Other Reds prospects have used the game as a springboard to bigs
MINNEAPOLIS -- As Reds prospects Robert Stephenson and Jesse Winker were preparing themselves for the Sirius-XM All-Star Futures Game on Sunday, both were keenly aware of what being part of the exhibition implied.
If things continue to progress well, they could be in the Major Leagues -- perhaps sooner rather than later. The recent history of Reds prospects who played in the game should provide added optimism.
Joey Votto and Homer Bailey played in the Futures game in 2006 and debuted in the Majors for Cincinnati by 2007. Jay Bruce played the game in 2007 and was in the big leagues by 2008. Devin Mesoraco was a participant in 2011 and with the Reds by 2012. Billy Hamilton was a two-time Futures Game player in 2012-13 and a September callup last season and an everyday player this season.
"Just to think about playing with those guys one day. That just gives you goosebumps," said Winker, an outfielder at Double-A Pensacola. "I know they've all been in this game. It's really cool to come up behind them and get to continue being among the Reds' guys who get to play in the game.
"Once I got the call, I was fired up. It's something that I've always wanted to do. I watched Billy do it the last two years."
Stephenson, the Reds' No. 1 prospect according to MLB.com, was the organization's first-round Draft pick in 2011 (27th overall). He's pitched this season for Pensacola. Winker, a 2012 supplemental first-round pick, is listed as MLB.com's No. 3 prospect in the organization.
"It's awesome," Stephenson said of playing in the game. "I'm trying to look around and soak it all in right now. It's pretty cool. I was really honored."
Winker started the Futures Game in left field, batting seventh, and went 1-for-2. Leading off the bottom of the third, he lined a double off of the left-field wall and scored the game's first run. In the fourth, Winker flied out to left field and he exited after five innings.
Stephenson pitched a scoreless eighth inning, allowing one hit -- a lined leadoff single by Dalton Pompey -- and recording one strikeout. Of his 11 pitches, eight were strikes and he topped 98 miles per hour on the radar.
What they've learned
Stephenson, 21, has a power right arm that can bring fastballs up to 99 mph, and is learning to deal with adversity on the mound for the first time. The results haven't come as easy in Double-A this season, where he is 4-6 with a 3.97 ERA in 18 games, including 17 starts. He has allowed 74 hits, 48 walks, while registering 93 strikeouts and a 1.31 WHIP over 93 innings thus far.
"Probably the best part of it has actually been the struggles and trying to learn from it," Stephenson said. "I'm learning from my mistakes and trying to get better. I think I've made a lot of improvements this year and I'm still working to get better."
Lacking command of the strike zone, Stephenson feels, has been his primary issue. He's leaving pitches where they can be hit more often.
"The ability to react to adversity and make an adjustment and come out of it with positive results is something we really enjoy seeing," Reds Minor League director Jeff Graupe said in late May. "While you hope each guy breezes through and never struggles, there is something positive about having some tough times and coming out the other end better."
Winker, a lefty hitter who turns 21 in August, has primarily played left field this season for Class A Bakersfield (53 games) and Pensacola (20 games). He's batting .213/.326/.360 with two homers and eight RBIs at Double-A thus far, after he hit .317/.426/.580 in high-A ball.
"I've done very well this year, I think, not just offensively but defensively," Winker said. "I was labeled early as a guy that didn't play good defense and I took that hard. I know I can play, especially good defense. I wanted to prove [something] to get rid of that label. I've also progressed on the bases and in the box."
Perhaps something you did not know
While he attended Alhambra High School in Martinez, Calif., Stephenson became interested in woodworking and became a sort-of-craftsman.
"I haven't done it in a while. I'd like to get back into it when I get a chance," Stephenson said. "I made some tables, jewelry boxes and a couple of other little things."
Winker grew up in Orlando, Fla., but is a diehard hockey fan and a football fan of the Buffalo Bills. The Bills? Really?
"I was born in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and moved when I was seven," Winker said. "I've gone back and visited my family quite a few times. We go back about every other year. It's a great spot."
How the future looks
Stephenson has a potential shot of being a September callup this season and could be in the big league rotation within the next two seasons. Current starters Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Mike Leake can all be free agents after the 2015 season. Cueto has a $10 million option for next season that seems a good bet to be picked up.
Winker isn't expected to be part of the Reds' unsettled left-field situation this season. One of the current left fielders, Ryan Ludwick, has a $9 million mutual option for 2015. The other corner outfielder, Bruce in right field, can't be a free agent until 2017.