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Dragons 2015 Preview, Part 2: Bullpen

March 6, 2015

This is part two of an eight-part series previewing the 2015 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 5. Spring training variables including performance, injuries, trades, and additional player acquisitions will impact the roster accordingly.

Relief Pitchers

Candidates: Jeremy Kivel, Brennan Bernardino, Brian Hunter, Seth Varner, Ty Sterner, Scott Brattvet, Evan Mitchell, Jacob Moody, Jordan Remer, Conor Krauss, Jefry Sierra, Pedro Diaz.

The Dragons bullpen has typically featured seven to eight arms. With 12 pitchers included in this preview, and some others who could potentially enter the picture, the competition for jobs should be strong.

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

Jeremy Kivel will be one of the Midwest League's hardest throwers in 2015 with a fastball that has reached the high 90's. He was utilized as a starting pitcher for most of his first two seasons of professional baseball (2013-'14) after being selected in the 10th round of the 2012 draft out of high school in Spring, Texas (19 of his first 20 pro appearances came as a starter). But at the beginning of August, 2014, the Reds moved Kivel to the bullpen at Billings in the Pioneer League, and the positive results were immediate. At the time, his ERA stood at a lofty 7.09 through seven starts, and opposing batters were hitting .339 against him. But over his final six appearances in August and September, Kivel's aggressive power delivery translated much better in a relief role. He posted a 1.93 ERA over those final six games and held opposing batters to a .255 average. He walked five and struck out 21 in 14 innings. His final numbers for the year included a 1-4 record with a 5.31 ERA. His final strikeout total of 44 in 40.2 innings was an indication of his potential. Kivel is rated as the #29 prospect in the Reds organization.

Brennan Bernardino, a left-hander, was the closer on the Billings club that won the Pioneer League championship in 2014 and emerged as the top relief pitcher in the circuit. In his first season of professional baseball, Bernardino did not allow an earned run until the season was six weeks old. He opened his career in the Reds organization with 13 consecutive appearances without allowing an earned run and over the full season, he was scored upon in only three of his 22 outings. He finished the year with a record of 1-1 with nine saves and a 1.01 earned run average. Opposing batters hit just .177 against him and he posted a strikeout-walk ratio of 31-9 in 26.2 innings. Left-handed batters had almost no chance against Bernardino. They combined to go 5 for 41 against him with no extra base hits.

When the Mustangs reached the post-season, Bernardino was again a dependable contributor. He posted saves in two of the Mustangs four playoff victories and came up big in the championship clincher. In a one-run game in the bottom of the ninth, Bernardino worked out of a runner-at-third, no-out jam by notching back-to-back strikeouts and then getting the final out to wrap up a league title. 

Bernardino was the Reds 26th round draft pick in 2014 out of Cal State-Dominguez Hills, a Division II program that had two other players selected in the same draft. Bernardino was 5-0 with a 1.59 ERA at CS Dominguez Hills, moving from the bullpen to the starting rotation for the second half of the season. He is 23 years old and has good size at 6'4", 180 lbs.

Brian Hunter may not have been quite as dominant as Bernardino at Billings in 2014, but he was very good. He appeared in 21 games out of the Billings bullpen, going 2-0 with a 1.95 ERA. Opposing batters hit just .208 against him, and he allowed runs in only four is his 21 outings. Hunter walked nine and struck out 31 in 27.2 innings for the year. Hunter was the Reds ninth round draft pick in 2014 out of the University of Hartford, where he began his career as a catcher but served as a weekend starting pitcher over his junior and senior seasons in 2013 and '14.

