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Dragons 2015 Preview, Part 4: First Basemen

March 13, 2015

This is part four 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.

First Basemen

Candidates: Argenis Aldazoro, Brian O'Grady, Gavin LaValley, Paul Kronenfeld.

Considering they employ a Major League first baseman who is not only a former National League Most Valuable Player, but also signed to a contract through the 2024 season, you could make the assumption that this is not a position of the highest priority for the Reds in terms of player development. While that point may be valid, no team would ever minimize the value of a surplus of talent in their farm system. Former Reds Minor League first baseman Yonder Alonso was a key part of a successful trade that brought the services of starting pitcher Mat Latos. And in 2014, an injury to Joey Votto left the Reds without a true first baseman on the active roster as backup catcher Brayan Pena played in 53 games there. 

In recent years, Dragons first basemen have typically been players who were drafted to play another position, but moved to first base because of an overload at their original position, or a need due to an injury. The last "true" first baseman for the Dragons was Dominic D'Anna in 2011. In 2012, Sean Buckley moved across the diamond from third base to handle the position. In 2013, Seth Mejias-Brean made the same move. In 2014, Sebastian Elizalde and Daniel Pigott, both outfielders, took their turns at first base. After Elizalde was promoted and Pigott went on the disabled list, former second baseman Robert Ramirez became the everyday first baseman. All of those players performed well. 

Interestingly, if you looked over the entire Reds farm system, you might struggle to find a single player whose primary career position has been first base. Elizalde, Pigott, Donald Lutz and Kyle Waldrop have been moved in from the outfield and Ramirez is a former second/third baseman. The situation is reminiscent of the Reds going more than a decade without using a high draft pick on a catcher while Johnny Bench was behind the plate. 

The Dragons 2015 first base picture will likely once again feature some combination of players with the versatility to play another position, but with the ability to hit well enough to be among the most dangerous bats in the lineup.

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

Argenis Aldazoro is a former left fielder who came out of nowhere to produce one of the finest seasons in the entire Reds system in 2014, helping to lead the Billings Mustangs to the Pioneer League championship. Aldazoro, a 22-year-old native of Venezuela, had played only eight games at first base in four years of professional baseball prior to 2014. Over those four seasons, he hits .226 with a career high in home runs of five. But in 2014 with Billings, Aldazoro came alive in a big way. The left-handed hitter moved to first base to start the season, and started slowly at the plate. One month into the season, he was batting just .208 without a home run. But over the rest of the campaign, he combined to hit an amazing .365 in 42 games, connecting on 11 home runs in just 159 at-bats. Those power numbers would translate to a 30+ homer season over a full year with the Dragons. In clutch situations, he was unstoppable, batting an even .400 with runners in scoring position for the year. Incredibly, he posted 20 multi-hit games over those final 42 games.

Aldazoro's manager at Billings may not have known what to make of this kind of turnaround. Over the course of the season, Aldazoro hit in all nine spots in the batting order, but he eventually found a home in the number two spot, where he hit .361 with a slugging percentage of .708 and an OPS of 1.082. Aldazoro was the Reds Minor League Batter of the Month for August when he hit .357 with eight homers in 25 games. Without a doubt, Aldazoro was one of the great stories in the Reds farm system in 2014. He should see some time at first base for the Dragons in 2015, but he may also play some left field. If he picks up where he left off in 2014, he will be an all-star.

Brian O'Grady is a uniquely-versatile defender who could be another first base option for the Dragons in 2015. With Billings last season, O'Grady played almost everywhere on the field. The two positions he played most commonly were a combination not often seen in baseball--center fielder/first baseman. O'Grady played college baseball at Rutgers, the same school that produced former Dragon and current Reds all-star Todd Frazier. He played center field over his first three seasons at Rutgers and transitioned to first base during his senior year in 2014, batting .328 with a .510 slugging percentage and 13 stolen bases. The 22-year-old Warminster, Pennsylvania native was drafted by the Reds in the eighth round last summer. 

