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Dragons 2021 Preview, Part 1: Catchers & Infielders

Jay Schuyler with the Dragons in 2019
April 26, 2021

This is the first of a series previewing the 2021 Dayton Dragons. We will look at some expected prospects at each position who are competing for spots on the Dragons 30-man roster. The Dragons will open the High-A Central League season on Tuesday, May 4th on the road against the

This is the first of a series previewing the 2021 Dayton Dragons. We will look at some expected prospects at each position who are competing for spots on the Dragons 30-man roster.

The Dragons will open the High-A Central League season on Tuesday, May 4th on the road against the Great Lakes Loons. The home opener is Tuesday, May 11th against the Lansing Lugnuts at 7:05 p.m. at Day Air Ballpark.

This preview of players is an unofficial projection. Minor League rosters will not be established until May 3rd. Spring training variables including performance, injuries, and trades will impact the roster accordingly.

It should be noted that the Dragons have been reclassified as a High-A club in 2021 after playing as a Low-A team since their inception in 2000. The league, previously known as the Midwest League, is now called the High-A Central League and will field 12 teams (six in each division).

Because the Dragons have moved up one level on the chain within the Reds farm system, some players who played for the Dragons in 2019 will return to Dayton while actually advancing in their climb toward the Major Leagues (there was no season in 2020). Those players will make the natural step up in competition from Low-A to High-A while coming back to Dayton.

Again this season, all Dragons home and road games can be heard on radio on WONE 980 AM and on the internet at wone.com and the Dragons Mobile App. The Dragons will again televise 25 games on the Dayton CW.

The Catchers

Candidates: Jay Schuyler, Eric Yang, James Free.

Jay Schuyler (pronounced SKY-ler) spent the entire 2019 season with the Dragons and was one of the team’s most consistent players. He is expected to move up a level in 2021 as he returns to Dayton as a High-A player. Schuyler played in 109 of the Dragons 140 games in 2019, batting .260 with five home runs. He tied with Juan Martinez for the team lead in runs batted in with 50. Schuyler led the team in on-base percentage at .336 and posted a slugging percentage of .351.

Schuyler is a native of Dana Point, California, known as one of the top surfing locations in America, situated about 60 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. He played college baseball at the University of San Diego, a good program that produced current Chicago Cubs star Kris Bryant. Schuyler was the best hitter on the San Diego team in his final year there in 2018 (.342 with seven home runs, starting all 55 of his team’s games, earning Academic All-Conference) before being selected by the Reds in the seventh round of the June draft. After signing with the Reds in 2018, Schuyler was assigned to Billings, batting .272 with one home run and 23 RBI in 58 games. Prior to college, Schuyler was a huge star at Dana Hills High School, the same school that produced former Dragons pitching coach Seth Etherton.

The Reds drafted two catchers out of strong college programs in 2019 and signed another college catcher as a higher profile non-drafted free agent. One of those catchers, Luke Berryhill out of the University of South Carolina, was traded by the Reds to the Houston Astros in exchange for Major League reliever Cionel Perez.

Eric Yang was the highest-drafted catcher by the Reds in 2019, taken in the seventh round, the same round where the Reds selected Schuyler the previous year. Yang played at UC Santa Barbara, helping his team to the Big West Conference championship and a trip to the NCAA Regional. The Big West is a good conference that has produced many Dragons players over the years. Former Dragons all-star Chris Valaika also played at UC Santa Barbara. Other Big West schools that have produced Dragons players include Cal State Fullerton (Michael Lorenzen, Justin Turner, Josh Fellhauer, Daniel Renken), Long Beach State (Devin Lohman), Cal State Northridge (Dominic D’Anna), and UC Irvine (Taylor Sparks).

Yang spent three years at UC Santa Barbara and was the starter in 2018 and ’19, his sophomore and junior years. He had a huge season in 2019 when he was selected 2nd Team All-American (Baseball America_), Big West Conference Player of the Year, and a finalist for the Buster Posey Award as college baseball’s best catcher. He played in all 56 of his team’s games and batted .368 with seven home runs and a .545 slugging percentage. After signing with the Reds, Yang went to Billings, made the all-star team, and hit a home run in the all-star game. He played in 51 games for the Mustangs, batting .290 with four home runs and a .420 slugging percentage. He was selected by _Baseball America as the #19 prospect in the Pioneer League, the second highest ranking among catchers.