Seth Varner is a southwest Ohio native who enjoyed a great career at Miami University and was selected as the 2014 Mid American Conference Pitcher of the Year. Varner was the Reds 10th round draft pick in 2014 after a four-year college career. In 15 starts last spring at Miami, the left-hander went 7-3 with a 2.85 ERA and was recognized as a Louisville Slugger Third Team All-American. After signing with the Reds, Varner pitched at Billings as a reliever, going 4-3 with a 4.91 ERA. Two rough outings among the 13 he appeared in drove his ERA from an otherwise solid mark of 3.06 to its final tally. Varner walked just eight batters over 36.2 innings at Billings and struck out 33. He threw 104.1 innings at Miami prior to his pro season, so Varner could show big improvement with a fresh arm in 2015. He could also be a candidate for a spot in the starting rotation if there is a vacancy. Varner played at Clermont Northeastern High School in Batavia, Ohio and earned the Cincinnati Enquirer's Division II Player of the Year for his area.

Ty Sterner was another strong member of the Billings bullpen in 2014 after being selected by the Reds in the 23rd round of last June's draft. Sterner, another left-hander, is a Massachusetts native who played at the University of Rhode Island for three seasons. He struggled with his control in college, walking 76 batters in 87 innings, but showed potential. At Billings, he made 21 relief appearances and went 3-1 with a solid ERA of 2.83. He walked 21 in 28.2 innings, so he will be looking to improve on that number under Dragons pitching coach Tom Browning in 2015, hoping improved command can lead to even better success.

Scott Brattvet had an up and down 2014 season that included many excellent nights for the Dragons before some unexpected mid-season struggles led to a reassignment to Billings. Brattvet opened the season with the Dragons and became a candidate to pitch in the Midwest League All-Star Game. At the end of April, he was 2-0 with four saves and a great ERA of 0.87. His ERA was still a solid 2.95 entering the month of July, and his nine saves ranked near the league lead. But Brattvet endured some rough outings in July and was sent to Billings late in the month. After arriving in Montana, it took Brattvet a couple of weeks to find some consistency, but he responded by allowing just one run and one walk over his last five appearances, and then put together two excellent outings in the playoffs. His final record with the Dragons was 3-6 with a 4.08 ERA and 10 saves. Brattvet was the Reds eighth round draft pick in 2013 out of Cal State Bakersfield. He is a 23-yer-old right-hander.

Like Brattvet, Evan Mitchell is a member of the 2014 Dragons who could return to gain more experience. Mitchell was a 13th round draft pick by the Reds in 2013 out of Mississippi State University. He tossed just three innings after signing with the Reds in 2013 and then missed time with a broken hand last summer. Mitchell appeared in 26 games for the Dragons, going 2-3 with a 4.22 ERA. He has a good arm and seemed to be gaining confidence after seeing only limited game action at Mississippi State due to high walk totals. A 23-year-old right-hander, Mitchell will push for a spot in the bullpen at Advanced-A Daytona. If he returns to the Dragons, he could be the kind of pitcher who takes a big step forward as his success gains momentum. He has the fastball and secondary pitches to be very effective if he improves his command.

Jacob Moody, a 22-year-old left-hander, is an interesting relief prospect who stands only 5'9" but features a blazing fastball in the mid-90's. Moody was a 17th round draft pick in 2014 by the Reds out of the University of Memphis, where he was a teammate of 2014 Dragons pitcher Dan Langfield for one season. Moody spent three years at Memphis but logged only 21.1 innings, mostly due to problems throwing strikes. He walked 33 batters and struck out 25 over his career, but his time on the hill provided enough potential that he became the first of four Memphis players drafted in 2014. Moody had spent the summer of 2012 playing in a college wood bat league in southwest Ohio, the Hamilton Joes, where he was picked as the seventh best prospect in the league despite posting an ERA of 6.00. Moody had been one of the top high school players in Tennessee before playing at Memphis, once blasting three home runs in a single game as he earned all-state honors. 

Moody was assigned to Billings after joining the Reds organization last summer and tossed more innings with the Mustangs than he had over his entire college career. He started slowly, showed definite improvement as he posted 10 straight scoreless appearances, and then had a bad outing in the final week of the season that spiked his ERA by well over a full run per nine innings. In 21 games out of the Billings bullpen, he went 2-0 with a 4.56 ERA. He struck out 31 in 23.2 innings and walked 19. Reds scouts would certainly earn praise if Moody emerges as a prospect, considering how little time he spent on the mound in college competition.