At Billings, O'Grady enjoyed an excellent first half but may have worn down a bit over the course of what is a very long season for a college-drafted player. He hit a solid .288 with a .519 slugging percentage in the first half with Billings, but finished at .257 with six home runs, 42 runs batted in, and an OPS of .803 in 62 games. He primarily batted first or third in the Billings lineup, an indication that his manager saw him as one of the team's best hitters. He batted .345 with men in scoring position. O'Grady played 45 games in the outfield (mostly in center field) but also played eight games at first base and saw some action at third. He should be a key player for the Dragons in 2015, wherever he plays on the field.

Gavin LaValley is the youngest option at first base for the Dragons in 2015, and a very highly-regarded prospect. He could end up starting the year in extended spring training and joining the Dragons at a later date, but he also could certainly push for a spot on the Dragons opening day roster. LaValley is rated by Baseball America as the #17 prospect in the Reds organization, and the top first base prospect in the entire system. LaValley is only 20 years old and was drafted out of high school in Midwest City, Oklahoma in the fourth round last summer after leading his team to three straight state championships. He was a two-sport star in high school, emerging as an all-state offensive guard on the football team and a dominant hitter on the baseball team, batting a combined .516 with 54 home runs in 121 career high school games. He hit .539 with 19 homers as a high school senior. He is listed at 6'3", 235 lbs.

LaValley spent most of his first season of professional baseball two levels below the Dragons in the Reds farm system, with the Goodyear Reds in the Arizona League, playing third base. When asked late last season if Dragons fans would have to wait a year to see LaValley's massive home run power, Reds Director of Player Development Jeff Graupe smiled and said, "you should keep an eye on him…he might push for a spot in Dayton out of spring training." LaValley hit .286 with a .439 slugging percentage with Goodyear last summer and finished up the year by appearing in five games with Billings. LaValley is expected to eventually move to first base, but he might stay at third for the time being. Baseball America called him "one of the more advanced high school hitters the Reds have drafted in recent years." 

Paul Kronenfeld was the primary first baseman on the Goodyear Reds team last summer, so he would have to skip over the Billings club to make the Dayton roster. He does have the experience to make the jump with a strong spring and available opportunity. Kronenfeld began his college career at Georgia Tech and played two seasons there, showing some promise as a sophomore in 2012 when he batted .303 in 38 games. He transferred to Catawba College, an NCAA Division II program in Salisbury, North Carolina after the 2012 season and spent two highly-productive seasons there. In the spring of 2014, he started all 55 games at Catawba, leading the team with a .361 average and adding 21 doubles, six home runs, and 10 stolen bases. 

The Reds drafted Kronenfeld in the 25th round, but with the roster full at Billings, he went to Goodyear in the Arizona League. As noted with O'Grady, it can be difficult to judge college players in their first taste of professional baseball (or any player for that matter) because of the long season that begins in February and is still going into late August or September. The left-handed batter got off to a dreadful start at Goodyear, going 1 for his first 25. After that, he batted .282 for the remainder of the season, finishing with a pair of home runs. He hit .175 in the first half; .292 in the second half, and finished at .234. Kronenfeld is likely a much better hitter than that batting average would indicate, and at age 23, he would be a strong contender to open the 2015 season with the Dragons, even if it is in a back-up role.

Daniel Pigott is ready to take the jump to a higher level after seeing time with the Dragons in 2013 and '14, but the former star at the University of Florida is coming back from an injury and may not be ready to start the year. He could see some time in Dayton in what would be an unofficial rehab assignment before moving up…Kevin "K.J." Franklin is another option at first base. He is a former high draft pick (second round in 2013) who split his time in 2014 at Billings between first base and third base, batting .211 with four homers in 61 games. He would appear to be ticketed for extended spring training, but he would be a likely candidate to see some time in Dayton later in the season…Infielder Avain Rachal was a back-up second baseman with the Dragons in 2014 who has made a partial conversion to first base. Rachal figures to return to the Dragons and will be profiled with the second base preview.

Next up: The second basemen