One first-rounder has barely pitched because he’s coming back from Tommy John surgery. Another first-rounder hasn’t logged many innings because of the shutdown. Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo are about as different as pitchers can be, but one thing they share in common is the excitement surrounding them as they prepare for a return to competitive pitching.
Greene is well-known, of course, for his premium velocity. He was, after all, hitting triple-digits in high school before he was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2017 Draft. Then there was the Futures Game performance which featured several fastballs over 100 mph. An elbow strain in the second half led to TJ surgery, which kept him off the mound for all of 2019. The Reds' No. 2 prospect (MLB Pipeline's No. 62 overall) did return to throw well at the club’s alternate training site last year and this spring, and as he gets ready to throw his first competitive pitches in almost three years, he’s carried it over.
“He’s really grown,” Reds farm director Shawn Pender said. "First of all, he’s throwing up to 104 mph. Second, his fastball command has really improved, in particular when he goes up in the zone. His secondary pitches, his breaking ball has gotten more consistent, which is what a starter needs. His changeup has also gotten better.
“The thing that’s really stood out to me is his overall maturity. He’s looked like someone who isn’t 21. He’s always carried himself well, but he’s stood out because of that.”
Lodolo, the club’s top pick in 2019, has amassed just 18 1/3 professional innings from the summer after he signed. So while the Reds' No. 1 prospect (No. 51 overall) got work in at the alternate site last year, this is really his first full pro season. And it sounds like he’s ready to hit the ground running, looking to fulfill his promise as an advanced college lefty who should be ready for Cincinnati sooner rather than later.
“He threw Sunday and it’s the best I’ve seen him as a Red,” Pender said of Lodolo’s outing with the Double-A group. “He went four innings and had a bunch of punchouts, using the changeup more. His fastball life was good and his slider has really good depth and gotten even better since big league Spring Training.”
It’s not just the arms who have impressed this spring, though Pender was quick to highlight the premium velocity of guys like Joe Boyle and Christian Roa, both 2020 draftees, and 2019 draftee Graham Ashcraft. Much of the overall talent in the system will be at the A levels, in Daytona (Low-A) and Dayton (High-A). The offensive firepower likely to be in Daytona could be a lot of fun to watch, with the possibility of 2019 draftees like Rece Hinds and Tyler Callihan being joined by 2020 first-rounder Austin Hendrick and 2017 international signee Allan Cerda.
“That team will be pretty stacked,” Pender said, mentioning those two young outfielders, Hendrick and Cerda, as really standing out this spring, along with lesser-known hitters like catcher Daniel Vellojin, who’ll be making his United States debut this year. “Cerda has looked really good, with a considerable increase in his power. He’s always had raw power, but it’s really started to play with better at-bats and an improved approach. He can run and we’re going to play him in center field.”
Hendrick will play alongside him in one corner. He’s already showing some of the offensive ability that made him the No. 12 overall pick in last year’s Draft while continuing to hone other parts of his game.
“The bat is something that’s going to play,” Pender said. “There are some pitch selection issues, though there hasn’t been a lot of swing and miss. At the plate, he hits the ball like a man.
“There are things he has to learn. His defense and arm are going to be solid, but he’s still a little raw with his defense and baserunning.”
Alternate training site update
Vladimir Gutierrez might finally be showing what the fuss was all about. The Cuban defector signed for $4.75 million back in September 2016, and while his stuff has always been good, the performance hasn’t always been. Add in a suspension for taking a performance enhancer last year and there were a lot of question marks surrounding the 25-year-old right-hander.
But he’s answered them, first pitching well in big league camp and now at the Reds’ alternate training site in Louisville as his official suspension has ended.
“He’s always had stuff, but he’s more consistent with his velocity, the curveball has improved, the changeup is average, but he’s been willing to use it,” Pender said. “More than anything, he’s been in attack mode and I didn’t always see that before. He’s much more assertive and aggressive and that’s helped him.”
Prospect we’ll be talking about in 2022
The big arms mentioned above might get most of the attention, but chances are, people will be talking about Eduardo Salazar in the future. Signed for just $10,000 in March 2017, the soon-to-be 23-year-old pitched solidly, though unspectacularly, during his full-season debut in 2019. He showed up this spring looking like he’s ready to make a big step forward.
“We always liked him, but he’s more physical,” Pender said, adding that all three of Salazar’s offering now show signs of being above-average. “There’s better finish. He’s come back with significant improvement. All of our reports have him in as a No. 4 starting pitcher based on how he’s thrown here.”
In the Dominican Republic
The Reds gave a pair of top international prospects seven-figure bonuses when the delayed 2020-21 signing period opened in mid-January. Both Ariel Almonte and Malvin Valdez are in the Top 30 and both are already showing off their tools at the Reds’ academy in the Dominican.
Valdez has been showing off his easily plus speed (he’s run a 6.5-second 60-yard dash), an above-average arm and showing that he has the chance to provide a power-speed combination as a center fielder. Almonte is more of a bat-first guy who’ll fit nicely in right field, but it’s a bat that produces power to all fields and very good plate discipline and pitch recognition for a hitter his age.
Additionally, Carlos Jorge, an infielder signed for $495,000, has shown gap-to-gap pop, though he can get a little pull happy. He’s small, but strong with good speed, profiling best as a second baseman. And Leonardo Balcazar ($100,000) has also stood out with his hands, feet and defensive actions. He has enough arm to stay at shortstop and has displayed a good feel for the barrel.