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Former top picks need breakout year to kick Cincinnati's rebuild into gear

It’s a make-or-break 2017 for several top draftees.

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The 2012 season easily marks the high water point of Cincinnati Reds success over the last 20 years. The team won 97 regular season games, finally won a pair of playoff games, and were an ill-timed Johnny Cueto injury away from potentially making a deep playoff run.

The results of that year are fun to look at now, and will be fun to look back on for the rest of this franchise’s history. Today, though, it’s a look at how that team got to 97 wins that may be of more pertinence, since it was a model of how a franchise of any market size could cost-effectively climb to the top of a division.

In short? It’s the top of the MLB Draft, a place where the Reds could once claim a success rate as impressive as any in the game.

The 2012 juggernaut was really the culmination of a decade of draft prowess, one that didn’t just produce top players - it produced them with similar maturation dates. Beginning with Joey Votto being taken in the 2nd round in 2002, the Reds enjoyed a run of productivity with their picks rivaled only by the 1965-1969 stretch that produced Johnny Bench, Bernie Carbo, Gary Nolan, Milt Wilcox, and Don Gullett.

Homer Bailey (2004 - 1st), Jay Bruce (2005 - 1st), Travis Wood (2005 - 2nd), Drew Stubbs (2006 - 1st), Devin Mesoraco (2007 - 1st), Todd Frazier (2007 - 1st), Zack Cozart (2007 - 2nd), Yonder Alonso (2008 - 1st), Zach Stewart (2008 - 3rd), Mike Leake (2009 - 1st), Brad Boxberger (2009 - 1st), Billy Hamilton (2009 - 2nd), and Yasmani Grandal (2010 - 1st) represent the best of that crop. Unsurprisingly, the 2012 club featured contributions from all of them but Hamilton, either on the field every day in a Cincinnati uniform or from the fruits of the trades that included them. Wood begat Sean Marshall: Stewart helped land Scott Rolen; Boxberger, Alonso, and Grandal brought in Mat Latos; and the rest helped form the everyday core of the team from day one - complemented by other draftees and signees like Ryan Hanigan, Sam LeCure, and Johnny Cueto.

As Cincinnati’s current rebuild sinks into a third full year, it’s easy to point at trading away many of those players as the reason why. In a world of infinite payroll, the Reds themselves would likely admit they wish they still had a few, if not all of them still around. The reality is, though, that some of those players turned out to be too successful to keep, since their pre-free agent performance had impressed to the point where signing them all was impossible on the Reds’ kind of budget, and turning them over to augment the system with the prospects they got in return was a sensible move that most all teams would have made in the same situation.

The key there, however, was that those moves were supposed to augment the system, not reset it altogether. Poaching good prospects here and there from other franchises while flipping expensive veterans is a way to get a nice dinner plate or a fine vase, but the table on which you put those can only really be built through years of drafting and developing players en mass. And, for the Reds, it’s that table construction that has the rebuild in a bit of a nebulous spot.

The players the Reds have drafted in the 1st or 2nd rounds of the MLB Draft since 2010 have provided a grand total of 0.3 bWAR for the Reds, combined. (Grandal, it should be mentioned, is the only one with more than 1.3 bWAR to his name (8.7), though all his production has come with other clubs since being traded.) While there’s the obvious caveat that some of the players drafted in that time haven’t had the requisite amount of time needed to reach the big league level, it’s worth noting that 11 of the 20 players picked in those rounds in that time have been drafted out of college, with only 9 coming from high school ranks.

And if we’re being honest, there are several of those draftees whose names can already be written off as future major leaguers. The 2nd round selections have been almost all complete misses, with Ryan LaMarre the only to have actually made the big leagues - and his contribution was -0.6 bWAR. Gabriel Rosa, Tanner Rahier, Kevin Franklin, and Taylor Sparks all look like clear misses, and while the jury’s still out on recent picks like Chris Okey, Tony Santillan, and Tanner Rainey, none have scouts raving that they’re better prospects than their draft position dictated at the time.

As for the 1st round picks from the 2010-2017 stretch, this pre-season might well be our last time to write about them without taking a definitive opinion, since for many the 2017 season will be a final chance to have their play live up to their draft position.

Of that group, 2011 1st rounder Robert Stephenson has long been the torch-bearer, the electric right-hander with talent enough to anchor a starting rotation - if he could control it. He’ll turn 24 years old in a week, has been through AAA in each of the last two years, and with injuries and openings in the projected big league rotation, this is as good a chance to seize a spot as he may ever have. If he falters, though, there’s enough depth behind him and questions surrounding his ability to stick as a starter that a bullpen role could well end up as his future.

It’d be a result somewhat similar to that of 2013 1st rounder Michael Lorenzen, although Lorenzen’s path was much quicker. At 1.3 bWAR to date, Lorenzen has been the star of that 2010-2017 stretch, but a forearm issue, a logjam among the young starters, and solid early results as a reliever seem to have him already pigeon-holed as a late-inning reliever. And while that’d be great if he’s successful there, that’s not exactly what the Reds had in mind when they drafted him as a CF and initially converted him into a starting pitcher.

Jesse Winker, Cincinnati’s second selection from the 1st round in 2012, should finally get a sniff of the big leagues in 2017, and we’ll hope his trend of diminishing power was merely a lingering wrist issue and not something larger. His eye at the plate has long been celebrated - his .398 OBP in the minors is better even than Joey Votto’s .385 mark at those levels - but even that may struggle to carry him if he’s truly a no-glove, no-pop corner OF. There’s perhaps more promise with him than with others, but he still has plenty to prove at this point to give us a hint he’s a sure thing.

Aside from those three, there appears to be Nick Senzel and a wide-ranging series of question marks and obvious misses in the rest of the bunch. Senzel, obviously, looks like as good a hitting prospect as the Reds have had in their system in some time, as the 2nd overall pick from the 2016 Draft seems poised to be a fast-mover after a scintillating first professional year. Of course, we had similar high hopes for 2013 1st rounder Phil Ervin after he, also a college bat, busted heads in his first professional year by hitting .331/.425/.564 between Billings and Dayton - the same two levels that Senzel destroyed just last year. Ervin, however, has struggled mightily since then, dropping from the #63 overall prospect in the game (according to Baseball Prospectus) after that initial breakout to near afterthought, though there’s at least some hope his offensive game may expand after moving beyond the hellish-on-hitters Florida State League and AA Pensacola’s cavernous home stadium. Alex Blandino, 2014’s second 1st round pick, also has a story similar to Ervin’s, with only a major bounce-back in 2017 capable of restoring his prospect status.

It’s those 5 players that serve as the only high picks that the Reds can fathom as part of the near future of the club. Both Nick Howard and Jeff Gelalich can be chalked up to complete misses at this point, and while there’s still some hope that Nick Travieso can turn into something, he’s dropped precipitously in the eyes of scouts since being drafted and is now dealing with a shoulder issue. Taylor Trammell and Tyler Stephenson both have loads of promise, yet both are years away from reaching the big leagues even if their minor league development goes as seamlessly as physically possible.

The 2017 season will have a spotlight on the development of Jose Peraza, Cody Reed, Scott Schebler, and Dilson Herrera, as well as how Adam Duvall, Brandon Finnegan, and Eugenio Suarez build off their first full seasons since joining the Reds. But even if their results are solid, the only way this rebuild takes off is if the backbone, the Reds’ draftees on whom their minor league system has been built, bucks its recent downward trend and performs like the group of top picks they are.

If it doesn't, there may not be enough veterans left to deal to make up for it.