Fans and analysts alike who follow the minor leagues have a distinct opportunity not available to the average baseball supporter: we get to celebrate not one, but two Opening Days. As the Reds take the field on April 1, the best of the rest will settle into new organizations in Dayton, Bakersfield, Pensacola, and Louisville. Only a handful will find meaningful time in Cincinnati this season, and the majority of prospects in the higher levels won’t make an impact until the 2014 season. But as we painfully remember in light of Joey Votto’s midseason injury, anything can happen. Any one of the players on this list — and possibly one who isn’t — could get the call between now and September.
With that in mind, I’m ranking these prospects based on their likelihood of impacting the club this season. Therefore, this list won’t include young names that have been a fixture on other Top Tens. To reiterate a claim from my NL Central prospects post, I don’t think that a high draft pick warrants an automatic high ranking. Take Nick Travieso, who consistently polls well in similar lists. Are eight minor league games enough to judge talent, or does potential outweigh his lack of experience? Decide for yourself, but every player on the BRM list has played at least one full season entering the 2013 campaign.
Maybe you’ll agree with the selections, but I can’t guarantee it. So I’ve included team rankings from other reputable prospect sites, coordinated by initials. MLB refers to rankings conducted by Jonathan Mayo, an online analyst and draft expert. BA is Baseball America; SBN is Minor League Ball, a SB Nation product; BP stands for Baseball Prospectus, a subscription site that I check daily; and SB represents Scouting Book, an up-and-coming site that doesn’t limit its rankings to one hundred players. Some players near the top of the list will have two numbers in that column — the first measures their spot on a team totem pole, and the second gives their overall rank (i.e., against all other prospects) where applicable.
Enough with the explanations. Here are my ten top Cincinnati Reds prospects entering the 2013 season:
1. Billy Hamilton, OF
MLB: 1/11 BA: 1/20 SBN: 1/14 BP: 1/14 SB: 1/6
It’s no surprise that Hamilton takes the top spot, but reaction and overreaction to his spring training performance may have caused some to sour on the Reds’ top prospect. In twenty-three plate appearances, Hamilton garnered only a .174/.240/.348 line including three stolen bases. However, Dusty Baker allayed many critics’ fears with high marks of Hamilton’s performance in center field. As for a major league debut, he seems like a shoo-in for a September call-up, but barring an injury he’ll spend all year in Louisville.
While skeptics constantly declare that the speedy Hamilton can’t steal first base and cite an inability to produce big hits, both his on-base percentage and slugging percentage ticked upward from 2011 to 2012. Able to hold his own with major leaguers through Spring Training, Hamilton should adjust to Triple-A pitching so long as his plate discipline improves.
2. Tony Cingrani, LHP
MLB: 3/66 BA: 3/82 SBN: 3/65 BP: 3/91 SB: 2/52
Nearly every list has Stephenson above Cingrani, but why am I ranking them in reverse order? Part of it comes from his high-level status, making his major league debut less than eighteen months after his first minor league game and starting this year in Louisville. The second reason is that he fits the qualifier of biggest impact. Cincinnati has used the southpaw both from the bullpen and in the starting lineup, but the Reds’ brass sees him as a starter.
After a whirlwind 2012 across three levels, Cingrani can settle down in Triple-A against more experienced hitters before he’s ready for another taste of the big leagues.
3. Robert Stephenson, RHP
MLB: 2/51 BA: 2/56 SBN: 2/55 BP: 2/78 SB: 3/54
The 20-year-old fireballer has a future in the Reds rotation, but it won’t come anytime soon. Expected to start back with Low-A Dayton, Stephenson’s best-case scenario runs through Pensacola this season. Much like Hamilton, however, there’s no need to rush. Holding Pioneer League batters to a paltry .195 average, Stephenson struggled in Dayton with his K/9 dipping slightly during the jump. But starting in effectively his first full season, Stephenson should start hot out of the gate with a reliable outfield backing him up.
