These minor-league team reviews are rolling right along. Our next stop is down in the Florida panhandle at Pensacola. Shout out to yer boy Kourage Kundahl.
Your friend and mine Doug Gray has a nice layout of the Wahoos’ roster right here along with a good overview of the team as a whole. Here I want to focus on the particular prospects that will feature prominently as the Blue Wahoos look to defend their Southern League championship AWWWWWYEAH!!!
The Headliner: Shed Long
Shed returns to the Blue Wahoos in 2018 after spending the second half of 2017 with the team. He ranks #7 on the Red Reporter Community Prospect Rankings this season and he has a thousand skills to validate that. He is a Jack of All Trades kinds prospect, as he combines solid tools across the board without any one that really blows people away. He makes consistent contact, but not like Nick Senzel. He has good power, but not like Adam Duvall. He has a discriminate eye and draws his share of walks, but not like Joey Votto. He runs well, but not like Billy Hamilton. He plays plus-defense at second base, but he’s not a Gold Glover. But he puts all these together to make for a quality baseball player well-worth keeping your eye on.
And if you haven’t yet, you should catch C Trent’s Great American Dream podcast from last summer.
Big Expensive International Free Agents:
Alfredo Rodriguez and Vladimir Gutierrez
The Reds have had some great successes in recent years spending money on international free agents out of Cuba. Aroldis Chapman rose to some acclaim as a Red after signing in 2010, and Raisel Iglesias followed that up after signing in 2014. They made some very aggressive moves in the 2016-17 international signing period spending over $15 million to add shortstop Jose Israel Garcia (see my preview of the Tortugas), pitcher Vladimir Gutierrez, and shortstop Alfredo Rodriguez.
Now, aside from all these fellas being Cuban, there isn’t much they have in common. But I’m lumping them here together not because of their nationality but because of the unique challenges inherent in the process of signing and developing players from the Cuban professional league. See, with the draconian trade embargo in place restricting movement and commerce between the US and Cuba, these guys all had to leave their homeland under various conditions of duress. They then had to establish residency is some strange foreign land and then sit and wait for MLB to recognize their free agency.
So what that means is that teams don’t have the opportunity to scout these guys like they do basically every other baseball-playing human being on the planet. There is very little opportunity to see these guys when they are playing in Cuba and they can wait for sometimes over a year for MLB to grant them free agency after they defect.
Basically, these guys are all wild cards to some extent or another due to the incredible uncertainty baked into their scouting and development process. That’s all really important to keep in mind when evaluating Gutierrez and Rodriguez.
Let’s start with Gutierrez. He’s 22 this year and coming off his first full season state-side. He got nearly $5 million to sign with the Reds based on a lively fastball and an impressive breaking pitch. He started 19 games and threw 103 innings in Daytona last season and largely held his own. He posted a 4.46 ERA and, most impressively, struck out about five batters for every walk he issued. Considering he hadn’t faced professional competition for about two years, that’s heartening.
Rodriguez, on the other hand, did not fare as well in his first full year in the US. He has always impressed folks with his incredible wizardry at shortstop, but he has struggled to hit, even in Cuba’s Serie Nacional. He signed for $7 million, which some thought was a bit steep at the time. He’ll turn 24 in June, but being older than a good number of folks in his league didn’t help him in Daytona. He slashed just .253/.294/.294 in 516 PAs. Coming out of Cuba, many scouts figured it would take some work to develop his bat, but he is athletic and projectable. That said, that’s a miserable start to his career here with the Reds.
It’s clear that his glove is major-league ready. In fact, some say he could win a Gold Glove this season if the Reds give him 500 PAs. The problem is that on-base percentage. And especially that slugging percentage. If he can hit even a little bit, he could be a big-league regular. The problem is that there are very deep concerns that he won’t hit even a little bit.
Other Fellas Worth Watching: Wyatt Strahan, Keury Mella, and Nick Longhi
These guys aren’t exactly blue-chip can’t-miss slam-dunk hyphen-adjective prospects, but if some things break right for them they could make some noise. Strahan was a third-round pick in 2014 out of USC. He had Tommy John surgery towards the beginning of the 2016 season and is now fully healthy and ready to rumble. In Dayton in 2015, his first full season in pro ball, he posted a 2.79 ERA in 164.1 innings. If he can get back to that, well hoo buddy.
Keury Mella came to the Reds at the 2015 deadline with Adam Duvall in exchange for Mike Leake. He actually made his big-league debut last season, seeing action in two games with the Reds. All things being equal, he would most likely be in the Louisville rotation to begin this season. But with the glut of good, young, unproven pitching the Reds have, he’ll have to stick around Pensacola a bit longer.
He has been consistently good throughout his entire career so far, posting a sexy 3.49 ERA in nearly 570 innings. He has been a starter the whole time, but some think he’d be better suited in the bullpen where his plus fastball could play up. He relieved for the Toros del Este in the Dominican Winter League this year and even earned a save. If the Reds want to commit to him being a starter, it might take a while for his number to be called. But if they think his future is in the bullpen, that could become the present very quickly.
Nick Longhi is a first baseman and corner outfielder who came to the Reds from the Red Sox last summer for some international bonus pool money. A few days later he tore his ulnar collateral ligament and needed Tommy John surgery to repair it. I might be more bullish on him than some others, but I think he looks a lot like Jesse Winker. Longhi’s hit tool may not be as sharp as Winker’s, but he might have more raw power. It would take some big steps forward for him to get where Winker is, but I think it’s possible. Longhi is the prospect I’m most optimistic about this year, compared to the norm. So when he breaks out somethin’ fierce, remember you heard it here first.