Dragons 2014 Preview, Part 1: Starting Pitchers

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By Tom Nichols / Dayton Dragons | March 7, 2014 2:11 PM ET

Today is the official start of Minor League camp for the Cincinnati Reds in Goodyear, Arizona. Reds Minor League pitchers and catchers reported to Goodyear on February 27 and all remaining position players were due in yesterday. Players will be assigned to workout groups and the first Dayton Dragons spring training game is set for March 13. Rosters will be selected for each of the Reds four full-season affiliates (Louisville, Pensacola, Bakersfield, and Dayton) on March 30 and the Dragons team will arrive at Dayton International Airport on that date. The Dragons first Midwest League game of 2014 is April 3 vs. the West Michigan Whitecaps, the affiliates of the Detroit Tigers.

Today we begin an eight-part series previewing the 2014 Dragons roster heading into spring training. Players listed here are candidates for jobs within the Reds organization and specifically, the 25-man Dragons opening night roster.

This preview is an unofficial projection of possible roster candidates. Minor League rosters are not established until March 29. Spring training variables including performance, injuries, trades, and additional player acquisitions will impact the roster accordingly.

Starting Pitchers

Heading into spring training, the Dragons starting rotation looks like it could be one of the strengths of the club. It should be a much more experienced group than the 2013 rotation with several of the same arms returning, a year older, wiser, and more confident in 2014.

It is possible that all five Dragons starting pitchers who open the season in the rotation will be players who are ranked among the top 25 prospects in the Reds organization by Baseball America. If that happens, it would give the Dragons one their deepest starting rotations in club history.

Nick Travieso was the Cincinnati Reds first round draft pick (14th overall selection) in 2012 out of Archbishop McCarthy High School in the Ft. Lauderdale, Florida area. When he joined the Dragons at the start of June last summer, he became the 10th first rounder to play for the Dragons (outfielder Phillip Ervin later became the 11th) and only the fifth pitcher. Other previous first round picks to play for the Dragons in previous years included Homer Bailey, Jay Bruce, Austin Kearns, Drew Stubbs, and Devin Mesoraco, among others.

Travieso's high school team during his junior year of 2011 finished the season as the number one team in the nation, and while he helped the team as a power-hitting corner infielder, his opportunities to pitch were very limited. He became a dependable pitcher for Archbishop McCarthy as a senior in 2012, lighting up the radar gun as high as 98 mph, and led the team to a #5 national ranking. 

Travieso planned to play college baseball in his home area with the University of Miami, but after being drafted by the Reds, he quickly came to terms and signed a contract early enough in the summer of 2012 to make eight starts with the Arizona League Reds, logging 21 innings and posting an earned run average of 4.71.

Travieso opened the 2013 season in the Reds extended spring training camp before joining the Dragons two months into the season. He made 17 starts for the Dragons, going 7-4 with a 4.63 ERA. He showed excellent command for a 19-year-old, walking just 27 batters in 82 innings. He enjoyed several good starts with the Dragons and finished strong. In five of his last eight starts, he allowed one earned run or less. He did suffer through three rough outings over the course of the season that drove up his ERA. If you remove those three games, his ERA in his other 14 starts was a very solid 2.82, a number that would have ranked third best in the league over a full season.

Following the season, Travieso was rated as the #8 prospect in the Reds organization by Baseball America. He hopes that the experience gained in 2013, his first full season in professional baseball, will be a big benefit moving forward. Now 20 years old, he would return to the Dragons as a much more seasoned prospect in 2014.

Ben Lively was the Reds fourth round draft pick in 2013 and enjoyed an exceptional debut season in professional baseball. Lively, 22, could open the 2014 season in Dayton, but he also may be a candidate to begin the year one level higher, with the Bakersfield Blaze of the Advanced-A California League.

Lively pitched collegiately at the University of Central Florida, where he posted an outstanding career record of 21-8 over his three seasons with the Knights. His career ERA at UCF was 3.06, the fourth best in school history. As a junior in 2013, Lively went 7-5 with a 2.04 ERA to earn 2nd Team All-Conference USA honors. 

Lively threw 106 innings last spring at UCF, so after he signed with the Reds, his pitch counts were kept low over the remainder of the summer. Lively opened his pro career with the Billings Mustangs of the Pioneer League and was simply too much for opposing hitters. Amazingly, he did not allow a single earned run over his first seven starts of his career, with each start limited to three innings. Eleven of Lively's 12 starts at Billings lasted exactly three innings with the only exception coming in his 10th time to the mound, when he was allowed to go four innings in a game in which he did not allow a batter to reach base against him.

Lively's final numbers at Billings included an ERA of 0.73 (three earned runs in 37 innings). Opposing batters hit a combined .163 against him. He walked 12 and struck out 49. Lively was promoted to Dayton for a Labor Day weekend start against playoff-bound South Bend in the final series of the season. He pitched well for the Dragons, allowing one earned run in four innings on just two hits, walking one and striking out seven.

If Lively opens the 2014 season with the Dragons, he looks like a potential Midwest League All-Star. Baseball America ranks him as the #9 prospect in the Reds organization entering the season, right behind Travieso, the former first round pick.

Sal Romano spent the entire 2013 season with the Dragons and could return in 2014. Romano, still only 20 years old, is ranked as the #25 prospect in the Reds organization by Baseball America

Romano is a native of Southington, Connecticut who had started summer classes at the University of Tennessee before being drafted and signed by the Reds in the summer of 2011 as a 17-year-old. He possesses excellent size at 6'5", 250 lbs., and with the Dragons last season, he was able to make all 25 scheduled starts despite taking a couple of line drives off the lower leg areas. His durability, large frame, and potential to improve as he gains experience are major plusses for scouts. 

