This is part two of a recap of the 2014 Dayton Dragons.  In part one, we reviewed the seasons of blue-chip pitching prospects Nick Travieso, Amir Garrett, and Sal Romano.  Today, we will look at 2014 first round draft picks Nick Howard and Alex Blandino as well as several “under the radar” prospects.

For the first time in Dragons history, four Reds first round draft picks played together in the same season in Dayton.  Right-handed starting pitcher Nick Travieso, the 14th overall selection in the 2012 draft, and outfielder Phillip Ervin, the 27th pick in the first round in 2013, spent the entire season with the Dragons.  Right-handed pitcher Nick Howard made his professional debut with the Dragons on July 18 after being taken with the 19th pick in the first round in June.  The Reds also had an additional true first round pick this summer due to the loss of free agent Shin-Soo Choo, and they took infielder Alex Blandino with the 29th overall pick.  Blandino opened his professional career at Rookie-level Billings but joined Travieso, Ervin, Howard, and the rest of the Dragons on July 29.

Our First Look

Nick Howard

Howard served as the closer this spring at the University of Virginia and set the all-time ACC single-season record for saves as his team reached the final game of the College World Series, losing to Vanderbilt.  The Reds made it clear that they saw Howard as a future starting pitcher when they drafted him with their first of two first-round selections, but their intention when Howard arrived in Dayton was to use him out of the bullpen in closely-regulated game situations, somewhat similar to the way Michael Lorenzen was utilized in 2013.  In Howard’s first inning of professional baseball, he fired a fastball at 98 mph and averaged 96 while showing an excellent curve, an advanced feel for pitching, and great competiveness.  Howard was willing to go beyond the Reds initial plan of throwing no more than 20 pitches per outing, then getting two days off, had that option been available to him.

“He came to me after his first game and said ‘I’ll be ready if you need me tomorrow.’ That is a guy who is intense, competitive, and wants to help the team,” said Fossas.  “There was no way he was going to pitch on back-to-back days, but he wanted us to know he was ready.”

The first four innings of Howard’s pro career were perfect, 12 up-12 down, before he allowed a base runner.  Eventually, he was moved into the starting rotation for stints of no more than five innings.  His final numbers were not bad, with a 2-1 record and a 3.74 ERA, but they were skewed heavily by two bad innings on August 17 when he surrendered six runs.  Without those two innings, his final ERA would have been 2.27.

Alex Blandino

Blandino was the second of two Reds first round picks in 2014, selected out of Stanford.  The Reds drafted Blandino as a shortstop even though he did not play a single game at that position in his three years of college baseball, working mostly at third base.  He began his professional career at Billings and hit .309 with a .527 slugging percentage in 29 games.  He was promoted to Dayton on July 29 and, despite spending all day traveling from Montana to Lansing, Michigan and arriving just before game time, he belted a home run on his very first swing with the Dragons.  Blandino was hitting .338 after his first 18 games with the Dragons before it appeared that the long season which had started in January at Stanford began to wear him down.  He struggled with strikeouts late in the season and finished at .261, still above the league average, with a .440 slugging percentage.  As a hitter, the ball flew off his bat as he demonstrated great natural extra base power despite a relatively small build.  Defensively, he made a surprisingly-quick transition to shortstop, looking like a polished defender at a position he had not played since high school.  Time will tell whether Blandino will prove to have the range and explosive quickness to remain at shortstop, or whether he will move to second base where his bat should play well.

Blandino also exhibited one other distinguishing trait.  His pre-game work routine was off the charts.  He often returned to the locker room after batting and infield practice looking like a player who had already played a full nine innings.  After completing his turn in the cage, he would station himself at the edge of the infield grass, where a shortstop would play in a game situation when he was prepared to make a play at the plate, as hitters whacked line shots in his direction.

“If you can field a ball from 70 feet, you can field it anywhere,” said Blandino.

Under the Radar Prospects

Alejandro Chacin

Over a six-week period in July and August, Chacin was about as good as any reliever in Minor League Baseball.  He allowed only one run over 18 appearances and notched 13 saves during the stretch.  He finished the year with 20 saves, a 4-4 record, and a 2.48 ERA in 48 games out of the Dayton bullpen, striking out 84 batters in 65.1 innings.  He features an excellent breaking ball and a change-up that can be a strikeout pitch as well.  His fastball has picked up velocity, improving from well-below average in 2013 to a consistent 89-91.

Joel Bender

Bender is a left-hander from Cincinnati who is improving rapidly.  With the Dragons in 2013, he relied on his excellent curveball to post credible numbers, going 4-2 with a 3.79 ERA.  He returned in 2014 and struggled initially before making huge improvements over the final half of the season.  On June 1, Bender’s ERA stood at an awful 7.23 as he suffered from a lack of aggressiveness and confidence.  Over the remaining three months of the season, he posted a 3.15 ERA, striking out 53 and walking only 12.  His curve returned to 2013 levels, but his fastball improved dramatically, jumping from 86-88 in ’13 to consistently over 90 in 2014, occasionally getting as high as 94.  If Bender can build on what he accomplished in the second half of 2014, he can take a big step forward in 2015.

Zack Weiss

Weiss was the set-up man on the 2013 national champion UCLA Bruins.  He has the stuff to be an effective major leaguer, and enjoyed a strong season out of the Dayton bullpen in 2014.  He posted a 2.42 ERA in 34 relief appearances, allowing an opposing batting average of just .217.  He walked only 21 and struck out 80 in 63.1 innings.  Weiss has a solid three-pitch mix and if not for the multitude of strong starting pitchers around him, could be a candidate for a spot in the rotation as well.  His fastball consistently reaches 94-95 and his breaking ball can be an unhittable pitch when he locates it.  He improved in pressure situations late in the season when he became more aggressive in going after hitters.

Weiss, Photo Credit: Dayton Dragons

Zack Weiss, Photo Credit: Dayton Dragons

Carlton Daal

Daal had an unusual season for the Dragons, performing well above anyone’s reasonable expectations as a hitter but struggling defensively at shortstop, mostly because of throwing issues.  Daal was the only Dragons position player on the all-star team and finished the year batting .296, enjoying a better year offensively with the Dragons than his close friend from Curacao, Didi Gregorius, did in 2010.  He had 39 errors in 93 games at shortstop, many on routine throws that he spiked in front of the first baseman.  He did not turn 21 years old until the final month of the season, so he could have a bright future if he can improve defensively.  A move to second base is possible with the shortstop position now quite crowded with the addition of Alex Blandino.

Beau Amaral

Amaral spent all of 2013 with the Dragons and was only with the club for the month of April in 2014, but his presence keyed the Dragons best days of the season.  Perhaps the best defensive center fielder in the Reds system, Amaral became a weapon in the lead-off spot in the batting order in 2014, batting .329 with a .529 slugging percentage.  He also stole nine bases in 17 games and played like a guy who would have been a league MVP candidate had he remained with the club all year.  The Dragons offense was never quite the same after his departure and subsequent strong season in Bakersfield.