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Dragons 2017 Preview, Part 2: First Basemen

By Tom Nichols / Dayton Dragons

This is part two of an eight-part series previewing the 2017 Dragons. Players listed here are candidates for positions on the 25-man Dragons season-opening roster.

This preview is an unofficial projection of possible roster candidates. Minor League rosters are not established until April 3. Spring training variables including performance, injuries, trades, and additional player acquisitions will impact the roster accordingly.

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First Basemen

Candidates: James Vasquez, Bruce Yari.

Any history of the first base position for the Dayton Dragons begins with the 19-year-old Canadian that opened the 2003 season for the Dragons. His time in Dayton could provide an important lesson for any future Dragons player. He had been drafted in the second round by the Reds the previous June and spent his first half season with the Reds Gulf Coast League club in 2002. Entering the 2003 season, he was rated by Baseball America as the #14 prospect in the Reds organization, listed as a third baseman/catcher. 

"(He) has outstanding bat speed and demonstrates good hitting instincts," stated the Baseball America Prospect Handbook prior to the 2003 season. "He shows a feel for hitting the ball to all fields."

He initially skipped over the Reds Billings affiliate and made the Dragons roster in 2003 out of spring training. He batted just .231 with only one home run in 195 at-bats. When the Billings season opened in mid-June, he was transferred from Dayton to the Mustangs. That's when the part about the lesson for other players kicks in. Despite a lack of immediate success in his first season in Dayton, he returned to the Dragons for a second year and made huge improvements.

The player we are describing, of course, is Joey Votto. When he left Dayton and reported to Billings in 2003, he began what would become a long succession of .300+ seasons. He returned to the Dragons in 2004, a year more experienced, and the results showed a marked improvement. In his second year with the Dragons, he raised his batting average to .302 with 14 home runs in 111 games with a .419 on-base percentage and a .905 OPS. 

Within three years, he was in the big leagues to stay with the Reds. Six years after his second season in Dayton, he was the National League's Most Valuable Player. Someday, he may enter the National Baseball Hall-of-Fame.

Votto is one of three Dragons first basemen to reach the Major Leagues. The others are Randy Ruiz and Donald Lutz. In 2011, Lutz had the biggest year of any Dragons first baseman when he batted .301 with 20 home runs and 75 runs batted in and helped the Dragons to the Midwest League playoffs. That team, perhaps the best in Dragons history, also included Billy Hamilton and Tucker Barnhart among others.

Playing time in Minor League Baseball, probably since the very beginning, has been impacted by circumstances. Joel Youngblood, who came through the Reds farm system in the 1970's before serving as a back-up player with the Big Red Machine World Champions, occasionally visits Fifth Third Field in his role as an instructor in the Arizona Diamondbacks system. The Diamondbacks now have an affiliation in the Midwest League in Kane County and they previously were in South Bend for an extended period. Youngblood likes to watch his players from the press box, where he will share some memories of his playing career with the Reds. He often describes the difficulties in gaining playing time based on the circumstances he found himself in with the Reds team at that time. He spent three good seasons in Triple-A and was a versatile player, capable of primarily playing third base and left field, and also second base or right field. But when he looked at those positions in the Reds lineup, he saw Pete Rose at third base, George Foster in left field, Joe Morgan at second base, and Ken Griffey Sr. in right field. Wow! Youngblood went on to spend 14 years in the Major Leagues and played in the All-Star Game, but that all-star experience came with the New York Mets, not the Reds. Youngblood would have never been more than a pinch hitter in Cincinnati.

In 2017, blue chip prospect Nick Senzel will play third base on an everyday basis somewhere in the Reds organization, almost certainly with either Double-A Pensacola or Advanced Single-A Daytona to start the year. Senzel, who starred with the Dragons in 2016 after being selected by the Reds with the second overall pick in the June draft, will be the ultimate priority. Wherever the Reds feel his current development level dictates, Senzel will go and play every day, regardless of anyone else who might be on schedule to play at that same level. The decision of where to send Nick Senzel is going to impact multiple other players, because the Reds happen to have several third basemen at the moment who could also play at either Pensacola or Daytona. Most of those players are also capable of playing first base, such as Gavin LaValley, Tanner Rahier, Taylor Sparks, and Eric Jagielo. You see where this is going. Whichever team gets Senzel is going to have third base covered, so it is quite possible that one or more players who might have played third base will slide across the diamond and play first base. If you are a first baseman or a third baseman trying to move up, there are some road blocks.

James Vasquez was the Dragons starting first baseman in 2016. Vasquez led the Dragons in home runs with 14, the most hit by any Dayton player since Jesse Winker hit 16 in 2013. Vasquez also led the Dragons in RBI and total bases while playing good defense at first base. Although he finished with a batting average of just .223, well below where James would have hoped to hit after nearly winning the Triple Crown the previous season with the Goodyear Reds in the Arizona League, Vasquez is a player who could potentially advance to Daytona. But in light of the high number of corner infielders in the picture at Daytona and Pensacola, Vasquez may just as likely return to the Dragons. 

