Breaking Down the Shortstops for 2010
Mariekson Gregorius is set to become the next in a line of outstanding shortstops for the Dragons. (Billings Mustangs)
Breaking Down the 2010 Shortstops
Part 4 of 8 in the Dragons 2010 Positional Preview
Today we look at the shortstop position.
Hands on deck: Mariekson Gregorius, John Dao.
Of any position on the field, shortstop seems to be the one place where there is little doubt as to the identity of the player who will man the spot for the Dragons in 2010. Barring an injury or other unexpected development, Mariekson Gregorius will be the Dragons shortstop this season.
The Dragons shortstop picture in 2009 was murky when the year began. Going into spring training, Alex Buchholz, who had batted .398 with Billings in 2008, seemed to be the leading candidate, and Buchholz was expected to be the Dragons best hitter. But when Zack Cozart made the jump from Dayton all the way to Double-A Carolina, it left a void at the shortstop position in Sarasota that was filled by Buchholz. That left the Dragons with slick-fielding Miguel Rojas at shortstop to start the '09 campaign.
While Rojas' reputation for outstanding defense left no concerns that he could handle the position, there were very real questions as to whether Rojas would hit well enough to remain with the Dragons throughout the season. He had batted just .183 in 2008 at Billings. His slugging percentage was a miniscule .245.
What transpired for Rojas exceeded anyone's reasonable expectations. Yes, he played gold glove defense at shortstop and was named the Midwest League's top defensive infielder in a poll of league managers by Baseball America, an honor referred to as "the easy choice." But amazingly, he emerged as one of the team's best hitters. He finished the season at .273 and hit .311 over the second half. Rojas will advance to Lynchburg for 2010.
Over the last two seasons, Dragons fans have been treated to arguably the best defense at the shortstop position in all of Single-A baseball (Cozart was selected as the league's best defensive infielder in 2008 with Dayton). Gregorius will have some large shoes to fill.
"I think we got a little spoiled last season," remembers Dragons pitching coach Tony Fossas. "Rojas had only 13 errors all season. That is something that is easy to take for granted."
Mariekson Gregorius, known as "Didi" to his teammates (pronounced dee-dee), could be up to the task. He is ranked as the 15th best prospect in the Reds organization heading into 2010, still two spots higher than Rojas despite Miguel's breakthrough season in Dayton in '09. Of all players who are expected to be roster considerations for the Dragons in 2010, only outfielder Yorman Rodriguez, at #6 on the list, is rated as a better prospect in the Reds system than Gregorius, and Rodriguez is no guarantee to make the club out of spring training.
Like 2009 Dragons pitcher J.C. Sulbaran, Gregorius is a native of the island of Curacao. He has been active in international competition as a member of Team Netherlands, but his professional career took off in 2009, ironically, in an unexpected way.
When Buchholz went down with an injury in Sarasota early last season, the Reds wisely made a decision to keep Rojas in Dayton as he was beginning to enjoy a taste of success as a hitter. Gregorius was already in Sarasota, playing shortstop for the Reds extended spring training team, so he was temporarily assigned to move across the facility to replace Buchholz in the Sarasota lineup. The hope was that Gregorius would provide steady defense and do as little harm as possible in the # 9 spot in the batting order.
But Gregorius held his own at the plate at .254 in 22 games. Over the final 13 games he played in, he batted 317. After the June draft, Buchholz returned and newly-signed Shane Carlson was sent to Sarasota while Gregorius was assigned to the Billings Mustangs. He carried his surprisingly-strong bat on to Billings and hit .314 there in 204 at-bats. He has very little power (one home run) but makes good contact and struck out just 27 times.
Gregorius is considered to have solid tools including good speed and one of the strongest throwing arms in the organization. His future will be bright if he continues to develop as a hitter.
John Dao was signed as a non-drafted free agent by the Reds after the 2009 draft. Dao completed his amateur career as a fifth-year senior at the University of Louisville in '09 and then filled a utility infield role at Billings, playing second base and shortstop.
Dao, like Shane Carlson (see Breaking Down the Second Basemen) enjoyed a strong junior season in college in 2008 before suffering through a disappointing senior year in '09. Dao hit .356 with 16 stolen bases at Louisville in '08 for a club that went to the NCAA Regionals. But in 2009, he dropped to .245 with just three steals while battling a knee injury that caused him to miss 10 games. In 2009, Dao was a team captain for a Louisville team that won its own Regional before losing in the Super Regionals to Cal State-Fullerton and future Dragons outfielder Josh Fellhauer as Louisville fell just short of the College World Series.
After signing with the Reds, Dao hit .189 in 53 at-bats at Billings. He is hoping better health with bring a return to his 2008 form. Dao is a Texas native and is fluent in Vietnamese.
The list of outstanding Dragons shortstops certainly goes back further than Rojas and Cozart. Chris Valaika, Adam Rosales, and Paul Janish have been the other shortstops for the Dragons over the last five years. Rosales and Janish, of course, are now big leaguers. Rojas, Cozart, and Valaika are all currently listed among the top 20 prospects in the Reds system.
2009 Dragons Shortstops
Miguel Rojas: Expected to play at Single-A Lynchburg in 2010.
Jose Gualdron: Could return to the Dragons in 2010. Will appear in third base preview.