by Micah Greenhill

How Successful Have the Reds Been at Developing First-Round Picks?

Let’s be honest. The past several months haven’t been fun as a Reds fan. After a September implosion that ended the Reds’ hopes of making the 2021 postseason, Nick Krall declared his now infamous plan to “align payroll with our resources.” Through trades, opt outs, free agency and more, the offseason saw the departures of fan favorites, such as Nick Castellanos, Tucker Barnhart, Wade Miley, Jesse Winker, Sonny Gray, Eugenio Suarez, Michael Lorenzen and several others. This sparked outrage amongst the Reds fanbase, resulting in the #SellTheTeamBob message popping up online and even on a local billboard. Ownership then promised fans to “just have a little faith,” explaining that their plan to achieve sustainable success would revolve around developing a strong minor league player pipeline.

Managing and developing the budding talents of minor leaguers is extremely difficult. To steal a line from Marty Brennaman, one might even call it a “Titanic struggle.” This difficulty is compounded when player health is thrown into the equation. After all, even the most talented player won’t make or remain on the roster if they can’t stay on the field.

With that said, ownerships declared plan to invest in the player development pipeline made me curious at how successful Cincinnati has been at developing players. In order to research this further, I looked at prior number one draft picks by the Reds and how they turned out. I stuck with players that spent most of their time in the Reds system, eliminating players like Yasmani Grandal who were traded to other organizations.

To add a little extra spice to this nostalgia burrito, I also decided to sneak a look at players the Reds passed over for that round. I’m not claiming that these players would have had the same career success had they been drafted by Cincinnati. I simply found that it provided some interesting context to the discussion surrounding player development.

It’s also worth noting that many recent Reds players, such as Tyler Mahle and Jesse Winker, were not selected with the Reds’ first pick, but they still managed to make it to the Majors. These players will not be included here, as the purpose of this study is fairly simple: How successful have the Cincinnati Reds been at developing their first-round talent to the Major Leagues.

We begin our study with a familiar name to many fans.

2011: Robert Stephenson

With the 27th pick overall, the Reds selected Robert Stephenson in the first round of the 2011 draft. While only a high school pitcher at the time, analysts admired the potential they saw in Stephenson and Baseball America rated him as a top-ten prospect in the Reds’ system.

Players drafted from high school tend to spend a long time in the minor leagues, and this was no different with Stephenson. He made his MLB debut in 2016 but spent the next few years bouncing back and forth between the minors and the Show. He flashed incredible talent at times, with his most successful season being enjoyed in 2019. Unfortunately, he never truly panned out the way the Reds had hoped, and in November of 2020, Stephenson was traded to the Colorado Rockies in exchange for current Reds reliever Jeff Hoffman.

Interesting Stats:

  • Career Innings Pitched: 254
  • Career War: -0.1
  • Career ERA+: 96
  • Career FIP: 4.95

Players passed over: Jackie Bradley Jr (Red Sox), Trevor Story (Rockies), Joe Musgrove (Blue Jays), Blake Snell (Rays)

2012: Nick Travieso

I have to be totally honest with you. I have no recollection of who this guy is. It’s difficult to find information online, too. However, after a little bit of searching, I was able to piece together his history with the club. Drafted as an 18-year-old, he spent his entire minor league career with the Reds but never made the Majors. Cincinnati ended up releasing him June 2019, while he was pitching on a rehab assignment. His most successful minor league season happened in 2016 where, after 23 starts, Travieso held a 3.84 ERA.

After getting released by the Reds, he went on to pitch in the independent American Association of Professional baseball.

Players passed over: Lucas Giolito (Nationals), Corey Seager (Dodgers), Marcus Stroman (Blue Jays), Jose Berrios (Twins)

2013: Phillip Ervin

Another familiar name to Reds fans!

The Reds drafted Ervin with the 27th pick of the 2013 draft. Ervin had a solid start to his minor league career, but after a wrist injury in 2013, he started to show signs of struggle. However, he ended up getting added to the 40-man roster after the 2016 season.

Most of his career with the Reds saw him as a fourth or fifth outfielder. Similarly to Stephenson, Ervin saw his most successful output during the 2019 season where he slashed .271/.331/.466. This success did not carry over into 2020, which saw Ervin hit .086/.238/.086, leading him to be designated for assignment. He was eventually claimed off waivers by the Mariners and is currently playing with the Lexington Legends of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball.

