Experts from across baseball's pantheon of journalistic excellence agreed. Rob Neyer, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball America all rated the Cincinnati pipeline devoid of talent. Oh, sure, there were some fairly decent players low on the farm system totem pole, but, as a whole, the Red farm was certainly barren and virtually dry.
200 or so at-bats and 15 starts does not a season make, but, at the halfway point of the season, it looks like most of the experts need to take another look at the Red pipeline. A quick glance at the Cincinnati minor league system confirms some very interesting talent and I though it would be an ideal time to create a new Top Ten (Or So) Prospects.
So, without further ado, the list:
10. Elizardo Ramirez
Ramirez was completely ignored by almost everyone prior to his audition in May of this year. Reagarded as a soft tosser with extraordinary command, The Lizard was thought to be, at best, a AAAA fringe player with the remote possibility of helping the big club as a long reliever and innings eater out of the pen. What no one saw coming was an additional mile or two on his fastball (up to 92-93) and a huge learning curve. Ramirez has been as pleasant a suprise as anyone in baseball.
The Optimist Says: Pinpoint control is Ramirez's stock and trade. He refuses to allow extra base runners, and, with added stuff on his fastball, doesn't have to rely only on guile and subterfuge. Too, he's still young and capable of adding another mile or two to his fastball. A possible All Star as early as next season!
The Pessimist Says: All Star? In AAA, sure. 2006 screams out as a half a career season. No one knew him before, no one will know of him in another year or two. He still lacks true starter stuff, as evidenced by 6.15 K rate. Sure, the ERA looks good, but the league hasn't had a second crack at him. Besides, even if, by the grace of God, Ramirez were to turn into a decent pitcher and become an All Star, Jack Armstrong and Atlee Hammaker both say hi.
9. Chris Denorfia
What does a guy have to do to get a shot at The Bigs? Denorfia has followed the Brady Clark/ Ryan Freel game plan to the majors. He was an interesting name and little else for a couple minor league seasons until he burst on the scene last year. He's been just as good this year, with a couple call-ups to the Reds. He's leading AAA in BA and has stolen 12 bases this year against one CS. He also plays all three OF positions well and has an above average arm.
The Optimist Says: Denorfia could step into the Red lineup now. He'd be an excellent #2 hitter, with both speed and pop. He also rarely strikes out, an outstanding trait in this lineup. Deal Kearns, Dunn, or Junior for a starter or closer and little would be lost.
The Pessimist Says: He's had a good year, sure, but Denorfia is nothing more than a fourth outfielder. He's got decent speed, can play three OF positions, and is adequate with the bat. Dealing from an area of strength while relying on Denforfia is penny wise and pound foolish. If Denorfia is as good as you can show, the pipeline is indeed dry.
8. Rey Olmedo
Little Rey Rey found a place in many hearts way back in 2004, while briefly replacing an injured Barry Larkin. For a short time, Rey Rey showed excellent range, speed, and excitement. Then, the bubble burst. He proved himself less than prepared and spent the next year wallowing in AAA while Felipe Lopez, a one-time River Bat teammate became an All Star SS with the Reds. This year, Olmedo has grown up. He's driving balls previously untouched and showing a penchant not only for the exceptional play, but the routine as well. Olmedo isn't exactly Barry Bonds, but he's proven to be an above average AAA player, hitting .342 with an OPS over 800.
The Optimist Says: The golden age of Red shortstops continues! Olmedo is Concepcion with a better stick. His Winter Ball stats show added pop in his bat and that's really all he needed. His glove is very, very good and his bat is blossoming. Moving Lopez to 2B or another team is a possiblity, considering how well Olmedo is playing.
The Pessimist Says: He's still a Punch and Judy hitter and that's all he'll likley ever be. Sure, Olmedo could become a defensive minded middle infielder, but, more likely, he's a late-inning defensive replacement. And the Reds thought so highly of him that they traded for Juan Castro. JUAN FREAKIN' CASTRO!!!
7. Phil Dumatrait
Dumatrait has been ignored for so long, his name should be John Doe. He led AA is ERA last year and was pitching okay until his recent AAA promotion this year. To say he deserved it would be an understatement. Since the promotion, Dumatrait's shown he belongs in AAA with three solid starts and one stinker. His ERA is 3.26 and he's pitching long into games. His stuff is fairly pedestrian, but you can't argue with results. (See, I read Moneyball, I know these things.)
The Optimist Says: Dumatrait is a poor man's Greg Maddux, pitching intelligently and with poise. He has an outstanding curve and pitches off of that pitch to set up a sneaky fastball. He can do the same in the majors, and, in a couple years, should be a solid #3 starter.
