Reds prospect Winker has swing that sings
Outfielder developing into more than a pure hitter with guidance in Dayton
CINCINNATI -- Last month, the Class A Dayton Dragons were locked in a tie game with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers heading into the bottom of the ninth. The inning started with a groundout and a flyout, leaving it up to left fielder Jesse Winker to avoid extra innings.
Winker's day began with a strikeout in the first, and he later flew out twice to left field. But with the game on the line and the first eight innings behind him, Winker stepped to the plate and, after watching two pitches miss the strike zone, drilled a no-doubt home run to right field for the walk-off win.
Since the Reds selected Winker with the 49th pick of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, his swing has been praised by most everyone who's had the pleasure of seeing it in action. It's specific moments like the one Winker delivered on that mid-July night in Dayton, though, that makes Dragons manager Jose Nieves believe the young Reds prospect has a bright future.
"You'll see it in clutch situations," Nieves said. "I think that is the thermometer that separates one kid that hits a lot with nobody on when there is no pressure from someone who is capable of doing good things when there is a key situation, clutch situations, situations with pressure. That's where he's been at his best."
Winker, who is ranked fifth among Reds prospects by MLB.com, doesn't turn 20 years old until later this month, but he's already busy making a name for himself in Dayton. Following his 100th game of the year on Sunday, Winker was batting .283 with a team-leading 14 home runs and 70 RBIs in his first season at the Class A level. In June, he was selected to play in the Midwest League All-Star Game and participate in the Home Run Derby, which he helped the East team win with 10 dingers -- five more than anyone else.
Playing baseball for a living has been a dream in the works since Winker was 3 years old. His mom and dad, who now run a baseball warehouse started by former Major League All-Star Dante Bichette in Orlando, Fla., spent Winker's younger years driving him across the country for tournaments. When they weren't traveling, Winker would take batting practice from his dad in the family's backyard cage.
That's where the foundation of Winker's effortless swing was laid, and that work has paid off everywhere he's been. At Olympia High School in Orlando, he batted .488 with 19 extra-base hits during his senior season and fell just short of leading the team to a state title. Not long after, Winker was drafted by the Reds and sent to play for the club's Rookie League team in Billings. There, he hit five home runs and drove in 35 RBIs in 62 games, to go with his .338/.443/.500 slash line.
"It's always something I've taken a lot of pride in, is hitting," Winker said. "I just work really hard at it. I don't think anyone has the perfect swing; everyone has something to work on in all aspects of their game. I just try to put a good swing on the ball, and I'm glad people like it."
With Dayton this season, Winker said he's adjusted to the speed of the game after signing immediately out of high school, and that has led to his increase in power. He also said he's been focusing on improving his approach, which didn't need as much work as most players in their first full year of pro ball.
"It takes a lot of time and focus for a young hitter to learn not only the strike zone, but his own strike zone -- what he can do damage with and which pitches he's better off taking," Reds director of player development Jeff Graupe said. "For such a young guy, [Winker] has had an advanced approach that's been impressive to see."
Like any 19-year-old, Winker is still maturing -- not just as baseball player, but as a person. Nieves said his most important job when working with Winker and other young players is to keep them in a positive mental state. Sometimes, a tough night at the plate or in the field can get Winker down, and Nieves has to emphasize that even the greats fail most of the time and that perfection is not the end goal.
"It's natural," Nieves said. "You're going to have ups and downs. He's been having some times when we need to be on him, but this game is pretty much 80 percent mental and the rest physical. When those times of failure come, the most important thing is how you react after those bad days and how you come back."
To deal with struggles and anything else he might need to discuss, Winker often goes to his older brother, Joe, who was drafted out of Mercer University by the Dodgers in 2011. Although Joe retired from baseball earlier this summer, his experiences and advice have made life easier on his younger brother.
One thing Winker hasn't been afraid to do is seek guidance from those who have been there before. When Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto and outfielders Chris Heisey and Ryan Ludwick were on rehab assignments with Dayton this season, Winker took the opportunity to pick their brains about how to attack pitches and play in the field. In Spring Training, he talked to Jay Bruce, whom Winker has been compared to often because of their swings and fresh-face appearances at 19 years old.
"Sometimes I would just sit there and watch and learn," Winker said. "It was really cool to hear their perspective on hitting, and hopefully one day I can be up there with them."
Winker still has some time left before reaching the Majors. To make up for his lack of natural top-end speed, he's had to learn how to use angles and pick up the ball as quickly as possible off the bat, and Nieves said he continues to improve in that regard. Winker also has had to figure out the best way to get through 140 games without burning out after playing 30-game seasons in high school.
But Winker loves every single second. Having never pictured himself doing anything other than playing baseball, he's embraced everything that comes along with it -- all the way down to the travel accommodations.
"I love it," Winker said. "I love hopping on the bus and traveling with the team. It's a blast. I don't think about it anymore as, 'Man, a seven-hour bus ride.' You kind of appreciate it, take the downtime when you can and just get your mind right.
"Really, just every day when you wake up, you realize this is awesome. I get to come here and play baseball. It's a dream come true. I'm very thankful for the opportunity, and it's just been an honor, really."