In a couple of years, when Jesse Winker is raking for the big league club, Reds fans should remember to send Ramon Hernandez a thank you card. When the 36-year-old catcher decided to sign with the Colorado Rockies during the 2011 offseason, the Reds received the 49th pick in the 2012 draft, compensation for losing a guy who is currently hitting .193 over 33 games and at the tail end of his career.
What they got in return was a 6’-3”, 200-pound left-hander with tremendous power to all fields, as well as a great approach at the plate. As a senior playing for one of the best baseball programs in the country (Olympia HS in Florida), Winker hit .488 with 14 doubles, three home runs and 30 RBI over 30 games. He drew 34 walks for a .640 OBP, and also starred on the mound with a fastball that touches the mid-90s. He was a member of Team USA and a Perfect Game All-American.
A $1MM signing bonus pried him away from a commitment to play college ball at the University of Florida and the Reds sent him to Billings of the Pioneer League to begin his assault on opposing pitchers. On Friday, he smashed his first professional home run, a bomb to right-center field, in a 7-0 win over Helena, a Milwaukee Brewers affiliate. Even though it took him 31 games to hit his first homer, it wasn’t as if he was pressing. He is currently hitting .340 with seven doubles, 20 RBI and 27 walks over those 31 games. His .474 OBP shows the kind of patience he has at the dish. Winker projects to a middle-of-the-order run producer at the next level. And if his early numbers with runners in scoring position are any indication (.406 batting average with 19 RBI over 32 at-bats), he should be a great one. He is also already getting respect from opposing pitchers, evident by his 16 walks in those situations for a .592 OBP.
With his first home run out of the way, I expect them to come in bunches now. Winker is too big, too strong and too selective at the plate to wait another 31 games for another one. Even if he does, however, he will continue to knock in runs and get on base at an impressive clip.
Another highly touted prospect in the Reds organization is 2011 first-round pick Robert Stephenson. The 6’-2”, 200-pound, power righty made his pro debut this season for Billings, and over seven starts, went 1-0 with a 2.05 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and 37 K/8 BB over 30.2 innings. At the mercy of opposing hitters, he was promoted to class-A Dayton and made his debut on Friday, tossing five scoreless innings, allowing just one hit. He struck out six, allowed two walks and was clocked as high as 101 mph on the radar guns. He sat comfortably in the 94-96 mph range and his curveball had sharp bite.
As a senior at Alhambra HS in Martinez, California, Stephenson went 8-2 with a 1.19 ERA, 0.68 WHIP and 142 K/23 BB over 76.2 innings. He only allowed 29 hits all season and opened his senior campaign by tossing back-to-back no-hitters. He obviously has a plus fastball and his curveball can be plus at times. His change-up is still developing, as is the case with most players coming out of high school. With 2012 first-round pick Nick Travieso beginning his pro career, and also able to reach the upper-90s with his fastball, the Reds are stockpiling some impressive power arms in their system.
Other prospect notes:
Seth Mejias-Brean, the team’s eighth-round pick out of Arizona this year, has been sensational for Billings this season. The 6’-2”, 200-pound third baseman is hitting .397 over 18 games with six doubles, five home runs, 20 RBI and a slash line of .462/.735/1.197. He has been ridiculous over his last 10, going 20-for-42 (.476) with four home runs, 17 RBI and an .881 SLG, including a 5-for-5 effort on July 22 with three RBI.
Left-hander Tony Cingrani, the team’s third-round pick out of Rice in 2011, continues to be one of the best pitchers in the minors this season. Pitching for double-A Pensacola, he recently had a streak of 27.2 scoreless innings snapped, and for the season, is now 10-3 with a 1.62 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 130 K/32 BB over 111 innings.
Tanner Rahier, a second-round pick this year, had a scary moment on July 22 when he took a line drive to the head off the bat of Cubs top prospect Jorge Soler. An MRI was negative, and Rahier was back on the field the following game. Over his last nine games, the talented shortstop is hitting .323, and on the season, he has four home runs over 26 games and leads the AZL Reds with 21 RBI.
And finally, a Reds farm report would not be complete without an update on the most exciting player in the minors, Billy Hamilton. Over his 15 games since being promoted to double-A Pensacola, he has gotten better as the competition has, hitting .306 with two doubles, two triples, four RBI and an inside-the-park home run. His approach at the plate continues to get better as the season goes on, drawing 12 walks over his 15 games, and he has swiped nine bases for a season total of 113.
The Reds seem intent on leaving him in the minors this season, so his assault on Vince Coleman’s record of 145 bases set in 1983 remains in sight. At his current pace of 1.17 steals-per-game, and with the Blue Wahoos having 36 games left on their schedule, Hamilton is on pace for roughly 155 stolen bases.