The Pessimist Says: Dumatrait was so highly though of that he was sent back to AA even after leading the league in ERA. That tells you what the Reds think of his chances. And this is a team, remember, that was searching under hills and dales for starters. Pedestrian stuff means he's going to get hammered in the big leagues or be so fine with his control that it won't matter. His control is not pinpoint, to say the least. He might be a serviceable middle reliever in three to five years. Nothing more.
6. Zach Ward
Another of last year's draft success stories, Ward, a third rounder, didn't pitch until this season. After shaking off the rust, Ward has dominated in Dayton. He's allowed but one home run over almost 80 IP and his WHIP is below 1.00.
The Optimist Says: Ward is the first of a quartet of young pitchers that could rightfully be called aces. He's pitched like on this year. His stuff is GAB friendly, with an almost 2:1 GB: FB ratio. He's K'ing batters at an acceptable rate and he hasn't allowed much of anything since May. He's a stud.
The Pessimist Says: He's also 23. In low A Ball. He should be dominating. He's also a college arm that's seen some mileage. The Reds, not an organization exactly brimming with talented young arms, had him slotted as a reliever early in the year. That's how much they though of him. Now, again, in low A, we're supposed to think he's something because he's doing well against guys two to four years younger than he is? Please. He's cannon fodder and a possible middle reliever. At best.
5. Joey Votto
After a disappointing High A season in Sarasota, Votto has proven himself a prime AA prospect, flirting with the AA Triple Crown. He's on pace for 30+ homers and that 950 OPS sure looks inviting, considering Dunn won't play 1B and Aurillia and Hatteberg are 110. Apiece. Add in 13 SBs and Votto would be the top prospect in at least half of major league pipelines. As is, he's the Red's third, fourth , or fifth best prospect.
The Optimist Says: Votto has found his power, and, at age 23, looks like another Dunn/ Kearns type of perennial All Star. He's shown some speed and his bat is special. He could be up later this year and may jump AAA altogether. AA Triple Crown guys aren't exactly pushovers. Historically, those that dominate in AA usually do well later on as well. He's a high round draft pick with two excellent seasons out of three. What's not to like?
The Pessimist Says: Votto's having a great year. What happened to him last year? He strikes out too much, too. And AA is a hitter's paradise. If he repeats it (and that's a big if), then he may be a decent option as a 1B, but his glove is suspect and he's a former catcher, too.
4. Travis Wood
All he's done since being drafted last year is pitch. Well. Wood enjoyed perhaps the best draft season of anyone in the minors last year. He jumped two levels, and, as a 19-year-old, is pitching in low A Dayton. He's done nothing to curtail Redled fan excitement this season, with an ERA just a tick above 3.00 and a WHIP jsut over 1.00. He's also striking out over a batter per inning and hasn't lost this year.
The Optimist Says: The draft steal of last year is ace material. He's very young and mowing down A ball hitters just like last year in Rookie League. He's a winner, too, as evidenced by his 10-1 professional record. Wood has a solid to above average fastball and an outstanding change-up. With a couple more years maturity before he reaches the bigs, his fastball could inch up to the mid 90's consistently.
The Pessimist Says: Wood has been decent, no doubt. But take a closer look at those perephial numbers. Almost 4 1/2 BBs per 9? 8 homers allowed in under 80 IP? Ouch. He's doing well now because few hitters are advanced enough in low A to recognize a good change. That will change as he moves up the ladder. Wait a year or two and see-- Wood is pyrite.
3. Johnny Cueto
No one has done more for his prospect status than Cueto this year. Before 2006, Cueto had a good arm, sure, but his numbers weren't there. Numbers-- what numbers? This season, Cueto's been arguably the best pitcher in the Midwest League. He was the All Star game starter and already has a shortened no-hitter to his credit. Add to that a microscopic WHIP and an 8-1 record and it's no wonder Cueto has all experts rethinking his prospectivity. (Yes, I made that word up. Shut up, I'm allowed.)
The Optimist Says: Cueto's works in the 92-94 range and can dial his fastball up to 96. His offspeed pitches are also above average already. Like numbers? Try these on for size: 2.63 ERA. 0.88 WHIP. More K's than IP. 52 hits in 76 IP. 15 BBs to 82 K's. You know what these numbers spell? ACE, baby.
The Pessimist Says: So he's had a good half. So what? Where was he last year? Besides, he's small, at 6 feet and 160 lbs. No way can he make it in the big leagues with that frame. Yeah, yeah, don't go all Pedro on me because Cueto is no Pedro. He's having a good half year. Shrug.