4. Daniel Corcino, RHP
MLB: 4/X BA: 4/94 SBN: 4/81 BP: 4/X SB: 4/107
Comparisons to Reds ace Johnny Cueto are no fluke. A Rule 5 protectorate from November, the young Dominican hurler has command of his fastball and breaking ball that exceeds his relative youth. Corcino was impressive in a full season with Double-A Pensacola, standing out from his less-than-impressive record by holding hitters to the third-lowest batting average across all Double-A pitchers (.216). Highlights from his 2012 season include tossing eight innings of no-hit baseball en route to the first no-hitter in Blue Wahoos history.
Poised to join the Louisville rotation, Corcino could see time in the Reds’ bullpen in September.
5. Ismael Guillon, LHP
MLB: 19/X BA: X/X SBN: 11/X BP: X/X SB: 13/530
So why is Guillon my fifth pick? The 21-year-old lefty is another player the Reds protected under Rule 5, and in just two years he’s already made it to Dayton. Having faced Tommy John surgery after signing in 2008, he’s caught up fairly well. His stunted delivery makes a deadly changeup and tricky fastball even harder to handle. Across two levels last season, Guillon racked up a SO/9 of 10.7 but still needs to improve his command. Another full year of baseball could be enough to bring him to Bakersfield by season’s end.
6. Neftali Soto, 1B
MLB: 14/X BA: X/X SBN: X/X BP: X/X SB: 12/516
A Puerto Rican prospect drafted in 2007, the Bats infielder has silently dominated in the minors. Quietly moving up the ladder in recent years, Soto has had the benefit of playing full-time one level at a time, putting in two years of High-A ball before reaching Carolina in 2011 and Louisville last season. The longball hitter maintains surprisingly good control at the plate despite the heavy-hitting profile. He may be on this list for a while as he’ll be blocked at the first base position for years to come. His hard work isn’t going unnoticed, though, and 2013 is a good bet for cracking the major league roster.
7. Ryan LaMarre, OF
MLB: 13/X BA: X/X SBN: X/X BP: X/X SB: X/X
LaMarre is the odd man out in the Hamilton-to-the-outfield experiment, but he’s put in his time despite nursing a foot injury all of last year. He quickly became a fixture as a trustworthy leadoff man before paving the way for Hamilton in July. He won’t stay in Pensacola very long, though, and his strong defensive and outfield presence will almost certainly take him to Triple-A this season.
8. Jesse Winker, OF
MLB: 11/X BA: 6/X SBN: 5/X BP: 7/X SB: 7/312
“But Kourage, I thought you said no rookies!” Well, Winker is a special case. Instead of starting in a summer league, he made the jump straight to short-season Billings and turned heads. His .338 batting average and .943 OPS were both good for third-best in the crowded Pioneer League. An experienced hitter, his “go big or go home” approach drew nearly as many walks (40) as strikeouts (50), but the 19-year-old was plenty left in the tank as the season looms.
9. Donald Lutz, OF
MLB: X/X BA: X/X SBN: X/X BP: X/X SB: X/X
Few could say Lutz was on their radar entering the season, but his stats spoke volumes across Bakersfield and Pensacola. The German utility player led the organization in home runs (22) and ranked third in RBI (71) last season. Dayton broadcaster Tom Nichols is bullish on Lutz, noting year-to-year improvement and selecting him as the preseason Prospect of the Year. He predicted Hamilton meteoric run last season, and as we saw in a good Spring Training impression, the Hulk is poised for a breakout year.
10. Tucker Barnhart, C
MLB: X/X BA: X/X SBN: X/X BP: X/X SB: X/X
This would likely be the most surprising pick considering his absence from any list, but the Reds have been grooming Barnhart as their heir apparent. Non-baseball factors aside (Redsfest and Reds Caravan come to mind), the Indiana-born backstop has been rated by Baseball America as the organization’s best defensive catcher two years in a row, and his batting has advanced well after a midseason promotion to Pensacola. Anticipating another stint in Florida, Barnhart could easily reach Triple-A this year under the right circumstances.
Who’s ranked too high? Too low? Who missed the cut and deserves a spot? Join the conversation on Twitter (@kourageBRM) or voice your opinions in the Comments section.