Down On The Farm: Cincinnati Reds

Title: Down On The Farm: Cincinnati Reds
Date: August 15, 2012
Original Source: Full Spectrum Baseball
Synopsis: For the third instalment of Down On The Farm, I needed an excuse to rave about speedster Billy Hamilton, so I dove into the Reds’ minor league system and explored.

Billy Hamilton could be the most fantasy newsworthy prospect in all of minor league baseball, but do the Cincinnati Reds have much else in the pipeline to support the major league squad? If I am giving full disclosure, Hamilton was the reason the Reds were selected as this week’s Down On The Farmtopic. He might break the 20-80 scouting scale for speed and even if he has a Dee Gordon-like OBP, he will be fantasy relevant upon his arrival. Of course, he projects as a better hitter than Gordon, so consider that his ultimate downside. But beyond Hamilton, the system ranked in the middle of the pack in the preseason and graduated three of its better prospects, potentially leaving the cupboards barren.

Pre-Season Rank: #19 (ESPN), #18 (Baseball Prospectus), #16 (Baseball America)

The Top 5

1. Billy Hamilton
Overall Ranks: #64 (ESPN), #22 (BP), #48 (BA)
In retrospect, writing about Hamilton may have been a mistake. You see, I will file this piece on Tuesday night, but by Wednesday morning the stats I am about to provide will likely be obsolete. That’s because Hamilton seems to steal two or three bags a night these days, continuing his quest to break the all-time minor league stolen base record. That mark, set by Vince Coleman in a 1983 season where he missed a month due to a broken hand, is 145. Hamilton presently sits at 139 through 113 games, making it all but a certainty he will set the new standard for prolific minor league base stealing. Obviously for fantasy players, he will be a must-add when he arrives in the majors, possibly as soon as September as an expanded-roster pinch runner. He probably needs a season at Triple-A for final seasoning, but this is not your typical Juan Pierre style speedster, as Hamilton gets on base at a prolific rate as well. In fact, he walked 12.8% of the time in 82 A-ball games and has since walked 17.2% of the time in 31 Double-A games. He has also struck out less than 20% of the time at both levels, posted an OBP better than .400 at both levels, and had wRC+s of 148 and 154, respectively. As a 21-year old, Hamilton is too advanced for Double-A both at the plate and on the bases. Zack Cozart has been nice for the Reds, but the clock is ticking for him at short.

2. Devin Mesoraco
Overall Ranks: #8 (ESPN), #24 (BP), #16 (BA)
Mesoraco is the most prominent of the Reds prospects to graduate to the majors this year, something Reds fans were understandably excited about. Unfortunately, Mesoraco has struggled in his first full season, posting a .218/.297/.367 slash line, a wRC+ of just 71, and negative values in both fielding and baserunning. There is obvious upside for the 24-year old backstop, and catcher is a position with a steep learning curve, but he has yet to show enough to warrant surpassing incumbent Ryan Hannigan for the starter’s role. He was thought to have All-Star potential before the season and was a fantasy sleeper, so there may be a post-hype case to be made in 2013 if he can show some improvements down the stretch for the Reds.

3. Zack Cozart
Overall Ranks: #N/R (ESPN), #N/R (BP), #75 (BA)
The apparent incumbent at short until Hamilton is ready, Cozart has shown little with the stick for the Reds this year. Fortunately for the team, though, he has rated out as a plus defensively and on the bases, scrounging together a 1.9 WAR despite being a negative at the dish. Cozart rarely walks and has a curiously low BABIP for a high-contact speedster (.274), giving him a terrible .289 OBP. The 14.5% infield fly rate shows that he is making a lot of mistakes at the plate, and his pitch values basically indicate he can only hit a fastball. At age 27, there probably isn’t a tonne of untapped potential here, but there is always real-life value in defensively capable players with speed.

4. Daniel Corcino
Overall Ranks: #N/R (ESPN), #N/R (BP), #N/R (BA)
Corcino gets a lot of comparisons to current Red Johnny Cueto, primarily because of his diminutive size at 5’11”, 165lbs (Cueto is 5’10” but 220 lbs). Still, the slight stature has not held Corcino back from steadily moving through the Reds’ system, making the jump from Low-A to Double-A this year with acceptable results. His strikeout rate declined and his walk rate increased, leading his FIP to jump from 2.80 to 3.78, but at age 21 he could reasonably be expected to struggle at this level. Instead, Corcino has shown he can handle a full workload for the second straight season and is likely on the path to Triple-A Louisville for 2013. If he can refine his breaking pitches to go with a 95MPH fastball and a plus change-up, he should be able to get the K-rate back up around 9K/9IP, somewhere between his 2011 and 2012 levels. As with all small pitchers, the “likely reliever” tag has been given to Corcino, but that is a few seasons premature right now.