Interesting Stats:

  • Career At Bats: 586
  • Career WAR: 0.4
  • Career OPS+: 90

Players passed over: Aaron Judge (Yankees), Corey Knebel (Tigers), Cody Bellinger (Dodgers)

2014: Nick Howard

With the 19th pick overall, the Reds selected Nick Howard in the first round of the 2014 draft. He had a decent start to his professional career, posting a 3.74 ERA in 33.2 innings with the Dayton Dragons. However, in the following seasons, he regressed significantly as a case of the yips left him unable to reliably find the strike zone. Ultimately, the Reds released Howard in June 2019. Two years later, he returned to the Reds on a minor league contract. He’s currently a member of the Triple-A Louisville Bats.

Players passed over: Matt Chapman (Athletics), Jack Flaherty (Cardinals)

2015-2019

A quick study over this list of names from 2011 to 2014 paints a fairly bleak picture for the Reds ability to develop their first round talent. Two players never contributed to the club at all, and the other two had fairly small roles and limited success overall. Recent years, however, appear to paint the Reds in a better light.

Check out these names:

  • 2015: Tyler Stephenson
  • 2016: Nick Senzel
  • 2017: Hunter Greene
  • 2018: Jonathan India
  • 2019: Nick Lodolo

Obviously, most of these guys have seen very limited action at the big league level. Greene and Lodolo have only pitched in two games apiece so far. Stephenson and India have essentially one season under their belts. Senzel has the most MLB seniority of this group, but due to his infamous injury history, he actually has fewer at bats than India. What’s most encouraging is the fact that they were all able to make it to the team.

An obvious question comes to mind: What changed with the 2015-2019 group that contributed to this stronger showing from the player development staff? The answer to that question is very complicated. There are a variety of reasons why this group of guys have had more success than their 2011-2014 counterparts, and as anyone learns in a basic statistics class, “Correlation is not causation.” With that said, there was a major change that occurred in 2016 that could provide a data point to help answer our question.

His name is Dick Williams.

After working in the baseball operations department for several years, he was named general manager of the Reds in 2016, and he had the unenviable task of rebuilding the Reds. A major difference between Williams and his predecessor Walt Jocketty was Williams’ openness to advanced analytics being incorporated into baseball operations. Under his leadership, Williams modernized the Reds, bringing them into the 21st century before resigning during the 2020 offseason after the Reds’ first postseason appearance since 2013.

Many of Williams advancements occurred at the minor league level, investing in player development by hiring big names like Kyle Boddy and Derek Johnson. One of the major changes cited during his leadership involved aligning the player development process at all levels of the minor leagues, so that all players were receiving the same type of instruction. His team also helped to create development plans for specific players to help them grow to the next level, something Josiah Gray-whom the Reds traded to the Dodgers in 2018-mentioned was lacking for him.

Dick Williams is no longer with the organization. Instead, we are left with Nick Krall. I’ve actually met Krall, and he’s a super friendly, down-to-earth guy. He’s also much smarter than me.

However, he’s simply not Dick Williams.

Only time will tell if the Reds can continue their recent streak of developing first round draft talent to the Major League level.

Conclusion

Developing young talent is critical to the success of any franchise, regardless of the sport. It’s even more critical to small markets, such as Cincinnati. Whatever your opinion of him, Phil Castellini has made it clear that the future direction of the Reds will involve investing in the development of young prospects.

The task of building this pipeline of players lands on the shoulders of Nick Krall. In his short time since replacing Dick Williams, Krall has not impressed. Ownership has not set him up for success, but he’s also consistently mismanaged the team. One can only hope that Krall has as much such success in bringing first round picks to the club as his predecessor.

If Krall is not up to this task, then — in the words of Phil Castellini — where ya gonna go?

Photo by Brandon Sloter/Icon Sportswire

Micah is a lifelong Reds fan who grew up watching games at Cinergy Field with his family. A recent MBA graduate, Micah has always had a passion for data analytics and uses his understanding of big data to better understand and appreciate what is happening on the baseball diamond and in the front office. When he's not watching baseball, you can find Micah and his wife frequenting different restaurants and coffee shops in the area. For questions and inquiries, please reach out to micahgreenhill@gmail.com.