Jordan Remer is yet another left-hander, one of five southpaws in the Billings bullpen in 2014. Last season was a successful one for Remer, and especially notable because he had missed the entire 2013 season with an injury. Remer was a 21st round draft pick by the Reds in 2012 out of the University of San Francisco. He pitched at Billings that summer, appearing in 21 games without a win or a loss with a 5.50 ERA. After missing all of 2013, he returned to Billings last season and allowed just five earned runs in 18 relief appearances, going 0-1 with a 2.37 ERA. He struck out 25 batters in 19 innings. Remer is 25 years old and would need to move up quickly.

Conor Krauss is another member of the Reds draft class of 2014, a 20th round pick out of Seton Hall. Krauss, 21, is a 6'5" right-hander who was used as the closer at Seton Hall in 2014, going 1-1 with a 3.54 ERA and four saves. He struck out 32 batters in 28 innings. After signing with Cincinnati, Krauss initially was assigned to the Goodyear Reds in the Arizona League and made nine strong appearances there, posting a 1.42 ERA in 12.2 innings with 17 strikeouts. He was promoted to Billings and finished the year with the Mustangs, going 1-2 with a 6.89 ERA in eight games (two starts). It should be noted that once the post-season arrives, managers generally are much more aggressive than they are during regular season games in terms of punching that buttons that give their team the best chance to win. Krauss apparently had a lot of confidence from the Billings coaching staff as he saw extensive bullpen action during the playoffs, and he was outstanding with the opportunity. He tossed four scoreless post-season innings, struck out seven, and earned a win. Krauss fits the profile of a pitcher with an excellent arm who has had trouble throwing strikes at times. Tom Browning will work with Krauss and try to smooth out his delivery.

Jefry Sierra is a familiar name to Dragons fans and a very interesting story. He was the starting center fielder on the 2011 Dragons playoff team, a club that featured Billy Hamilton, Donald Lutz, and Tucker Barnhart among others. Sierra came back in 2012 and again was the Dragons primary center fielder, always known for his tremendous throwing arm in the outfield. He was released prior to the start of the 2013 season and accepted a position with the Reds as a strength and conditioning coach at their baseball complex in the Dominican Republic. Meanwhile, Sierra began throwing bullpen sessions as a pitcher, and the Reds re-signed him for 2014. He went to Billings and pitched out of the Mustangs bullpen, going 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in 20 games. He struck out 30 batters in 27 innings. Sierra is now 24 years old and hopes for a return to Fifth Third Field, where he has already played in 176 games for the Dragons as a hitter.

Pedro Diaz spent all of 2014 and part of 2013 with the Dragons and will be in the hunt for a job at Advanced-A Daytona in 2015. He could return to the Dragons after a spring training competition that will feature a surplus of arms. Diaz went 2-2 with a 5.34 ERA for the Dragons in 2014.

Three pitchers coming off injuries could also enter the Dragons picture. Nick Routt made three effective starts for the Dragons in 2014, going 0-0, 3.12, before his season was interrupted. Mike Saunders was with the Dragons in 2013 and suffered an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. He returned to the mound last season with Billings but was not back to his 2013 form, going 1-1, 8.51 in 18 games. Austin Muehring's 2014 season was limited to 6.2 innings, including brief time with the Dragons, where he fired 3.1 scoreless frames.

Notable:  2014 Dragons relievers Alejandro Chacin, Zack Weiss, Joel Bender, and Nolan Becker all figure to move up to Advanced-A Daytona…2011 Dragons all-star closer Drew Hayes will try to make the Triple-A club at Louisville this spring after three straight years in Double-A…Hayes' Dragons bullpen teammate in 2011, Blaine Howell, will try to return to the mound in 2015 after missing most of the last two years with injuries…James Allen, a member of the 2012 Dragons who has spent the last two years at the Advanced-A level, announced his retirement from professional baseball prior to spring training.

Next up: The catchers

Preview Part 1: Starting Pitchers