Yang is a Los Angeles area native and had a notable high school career at El Camino Real Charter School (Christopher Knight, who was Peter in the Brady Bunch, is one of many famous ECR alumni). His team won the Los Angeles City Section championship at Dodger Stadium in both his junior and senior years, and he was the LA City Section Player of the Year in 2015, selected from among athletes at about 100 high schools.

James Free signed with the Reds as an undrafted free agent in 2019 after a successful three-year career at the University of the Pacific. The fact that Free was not selected in the 40-round draft was a surprise to some; he was projected by Baseball America as a player who would be taken in the first 10 rounds. Like Yang, Free faced high-level competition in college, playing in the same conference that produced Schuyler, the West Coast Conference. That conference includes several traditionally-strong programs that have produced Dragons players including Pepperdine (Zach Vincej) and Loyola Marymount (Cassidy Brown and Jeff Stevens).

Free had a huge freshman season at Pacific in 2017 when he posted an OPS of over 1.000 while leading the conference in both home runs (14) and RBI (54) and batting .343 in 52 games. Those numbers earned him NCAA Freshman All-American honors. He fell off as a sophomore in 2018 to .283 with seven home runs but bounced back in 2019 as a junior, when he hit .335 with eight home runs in 49 games with a .541 slugging percentage.

After signing with the Reds, Free was assigned to Billings, where he played in 43 games and got off to a tremendous start to his professional career before a late-season slump weakened his final numbers. As late as August 17, Free was batting .312 and had compiled a .624 slugging percentage. He had seven home runs in 93 at-bats. Those impressive numbers came in 27 of the 43 games he would eventually appear in. But over his final 16 games, he went 9 for 62 (.145) to finish at .245, a statistic that looked nothing like what Free had produced for most of his time with the Mustangs. His final slugging percentage of .452 was the best on the team among players with at least 100 plate appearances. Free did blast a home run in Billings’ three-game playoff series. Free started all three playoff games and hit third in the Billings lineup, playing first base or designated hitter as Yang handled the catching duties in all three contests.

Free is a native of Walnut, California, about 25 miles east of downtown Los Angeles. He played at Damien High School and was a teammate for all four seasons with Nick Lodolo, the 2019 Dragons pitcher who was the Reds #1 draft pick in 2019. Former Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire and the late former Reds pitcher Frank Pastore are also products of Damien High School. Free was a high school star and in 2015, he was selected to play in the WWBA World Championships in Jupiter, Florida, earning All-Tournament Team honors. Among his teammates was 2019 Dragons starting pitcher Lyon Richardson, who was also a high school star at the time from Florida.

First Basemen

Candidate: Bren Spillane

Bren Spillane spent part of the 2019 season with the Dragons and showed flashes of the skills that made him the 2018 Big Ten Player of the Year (and Triple Crown winner) at the University of Illinois. Unfortunately, Spillane also dealt with a rough start and a later injury that ended his season just when he was starting to play his best baseball of the year.

In 2018 at Illinois, Spillane produced one of the best seasons in the history of the Big Ten Conference and was named national “Player of the Year” by _Collegiate Baseball Newspaper_, becoming the first Big Ten player to be selected to that honor in the 35-year history of the publication. Spillane led the nation in 2018 in slugging percentage (.903), OPS (1.401), and home runs per game (0.46). His slugging percentage was second best in Big Ten history and the best mark since 1987. The Reds drafted Spillane in the third round in 2018 and he spent that summer at Billings, batting .236 with five home runs in 48 games and a .439 slugging percentage.

Spillane opened the 2019 season with the Dragons but struggled to make contact. After 36 games, Spillane was batting just .150 and was transferred back to the Reds extended spring training complex in Goodyear, Arizona on May 16 for some individual work. He returned to the Dragons three weeks later. On June 26, Spillane’s season turned completely around. Over the next 15 games, he batted .385, going 20 for 52. He also cut way back on his strikeout troubles that had hounded him up to that point. Spillane had struck out 88 times in 161 at-bats through his first 47 games, but over the 15-game stretch starting June 26, he cut the strikeouts to 16 in 52 at-bats. Most unfortunately, on July 17, he suffered a sprained left wrist that brought his season to an end. He finished the year with a batting average of .207 with five home runs in 62 games. Spillane has the potential for dramatic improvement in 2021.

