News from under a rock: November

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Travis Mattair, now in the Braves organization, will be remembered for his impact off the field.

This is part three of a continuing series breaking down the offseason’s headlines. Click here for recaps from September and October. As always, you can stay up-to-date on Twitter.

Minor League Baseball hands out (imaginary) hardware

MiLB.com issued their end-of-year awards with analysis from Reds director of player development Jeff Graupe. Five Wahoos won at their position with seven mentioned among 12 possible positions. The list includes a utility player, left- and right-handed starting pitcher, and reliever.

Behind the plate, Ross Perez earned an honorable mention. Perez batted .355/.423/.535 from June until his Aug. 13 debut for Triple-A Louisville.

In the infield, Marquez Smith got the nod at first base after posting video game numbers for the Blaze. Smith led affiliated baseball with 131 RBIs while smashing 30 home runs at a .311 clip. Six years older than the average California League player, Graupe acknowledged a relative mismatch but valued Smith’s leadership ability on a young squad.

Third baseman Seth Mejias-Brean was recognized at the hot corner for his extra-base ability. He held down a Double-A starting role in just his second full season and should compete for the job in 2015. Juan Perez, who played three games for the Wahoos in 2012, is due for a more prominent position in Pensacola after two seasons in Bakersfield. The second baseman was more effective in his double-dip, tapping into some power with 13 home runs while showing more plate discipline.

Kyle Waldrop and Jesse Winker anchor the outfield, just as they did in lockstep from Bakersfield to Pensacola and Surprise, Ariz. for the Arizona Fall League. Waldrop enjoyed a breakout season while Winker turned heads and earned national acclaim at the Futures Game.

Ben Lively, untouchable in an offense-oriented California League, quickly adapted to Double-A and took a no-hitter into the eighth inning on July 31. Lively led the Reds organization with 171 strikeouts and at times held the Minor League Baseball lead in that category.

Mets’ deGrom steals Rookie of the Year Award from Hamilton

Lightning-in-a-bottle outfielder Billy Hamilton finished second in the Rookie of the Year race, receiving four of 32 first-place votes.

Hamilton tied for second in baseball with 56 stolen bases in 79 attempts, which set a Reds rookie record. In 40 games before the All-Star break, he batted .321 with a .351 on-base percentage and 38 thefts.

The second half wasn’t kind to the Reds or its leadoff hitter. Cincinnati, paced by Hamilton at a .200 clip, batted just .222 after the break. That’s where Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom enters the picture, ending his solid campaign with a 3-0 record and 1.32 ERA in his final five starts.

In addition to stolen bases, Hamilton led National League rookies in RBIs, multi-hit games, runs, hits, total bases, doubles and extra-base hits. He ranked among rookie leaders in 15 statistical categories.

To paraphrase from FanGraphs, Hamilton ran like crazy but wasn’t successful like crazy. Hamilton isn’t going to convert every stolen base opportunity, but he’s already changing the game as opponents try to outfox him. That means a faster break to the plate, a more deceptive delivery or a more precise throw from the catcher.

This was the first time since Johnny Bench’s debut in 1968 that the Reds leaned on a rookie as heavily as Hamilton. The speedster played 152 games, including 136 starts, and it’s possible the long season just caught up with him.

The best news is that things get better. We’ll see the result of Hamilton’s offseason improvements in short order.

Saying goodbye to a fan favorite

Through two seasons with the Wahoos, Travis Mattair holds franchise leads in home runs (26) and runs batted in (126) while ranking third in hits (228) and games played (263).

The record books remember Mattair well, but fans will remember him even more fondly. He quickly earned a following as fans embraced his childhood nickname of Moose. The moniker, given for his large head at birth, rang through the stadium before each at-bat.

Players like Mattair — the ones who throw foul balls to kids and sign autographs until their hand cramps — are a special breed. One of the most genuine people you could hope to meet, his positive attitude can keep him in baseball as long as he wants.

Mattair’s advocacy for Carolyn Hendrix, the 4-year-old who beat Ewing’s sarcoma, is one such example. The pink wristband never came off, a reminder of a world bigger than the game he plays.

Should Atlanta assign Mattair to Mississippi, Pensacola fans could watch him play as early as May 6.

Introducing the Shuck dynasty

Milwaukee’s new Double-A affiliate has a name: the Biloxi Shuckers.

The name, one of more than 4,000 submissions in a fan contest, is a tribute to the local seafood industry and a throwback to the original “Seafood Capital of the World.”

The oyster logo is described as “tenacious” and “best served with cocktail sauce” (kidding). Team colors, which embrace a beach theme, include Gulf Blue, Sand, Coral and Black.