Romano fired a scoreless inning in the 2013 Midwest League All-Star Game in Dayton. His final record was 7-11 with a 4.86 ERA. His sinkerball allowed him to induce 18 ground ball double plays, the most of any pitcher in the league. He certainly had his moments with the Dragons. In 10 of his 25 starts, he allowed one earned run or less. He opened the second half without allowing an earned run over his first two starts covering 12 innings. 

With the experience gained from 120 innings on the mound in 2013, Romano should be more consistent this season and better able to avoid the few bad outings that caused his final ERA to rise.

Jackson Stephens was an outstanding two-sport athlete at Oxford High School in Alabama and had an offer to play quarterback in college with the Crimson Tide. Stephens passed up that opportunity and signed with the Reds as an 18-year old in 2012 after being drafted in the 18th round. Stephens was also an outstanding hitter as a third baseman in high school, leading his team to the 6A state championship game. Stephens and Travieso both showed tremendous home run power in the occasional pitcher batting practice sessions that the Dragons scheduled last summer.

Stephens' path though the Reds system has mirrored that of Travieso so far. He pitched with the Arizona League Reds in 2012 after being drafted, logging 21 innings and posting an ERA of 4.64. Like Travieso, he opened the 2013 season in extended spring training, and like Travieso, he joined the Dragons in June.

Even before Stephens' arrival in Dayton, Dragons fans heard Reds Minor League Pitching Coordinator Mark Riggins praising Stephens on a Dragons radio broadcast. Once he got to Dayton, he was used as both a starter and reliever, going 3-7 with a 4.59 ERA. He enjoyed an excellent late-season stretch of five straight outings in which he allowed just six earned runs, posting an ERA of 2.19 over those games covering 24.2 innings. 

Baseball America described Stephens as "one of the more polished young pitchers in the (Reds) organization, but one who also has solid stuff." They ranked him as the 19th best prospect in the Reds system. Stephens will be just 19 years old on opening night, but like Travieso and Romano, the time in Dayton in 2013 should make him a better pitcher this season.

Amir Garrett is the wildcard of the rotation picture. A left-hander with a strong arm, great physical build, and loads of potential, he not only lacks professional experience, he did not pitch much in high school either. Garrett is one of the best athletes in the Reds organization and has primarily focused on his basketball career to date. After signing with the Reds in the summer of 2011 at age 19, he spent two seasons on the basketball court at St. John's before transferring to Cal State Northridge last fall, but he was not cleared for eligibility by the NCAA as a basketball player this winter. Meanwhile, Garrett has gained what experience he could as a pitcher in the Reds system, but he has never been able to fully commit to the seasonal calendar. Still, the Reds love his potential and feel that he has the ability to someday pitch in the Major Leagues. His fastball can get into the mid-90's.

Garrett tossed 20 innings in rookie-ball in 2012, then opened the 2013 season in extended spring training. When the Billings season began in June, he made five solid starts for the Mustangs, going 1-1 with a 2.66 ERA. He joined the Dragons in July and made eight starts, going 1-3 with a 6.88 ERA. He did show signs of ability despite those numbers. In three of his eight starts, he allowed two runs or less over at least five innings of work. He dominated West Michigan on August 5, going six innings and allowing just one hit and one run, a solo homer.

As one might expect for a pitcher with such limited experience, Garrett has struggled with inconsistency. He can look like an all-star in one inning, then struggle to get through the next. He now has 78 innings of pro pitching experience and got a taste of Midwest League competition in 2013. He potentially could take a big step forward in 2014. Garrett is rated as the 18th best prospect in the Reds organization by Baseball America.

If any of the first five names in this preview earn a spot in Bakersfield to start the season, left-hander Wandy Peralta could be the first pitcher in line for the open spot in the starting rotation. Peralta spent the entire 2013 season with the Dragons. He made 44 appearances (40 out of the bullpen) and despite a rocky beginning to the season when he struggled with the new level of competition, he pitched extremely well at times. His final record was a rather modest 2-7 but his ERA was a respectable 3.80. 

He had an excellent month of July, allowing just three runs in 20.1 innings for an ERA of 1.33. Opposing batters hit just .206 against him during that month and he struck out 20 while walking only six. His best game came on July 23 at Cedar Rapids when he retired all 17 batters he faced over five and two-thirds innings of perfect relief, striking out five.

Peralta has a good arm and is one of the top five left-handed pitching prospects in the organization, though he was not listed among the top 30 overall prospects by Baseball America. Like several of the others listed above, a second year at the same level should bring more confidence along with the benefit of experience. If Peralta does not find a place in the starting rotation, he should be a strong contributor out of the bullpen.

Notable:  2013 Dragons starting pitcher Robert Stephenson won the Reds Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award and is the #1 prospect in the system. Stephenson was the hardest thrower in Dragons history and perhaps the hardest-throwing home-grown prospect in the Reds farm system since Rob Dibble in the late 1980's. Stephenson may begin the 2014 season with Pensacola, where he finished in 2013…Fellow 2013 Dragons starting pitchers Ismael Guillon and Drew Cisco should start in Bakersfield in 2014…2011 Dragon Josh Smith, who started the Midwest League All-Star Game that season and broke the Dragons club record for single-season strikeouts, hopes for a chance in Triple-A in 2014. Smith has won 34 games over his last three Minor League seasons. Smith led the Double-A Southern League in strikeouts last season, going 11-9 with a 3.26 ERA at Pensacola and was an all-star selection.

Next up: The bullpen.


This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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