):
Starting Pitchers and Catchers: February 26
Relief Pitchers: March 3
Remaining Position Players: March 8
Each of the approximately 200 Reds minor league players will be assigned to workout groups, with changes made on an almost daily basis. Each workout group will correspond to a Reds affiliate, and each group will play a 14-game schedule. The workout groups are referred to by the affiliate team name, although once the games begin, all the minor league players wear Reds uniforms in their games, so if you were attending a Dayton Dragons spring game in Arizona, you would not see a group outfitted in Dragons attire.
The first spring games for minor league players will be played on March 17 when the Reds minor league teams battle their counterparts from the Chicago White Sox. The Dayton workout group will play the White Sox corresponding farm club, the Kannapolis Intimidators of the South Atlantic League. The final scheduled spring game for minor league players is set for March 30.
Minor League rosters will be fluid throughout the spring. As the Reds trim their Major League spring roster from its current number of 65 players to the opening day limit of 25, it will create a domino effect with the Minor League rosters. For example, when a player is sent down from big league camp and assigned to the Triple-A Louisville Bats spring roster, a player from the Louisville team will be sent to Double-A Pensacola, and so on. For that reason, the group of players who open the spring schedule with the Dragons on March 17 might barely resemble the group that boards the plane for Dayton on April 2.
Over the next 24 days, we will provide an eight-part preview of the 2017 Dayton Dragons.
Dayton Dragons 2017 Team Preview, Part 1: The Catchers
This is part one of an eight-part series previewing the 2017 Dragons. Players listed here are candidates for positions on the 25-man Dragons season-opening roster.
This preview is an unofficial projection of possible roster candidates. Minor League rosters are not established until April 3. Spring training variables including performance, injuries, trades, and additional player acquisitions will impact the roster accordingly.
Click links on each name for career stats and player information.
Candidates: Tyler Stephenson, Cassidy Brown, Jose Duarte.
Catcher is the first position in our 2017 preview, and it is a position that looks solid for the Dragons in 2017. The Reds have two quality players for one position, two players that would normally justify starting opportunities. One of the two is former first round draft pick Tyler Stephenson, who hopes to bounce back after an injury-plagued year in Dayton in 2016. The other is a former Ohio high school player of the year, Cassidy Brown.
Six catchers in Dragons history have reached the Major Leagues, including two currently with the Reds, Devin Mesoraco and Tucker Barnhart. The other four are Ryan Hanigan, Miguel Perez, Craig Tatum, and Eddy Rodriguez. The Dragons catcher who had the best season in Dayton, arguably, was the very first Dragons catcher in 2000, Braxton Whitehead, who was selected at the end of that season as the catcher on the Midwest League's full-season all-star team after batting .307.
Over the Dragons history, 15 Reds "true" first round draft picks (not including supplemental first rounders) have played for the Dragons, starting with Austin Kearns in 2000. The list also includes Homer Bailey, Jay Bruce, Drew Stubbs, and 2016 Dragons star Nick Senzel. Two of the 15 have been catchers, beginning with Mesoraco, who played for the Dragons in 2008.
The second catcher who had been a Reds first round draft pick to play for the Dragons was Tyler Stephenson in 2016. Stephenson was the Reds first round pick in 2015 when he was selected with the 11th overall choice in the draft out of Kennesaw Mountain High School in Kennesaw, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. Stephenson was the highest drafted catcher by any team in 2015, and the fourth highest high school pick in the entire draft. He opened the 2016 season with the Dragons with high hopes, but his season was limited by a sprained wrist that he valiantly attempted to come back from multiple times, only to re-injury the wrist and eventually undergo surgery.
Stephenson, still only 20 years old, was rated by Baseball America as the fourth best prospect in the Reds organization in their 2016 Prospect Handbook, making him the most highly-rated catcher ever to play for the Dragons.
We have noted in the past how difficult it has been for 19-year-olds in their first full season of professional baseball to compete in the Midwest League, and Stephenson tried to do just that in 2016 with the Dragons. He got off to slow start and was hitting just .136 on April 25 when he suffered a concussion during pre-game batting practice work. He returned to action on May 10 and immediately started to demonstrate his skills. He hit safely in nine of his first 11 games after his return to action including a grand slam home run on May 18 at Lake County. By May 22, he had pushed his batting average above the .200 mark, but just a few days later, he severely sprained his wrist and was out of action until mid-July. Once he returned from the wrist injury, in his very first game off the disabled list, he blasted another home run. In his fifth game back, he went 4 for 4 with a double, raising his average to .236. But just three days later, he reinjured the same wrist. On August 6, he tried to come back again, but after a few days, the Reds shut him down for the year. Those final few days took a chunk off his final batting average, and he finished the year at .216 with three home runs and 16 runs batted in, appearing in 39 games.
