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Wagner Wows Reds With Power Stuff

June 4, 2003
By Chris Haft

CINCINNATI—Ryan Wagner established himself as a top pitching prospect in less than two years at the University of Houston. The Reds believe the righthander can establish himself professionally just as quickly.

"We took the 'now' stuff. We think he's on the fast track," said Leland Maddox, Cincinnati's assistant general manager scouting director, of selecting Wagner 14th overall in the 2003 draft Tuesday.

Wagner, 20, shares the Reds' hopes. "I know Cincinnati's a great organization and that I have a chance to hopefully make an impact right away," the college closer said.

Cincinnati ended a five-year streak of drafting a high school player in the first round. The last college player the Reds chose in the first round was infielder Brandon Larson from Louisiana State.

However, it marked the fourth time in the last five years that the Reds made a pitcher their first-round pick. They drafted lefthanders Ty Howington and Jeremy Sowers in 1999 and 2001, respectively, and righthander Chris Gruler last year. Shortstop David Espinosa, chosen first in 2000, was the only position player the Reds took No. 1 in that span.

In Wagner, the perpetually pitching-hungry Reds may have found the type of relentless hard thrower that has eluded them, with the exception of current closer Scott Williamson.

"I think he and Kyle Sleeth have the two best arms in the draft," Maddox said, citing the Wake Forest righthander selected third overall by the Detroit Tigers.

Wagner wasn't drafted out of Yoakum (Texas) High School, but his skills blossomed quickly under the tutelage of Dr. Bragg Stockton, UH's late pitching coach. Stockton, who died in January, worked extensively with Wagner on making his delivery smoother.

"I was kind of a little vicious in my delivery. I yanked things around a little bit," Wagner said. "He played a huge part (in my improvement) . . . He worked with me, for the most part, every day of my freshman year and every day in the fall of my sophomore year until January . . . Set after set after set of drills. I give almost all of my credit to him. If it wasn't for him, there's no telling where I'd be."

Said Maddox, "Early in the year, there were some concerns about his delivery. But all he was doing was rushing."

Stockton's advice has worked. Maddox said that the Reds graded Wagner's slider as the best breaking pitch thrown by any draft-eligible pitcher. Wagner accumulated 137 strikeouts in 73 innings this season for the Cougars. Wagner's rate of 16.8 strikeouts per nine innings, if he maintains it, would break a 39-year-old NCAA record.

Wagner also throws a power sinker, in Maddox's description, that ranges between 90-94 mph. The sophomore's sinker-slider tandem has made him an ideal closer for the Cougars, who face Rice in an NCAA super-regional this weekend. Wagner owns a 5-5, 2.09 with 14 saves in 35 appearances, having allowed 37 hits and 19 walks.  Opponents are batting .150 against him.

Though the Reds tentatively plan on keeping Wagner in the bullpen, they're willing to consider developing him as a starter if his talents warrant it.  Maddox said that one of the eight different Reds scouts who scrutinized Wagner this season saw him pitch as many as 5 2/3 innings in one outing. On another day, said Maddox, Wagner pitched two innings in each game of a doubleheader. "So he's durable, strong and resilient," Maddox said.

Watching videotape of Wagner, a 6-foot-4, 210-pounder, reminded Maddox of Anaheim's Troy Percival. This comparison makes Wagner sound like a prototypical closer. "He comes at you like a horse," Maddox said. "He's not a Rob Dibble, but he has a chance to be one of those power closers."

But Maddox also has seen a "smooth and clean" delivery from Wagner in his longer outings, suggesting that he has the aptitude to start. "A lot of our guys think he's a No. 2 starter," Maddox said.

Wagner's ready for anything.

"If they want to use me as a starter, reliever, closer, whatever they want, I'm willing to do what's best for the Cincinnati Reds—whatever's going to get me to the majors faster and to make an impact," he said.

If Wagner signs in time to play professionally this summer, Maddox said that he probably will pitch once or twice a week in relief to preserve his arm after the college season.

The Reds cannot begin negotiating with Wagner until after UH's season ends.  Signability, of course, is usually a concern for every team as it begins negotiating with its top pick. The Reds failed to sign Sowers and had to give multi-year, major league contracts in lieu of large signing bonuses to Espinosa and catcher Dane Sardinha, a second-round pick in 2000. But Maddox said confidently, "I don't think signability's an issue this year."

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