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By Josh Boyd
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
The opening of the Great American Ball Park in 2003 created high expectations for the Reds, but they weren’t able to rejuvenate their fan base. Cincinnati finished 24 games below .500 in fifth place, 19 games behind the Cubs in the National League Central.
Though the Reds were just 21/2 games out at the beginning of July, they fired general manager Jim Bowden three days before the July 31 trade deadline. To replace Bowden, who had been calling the shots since October 1992, chief operating officer John Allen took over baseball operations with the assistance of interim GMs Brad Kullman (who had been assistant GM) and Leland Maddox (scouting director).
Over the next 72 hours, that team executed four cost-cutting deals that sent Aaron Boone, Jose Guillen, Gabe White and Scott Williamson to contenders. Cincinnati’s big league roster was decimated, while Bowden analyzed the moves as a special commentator on ESPN. The Reds went 20-34 over the final two months.
The Reds completed their GM search on Oct. 27 by tabbing Rangers assistant GM Dan O’Brien to turn things around. A 26-year front office veteran who spent 15 years in the Astros’ scouting and player development departments, O’Brien helped spearhead Houston’s Latin American revival. He immediately announced his intentions to follow the Astros blueprint, focusing on developing homegrown talent, specifically pitching.
“It starts and ends with starting pitching,” O’Brien said at his first press conference. He added that developing quality pitching is “the quickest way to being competitive.”
In recent years, too many of the organization’s most promising young arms have lost time to injuries. Chris Gruler, drafted with the third overall pick in 2002 and No. 1 on this list a year ago, was limited to six innings by shoulder surgery, derailing what was to be his coming-out season. Ricardo Aramboles and Luke Hudson had visions of Cincinnati, but went down with torn labrums in spring training. Josh Hall tore his after reaching the majors in September. Bobby Basham, Ty Howington and Josh Thigpen all saw their velocity plummet, though doctors found no structural damage and Howington finished the season on a positive note.
The additions of lefthanders Brandon Claussen, Phil Dumatrait, Tyler Pelland and Charlie Manning and righties Joe Valentine and Matt Belisle through trades has added depth. The Reds made acquiring southpaws a priority, getting Claussen and Manning from the Yankees for Boone and White, and Dumatrait and Pelland from the Red Sox for Williamson. Cincinnati also picked up pitching in the draft, with first-rounder Ryan Wagner going almost straight to the majors and Thomas Pauly (second round), Richie Gardner (sixth) and Jim Paduch (12th) showing upside.
Promoting harmony between scouting and player development will be one of O’Brien’s first chores, as the rift between the two departments is well known in the industry.
“We have a lot of work to do,” O’Brien said, acknowledging the system’s weaknesses. “The challenges are significant.”
Top Prospect: Ryan Wagner, RHP
Age: 21 Ht.: 6-4 Wt.: 210 Bats: R Throws: R
Background: Because he turned 21 within 45 days of the draft, Wagner was eligible following his sophomore season at Houston. Undrafted out of high school partly because he asked for $500,000 to sign, he became last spring’s most pleasant draft surprise. He went from being an unheralded freshman to an All-American to a first-rounder to a major leaguer by the middle of July. He needed just 46 days and all of nine innings between Double-A Chattanooga and Triple-A Louisville to earn a promotion to Cincinnati after signing for $1.4 million. His rapid trek to the big leagues was the fastest since Athletics 1995 first-rounder Ariel Prieto needed just 28 days in the minors. Wagner broke a 39-year-old NCAA Division I record by fanning 16.8 hitters per nine innings, while limiting college opponents to a .147 average. He held big leaguers to a meager .173 clip, but was shut down as a precaution after shouldering a heavy workload: 79 innings for Houston and 31 more after signing. It was nothing more than a precaution, as Wagner was exhausted and the Reds didn’t want to risk taxing his arm.
Strengths: Wagner’s 84-87 mph slider is downright unhittable and grades as a top-of-the-scouting-scale 80 pitch at times. It features sharp, late tilt in the zone and darts away from the barrel of the bat. Hitters have a difficult time identifying his slider, and often think it’s a splitter or true curveball because of its depth. Wagner isn’t a one-trick pony, however. His fastball sits at 91-94 mph and features hard sink and boring action to induce ground balls. His fastball movement is so good that hitters will have a tough time laying off his slider and sitting on his fastball. He showed enough resiliency and durability to work multiple-inning stints for Houston. Though he rarely needs it, Wagner shows a feel for an average changeup, leading some scouts to think he could hold down a rotation spot.
Weaknesses: Not many scouts project Wagner as a starter because his delivery and arm action might not be conducive to a rotation workload. While he’ll drop his arm slot at times to create more movement on his fastball, that also causes additional stress on his shoulder—even more than when he relies heavily on his slider. The Reds would like him to become more consistent with his slot and repeating his delivery.
The Future: Following Wagner’s promotion to the majors, the Reds discussed moving him to the rotation in 2004, but they now seem content to groom him as their future closer. College closers don’t often duplicate their success in the majors, but there’s little doubt Wagner can overmatch hitters at any level. If he’s not Cincinnati’s closer coming out of spring training, he’ll be one of the better set-up men in the National League.