Second Basemen

Candidate: Brian Rey

Brian Rey spent most of the 2019 season with the Dragons and led the team in both slugging percentage (.464) and OPS (.789). Rey appeared in 66 games overall including 15 at second base and 46 in the outfield. He may have more of an opportunity as an infielder in 2021.

Rey’s big night with the Dragons came in Fort Wayne on July 27, 2019, when he broke the club record for most RBI in a game with eight. He belted two home runs including a grand slam in the game and surpassed the franchise mark of seven RBI previously held by four players including Adam Dunn and Joey Votto. With the Dragons in 2019, Rey batted .281 with nine home runs before being promoted to Daytona for the final six weeks of the season.

Rey was drafted by the Reds in the 13th round in 2018 out of Miami Dade College, a school that has produced many future big league players including hall-of-famers Steve Carlton and Mike Piazza along with Raul Ibanez, Don Baylor and Bucky Dent among others. Rey batted .400 with nine home runs and 51 RBI as a sophomore in 2018 at Miami Dade after hitting .404 with six homers as a freshman. He planned to transfer from Miami Dade to North Carolina State University before signing professionally. Rey played at Deltona High School in Deltona, Florida.

Shortstops

Candidates: Ivan Johnson, Quincy McAfee.

Ivan Johnson came out of Kennesaw Mountain High School in suburban Atlanta, where he was a sophomore teammate of former Dragon Tyler Stephenson during Stephenson’s senior year in 2015. While Stephenson entered professional baseball right out of high school, Johnson enrolled at the University of Georgia and then transferred after one season. Johnson spent the 2019 baseball campaign at Chipola College, a powerhouse junior college program in Florida that went all the way to the national Junior College World Series with Johnson as their best hitter. Johnson played in 57 games at Chipola in 2019 and batted .381 with nine home runs, a .587 slugging percentage, 14 stolen bases, nearly as many walks as strikeouts, and an OPS of 1.078.

The Reds drafted Johnson in the fourth round out of Chipola in 2019. He was assigned to Greeneville and played in 46 games. The switch-hitter batted .255 with six home runs, 11 stolen bases, and a .415 slugging percentage. He started 33 games at shortstop and another 11 at second base.

Baseball America ranks Johnson as the #12 prospect in the Reds organization. The publication says that Johnson has the ability to become a major league starting infielder. They credit his solid all-around skillset, his above average speed, and his ability to play both shortstop and second base.

Quincy McAfee was a starting middle infielder at Pepperdine for three seasons, beginning with his freshman year in 2017. The Dragons all-star shortstop in 2013, Zach Vincej, played the same position at Pepperdine five years before McAfee arrived on campus. McAfee batted .310 in 2019 at Pepperdine, connecting on a pair of home runs with a .433 slugging percentage.

The Reds drafted McAfee in the 26th round in 2019 and assigned him to Billings, where he was a key contributor to the Mustangs run to the Pioneer League playoffs. After a slow start, he caught fire in August and finished at .291 in 60 games, adding one home run. He was hitting just .214 after his first 37 games, but starting on August 9, he hit .405 over the rest of the season in 23 games. He started 29 games at shortstop, 20 at second base, and six more at third base.

McAfee had a huge prep career at Southlake High School in Houston, Texas. He hit .537 as a senior and was selected as the Texas 6A (largest schools) All-State shortstop and the Houston-area 6A Player of the Year.

Third Basemen

Candidates: Juan Martinez, Victor Ruiz.

Juan Martinez was the Dragons starting third baseman in 2019 and tied for the team lead in RBI with 50. He played in 129 games with the Dragons, batting .238 with eight home runs.

Martinez is a native of Venezuela and was ranked as the Reds #22 prospect entering his season with the Dragons in 2019. He originally signed with the Reds as a 16-year-old following the 2015 season. He advanced fairly quickly in the Reds system and played at Billings in 2018, enjoying his best professional season. After not hitting a home run in 2016 or ’17, he connected on eight with the Mustangs in 2018, batting .274 with a solid .470 slugging percentage.

Victor Ruiz was the starting third baseman for the Billings club that went to the playoffs in 2019. Ruiz signed with the Reds as a free agent out of Mexico three days before his 17th birthday in 2016. Ruiz was a catcher in 2017-18 but converted to third base in 2019.

Ruiz played in 60 games with Billings in 2019, batting .270 with one home run. He has a career batting average of .266 with three home runs in 118 games.

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