If you ask Minor League director Jeff Graupe which of the Reds' recent Draft picks have progressed most rapidly, he doesn't hesitate with his answer: Michael Lorenzen and Jesse Winker.
Lorenzen was the Reds' first-round selection (38th overall) in the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, and he has already made his way to Double-A Pensacola. This season, the 6-foot-3, 195-pound right-hander has posted a 2.41 ERA in 13 starts for the Blue Wahoos. Lorenzen has a fastball that can reach the upper 90s with movement, a decent breaking ball and a changeup that he hasn't used much, but could become a larger part of his repertoire
After being drafted, Lorenzen -- who was a center fielder and closer in college -- was used primarily as a reliever, making 21 of his 22 appearances prior to this season out of the bullpen. But since becoming a starter, he has excelled and could find himself on the mound at Great American Ball Park by the 2016 campaign.
"I think Michael, with the transition to the starting rotation, taking on a whole new challenge and really embracing it, he's done an incredible job," Graupe said.
Scouting director Chris Buckley agreed, also naming Lorenzen as the prospect who has made the most progress in the shortest amount of time.
"Lorenzen, how well he's taken to pitching every fifth day, that's part of the reason we took him," Buckley said. "We thought he could do that."
Meanwhile, Winker, Cincinnati's first-round pick at No. 49 overall in 2012, has been turning heads as well. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound outfielder is hitting .318 with 12 home runs and 48 RBIs in 201 at-bats so far this season for Class A Advanced Bakersfield. A powerful left-handed hitter with a smooth swing, Winker hit more home runs in fewer games at Class A Dayton last season than Jay Bruce did while there in 2006.
"We saw this from Day 1, that he's an advanced professional hitter with a great approach," Graupe said. "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."
Lorenzen and Winker, who could be in the Majors as soon as next season if he continues to perform well, have both catapulted themselves to the forefront of the prospects to watch in the Reds' farm system. It's a system filled with several recent Draft picks that could become impact performers at the next level in the years to come.
"Both guys are relatively young, still, both age-wise and professionally," Graupe said. "They've handled challenges and been pushed at advanced levels, and they responded to every challenge."
Graupe noted how adversity at a young age and in the Minor Leagues is very important for prospects to face. And there are a couple other recent Reds Draft selections who have had their share of challenges and are responding well.
One of those prospects is outfielder Phil Ervin, another first-round selection by Cincinnati in 2013 (27th overall). He is projected to join the Reds as soon as next season. In rookie ball with Billings last year, Ervin hit .326 with eight home runs, 29 RBIs and 12 stolen bases in 34 games before being promoted to Class A Dayton, where he hit .349 (15-for-43) in 12 games. He's struggled so far with Dayton this season, however, batting .227 in 62 games.
"I think it's challenging to be a first-rounder at times, and as backwards as that may sound and seem, there's a lot of emphasis and desire to show everyone how good you are from Day 1," Graupe said. "And I think [Ervin] mentioned that himself. I think he's obviously an extremely talented player. We all have all the faith in the world in him, and I think relaxing and just playing the game the way he always has is going to be what's key for him for bouncing back."
Another prospect who has faced some adversity is right-hander Robert Stephenson, Cincinnati's first-round selection (27th overall) in 2011. He is currently 3-5 with a 3.49 ERA for Double-A Pensacola and could be with the Reds as soon as next season.
The 6-foot-3, 195-pound Stephenson is ranked No. 1 on the Reds' Top 20 Prospects list. He has a fastball that can touch 100 mph and has both a breaking ball and a changeup that have the potential to be better than average at the Major League level.
"Robert, kind of going back to what we were talking about with adversity, he got off to a slow start this year for a handful of starts," Graupe said. "And since then, he has really settled in nicely at Double-A. And I think that level has been really good the last few years. The Southern League is very talented. It's a good challenge for a young guy, and it's enabled him to kind of hone his own skills and compete effectively."
Carlos Contreras, Cincinnati's second-round selection (78th overall) in 2012, is projected to reach the Majors as soon as later this season, if all goes well. The right-hander is 1-1 with a 3.45 ERA in six appearances (three starts) at Double-A this season. He featured a 92- to 95-mph fastball as a starter, which reached the upper 90s out of the bullpen, and he has an excellent changeup. Though Contreras has been utilized both as a starter and a reliever, Graupe sees a specific fit in one of those roles at the big league level.
"During his time as a starting pitcher, he's really been able to develop his curveball and changeup to where they're pitches he's a lot more comfortable with," Graupe said. "We are going to transition him back into the bullpen. We think it's a role he can be successful in and successful in really quickly. So I think that's something to look for in the second half."
The Reds have been successful in developing prospects and establishing them at the Major League level in recent years, with names like Todd Frazier, Zack Cozart, Devin Mesoraco and Mike Leake becoming embedded in the fabric of Cincinnati baseball.
The next wave of talent is not far off, and that wave could very well add Lorenzen, Winker, Ervin, Stephenson and Contreras to the list.
Manny Randhawa is an associate reporter for MLB.com.