With or without rehabbing Reds pitchers Anthony DeSclafani and Homer Bailey, Pensacola manager Pat Kelly feels there is major league talent on the Blue Wahoos roster.
“I’ve got five major league players pitching for me, as far as I’m concerned,” Kelly said after Tuesday’s game. “We had seven, but I’ll take my five and go up to the big leagues tomorrow. You can’t beat what they’ve done.”
Cincinnati’s Double-A affiliate is off to its best start in franchise history, leading the Reds organization with a 12-8 record. The Wahoos have won three of their first four series and sit 2.5 games out of first place in the Southern League South Division.
Pensacola made its first playoff appearance in 2015 with the help of marquee prospects Jesse Winker, Robert Stephenson and Cody Reed. Though all three are loudly knocking on the door of Great American Ball Park, the Wahoos have a deep roster with eight of MLB.com’s top 30 Reds prospects. Pitching is the strength of the club with a murderers’ row comprising the starting rotation. Consensus Top 100 prospect Amir Garrett headlines the group, which includes 2012 first-round selection Nick Travieso, Sal Romano, Jackson Stephens and newcomer Rookie Davis.
With the exception of Davis, the group took the lion’s share of starts for the 2014 Dayton Dragons and started the 2015 season together in Daytona. That high degree of familiarity has bred tight-knit friendships and a competitive atmosphere.
“We all compete with each other,” Romano said before the season opener on April 7. “If that guy goes six innings in one day, we want to go out there and get seven.”
They also have the benefit of familiar battery mates in Joe Hudson and Chad Wallach, both of whom spent the entirety of the 2015 season in Daytona. Hudson is the league’s top defensive catcher, throwing out 61.5 percent of would-be base stealers (8-13).
“I think it’s a huge advantage,” Travieso said. “Those [are] guys we feed off of big time. We trust those guys with everything. If you see us shaking, there’s a problem.”
Garrett’s breakout 2015 season included two trips to Cincinnati, first for the Futures Game in July and again in December as the club’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Through his first four Double-A starts, Garrett has more strikeouts (25) than walks and hits combined (21), good for a 0.85 WHIP and .193 opposing average. The left-hander struck out nine over 6.2 scoreless innings Monday night and retired 18 of the last 19 batters he faced.
Davis isn’t far behind with a 0.89 WHIP, collecting two wins and a hard-luck loss in his first three starts. He has quickly endeared himself to his new club, keeping Southern League hitters guessing with three walks and 13 strikeouts in 18 innings.
Excluding a pair of rehab appearances by DeSclafani and Bailey, the rotation has pitched to a 1.97 ERA in 100.2 innings with 23 walks to 99 strikeouts. Pensacola’s 2.24 team ERA leads the Southern League and ranks second among Double-A pitching staffs. In addition to the circuit’s second-lowest WHIP (1.09), third-lowest opposing average (.227) and fewest walks (47), the team hasn’t allowed more than five runs in a game.
Pitching coach Danny Darwin briefly worked with Clayton Kershaw in 2007 as the Jacksonville Suns’ pitching coach, and he sees Kershaw’s bulldog mentality among the Wahoos’ starters. As for a trait that puts the Pensacola staff a cut above the rest, Darwin and Davis have the same answer.
“We like to throw in,” Davis said. “If you don’t like it, we don’t really care. … In, out, up, down. However big that plate is, I’m going to use every bit of it and I’m going to use a little bit more.”
The starting five had a combined 13 games of Double-A experience entering the season, but their advanced approach makes up the difference. Romano possesses the best fastball in the organization according to Baseball America, as well as a sharper curveball than the one he flashed in his call-up last season. Travieso patterns his game after Roger Clemens and looks the part from his delivery to the No. 21 jersey. In his age-22 season, Stephens is two years younger than the league’s average player, but his pitchability has helped him rise through the system quickly.
For all the acclaim the rotation has received, the bullpen has largely held up their end as well. Three-fifths of the Wahoos’ midseason rotation from a year ago has taken on a relief role. Daniel Wright is 2-0 with a 0.55 ERA in six appearances, including 11 scoreless innings in two spot starts. Barrett Astin and Wandy Peralta are also benefiting from the change of scenery. It’s a strategy the Reds hope to replicate when their rotation returns to full strength.
“They have multiple pitches and they can throw multiple innings,” Kelly said. “That’s always a huge thing for a manager, to have those kind of guys and know that we could spot start them.”
While the Wahoos’ arms are at the top of most Southern League categories, the exact opposite is true for the bats. Pensacola’s .222 average and .616 OPS rank last in the league, though the offense turned a corner over the last five days. The Wahoos were batting just under .200 through 15 games but have posted a .287 mark since Friday.
Third-year outfielder Beau Amaral is out to a fast start, batting .299 with an OPS of .836 through 18 games. He didn’t collect his 20th hit of the 2015 season until May 16, but he’s already matched the mark with six multi-hit games. He has started to hit the ball to all fields more consistently and fares much better against left-handed pitching, a .261 clip this year compared to .178 in his first full Double-A season.
Eric Jagielo and Tony Renda, acquired with Davis in the Aroldis Chapman trade, have solid résumés. The former earned All-Star honors three times in three seasons, while the latter won the Carolina League batting title in 2014. Jagielo was slow out of the gate, starting 0-10 and currently batting .185 in 18 games. He’s drawn eight walks to nine strikeouts in his last 41 plate appearances, a promising sign even if his bat hasn’t fully come around. Renda has been one of the team’s top hitters, batting .262 and showing his versatility by making starts at four positions, primarily second base and left field.
Alex Blandino and Phillip Ervin are the biggest names among the position players. Blandino missed the end of spring training after injuring his hamstring in the World Baseball Classic, but he’s catching up quickly between second base and shortstop. Ervin has been streaky in a small sample, following a four-hit day on April 17 with three strikeouts in the next game, but he leads the team with seven extra-base hits and six stolen bases. He’s improved his plate discipline as the month progresses and has the tools to produce in a big way once the balls start falling.
But it is Sebastian Elizalde who’s swinging the hottest bat so far. In his Double-A debut, Elizalde is batting .314 with two home runs and an .855 OPS. Over a 10-game hitting streak, the team’s longest of the season, the outfielder sports a .353 average with a double, two home runs, six RBIs and seven runs.
The Reds are still a few years away from competing for a division title. In the meantime, Pensacola’s rotation will be together for the long haul, and Blandino and Ervin will have time to develop and heat up their bats in the bright Florida sun.