Vasquez, a quiet but friendly personality who transforms into a highly-intense competitor on the field, played college baseball at the University of Central Florida, where he ranked second in the conference in batting average and third in RBI in 2014 as a junior. He was drafted by the Reds in the 25th round after his senior year in 2015 and assigned to Goodyear. Vasquez enjoyed a monster year with the Goodyear Reds in 2015 and was selected as the Arizona League's Most Valuable Player, batting .359 with nine home runs and 36 RBI in 42 games.

Vasquez spent the entire 2016 season as the Dragons starting first baseman, serving as the Dragons cleanup hitter and playing in 130 games. He had his best games during a two-week period in May when he blasted six home runs and drove in 19 over a 14-game stretch. Dragons 2016 hitting coach Luis Bolivar, who will manage the Dragons in 2017, noted several times last season that Vasquez was the most unlucky hitter in the league, as he seemed to lead the circuit in line drives that happened to be hit right at a fielder, leaving Vasquez with nothing but a frustrating walk back to the dugout. It was also evident that the Dragons struggles to generate offense as a team over the first three months of the 2016 season took a toll on Vasquez, as he and Shed Long were the hitters in the Dragons lineup that opposing pitchers worked around. Vasquez certainly shouldered extra pressure to try to pull the offense out of its rut when seemingly no one else was hitting.  

If Vasquez returns to the Dragons in 2017 in what is expected to be a greatly improved offensive attack, he will be one of the most feared hitters in the Midwest League.

If Vasquez is assigned to the Daytona Tortugas at the end of spring training, the Dragons first base job is expected to go to Waterloo, Ontario, Canada native Bruce Yari. The 6'3", 215 lbs. Yari played collegiately at the University of British Columbia, where he was a teammate of 2016 Dragons starting pitcher Alex Webb. Webb joined the Dragons late last season and is remembered as the pitcher in the famous 1-Blue-6-3 double play that was seen by over a million viewers and was the ESPN Play of the Day. His college teammate, Yari, played at Goodyear in 2016, taking over the position that Vasquez had held the previous year.

Yari was a 24th round draft pick by the Reds last summer after playing at the NAIA level at British Columbia. He led the team in batting average (.368), home runs (5), and RBI (48) in 61 games, drawing twice as many walks as he had strikeouts (40-20). He led his team to the NAIA national tournament in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He was named to the NAIA West all-star team and was selected as a conference gold glove winner.

After signing with the Reds, Yari played at Goodyear and batted .270 with one home run in 137 at-bats, primarily hitting third in the lineup. After a slow start, Yari made adjustments and hit .383 over his last 15 games, collecting all six extra base hits he had with Goodyear during that period. Yari is said to be an excellent defensive first baseman.

Kevin Franklin was a second round draft pick by the Reds in 2013 out of Richard Gahr High School in Cerritos, California. He was drafted as a third baseman and played that position after signing with the Reds in 2013. In 2014, he began a conversion to first base and played there at Billings for two seasons. His best year came in 2015 when he batted .267 with four home runs and 25 RBI for the Mustangs in 49 games. Franklin struggled to get healthy and stay healthy in 2016. He got a late start to his season and did not play until he joined the Dragons on June 15. He also missed the final month of the season and did not play after August 1. For the year, he appeared in 28 games, all for the Dragons, batting .225 with one home run, 10 RBI, and a .559 OPS. He saw some time in left field as manager Dick Schofield looked for a place to get Franklin some playing time. Franklin could be a candidate for a role with the Dragons in 2017 if he has a good spring and can stay healthy.

Montrell Marshall, the first cousin of former Reds all-star second baseman Brandon Phillips, was the first baseman at Billings in 2016. While Marshall is considered to be an outstanding defensive first baseman, he may need more development as a hitter before joining the Dragons. A promotion to Dayton at some point during the 2017 season is a possibility for the 6''5", 215 lbs. native of Snellville, Georgia. Marshall committed to play at Auburn University prior to his senior season at South Gwinnett High School and was listed as a 2014 2nd Team High School All American by Perfect Game. He was ranked as the 93rd best high school prospect in the nation and seventh best H.S. prospect in the state of Georgia entering his senior year by Perfect Game. The Reds drafted Marshall in the 12th round in 2014 and he passed up the offer from Auburn to sign and play professionally. He opened his career in the Reds system in 2015 as a teammate of James Vasquez at Goodyear, but batted just .159 in 43 games. In 2016, he moved up one level to Billings and showed improvement, hitting .246 with one home run in 59 games. Interestingly, he primarily batted fourth in the Mustangs lineup despite modest numbers. Marshall is a name to look for further down the line for the Dragons.

Next up: Second Basemen

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