Shuckers beat out Beacon, Blackjacks, Mullets, Schooners and Shrimpers after roughly 60,000 votes were sorted. Coincidentally, Mullets was a finalist in Pensacola’s team-naming contest. Maybe we can officially eliminate the name after its third strike?

This.

Other news and notes

>> Jim Riggleman, the first manager in franchise history, was tapped as the Reds’ third-base coach. After a falling out with the Washington Nationals in 2011, Riggleman’s Major League future was presumed dead. He’s now back on a big-league staff after three years in the Minors, including two seasons managing Triple-A Louisville.

>> Infielder Rey Navarro will break into a new organization and a new tax bracket, signing a one-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles. The deal comes with a 40-man roster spot and $75,000 guaranteed. The Southern League All-Star earned a June 20 promotion to Louisville, where he batted .296 in 65 games. From May 23 to July 8, Navarro worked a 39-game on-base streak; his 23-game run in Pensacola ranks second in franchise history.

>> Exactly how fast is the fast track for Winker? Cincinnati Reds GM Walt Jocketty notes Winker “is quite a ways away” from an everyday role in Cincinnati. Expect him to open the 2015 season in Pensacola, but a September call-up is not out of the question.

News from under a rock: October

Jesse Winker led the Arizona Fall League with a .338 batting average.

Jesse Winker led the Arizona Fall League with a .338 batting average and .999 OPS.

This is part two of a continuing series breaking down the offseason’s headlines. Click here for the September recap and stay up-to-date on Twitter.

Winker breaks loose in Arizona Fall League

Jesse Winker couldn’t sit still.

After sustaining a partially torn tendon in his right wrist, the Reds shelved the outfield prospect in July. But to his credit, Winker stayed the course, following the team on road trips and soaking up knowledge from the bench.

Winker was one of nine Reds prospects shipped to the prestigious Arizona Fall League. When he arrived, he promptly made up for lost time. Winker doubled in his first at-bat and left the yard in his next.

The outfielder earned Player of the Week honors to open the fall season, batting .455 (5-11) with three extra-base hits, a league-leading seven RBI, four walks and four runs. Teammate Kyle Waldrop was right on his tail, nearly hitting for the cycle on Oct. 10 and closing the week at .533 (8-15). He followed up that feat with another near cycle on Oct. 15, missing only a home run.

A calf cramp kept Winker out of the Fall Stars Game, but Waldrop stepped in for the West Division squad.

What’s most noteworthy for Waldrop is his position: He split time equally between first base and the outfield. Waldrop played just six games at first base in the regular season, including two in Pensacola. Moving forward, the Reds want him to get more reps at the position. Corner infielder Seth Mejias-Brean also saw time at first.

Neither Waldrop nor Winker had two hitless games in a row, combining for 13 multi-hit efforts. The former strung together a seven-game hitting streak to close the year, while the latter was ranked the sixth-best prospect of the AFL.


Don’t see the video? Follow this link instead.

Reds pitching prospects paced the staff with four wins and three saves. All five representatives registered an ERA below the team’s average of 4.89. Raisel Iglesias, a June acquisition and Cuban defector, allowed no runs on one hit in seven appearances. 2014 first-round pick Nick Howard, fresh out of the University of Virginia, finished 2-1 with a 4.43 earned run average and started the Fall Stars Game.

Wahoos relievers Carlos Gonzalez and Ben Klimesh closed the season on scoreless innings streaks of 3.2 and 5.1 frames, respectively. Ryan Dennick, who pitched parts of two seasons with Pensacola, scattered one run in seven appearances.

The Saguaros, managed by Blue Wahoos skipper Delino DeShields, finished 16-15-1.


Don’t see the video? Follow this link instead.

MLB looks to improve pace of play

The Arizona Fall League is a Petri dish of sorts, replicating an All-Star environment by giving prospects a chance to play against high-level competition. In the same way, Major League Baseball often uses the AFL as an experimental league.

Salt River was the setting of initiatives that aimed to quicken the game’s pace. The seven-man committee proposed the use of a clock to place limits on time between pitches and inning breaks.

The length of a game is indeed creeping up, at least at the highest level. The average game reached the three-hour mark in 2012 with a bump to 3.13 hours in 2014. Double-A times are also trending upward, from 2.71 to 2.85 since 2005. (You can tinker with seven levels’ worth of data here.)

Note that time and pace are a little different. You can’t put a limit on how many relief pitchers a team is allowed to use. However, the committee mandated a 2:30 break during pitching changes.