2. Jay Bruce
Last year's #1 draft pick, Bruce has been good seemingly his entire life. He played well last year in Billings and was challenged with Dayton this year. He's responded well, hitting just under .300 and leading all of the minor leagues in extra base hits. Power is his stock and trade, though he's also reportedly an excellent defensive player with an outstanding arm. As a 19-year-old, Bruce's future looks exceedingly bright.
The Optimist Says: Bruce is yet another great young OF in the Red system. 29 doubles point to some power potential not yet realized. That's phenomenal, considering his OPS is .886 right now. He's a poor man's Austin Kearns right now. Give him two years of maturity and many of those doubles will be dingers. Then, he's something really special. Think Adam Dunn special.
The Pessimist Says: He's walked 22 times. And that's supposedly from a guy who had the best eye coming out of high school last year. That's regression. Sure, he's got some pop, but so did Samone Peters. So what? Give him two year and pitchers will find that hole in his swing (did I mention the 62 K's in 71 games?) and he'll be lucky to be another Quenton McCracken.
1. Homer Bailey
Bailey has been a lightning rod of controversy on Redszone this year. And last. And the year before. However he's viewed, this season has been a much-needed improvement over last. Bailey has pitched effectively throughout the year and his stuff is filthy. A fastball he can dial up to 98, a sharp breaking curve and a developing slider all slot him as a possible ace. He's still only 20 and, like it or not, in AA, so time is definately on his side.
The Optimist Says: No one in the minors has the package Bailey does. He's got two dominating pitches and his third isn't far behind. Too, the young Texan is taking his promotion seriously, as seen in his last start. The sky's the limit with Bailey and an ace is something the Reds desperately need. By this time next year, Bailey could be well on his way to ROY status. Not only that, but Bailey has the "look" of an ace. He's a gunslinger, the next great Texan schoolboy. Like Ryan. Like Beckett. Like Wood. Umm. Hang on, maybe not like Wood.
The Pessimist Says: Slow down, Quick Draw. He's not ready for AA, let alone the majors. Sure, Bailey's pitched adequately, but he hasn't dominated any league he's been in and a too quick promotion will only highlight his lack of pitching IQ. Bailey is still a thrower and likely to never amount to much because he's being rushed. Think Brian Reith. Too, he's a high school draft pick and you know how well they turn out. (Ahem, almost never.)
11. Drew Stubbs-- Having solid beginning to his career. All the tools are there.
12. David Shafer-- Closer with outstanding perephials in AA. Could be seen in Cincinnati later this season.
13. Travis Chick-- Still only 22 and in AA. Pitching fairly well. Has a promising arm.
14. Steve Kelly-- All he does is win. Last year's elbow woes robbed him of what little stuff he possessed. He has it back now. Watch him deal.
15. Javon Moran-- A throw in in the Lidle deal has done nothing but hit since the trade. Two more BBs a week and he's among the best leadoff candidates in the minors. As is, he'll have to hit his way to Cincinnati.
16. Carlos Guevara-- A trick pitch-- the screwball-- can pave the way to Palookaville or the Promised Land. Guevara has been good since the draft. Looks like a solid middle reliever, in the Scott Sullivan mold.
17. Calvin Medlock-- See Guevara, Carlos. Subtract screwball.
18. Paul Janish-- 24 and in High A but has been very solid this year after TJ surgery last. Hitting the ball with some authority and very good with the leather. Think Manos De Oro, with a slightly better bat.
19. Adam Rosales-- Couldn't handle the promotion to Sarasota and sent down to Dayton to collect himself. Seems to be working wonders. Can he stay at SS? Can he continue to hit higher up the ladder? Questionable. But the pop is promising, as is the cannon of a right arm.
20. Tyler Pelland-- Still young and in AA. A southpaw with better stuff than his numbers indicate. Could take a while to put it all together, but should be at least a middle reliever.
Aaron Herr-- 25-year-old without a chance, but he's done very well at 3B this year. Can also play some 2B. Would love to see the Reds sign him to another minor league contract and promote him to AAA. Think Ryan Freel with more pop and much less speed.
Noochie Varner-- Another slogger who does nothing but hit. Solid numbers throughout his minor league career. Why no love? Dunno. Should be. He could be an adequate fourth or fifth OF for someone.
Double Secret Honorable Mention
Richie Gardner-- Just two short years ago, Gardner was poised to be the first ace Red farmhand since Browning. Shoulder surgery shortcircuited that dream, but he's toiling away, working out the rust in the GCL. If he can dial fis fastball back up to 91-92, he's a darkhorse candidate for... something. A nice story, at least.
Chris Gruler-- See Gardner, add two more surgeries. A longer shot, at this point, than Seabiscuit. Still, you have to feel for the guy. He's still working at it. Here's hoping he wakes up tomorrow and rediscovers that blazing fastball. Stranger things have happened. Though not many.