To try to make any judgements from Stephenson's 2016 season would be an exercise in futility. He never had the opportunity as a healthy player to make the necessary adjustments to Midwest League pitching and show sustained progress, though improvements were evident. If you take the games that Stephenson played beginning with his return from the concussion on May 10 until his aggravation of the already-sprained wrist on July 21, he hit .292 in 19 games with two home runs, a .417 slugging percentage and a .763 OPS.
Stephenson is a big body for a catcher at 6'4", 225 lbs. He started to show some power in 2016 in his limited time with the Dragons after hitting only one home run at Billings in 54 games in 2015. He has a strong arm behind the plate, and an excellent work ethic with a mature make-up. Stephenson enters the 2017 season ranked as the #10 prospect in the Reds system according to Baseball America, a drop of six spots from one year ago. He is certainly capable of gaining all that ground back with a strong 2017 season in Dayton.
Ohio native Cassidy Brown was the starting catcher for the Billings team in 2016 and enjoyed an excellent year, helping the Mustangs to the Pioneer League Championship Series. Brown was drafted by the Reds last summer in the 12th round out of Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, where he spent three seasons. Brown's first two years at LMU amounted to very little as he combined to hit just .162 without a home run over his freshman and sophomore years. Then as a junior in 2016, Brown put his game together and was a national semifinalist for the Gregg Olson Breakout Player of the Year, an award given to one amateur baseball player who "elevates his game to an elite level." Brown led Loyola Marymount with a .325 batting average and added six home runs and 41 RBI in 209 at-bats. He posted an OPS of .896 and earned 2nd Team All-West Coast Conference honors.
After signing with the Reds, Brown was assigned to Billings and wasted no time getting his professional career started. He hit a home run in his first game in the Reds organization and collected two three-hit games among his first four appearances. He remained consistent at Billings, batting .315 in the Pioneer League's first half, and then .329 in the second half. He finished the year with a batting average of .322 with an excellent .409 on-base percentage. He did not add another home run, but he drove in 25 runs in 149 at-bats. He hit .419 against left-handed pitching.
Like Stephenson, Brown is one of the bigger catchers you will see, standing 6'3" and weighing 225 lbs. He threw out 35 percent of attempted base stealers at Billings, a solid number.
Brown is a native of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio and played at Walsh Jesuit High School, a school known for winning the last five state championships in girls soccer and eight state titles in wrestling in the 1990's. Walsh Jesuit also produced former Ohio State defensive end Mike Vrabel and former Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook. Walsh Jesuit is located just 10 miles from Kent State University, where Brown considered attending before deciding upon going west. Brown was a star at Walsh Jesuit and was named the 2013 Ohio High School Player of the Year by Max Preps.
In 2017 with the Dragons, Stephenson and Brown are expected to split the catching duties evenly. Stephenson is also expected to serve as a designated hitter in about half the games he is not catching. That would not leave a lot of playing time for a third catcher, but there could be a possibility that the Dragons could keep one extra catcher on the roster or as an inactive player to help in the bullpen. Obviously, they hope Stephenson and Brown stay healthy, but if there is an injury, they will need another backstop.
Jose Duarte filled the role of third catcher for the Dragons early in the 2016 season, and when Stephenson went down with injuries, Duarte moved up to the #2 spot. He could return in a similar third catcher role in 2017. Duarte appeared in 29 games for the Dragons in 2016, batting .214 with one home run.
The role of third catcher in the minor leagues is difficult and underappreciated. It takes a certain kind of person to fill the role. The player must be understanding of the situation and be an ultimate team player who is willing to spend his days primarily as a bullpen catcher without much hope of getting into games. He must gain some satisfaction out of the assistance he provides to the pitchers, the pitching coach, the team, and the organization, and he must appreciate the fact that he is living the dream of being a professional ballplayer despite a lack of opportunity to put up numbers that would help him advance his career. The third catcher must be the type of person who is almost like an extra coach. Former Dragon Julio Morillo filled this role in Dayton in 2014 and 2015, never once complaining about his limited playing time, or anything else, and earning nothing but respect from his teammates, the coaches, and the organization. In 2016, Morillo went to the big leagues with the Reds, not as a player, but as a translator for the media during interviews with Spanish-speaking Reds players. It was a great reward for Morillo. Duarte has a similar personality and whether he returns to the Dragons in 2017 or moves to another Reds farm club, his efforts will earn him praise within the clubhouse.
Next up: First Basemen