Some of these changes make sense, like swapping the four-pitch ordeal of an intentional walk into a signal from the dugout. Charging rule violators with balls or strikes for infractions, on the other hand, seems absurd to me. Pitchers have 20 seconds to throw the next pitch, which is a little faster than the league trend of 23 seconds.

Do those seconds really count? Maybe not all the time. But the pitcher’s greatest impact is his control over the game, and these changes give more power to an unthinking timer.

I’m still on the fence about these. Enforcing existing rules (like Rule 8.04) could be just as effective as installing clocks in 30 stadiums. But while I don’t feel the time pass in the press box, most of the audience exists outside the ballpark. That’s where improving the pace of the game will be most impactful.

You can read more from MLB.com.

Fans

Among other metrics, Stadium Journey rates ballparks by fan experience, food and overall atmosphere.

There’s no place like home

Pensacola Bayfront Stadium was ranked by Stadium Journey as the second-best ballpark in Minor League Baseball.

“Pensacola Bayfront Stadium provides a setting that is hard to replicate at any level of any sport in the United States,” Justin Sutton raves in his review. Parkview Field, the home of the Fort Wayne TinCaps, topped the list.

Other Reds affiliates drew high marks, with Dayton’s Fifth Third Field ranking 12th and Louisville Slugger Field finishing 30th among 160 parks.

The list was seeded based on the FANFARE score, which measures food and beverages, atmosphere, neighborhood, fans, access, return on investment and extras.

The first of the prospect lists: Doug Gray

For fans who can’t be in five places at once, national prospect lists are one of the best gauges of talent within an organization. There’s plenty of overlap and usually a consensus top pick, but it’s always fascinating to see how different people evaluate the same group of players.

Granted, past results are not indicative of future performance. Jay Bruce, considered baseball’s top prospect after crushing three levels in 2007, became a two-time All-Star. Chris Valaika, meanwhile, couldn’t translate Minor League success into a consistent starting job.

With that in mind, Reds minor league guru Doug Gray issued his list with Robert Stephenson and Winker at the top. Michael Lorenzen ranks third with pitching prospect Nick Travieso and outfielder Yorman Rodriguez rounding out the top five. Travieso will likely start the season in Daytona, but he could easily join Pensacola in June if he puts together a strong campaign in the Florida State League.

The list evolved during the winter after a few transactions, but the Wahoos are still well-represented.

Other news and notes

>> Reds center fielder Billy Hamilton was named a Gold Glove finalist in his rookie season. Hamilton made the move to the outfield in late 2012, first in Pensacola batting practices and later in the Arizona Fall League. He undoubtedly had the athleticism to patrol the outfield but used his 2013 campaign in Louisville to learn the nuances of the position.

>> The Hardball Times did the math so we didn’t have to, and their findings are startling. Using Sportvision’s PITCHf/x system, they found the Major League strike zone has expanded by over 40 square inches in the last five seasons.

>> Three Wahoos, all pitchers, cracked Baseball America’s list of the top 20 Southern League prospects. Stephenson leads the group at No. 4, followed by Lorenzen (#12) and Ben Lively (#20). Cubs phenoms Kris Bryant and Addison Russell, a Pensacola native, topped the list.

>> Baseball America also attempted to quantify defensive ability behind the plate. Reds prospects fared well by their calculations, based primarily on passed balls and baserunners caught stealing. Tucker Barnhart ranked eighth in Triple-A, while brief Wahoos backstop Yovan Gonzalez is seventh among High-A catchers.

>> Pulling double-duty for Redleg Nation, Doug Gray evaluated 54 Minor League hitters to find what made them effective. Having a proportional strikeout-to-walk ratio is a good start.

>> Pedro Villarreal, the Wahoos’ 2012 Opening Day starter, fought back in 2014 after losing his 40-man roster spot. Mark Sheldon caught up with him to discuss his journey back to Cincinnati. He has been effective out of the bullpen, making 12 relief appearances after an Aug. 21 call-up.

News from under a rock: September

In his first season as a Minor League manager, Dick Schofield led the Billings Mustangs to a Pioneer League title.

In his first season as a Minor League manager, Dick Schofield led the Billings Mustangs to a Pioneer League title.

How do you summarize an offseason’s worth of news, long after it’s all been reported? Not gracefully, I’ll tell you that.

Last season, I crammed six months of headlines into 1,500 words at the expense of detail. Here’s a better option: one post a day to sum up every month since the final pitch of the 2014 season and ease you into the new year. By the time this blog is dusted off, March will be upon us and we’ll be back to relevant news. As always, you can follow the conversation in real-time on Twitter.

So if you were living under a rock in September, here’s what you missed.

For some, the show goes on

Shortly before his promotion, Yorman Rodriguez shifted to left field. Seven players made starts at the position for Cincinnati in 2014.

