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Pitching headlines Reds' prospect pipeline

The process of developing talent in professional baseball is vastly different than in other major American sports such as basketball or football. Most of the players taken in the First-Year Player Draft last week likely won't play at the Major League level for a few years, and many will opt to forgo the pros for now to play in college.

Once the Draft ends and the players who want to sign eventually do, Reds director of player development Jeff Graupe, along with his staff and scouts, is in charge of guiding and evaluating the club's Minor League talent.

And according to Graupe, there's plenty of talent to work with in the Cincinnati organization.

"I really tip my cap to our scouting department," Graupe said. "They've done a tremendous job. They just finished up the Draft, obviously, and I know they feel good about that. I'm excited to see another class of players. They've done an extremely good job, and it's been a lot of fun to work with them."

While it's impossible to fully evaluate the 2013 draftees just days after they were selected, plenty of selections from recent years have begun to set themselves apart from the rest.

Two pitchers in particular from the 2011 Draft have stuck out to Graupe, including one who already has had his first taste of the Majors.

Tony Cingrani -- rated the Reds' No. 3 prospect by -- climbed up the Minor League ranks quickly after being taken in the third round in 2011. After spending time at the Class A advanced and Double-A levels last year, Cingrani started 2013 with Triple-A Louisville. Shortly after, he was called up to the big leagues in place of the injured Johnny Cueto and did not disappoint. In six starts, the 23-year-old left-hander went 2-0 with a 3.27 ERA. With Cueto hurt again, Cingrani was back in the Majors for Tuesday's game against the Cubs.

Cincinnati's first-round pick in 2011, right-hander Robert Stephenson could follow a similar path, Graupe said. Unlike Cingrani, who played in the Rookie League in 2011, Stephenson didn't get started until 2012. In his first full season with Class A Dayton this year, Stephenson has gone 5-3 with a 2.97 ERA. Most impressively, the Reds' No. 2 prospect struck out 85 batters while walking just 17 in 66 2/3 innings.

"I think Robert Stephenson is going to be right up there with the top Minor League arms at the end of the year," Graupe said. "He's been 96-100 [mph] all spring with two secondary offerings, and he's been striking out guys at an impressive clip without walking anybody, so he's doing a good job of being efficient in the zone with power stuff."

Pitching is one of the strengths of Cincinnati's farm system, but Graupe said the Reds also boast a number of athletes in the Minor Leagues. None have made a bigger impression than the club's No. 1 prospect, Billy Hamilton.

Hamilton -- a 2009 second-round pick -- caught everyone's attention last year when he stole a professional record 155 bases. Starting last fall, he made the move from shortstop to center field, and it's paying dividends so far.

"Defensively, he's been off the charts," Graupe said. "When talking to our Triple-A staff, all they can comment on is how other teams have been impressed, which I think is a great barometer for a player's success. He's done a great job of taking away extra-base hits, and his bat has been developing this year. He got off to a rough start, but he's fought his way back, and I'm excited for what the second half will bring him."

Through 58 games this season, Hamilton was batting .246 with 19 RBIs and 33 stolen bases. He has drawn 24 walks, and Graupe said he's persevered through hitting slumps at every level before finally taking off.

Graupe pointed to two outfielders in Dayton -- 57th overall pick in 2012, Jeff Gelalich, and international free agent Junior Arias -- as other athletes to keep an eye on in the future.

That Class A outfield in Dayton is a formidable one, with the 49th overall pick form last season, Jesse Winker, also playing for the Dragons. Winker came in with a reputation as a pure hitter, and he hasn't disappointed. In 55 games this season, the 19-year-old has hit .307 with 40 RBIs, 37 runs scored and 34 walks.

"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," Graupe said. "For such a young guy, [Winker] has had an advanced approach that's been impressive to see."

With most prospects, it takes years to reach the highest level of baseball, and various factors can determine the exact time period. Neftali Soto was taken in the third round by the Reds in 2007, and by '11 he was with Triple-A Louisville, where he's been ever since. The biggest problem for Soto is that he made what appeared to be a permanent move to first base in 2010, and Cincinnati already has a pretty talented player there in Joey Votto.

In his third season with the Bats, though, Soto has played at third base in 30 out of his 53 games, committing six errors at the hot corner.

"It's one of those things that started as an experiment, and Neftali did a great job of buying in and dedicating himself to it," Graupe said of Soto's move to third, where he played 96 games in 2009. "He's now to the point where he's playing an average Major League third base, which is only going to give him more and more options for potential playing time in the future. I've been very impressed, not only with how he's played it, but how he's committed himself to it."

As the the Reds prepare their prospects for what they hope are successful careers in the Majors, Graupe said each player needs to be treated differently. And although fans often want to see immediate results, patience is a must.

"[Reds senior director of amateur scouting] Chris Buckley always says that timing is key with a lot of these guys," Graupe said. "It's important to know when to coddle a guy and when to push a guy. I think it's important to be patient enough to let the guy see the league they're in a few times and see what adjustments they're going to make to a player. This whole game is about adjusting and having people adjust back to you and see you react. It's important to learn how to do that."

Jeremy Warnemuende is an associate reporter for

Cincinnati Reds