Before we get into the main topic of the minor league season and who to watch on each of the teams this year, I wanted to take the time to talk a little bit about some changes over at my daily gig, RedsMinorLeagues.com. If you’re a new reader here at Redleg Nation then this may be your introduction to my work as well. Each Wednesday I will be writing a column on the minor leagues here, but every day at RedsMinorLeagues.com I have multiple articles about the ongoings on the farm system. Over there I’ve made the switch from a subscription based support system where some content was behind a paywall to the Patreon system where you can simply provide a monthly donation to help keep the site going. There are some additional perks available to those who do choose to support the work, but moving forward all content over there will be free for everyone. If you’re interested in supporting my work you can check things out on Patreon to see what it’s all about.
Now, back to your newly regularly scheduled Wednesday minor league post here at Redleg Nation. The Minor League season gets started on Thursday evening for all of the Reds full-season teams. We don’t have the Pensacola Blue Wahoos official roster at this point, for some reason, but we do have the other three. Today we are going to look at who is the top position prospect, top pitching prospect and a third guy to watch from each team.
Top Pitching Prospect: Sal Romano | RHP
From a pure numbers perspective, Sal Romano may have had the best spring training of any pitcher in Cincinnati Reds camp this spring. The right hander had a 3.15 ERA in 20.0 innings with three walks and 25 strikeouts. That was an extension of how his second half in Double-A went in 2016 where he posted a 2.12 ERA in 76.1 innings with nine walks and 69 strikeouts for Pensacola. If Romano continues with what he’s done since the second half of last year we may see him in Cincinnati sooner rather than later.
Top Position Prospect: Jesse Winker | OF
Jesse Winker had a good spring training with the big league club, hitting .302/.351/.491 with five extra-base hits. That was an improvement, mostly, on what he did last year in Triple-A where he hit well, but struggled to show power as he battled a wrist injury. If he shows more pop in his time with the Bats this year he may be in Louisville for a limited time.
Third Prospect to Watch: Phillip Ervin | OF
Phillip Ervin got out to a quick start in spring training, but trailed off some as things went along. He had two walks and just three strikeouts in 30 plate appearances, but hit .233/.303/.433. Last season in Double-A he didn’t hit for much average, but he got on base, showed some power and stole 30+ bases once again. What’s worth keeping an eye on though is if his home ballpark was holding him back last year where he showed enormous home/road splits. On the road he hit .282/.376/.477 in Double-A. Ervin has the tools, but he’s struggled to hit for an average since he suffered a wrist injury in August of the year he was drafted (2013). If what he did on the road last year is something that he can do everywhere this year, it would be a big win for the organization.
Pensacola Blue Wahoos
Top Pitching Prospect: Luis Castillo | RHP
I still can’t believe that the Cincinnati Reds got Luis Castillo for Dan Straily. The idea makes my laugh out loud. I’ve seen the right hander twice this spring. Once out in Arizona during spring training and once over the weekend in Dayton as he took on the Reds in an exhibition game. The stuff was incredible, sitting 95-98 MPH and touching 99 with a slider and change up. The 24-year-old is coming off of a season where he posted a 2.26 ERA in 131.2 innings with 25 walks and 103 strikeouts.
Top Position Prospect: Aristides Aquino | OF
Last years Reds minor league hitter of the year, Aristides Aquino posted a .273/.327/.519 line with 26 doubles, 12 triples and 23 home runs for Daytona last year. In a league where the average OPS was .677, Aquino stood out from most of the Florida State League because of his massive power output. His 34 walks were easily the best of his career, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio is worth keeping an eye on as he makes the jump to Double-A.
Third Prospect to Watch: Tyler Mahle | RHP
Tyler Mahle will get the start on minor league opening night in Pensacola for the Blue Wahoos. After dominating in Daytona in 2016 in the first half he was promoted to Double-A. While there he struggled some with the long ball. In 71.1 innings with Pensacola in the second half he posted a 4.92 ERA with 78 hits allowed, 20 walks and 12 home runs given up. He struck out 65 batters, keeping a strong ratio of strikeouts to walks, but he allowed more hits and saw his home run rate more than double from his previous stop. He’ll be 22-years-old this season, so he’ll still be among the youngest pitchers in the league.
Top Position Prospect: Nick Senzel | 3B
The #2 overall pick in the entire draft last season, Nick Senzel tore up the Midwest League with the Dayton Dragons after the draft. He hit .329/.415/.567 with 33 extra-base hits in just 58 games for Dayton last season. He’s as good of a prospect as I’ve ever seen come through the Reds system. The third baseman is above-average in all aspects of his game and seems to be underrated by many in a few areas.
Top Pitching Prospect: Vladimir Gutierrez | RHP
The Cincinnati Reds spent $4.5M to sign Vladimir Gutierrez last summer, and they paid another $4.5M in penalties to Major League Baseball for going over their spending limit to do so. The right hander has yet to make his professional debut, so when he takes the mound all eyes and ears will be following along. His numbers in Cuba at the same age were better than those posted by both Aroldis Chapman and Raisel Iglesias, though the league is a bit watered down now compared to when they were there. He last pitched in Cuba as an 18-year-old, working in longer relief outings. The Reds will use him as a starting pitcher with the focus on him being a starter in the long-term.
Third Player to Watch: Alfredo Rodriguez | SS
The Reds grabbed Alfredo Rodriguez out of Cuba for $7M in July. The early returns weren’t strong as he struggled to hit in the Dominican Summer League (granted, it was a very small sample size, and he missed two weeks in the middle of that after being hit by a pitch). He’s well known for his defensive ability at shortstop, but in Cuba he really struggled to hit the ball. He looked much better than I expected when I saw him in Arizona, but there was still plenty of work to be done.
Top Position Prospect: Taylor Trammell | OF
The Cincinnati Reds massaged their draft pool bonus money last year to land Taylor Trammell, ranked as the 13th best prospect in the draft, at the 35th spot and paying him an overslot bonus of $3.2M to bring him into the fold. As an 18-year-old he hit .303/.374/.421 with 24 stolen bases last season with the Billings Mustangs. He’s a toolsy guy with big time speed, bat speed and tons of athleticism.
Top Pitching Prospect: Tony Santillan | RHP
The Reds 2nd round pick from 2015 split his season between Billings and Dayton in 2016. His time in Billings was much better than his time in Dayton where he posted a 6.82 ERA in seven starts. He reportedly was dealing with a small back issue in his time with the Dragons, which could explain some of the problems with them in the second half. He has plus to plus-plus fastball velocity and a plus breaking ball to work with. Control has been an issue in the past, but he’s got one of the best pure arms in the system.
Third Prospect to Watch: Tyler Stephenson | C
The Reds 1st round pick from 2015 dealt with injuries in 2016. He suffered a concussion in April that cost him several weeks, then after returning he had a wrist injury. While he attempted to come back from the wrist injury several times, he never spent three consecutive weeks on the field at any point in 2016. He looked very good in the week I was in Arizona, and the tools that led to him being the 11th overall pick in 2015 are still there. It will be fun to see what he can do at the plate and behind the plate now that he’s healthy.