Shortly before his promotion to Cincinnati, Yorman Rodriguez shifted to left field.

Cincinnati’s second half included a few unforgettable nights for a handful of prospects.

Outfielder Yorman Rodriguez made his Major League debut on Sept. 4, starting in right field and grounding into a force out in his first at-bat. He recorded his first hit on Sept. 14 against Milwaukee.

In 11 games, Rodriguez batted .222 in 27 at-bats, including a .400 average on balls in play. His aggressive approach at the plate caught the eye of Reds manager Bryan Price, who used the call-up to gauge Rodriguez’s progress in development.

Southpaw Ryan Dennick, who pitched parts of two seasons in Pensacola, debuted on Sept. 2 and retired Caleb Joseph for his first strikeout.

Pitchers Carlos Contreras and Daniel Corcino, who saw limited time out of the bullpen in August, returned for tune-ups. Contreras was used primarily in late-inning relief, while Corcino made three starts and held opponents to a .197 average in September.

The trip to Great American Ball Park was not the year’s first for catcher Tucker Barnhart or outfielder Donald Lutz, who also earned promotions.

Read about Redus’ record

Billings is the backdrop of one of baseball’s unbreakable records, an accomplishment that hasn’t been remotely challenged in three decades.

Outfielder Gary Redus enjoyed modest success as a Major League journeyman, suiting up for five teams in his 13-year career. But his rookie campaign as a Mustang was his most noteworthy as Redus registered a .462 batting average in 1978.

Billings Gazette sports editor Jeff Welsch’s profile of Redus includes the moment when the young prospect realized how well he was hitting. This excerpt comes from a meeting between Redus and a calculator-wielding team official:

What, they wondered, must he do to ensure hitting .300? Given that he was well above an astonishing .400, they took another view: How many consecutive outs could he make and still stay above baseball’s gold standard? Twenty? Thirty? Perhaps even – gasp – Fifty?

The number crunching finally stopped at 100.

The actual number is 137, or roughly a month’s worth of games. Redus could have ended the season 0-for-39 and maintained an average above .400.

Speaking of the unthinkable, the Mustangs featured an in-game promotion that involved 15 minutes of free beer after home runs.

On the move

The upcoming Southern League season will be characterized by new scenery, starting with the Lookouts’ parent club.

Since 2007, the same 10 Major League teams had a presence in the league. That changes in April as Minnesota Twins prospects take the field for Chattanooga. Two of the Twins’ top prospects are slated to start in Double-A, including outfield phenom Byron Buxton.

The Dodgers, fixtures in the Southern League for the last 14 seasons, moved their affiliation to Tulsa, Okla.

On a side note, I’m curious to see how the uniforms reflect the affiliation change. The old threads included some Dodger influences, from blue script across the chest to red numbers on the front of the jersey.

After sending Reds prospects to Pensacola for three seasons, Bakersfield has signed a new PDC with the Seattle Mariners.

There’s no bad blood between the Reds and Blaze, but as the Mariners director of player development Chris Gwynn notes, the switch “produced a series of moves that made a lot of sense for Bakersfield, Cincinnati and Seattle.” Chief among them is proximity, at least between Sam Lynn Stadium and Safeco Field.

Blaze players will still advance to the Southern League, though the road now runs through Jackson, Tenn.

So prospects will move from Dayton to Daytona? No, that won’t be confusing at all.

This move is a smart one for the Reds, who can shuffle the deck without the hassle of cross-country travel. A hop, skip and jump on the interstate system is much less hectic than flights between both coasts.

If the need arises, new players can also join the Wahoos during road trips to Jacksonville. Pensacola will make treks to Bragan Field in May and August.

Other news and notes

>> Former Blue Wahoos hitting coach Dick Schofield coached Billings to a Pioneer League championship in his first year as a manager. The title is the Mustangs’ first since 2003 and ninth in 42 seasons as a Reds affiliate.

>> The Jacksonville Suns swept the Chattanooga Lookouts in three games to claim the Southern League crown, the South Division’s ninth in 10 seasons. Including the playoffs, Jacksonville won 16 of their last 17 games to close the season.

>> For the second consecutive season, Ray Sayre earned Groundskeeper of the Year honors. The Southern League’s managers and umpires decide the winner.

>> On the business side, Bill Vilona of the Pensacola News Journal cites the team’s success in the stands. The Wahoos will surpass 1 million fans in May.

>> Though Michael Lorenzen started 24 games for Pensacola in 2014, MLB.com columnist Bernie Pleskoff sees the former Cal State Fullerton closer as a reliever.

