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Dragons 2015 Preview: The Starting Pitchers

March 3, 2015

Dayton Dragons 2015 Team Preview, Part 1: The Starting Pitchers

On Thursday, March 5, Minor League camp for the Cincinnati Reds in Goodyear, Arizona will come alive when pitchers and catchers report. All remaining position players are due on March 11. Players will be assigned to workout groups and the first Dayton Dragons spring training game is set for March 18 against the White Sox affiliate, the Kannapolis Intimidators. Rosters will be selected for each of the Reds four full-season affiliates (Louisville, Pensacola, Daytona, and Dayton) on April 5 and the Dragons players will arrive at Dayton International Airport on that date. The Dragons first Midwest League game of 2015 is April 9 in Grand Rapids, Michigan against the West Michigan Whitecaps, the affiliates of the Detroit Tigers. Opening day for the Dragons is Sunday, April 12 at 4:00 p.m. against the South Bend Cubs, affiliates of the Chicago Cubs, at Fifth Third Field.

Today we begin an eight-part series previewing the 2015 Dragons roster heading into spring training. Players listed here are candidates for jobs within the Reds organization and specifically, 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 5. Spring training variables including performance, injuries, trades, and additional player acquisitions will impact the roster accordingly.

Starting Pitchers

Candidates: Jackson Stephens, Wyatt Strahan, Tyler Mahle, Mark Armstrong, Luke Moran, Tejay Antone.

The strength of the 2014 Dragons team was starting pitching. The club featured a group of quality arms that will go down as one of the finest in Dragons history. Three starting pitchers from the 2014 Dragons are ranked among the top eight prospects in the entire Reds organization entering 2015 by Baseball America (Nick Travieso, Amir Garrett, Nick Howard), and a fourth is ranked #15 (Sal Romano).

Over the Dragons 15 seasons, there were two other pitching rotations that featured similar depth. The 2006 Dragons rotation included Johnny Cueto and Travis Wood, two future Major League All-Stars. But it also included future Major Leaguer Carlos Fisher, who went 12-5 for the Dragons that summer, and Zach Ward, who was 7-0 for the Dragons before a mid-season trade that sent him to the Twins organization. The 2001 Dragons also featured a deep rotation with several future Major Leaguers. Josh Hall, Dustin Mosely, and Ryan Snare all got to the big leagues off that club, and Ryan Mottl actually led the team with 15 wins (a club record that still stands), though Mottl never played in the Majors.

The 2015 Dragons starting rotation should also be strong. In fact, those same pitching prospects seen in Dayton over the last two years will create intense competition for jobs at higher levels of the farm system, and some pitchers will likely be assigned to the Dragons in 2015 who would play at a higher level in a different organization. It is a good problem for the Reds. They have a surplus of starting pitchers in the Minor Leagues.

Click links on each name for career stats and player information.

Jackson Stephens has spent parts of the last two seasons with the Dragons and could return to lead the staff in 2015. Stephens could push to make the Daytona Tortugas roster (new Advanced-A club for the Reds) in spring training, but barring injuries, there does not appear to be an opening in Florida when you consider that former Dragons Travieso, Garrett, Romano, Ismael Guillon, Drew Cisco, and Wandy Peralta could all be with that club.

Stephens was a two-sport star in high school, leading the baseball team to the state championship game while playing quarterback for a highly-successful football team. He had signed to play at the University of Alabama and planned to play both sports before being drafted by the Reds in the 18th round in 2012. He signed with Cincinnati and immediately impressed Reds Minor League pitching coordinator Mark Riggins. Stephens arrived in Dayton midway through the 2013 season shortly after turning 19 years old. He pitched well enough to be ranked as the #19 pitching prospect in the Reds system by Baseball America entering the 2014 season. That put him one spot behind Garrett and six spots ahead of Romano, so Stephens entered spring training last year slated to come to Dayton as a legitimate part of that same impressive group. Baseball America described Stephens as "one of the more polished young pitchers in the (Reds) organization, but one who also has solid stuff." 

Unfortunately, Stephens suffered an elbow strain in 2014 spring training that delayed the start of his season, costing him half a year of development. He joined the Dragons to start the second half and remained in the rotation for the remainder of the season. Coming off the injury, Stephens did not enjoy the kind of success he would have hoped for in Dayton. In 14 starts, he went 2-7 with a 4.81 earned run average. For the second straight year, he did show excellent control for a young pitcher, walking just 22 batters in 67.1 innings. 

If fully healthy, Stephens could be primed for a breakout season. He will turn 21 in May, so his age is now more typical of Midwest League competition than when Stephens first joined the Dragons in 2013. 

Wyatt Strahan is a new name to Dragons fans, but he will arrive at Fifth Third Field with solid credentials. The Reds invested a third round draft pick in Strahan last June after a strong junior year at the University of Southern California, where he went 6-5 with a 3.28 ERA. He was assigned to Rookie-level Billings and was a starting pitcher on a Mustangs team that won the Pioneer League championship. 

