Spring training for minor league players in Goodyear, Arizona has reached full swing. Players report to camp in phases, and today, the final group is due. Spring training games for the Reds minor league clubs will start on March 15.
It is interesting to note how the purpose of spring training has changed as time has passed. For years, spring training was a time for players to play their way into shape. Now, players are expected to be in shape when they report. The conditioning level of Reds prospects is tested upon their arrival, and players unable to meet the minimum standards do not progress as quickly through the program leading up to the first spring games. Their assignment to a team to start the season could be negatively impacted by a poor conditioning level on the first day of camp.
The roster composition for Minor League teams falls into at least three categories. The first category is made up of players who have earned a job based on their performance the previous season or the draft investment the organization has made in them. This group is by far the largest of the three. For example, as we talked about in our preview of Dragons catchers, Mark Kolozsvary is clearly projected to start the 2018 season in Dayton after playing at Billings last season and before that, with the national champion Florida Gators. The second group would be made up of players who are competing for a job. Each minor league club will have a few roster spots that are not completely set in stone when camp begins, and multiple players will compete for those spots. The third group is made up of players whose fate is tied to the roster construction of the other affiliates, as we discussed with Cassidy Brown in the catcher preview. His assignment is based in part on roster availability. He could be assigned to Daytona if there is an opening on that roster, or he could return to Dayton. Rosters do have maximum player limits, so if one roster is filled, the player is assigned to a different club.
Of course, the Major League organizations generally do not tell the players which roster spots are pre-determined and which ones are still up for grabs. They want all the players competing at their highest level. Near the end of spring training, the players are told where they are headed.
The final spring game in Arizona is scheduled for Friday, March 30. The Dragons open the Midwest League season on Thursday, April 5th in Bowling Green, Kentucky against the Bowling Green Hot Rods. The Dragons home opener is Saturday, April 7 when they host Bowling Green at Fifth Third Field at 7:00 p.m.
The First Basemen
This is part two of an eight-part series previewing the 2018 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 2. Spring training variables including performance, injuries, trades, and additional player acquisitions will impact the roster accordingly.
Click links on each name for career stats and player information.
Candidates: Montrell Marshall, Justin Bellinger, Blake Wiggins.
Montrell Marshall, the first cousin of former Reds star Brandon Phillips, is the most likely candidate to open the season at first base for the Dragons. Marshall was the starting first baseman at Billings in both 2016 and 2017 and appears to be in line to move up to Dayton in 2018.
Marshall is listed at 6'5", five inches taller than Phillips, whose career achievements would rank him as the second best second baseman in Reds history, behind only Joe Morgan. Like Phillips, Marshall is from the east suburbs of Atlanta. Marshall was a shortstop in high school and was named 2nd Team Pre-Season All-American in 2014, prior to his senior year, but he missed that season due to a cracked vertebrae. He committed to play at Auburn University and was projected as a fifth round draft pick by MLB.com, but the injury dropped him to the 12th round, where he was selected by the Reds in June of 2014. He signed with Cincinnati and moved to first base. He has shown steady improvement in the Reds organization.
Marshall struggled with the Goodyear Reds in 2015, coming off the lost season the previous year, as he batted just .159 in 43 games. He played at Billings in '16 and batted .246 with one home run in 59 games. He returned to Billings in 2017 and increased his home run total to seven while batting .269 in 61 games. His slugging percentage increased from .321 in 2016 at Billings to .453 in '17 with the same club.
Reports on Marshall's defense at first base are exemplary. In a story in the Billings Gazette, manager Ray Martinez praised Marshall's work in the field, saying "he's an athlete…he moves very well for a big guy…he has very good hands." Marshall led all first basemen in the Pioneer League in fielding percentage in 2017.
Justin Bellinger was drafted by the Reds in 2017 in the 22nd round after three seasons at Duke University. Bellinger is a New England native and was the 2014 Massachusetts High School Player of the Year. Just like Marshall, Bellinger was a 2nd Team Pre-Season High School All-American in 2014. Perfect Game's scouting report on Bellinger as a high school player says "upper deck power frequently on display in BP (batting practice)…elite level power…resembles Adam Dunn in many ways. Plays hard and enjoys the game."
Bellinger was drafted in the 11th round after his senior year of high school in 2014 by the St. Louis Cardinals, one round before the Reds drafted Marshall, but Bellinger decided to enroll at Duke. He was drafted by the Reds three years later and signed with Cincinnati.
The six-foot six Bellinger had some big games at Duke, but unfortunately for his draft status, his worst season happened to come in his draft year, when he missed time due to a hand injury. Bellinger had a strong sophomore year in 2016 at Duke, batting .336 with a .571 slugging percentage. He hit seven home runs in 42 games. Then in 2017, he was limited to just 88 at-bats all season, batting only .193 with two home runs.
With Marshall anchored at first base at Billings last summer, the Reds assigned Bellinger to Goodyear, one level lower, after was drafted in 2017. He performed well, batting .282 with a team-leading four home runs in 34 games while posting a slugging percentage of a solid .444. Bellinger is reported to be a very good defensive first baseman.
While it is likely that Marshall and/or Bellinger will handle first base for the Dragons in 2018, we have certainly seen occasions when a player emerges from extended spring training to make a major impact in Dayton. In 2017, Bruce Yari did not make the Dragons opening day roster, but he arrived in Dayton in mid-May and eventually took over as the team's starter at first base. In fact, Yari wound up tied for second on the team in home runs with 13. While Yari is expected to play at Daytona in 2018, another player could similarly emerge.
Blake Wiggins was the Reds 20th round draft pick in 2017. Like both Marshall and Bellinger, Wiggins was a 2014 high school graduate and was drafted after his senior year, in the case of Wiggins, by the Phillies in the 36th round. He was the Arkansas High School Player of the Year as a senior. He elected to enroll at the University of Arkansas instead of signing with the Phillies. In his freshman year with the Razorbacks in 2015, he played in only three games and left the program. He transferred to the College of Southern Nevada, a junior college program made famous by Bryce Harper, and spent two seasons there. He combined to hit .292 with 14 home runs in 240 at-bats with a .550 slugging percentage.
After signing with the Reds, Wiggins was assigned to Goodyear as a teammate of Bellinger. He appeared in 12 games and batted .267 without a home run as he got his feet wet in professional baseball.
Marshall, Bellinger, and Wiggins will all be 22 years old on opening night. All three came out of the same high school class, but while Marshall signed professionally after his high school career, Bellinger and Wiggins did not turn pro until last summer. Marshall, who connected on a double in a in a major league spring training game with the Reds a week ago, looks to be in line for the first crack at the job.
Next up: Second Basemen
For Dragons 2018 season ticket information, call (937) 228-2287.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.