For Love of the Game: Ross Perez Proposes in Pensacola

Blue Wahoos catcher Ross Perez kisses his fiancee Smirna Flores after Friday's pregame proposal.

Blue Wahoos catcher Ross Perez kisses his fiancee Smirna Flores after Friday’s pregame proposal.

Ross Perez is enjoying a record season with the Blue Wahoos.

After winning out the starting job in May, the catcher caught fire at the plate to the tune of a .335 average over 71 games. From a franchise-best six RBI on June 13 to the longest hitting streak of his professional career, the Reds organizational newcomer has benefitted from the change of scenery. Ross Perez has loved Pensacola, and the city has loved him back.

Before Friday’s game, a player married to the game for nine years asked the love of his life to marry him. These photos tell a better story than I ever could:

Smirna Flores thought she was just throwing a ceremonial first pitch to her boyfriend. But Perez, who had a hidden ball in his glove, had other plans. Opening the modified ball to reveal an elaborate ring, he popped the question to thunderous applause and an enthusiastic yes.

Flores played matchmaker on May 19 when Perez was reunited with his father Santiago. It was the first time his father saw him play professionally. This time, the longtime couple shared the occasion with the Flores family, including his mother and aunt.

In a season of phenomenal numbers, the two top highlights of his year won’t be found in any record books. In fact, his personal-best 13-game hitting streak came to an end last night.

Now, Ross starts a far more important streak: the first day in blissful union with his fiancée.

Special thanks to team photographer Michael Spooneybarger for these unforgettable photos.

Mr. and Mrs. Perez

Bay-to-Bay Series Preview: Catching Up

After a promising start to July, everyone's scratching their heads at the Wahoos' recent slump.

After a promising start to July, everyone’s scratching their heads at the Wahoos’ recent slump.

With a bumper crop of prospects joining Pensacola just after the All-Star break, I hesitated to write series previews.

Nobody knew just what to expect from this group, which included a slew of All-Stars as well as the California League’s best hitter and top pitcher. The Southern League has a tendency to squash sky-high statistics after a stint in the hitter-friendly confines of Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn Ballpark. Nearly midway through the second half, the crew has settled in. It’s been a trial by fire in recent weeks, and it was a setback that was seemingly distant as the Wahoos took a two-game advantage over the Montgomery Biscuits. Pensacola (10-20, 41-59) dropped the next three games, and even a fresh slate against Jacksonville couldn’t shake the slump. Now with the first-place Mobile BayBears crossing the border for the Bay-to-Bay Series, the Fish are staring at a double-digit deficit in which every loss counts twice as much.

There are a few elements behind Pensacola’s skid, none of which can take the full blame for a 1-7 record since July 12. Hitting isn’t the biggest obstacle: The Wahoos’ eight-day clip of .239 (63-264) is below their season average of .250, but it’s hardly anemic. The issue on offense is literally hit or miss; the Wahoos have whiffed nearly one-fourth of the time, racking up 65 strikeouts during their slump. The Wahoos aren’t strangers to the basepaths, either. Maybe the more immediate issue is their abundance of baserunners with no place to go. Hitters have stranded 59 runners, including 13 in last night’s 5-2 tug-of-war loss. More than half of those left on base (30) were in scoring position when the third out was recorded. One hit or misplayed ball in that situation likely scores a run and changes the course of a game.

Starting pitchers have been haunted by a 3.98 earned run average, but all but three have pitched with a lead. The bullpen ERA, meanwhile, is 9.00 as relievers have surrendered 21 earned runs in as many innings. There have been some hidden gems, to be sure — Fabian Williamson had worked 12.2 consecutive innings without an earned run until Jacksonville struck last night — but in this game, the whole is greatest than the sum of its parts.

Then again, part of the struggle lies in the opponent. Jacksonville’s Austin Barnes, more pure hitter than power hitter, slugged three home runs against the Wahoos in 24 hours. That’s just the hand Pensacola drew. The Suns have given the Wahoos fits all season long, from come-from-behind victories to mandate wins like Thursday’s one-hit defeat. Much like Jacksonville, the incoming Mobile squad is aggressive. Even the best game plan falls short against a team that takes risks at the plate. Mobile slashed 20 hits on July 13 and struck out 20 times on Saturday (in a victorious effort, mind you).

