Dragons could land top shortstop
Valaika won MVP honors in the Pioneer League last season.
By Marc Katz

Staff Writer

Monday, March 26, 2007

FORT MYERS, Fla. Exactly one week from breaking camp at spring training, shortstop Chris Valaika doesn't know where he will be playing this summer, and neither do his employers, the Cincinnati Reds.

Expectations are Valaika will be with the Class A Midwest League Dayton Dragons, a situation enhanced by the absence of Milton Loo, a highly regarded shortstop prospect who hasn't appeared yet because of family problems.

That leaves Valaika for Dayton, or, in the words of Reds Director of Player Development Terry Reynolds, "We'd like to keep the (last year's) Billings guys together."

Valaika was a third-round draft pick out of the University of California-Santa Barbara last summer and promptly won MVP honors in the Pioneer League with a .324 batting average, eight homers and 60 RBIs in 70 games.

He is part of what looks like a stockpiling of shortstops in the Reds organization, as Baseball America ranks Valaika as the 10th best Reds prospect, just behind No. 8 Loo and No. 9 Paul Janish.

On Sunday, though, Janish was still playing games with the Reds (as was center fielder Drew Stubbs, also expected to be with the Dragons), while Valaika was with the "high" Class A Sarasota group as both Reds' Class A teams played Minnesota teams on the fields behind Hammond Stadium.

"You're obviously not playing to go to Dayton or Sarasota," Valaika said. "You're playing to go to the big leagues. But if you're in Sarasota, you're one step closer. I didn't come in with the mind-set I wanted to go to Sarasota with a fall back on Dayton."

So far, Valaika has enjoyed spring training, especially watching some of the Reds take batting practice.

"I got to watch Adam Dunn and Ryan Freel in the batting cages," Valaika said. "And I watched (Ken) Griffey take hitting practice on the field. That was kind of bizarre.

"Hopefully, some little kid will be watching me some day."

Maybe some kid in Dayton this summer. Maybe not.

Dragons tales

Reynolds released nine minor leaguers, with more to come this week.

First baseman Angel Colon, who hit .097 in 10 games with the Dragons last summer, was one, and right-hander Damian Ursin was another.

An eighth-round 2003 draft choice, Ursin pitched in part of each of the last four seasons with the Dragons, posting an overall 1-14 record with an ERA approaching 5.00.

Yet last season, coming off arm problems, he was 1-2 with a 3.71 ERA in 34 games. He had five saves.

"I'll find something," the 24-year-old Ursin said. "They (the Reds) just told me it was a numbers game."

Several players, including outfielders Jay Bruce and B.J. Szymanski from last year's Dragons, stopped on their way to workouts to wish Ursin well.

"You never get used to that (release day)," Dragons manager Donnie Scott said. "It's not a fun day."