5. Robert Stephenson
Overall Ranks: #N/R (ESPN), #N/R (BP), #N/R (BA)
The Reds are challenging their 2011 1st round pick to move through the system quickly, already promoting the 19-year old to low-A ball. He did not really leave them much choice, I suppose, after seven dominant starts at the Rookie Ball level, where he had nearly 11K/9 and a 2.52 FIP. In his four starts since the promotion, he has struggled to go deep with just 4.5 IP/start, but he has also had success with a 3.37 FIP and 10K/9. As with a lot of high school arms, Stephenson has a big fastball but his secondary pitches are still under construction. The franchise could opt to push him all the way to High-A to start 2013, and success there would have to put him on the radar as a top prospect.

Additions and Subtractions
The Reds’ big move came in the offseason, sending out multiple high-end prospects for Mat Latos, a move you have to commend the Reds for making as they sit in first in the NL Central with Latos playing a big role. The Reds did not make waves at the draft and were not regarded as big winners or losers, making it difficult to assess in the short term. They also added two non-prospects in smaller deals, picking up reliever J.J. Hoover for Juan Francisco and starter Todd Redmond for Paul Janish. Both players have performed well for Triple-A Louisville, with Hoover now being a useful arm in the Reds’ bullpen.

Other Interesting Names By Level
Triple-A Louisville – Yet another shortstop, Didi Gregorious, was prematurely elevated to Triple-A to make way for Hamilton but has performed well since arriving with a .776 OPS. Unfortunately, slugging first base prospect Neftali Soto has not been as successful, posting a .719 OPS thanks to an awful .311 OBP. At age-23 and coming off a 30-homer season, Soto will have another chance at the level before any worry sets in. The pitching staff has been entirely unspectacular, with Redmond being the only real bright spot. After the promotions of Mesoraco, Hoover, Cozart, and Todd Frazier, the pipeline of major league talent is pretty thin at the top level.

Double-A Pensacola – What is a Blue Wahoo? Sorry, I have no idea. Luckily, though, a few of them are worth checking out, and Pensacola is the best stop for Reds’ prospects. Hamilton and Corcino have been discussed in detail, but 21-year old outfielder Ryan LaMarre has also impressed, stealing 27 bases and sporting a .367 OBP, albeit with little in the way of power. 22-year old lefty Anthony Cingrani has also been worth a watch, sporting a ridiculous 1.94 ERA since his promotion from Bakersfield. Cingrani is striking out over a batter per inning while allowing opponents just a .196 average off of him. Triple-A could be in the cards for next season, and he will likely be a top-100 prospect to start next year.

High-A Bakersfield – When Hamilton left, Theo Bowe apparently decided to take up his mantle, and the speedy 22-year old outfielder has stolen 45 bases in 77 games with a .412 OBP. Unfortunately, he has also been caught 24 times. Donald Lutz, a 23-year old first baseman, hit 17 home runs in 63 games and earned a promotion to Pensacola, where he has struggled a great deal. 23-year old outfielder Steve Selsty has homered 12 times in just 49 games for a 1.052 OPS, but at that age and level he needs to dominate to catch up to his peers. On the mound, 23-year old Chad Rogers earned a promotion after sporting a 3.13 ERA with a K:BB ratio better than 3:1, and he has had two great starts for Pensacola since. 25-year old Josh Smith has also been impressive with a 3.73 ERA and over a strikeout per inning, but he is far too old for this level and needs to show more dominance to get on the radar.

Low-A Dayton – 19-year old prospect Yorman Rodriguez had a trial at Bakersfield but now finds himself back in Dayton, where a .296 OBP is holding him back from utilizing his ample tools. 22-year old shortstop Ryan Wright just received a promotion of his own after posting a .767 OPS through 100 games for Dayton. 19-year old pitching prospect Robert Stephenson just received a bump from Rookie Ball and has performed well in three of his four starts since the promotion. The level also has a few other interesting arms, but none of them are exceptional or performing above expectations at this point.

Whether it is an organizational philosophy or just conincidence, the fact that most of the Reds’ top-performing minor leaguers are old for their level is a bit troubling. With that said, there is some depth to the system, and they have two high-end talents in Hamiltion and Cingrani. While they did not do anything to restock the system after the Latos deal, a win-now edict tends to leave you a bit thin in the prospect pipeline. The Reds will likely rank in the early-20s on next year’s lists, but with the added benefit of owning the most exciting prospect in all of minor league baseball.

Come get to know me on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

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