Across the diamond, the BayBears (19-9, 61-36) are hot and getting hotter, working a six-game winning streak as they enter Pensacola. With their playoff tickets punched long ago, their .629 winning percentage is one of the best in Minor League Baseball. In fact, three teams in Arizona’s stacked system will go to the postseason. Mobile hasn’t fallen below .500 all season, and their race to first place in the second half is no exception. The BayBears are 6-2 since the last installment of the Bay-to-Bay Series, fresh off a series victory against Mississippi and a rain-shortened sweep of Chattanooga. During the streak, Mobile is batting .308 as a team thanks to a pair of the circuit’s top sluggers. Jake Lamb is the active lead leaguer with a .323 batting average and 52 extra-base hits, while Jon Griffin knocks a home run every 20.14 at-bats. Tom Belza has been a stronghold atop the lineup, batting .333 in his last two sets. The BayBears also benefit from an unforeseen boost to their rotation. Archie Bradley is serving a quasi-rehab assignment after an All-Star campaign in 2013, faring just as well in his last five games as he did in his award-winning season. The Wahoo slayer faces off against Michael Lorenzen on Friday.

Wins and losses can move Pensacola a full game in the standings for the next five days. With the surging M-Braves next on the Wahoos’ docket, the room for error is quickly vanishing. This 10-game push in the season’s final 40 matches will make or break Pensacola’s playoff chances.

RUNDOWN

2014: Mobile leads season series 7 games to 3
Next meeting: August 12-16 (Pensacola)

Wahoos/BayBears all-time game record: 22-35
Series record: 4-8-0

In Mobile: 12-22
In Pensacola: 10-13

Expected Starters
Monday: RHP Ben Lively (0-3, 4.38) vs. RHP Aaron Blair (0-0, –)
Tuesday: RHP Daniel Corcino (8-8, 4.36) vs. RHP Michael Lee (6-4, 4.14)
Wednesday: RHP Jon Moscot (5-9, 3.19) vs. RHP A.J. Schugel (4-1, 3.70)
Thursday: RHP Robert Stephenson (5-6, 3.84) vs. RHP Bradin Hagens (8-4, 3.95)
Friday: RHP Michael Lorenzen (4-5, 2.72) vs. RHP Archie Bradley (1-0, 1.78)

WHEN LAST THEY MET

Belza: 6-17 (.353; 2 2b, 2rbi, 3r, 1sb)
Borenstein: 4-15 (.267; 2 2b, rbi, 3r, 1sb)
Lamb: 3-17 (.235; 2 2b, hr, 4rbi, 3r)
Thomas: 3-10 (.300; 2hr, 4rbi, 3r)
Bradley: 0-0, 1.69 (5.1ip, 1er, 4h, 2bb, 3k)

Fun Fact: Outfielder Zach Borenstein made his Diamondbacks organizational debut against the Wahoos on July 5. Borenstein was one of two prospects shipped from the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for big leaguers Tony Campana and Joe Thatcher.

BAYBEAR TO WATCH

Aaron Blair, P
Bats: R       Throws: R

Ben Lively might be Minor League Baseball’s on-again, off-again strikeout king, but Aaron Blair is right behind him. Suiting up for his third team in 2014, Blair will pick up strikeout number 126 with Mobile.

Blair, like Lively, has risen to Double-A in just his second professional season. The Diamondbacks took the Marshall University standout with the 36th pick of last year’s draft, where he quickly pounded the strike zone. In just 30 games, Blair conquered Class A with a sinking fastball and deceptive offspeed offerings. Blair has a three-pitch arsenal, headlined by a low-90s fastball.

Opponents hit him hard in his last three starts, but base knocks are one of the few ways to reach against Blair. With just 35 walks in 108.0 innings, the right-hander doesn’t issue free passes often. Lively ran into trouble in his introduction to the Southern League, and Blair’s Double-A debut tonight will dictate whether the D-backs’ third-best prospect encounters the same rude welcome.

READ: Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” Speech

Lou Gehrig

New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig delivered his famous farewell speech 75 years ago this week. With his prolific career cut short by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), baseball’s Iron Horse issued a poignant address to a packed Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939:

Fans, for the past two weeks  you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky. Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert? Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow? To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins? Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy? Sure, I’m lucky.

When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift — that’s something. When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies — that’s something. When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter — that’s something. When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body — it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed — that’s the finest I know.

So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for. Thank you.

VIDEO: Jesse Winker Saves the Day

The Next Generation of Wahoos: Lively, Winker Take Center Stage

Pitching phenom Ben Lively is back home, and he brought the rest of Bakersfield with him.

Smile, Ben! You're back home.

Smile, Ben! You’re back home.

With a chance to shuffle the deck during the All-Star break, the Reds organization sent their top prospects through the pipeline. Lively is one of seven players who made the jump to Pensacola, six of whom made their Double-A debuts this homestand. Though the Wahoos lost four players and some of their best bats to Louisville, an incoming cast bubbling with promise carries the credentials to back up their prospect status. Four of MLB.com’s five top-rated Reds prospects will start the second half in the Southern League, and the collective résumé includes three California League All-Stars, a Home Run Derby champion, and the reigning Reds Minor League Player of the Year. In a three-part series, we’ll meet the new Wahoos, starting with a pair of Cincinnati’s most prized prospects.

