Our friend, Tom Nichols, provides us with the next installment of his Dragons preview series:


Hands on Deck: Juan Perez, Sammy Diaz.

In the Dragons 12-year history, six Dayton shortstops have reached the major leagues, though some had moved to another position by the time they got there. In fact, as many Dragons shortstops have gotten to the big leagues as the combined number of first basemen, second basemen, and third basemen. Ray Olmedo (2000), Paul Janish (2005-’06), Adam Rosales (2005-’06), Chris Valaika (2007), Todd Frazier (2007-’08), and Zack Cozart (2007-’08) each served as the Dragons shortstop before playing in Cincinnati.

The number will certainly continue to grow. After Cozart was named in a poll of league managers as the Midwest League’s best defensive infielder in 2008, Dayton’s Miguel Rojas earned the same honor in ’09. In Dayton, Rojas was a magician with the glove. He committed just 13 errors over a full season, an amazing number in a league where an everyday shortstop would typically commit 30-40. Rojas has had injury problems since leaving Dayton and has been limited to less than 300 at-bats in both 2010 and 2011. He spent the ’11 season at Double-A Carolina and hit .259.

Didi Gregorius was the Dragons shortstop in 2010 and was placed on the Reds 40-man roster following the 2011 season. Known for his incredible throwing arm and great athleticism, Gregorius has the tools to become a big league starter. Gregorius did not possess the same defensive consistency as Janish, Cozart, and Rojas had shown in Dayton (31 errors for the Dragons in 2010), but he had a solid 2011 season that raised his status. He will likely be the Double-A starter in 2012 and could challenge for a Triple-A spot.

That brings us to 2011, when the Dragons shortstop was arguably the second most-talked about minor league baseball player in the country. Next to Washington Nationals prospect Bryce Harper, Dayton’s Billy Hamilton might have generated more attention than any other minor leaguer when he stole 103 bases. But for those who watched Hamilton play in 2011, the stolen base numbers were only a portion of the big picture. If statistics existed for most errors forced by the opposition, most bases gained as a result of opposing errors, or most balks forced, Hamilton would have obliterated them all. It became truly amazing to watch as opposing teams employed all sorts of strategy and effort aimed at limiting Hamilton on the bases, only to see Hamilton wait out 10 or more pick-off attempts, then promptly steal second base on the very first pitch.

By mid-season, every appearance on base by Hamilton resulted in a growing murmur from the anxious crowd at Fifth Third Field, and an apparent crisis for the opposing team. But when all was said and done, it came down to the simple fact that there was generally nothing they could do to keep Hamilton from swiping the next base. Dragons manager Delino DeShields remembered that the previous year with Billings, an opposing Pioneer League manager had simply instructed his catcher to calmly throw the ball back to the pitcher if Hamilton attempted a steal and concede the base, thinking that any play on Hamilton was a wasted effort.

Hamilton was always in the middle of every Dragons rally. He scored the winning run from second base on an infield ground out in one game, electrified the crowd with an inside-the-park home run in another, occasionally took two bases on a wild pitch, and forced many rushed throws from opposing infielders that went down as errors in the box score, but would have been routine outs with any other player running.

The best snapshot of Hamilton came in a four-game stretch on the road late in the season. Hamilton reached base to begin the game on all four dates. On days one and two, he stole second base on the very first pitch, and then stole third on the second pitch. On days three and four, he stole second on the first pitch, and then watched as the opposing team’s second baseman stood on second base throughout the rest of the inning, preventing a steal of third. He stole bases despite pitch outs, non-stop pick-off throws, slide-steps, and tempo changes in a modern era when pitchers have been schooled on how to shut down the running game. That was Hamilton’s impact. His like may never pass through the Midwest League again.

Hamilton should continue his development in Bakersfield in 2012. But history indicates that the new Dragons shortstop will have a better-than-even chance of someday playing in the major leagues. Let’s look at a couple of candidates to fill the role.

Juan Perez is a native of Los Angeles who is in line to get the first crack at the Dragons 2012 shortstop job. Perez played junior college baseball last spring at the College of the Canyons in L.A., and drew the Reds attention. Perez hit .400 at COC and was selected as the Player of the Year in his conference. The Reds drafted Perez in the 26th round last June and initially sent the young 19-year-old to their Rookie-level affiliate in the Arizona League, the Goodyear Reds. Perez tore up Arizona League pitching, batting .346 in 33 games. With men on base, Perez hit a robust .441. On August 15, he was promoted to Billings and played in another 19 games there, batting .268. Overall, Perez had a fine first season of professional baseball, batting .316 in 52 games. He added 22 extra base hits, drove in 32 runs, and stole 15 bases. Among his four home runs was a grand slam. Perez bats from the left side of the plate.

Earlier this year, when Yankees catcher Jorge Posada announced his retirement, Baseball America’s John Sickels noted that Posada was only a “grade C” prospect in the minor leagues, but went on to enjoy a great big league career. Sickels described grade C prospects as “guys who have something positive going for them, but who may have a question mark or three, or who are just too far away from the majors to get an accurate feel for.” Sickels then picked six players from all of minor league baseball that he named as interesting grade C prospects to watch in 2012, players with upside who could end up being very impressive. Perez was one of the six players profiled by Sickels. For a guy who was a 26th round draft pick last June, Perez has gained some notice.

In 2010, the Reds made several roster moves with their Class-A affiliates entering the final week of the minor league season. Dayton second baseman Henry Rodriguez, shortstop Didi Gregorius, and third baseman Kevyn Feiner were all promoted to Lynchburg. With Billings in the Pioneer League playoff race, an effort was made to keep that club together, so the Reds brought three players from the Goodyear Reds to Dayton for a week of action. All three showed some impressive skills. Two of the three, David Vidal and Ronald Torreyes, returned to Dayton in 2011 and were Midwest League stars. The third member of the group, Sammy Diaz, spent the 2011 season with Billings. His return to Dayton should come in 2012.

Diaz served as the back-up infielder at second, short, and third with Billings last season. He hit well, finishing at .299 in 38 games, including a .393 mark with men on base. Diaz is not a big guy at 5’10, 178 lbs., but he has hit at each level he has played. In three years in the Reds organization, his career average stands at .294. In 609 at-bats, equating to a little more than a full season of action, he has 66 RBI, 26 stolen bases, and 29 extra base hits. He is a tough guy to strike out. In 2010 with the Goodyear Reds, he fanned only 11 times in 114 at-bats while batting .307. Diaz is a switch-hitter and a native of Venezuela. Diaz profiles as a utility man with the Dragons and can play anywhere on the infield.

Brandon Dailey was profiled with the second basemen in part three of our preview. He could compete at the shortstop position with the Dragons in 2012.

Again, this is used in it’s entirety with permission of Tom Nichols.