In light of the 104.1 innings that Strahan threw at USC last spring, the Reds limited his innings at Billings. Ten of his 14 starts lasted three innings or less, and none went longer than four innings despite the fact that Strahan pitched effectively, posting a 2.76 ERA. Because he was never in the game long enough to qualify for a win, his final record was a very misleading 0-3. He tossed 42 innings at Billings and walked only 12, an excellent ratio. He struck out 40. 

Baseball America rates Strahan as the #23 prospect in the Reds organization. They report that his fastball tops out at 96 mph. He has good size for a pitcher at 6'3, 190 lbs.

Tyler Mahle is another top-30 prospect who is expected to play in Dayton in 2015. Baseball America rates him as the #26 prospect in the Reds organization. He is a right-hander from Westminster, California who was selected out of high school in the seventh round of the 2013 draft by the Reds. Mahle has excellent control, having allowed just 23 walks in 111 professional innings, a rather amazing number for a pitcher who did not turn 20 years old until after the 2014 season. His fastball is rated as average at this stage of his development (88-92 mph), and he also throws a slider, slow curve, and change-up. A four-pitch pitcher with good control is usually going to enjoy success in the lower Minor Leagues, and Mahle has had good success over his first two seasons of professional baseball. He ranked second in earned run average in the Pioneer League in 2014 when he went 5-4 with a 3.87 ERA for Billings in a very hitter-friendly league. He also won his only playoff start in a game that sent Billings to the league championship series. 

Mark Armstrong is a pitcher who could be poised for a breakout season with the Dragons in 2015. Armstrong is from a small town about 20 miles northeast of Buffalo, and the Reds liked him well enough coming out of Clarence High School that they invested a third round pick in the right-hander. He threw just three innings after turning pro in 2013, and then spent the 2014 season with the Goodyear Reds (one level lower than Billings on the organizational ladder). Armstrong went 4-3 with a 4.23 ERA and like Mahle, was very polished for a teenage pitcher. He walked just 14 batters in 61.2 innings, an excellent ratio. As a pitcher from a cold-weather state, Armstrong would not have enjoyed the benefit of year-round seasons as an amateur pitcher, but he has received very positive reviews during his short time in the Reds system. In one game late in the 2014 season, Armstrong fired six innings against the Cubs affiliate and allowed just two hits and no walks while striking out seven to earn the win. In his five August starts, he posted a 2.77 ERA. Armstrong is 20 years old and looking forward to his first year in a full-season league.

Luke Moran was a full-time member of the Billings starting rotation in both 2013 and 2014, making 30 starts for the Mustangs over those two seasons. He actually made one start for the Dragons last June, tossing four scoreless innings at Fifth Third Field in the final series of the first half. Moran was a 14th round draft pick in 2012 out of Grayson County College in Denison, Texas. He has spent three seasons in Rookie-ball in the Reds organization, posting similar numbers each year with a career ERA of 4.59. In 2014 at Billings, Moran was 5-5 with a 4.60 ERA. Like Mahle and Armstrong, he showed excellent control, walking just 12 batters in 74.1 innings. Moran will be 23 years old by Opening Day.

Tejay Antone is an interesting candidate for one of the five Dragons starting pitching slots in 2015. Antone, from Mansfield, Texas, started his collegiate career at TCU as a true freshman in 2013. With a large group of quality arms at TCU, his playing time was limited, so he decided to transfer to a junior college program to get more experience. He landed at Weatherford College for the 2014 season and spent the season there, while his former teammates at TCU advanced to the College World Series. He enjoyed an excellent year at Weatherford and signed to play at Auburn University in 2015. But the Reds liked what they saw of Antone at Weatherford and selected him in the fifth round of the 2014 draft, and he entered professional baseball.

Antone has excellent size and is a hard thrower, reaching 95 mph with his fastball. He is not as polished as some of the other pitchers mentioned above, but has excellent potential. At Billings in 2014, Antone was 2-3 with a 5.94 ERA in 12 starts. He did show signs of progress. In an August 1 start, he fired six shutout innings, allowing six hits but no walks. He pitched out of the bullpen in Billings' title-clinching game against Orem and earned the win. Antone comes from a sports family. His father was a backup quarterback on the University of Oklahoma 1975 national championship team under Barry Switzer, and his uncle was a baseball player drafted by the Baltimore Orioles. The 6'4", 220 lbs. right-hander is 21 years old and could be an interesting pitcher to watch at Fifth Third Field.

Notable:  2014 Dragons starting pitcher Amir Garrett was added to the Reds 40-man roster over the off-season. Garrett, Nick Travieso, Ismael Guillon, and Nick Howard (all 2014 Dragons starting pitchers) are all in Major League spring training camp with the Reds. To see four starting pitchers from a Single-A club appear in big league camp the next spring is an unusual accomplishment…2014 Dragons starting pitcher Sal Romano will move up with his classmates and challenge for a spot at Double-A Pensacola or Advanced-A Daytona…Flame-throwing starting pitcher Robert Stephenson, a member of the Dragons in 2012 and '13, is rated as the number one prospect in the Reds organization for the second straight year by Baseball America. Stephenson pitched at Double-A Pensacola in 2014 and led the league in both strikeouts and walks. He could start the 2015 season back in Pensacola or jump to Triple-A Louisville with the possibility of making his Major League debut sometime this summer if things go well for him.

Next up: The bullpen.