Ben Lively

Lively will become the first Pensacola-area player to don a Blue Wahoos uniform when he starts today. The pride of Gulf Breeze High School was a three-sport athlete who followed his heart to the University of Central Florida. The high school standout was drafted by Cleveland in the 2010 draft but wisely chose college ball instead. Three years at UCF helped him master his four-pitch arsenal and turned the Indians’ 26th-round selection into an eventual fourth-round pick by the Reds. Lively won consecutive All-Conference USA Second Team honors and left his fingerprints all over the Knights’ record books. His 3.06 earned run average ranks fourth in school history, while his 21 wins and 226 strikeouts both pull seventh.

He jumped feet-first into Billings, the short-season affiliate, and didn’t surrender an earned run in his first seven starts. Lively was dealt three hard-luck losses due to the nature of a Pioneer League start — he only exceeded three innings once — but collected with All-Star honors before a cup of coffee with Dayton. Despite a winless record, opponents hit just .161 against him and didn’t manage more than four hits in a start.

He got off to a hot start in Bakersfield this season, picking up back-to-back Pitcher of the Week awards and earning the Pitching Prospect of the Month tag from MLBPipeline.com. As he quickly racked up strikeouts, comparisons to former Wahoos ace Tony Cingrani were forthcoming. Lively raced out to six straight victories and scattered only one earned run in April. Winning 10 of 13 decisions, his only loss came on the other end of a no-hitter; the Lancaster JetHawks managed only one run on four hits, but the Blaze offense couldn’t support another quality start.

California League hitters seemed to have cracked the code against Lively in his last few starts, collecting more hits and consequently more runs against the righty. Chalk it up to control issues on his offspeed pitches, which are his bread and butter for strike one. Lively then brings the heat to complete the strikeout. He ranks third in the Minor Leagues with 95 whiffs and leads the organization.

Even with his ERA bruised at the end of the half, Lively’s numbers are still phenomenal. He is the only 10-game winner in Minor League Baseball thus far, and he baffled the Carolina League’s best hitters with two perfect innings in the All-Star Game. Run support will be crucial for Lively, who received an average of 7.6 runs per game in the hitter-friendly circuit. With the heart of his Blaze lineup joining him, run production could catch up down the road.

Jesse Winker

Winker was the supplemental first-round pick of Cincinnati two seasons ago, and it hasn’t taken long for the high-school selection to make an impact. Hitting .338 in his 2012 campaign, his postseason awards included a nod from MiLB.com and prestigious Topps/Minor League Baseball All-Star honors at the rookie level. The left fielder also ranked among Pioneer League leaders with a circuit-best .443 on-base percentage while finishing in a tie for the second-best batting average.

Chris Berset and Jesse Winker celebrate after the Wahoos walk off 4-3 on Sunday.

Chris Berset and Jesse Winker celebrate after the Wahoos walk off 4-3 on Sunday.

He stepped up to Low-A Dayton next season and let his bat do the talking. To make a long story short, the prospect knocked as many home runs as Reds slugger Jay Bruce did as a Dragon, but in fewer games. Bruce has since been named a Silver Slugger winner and two-time All-Star, and Winker is on a similar trajectory. He was twice named the Dragons Hitter of the Month and earned a start in his first All-Star game after a fantastic May. Winker hit .323 with 10 extra-base hits and 24 runs batted in, also collecting the Reds Minor League Player of the Month honor.

In all, the Reds Minor League Hitter of the Year led the Dragons in five offensive categories and ranked among the organizational leaders in batting average (.281, 4th), home runs (16, 5th), and RBI (76, 4th). Two years younger than the Midwest League average, Winker quickly adjusted and boasted strike-zone discipline that exceeds his years. Winker has been rated by Baseball America as the best power hitter in the organization, as well as the most disciplined at the plate.

Winker is a two-time Home Run Derby winner, claiming the California League title in a literal opposite-field challenge. He took pitches near the warning track in center field and belted them towards the grandstands behind home plate. “It was just a different look,” Winker told MiLB.com. “Once you kind of get in your groove, it’s the same. But the dimensions were a little different, so it wasn’t as much of like a pull home run derby, you know, because it was kind of up the middle. They wanted to get ‘em up to the bleachers.” He did just that, sending five skyward to win the Derby.

Reds director of player development Jeff Graupe has plenty of praise for Winker, who was named an Organizational All-Star by MiLB:

Jesse has a very advanced feel for hitting for such a young man. He takes quality at-bats, he’s not afraid to hit with two strikes, very selective. He put together a very nice year [last season]. Defensively, he showed a lot of improvements. He’s another quality young man who’s good on a team.

Graupe’s latest assessment hasn’t changed, giving credit to his presence on the basepaths:

We saw this from Day 1, that he’s an advanced professional hitter with a great approach. He drives the ball to all fields while still hitting for a high average. He’s improved a ton defensively, runs the bases well and gets the most out of his athleticism. He’s been fun to watch.

Out in Bakersfield, the do-it-all Dan Besbris — he’s an assistant GM as well as the team’s radio personality — has seen Winker close-up. “He loves to compete, and he loves to win,” he said of the Bakersfield All-Star, who was among league leaders in every major offensive category. Winker was second among full-season Reds farmhands with a .317 average and ranked eighth in the circuit, fueled by a record night less than a week before his promotion. 21 of his 56 games were multi-hit efforts, including a perfect three-hit night on June 11. Winker drove in a career-high six runs and knocked two home runs, but more impressive than those numbers is the fact that he had accomplished both feats already. It was Winker’s fifth game with four RBI or more and his second two-homer night.

At 20 years, 10 months, and 2 days, Jesse Winker is the third-youngest player to make his Blue Wahoos debut. He swings with purpose and may have found his groove in left field. His glove is underlooked in comparison to his bat, but he’s been flashing the leather early and often in Pensacola.

VIDEO: Carlos Contreras Records First Major League Strikeout

All-Star Recap: South Division Staves Off Late Rally, Wins 6-4 in Chattanooga

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – It’s officially a winning streak for the Southern League South Division, who rode 14 hits to their third straight All-Star victory on Tuesday night. That win belongs to Blue Wahoos pitcher Michael Lorenzen, who dealt a scoreless second inning in the South’s 6-4 triumph.

Michael Lorenzen picked up the All-Star win, pitching out of trouble in the second inning and stranding three runners.

Michael Lorenzen picked up the All-Star win, pitching out of trouble in the second inning and stranding three runners.

With runners crossing the plate early and often, the North Division challengers were quickly overwhelmed. Every peg in the lineup recorded a hit, and only Yorman Rodriguez was held off the basepaths for the South. The Wahoos outfielder was a late substitution in left field and was robbed of extra bases in his only at-bat of the night. The North didn’t go quietly into the night, smacking 12 hits in a losing effort and scoring two runs in their final at-bat. Lookouts infielder O’Koyea Dickson slammed a two-out home run in his home ballpark and the North had the potential tying run at the plate before Mississippi’s James Hoyt induced a groundout.

The midsummer classic was fraught with drama far before its thrilling conclusion. After the two teams traded zeroes across two scoreless innings, top pitching gave way to the league’s heavy hitters. Mississippi’s Mycal Jones opened scoring with a solo home run in the third inning, and Rey Navarro added another tally on a two-out RBI single. The inning came to a close when Mobile’s Jon Griffin tried to leg out two bases but slid into a tag at third base. The South extended their lead in the fourth with two runs on a pair of extra-base hits, two of eight total during the game. The offensive production was the highest in an All-Star match since 2006, signaling a return to the slugfests of years past. The squads combined for 24 hits in the 2007 game but exceeded the mark tonight.

The North found the scoreboard against Wahoos ace Robert Stephenson, producing a run on a stolen base and situational hitting. Stephenson, who ranks second in the league with 73 strikeouts, coerced a swing and miss out of Chattanooga’s Scott Schebler. The Reds’ top prospect was one of only a few pitchers to contain the left fielder, who knocked a home run and reached base three times.

Biscuits right fielder Taylor Motter was named Most Valuable Player, finishing 3-for-3 with a home run, two runs batted in, and a run of his own. Steve Selsky took his place in the sixth inning and picked up where the Montgomery outfielder left off, collecting a single in his first All-Star appearance. Designated hitter Navarro finished with a pair of singles and drove in a run, one of five All-Stars with multiple hits. Both Navarro and Selsky will be absent from Pensacola when the second half starts, rather packing their bags for Triple-A Louisville after earning promotions earlier today.

The Blue Wahoos return to action on Thursday night as the Huntsville Stars come to town for a five-game homestand. The series kicks off on Thirsty Thursday, presented by Seville Quarter, with drink specials available all night long as part of the Wahoo Waddle. First pitch is tabbed for 6:30 p.m. with gates opening at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are still available all series long at BlueWahoos.com or by calling (850) 934-8444.

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