Dragons 2017 Preview, Part 3: Second Basemen
By Tom Nichols / Dayton Dragons
This is part three 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.
Candidates: Brantley Bell, Shane Mardirosian, Alejo Lopez, Ty Blankmeyer.
One of the most interesting and unique stories in the history of the Dragons second base position took place in 2011, when the Dragons posted their best record in franchise history. The story actually began during the final week of the 2010 season. My personal recollections may add some context.
At the beginning of the last week of the 2010 season, Dragons starting second baseman Henry Rodriguez and two other players were promoted to the Reds Lynchburg affiliate in the Carolina League. Three new players came in to take their spots for the final six games. Rodriguez was replaced by a Venezuelan infielder who was about to turn 18 years old, making him one of the youngest players in Dragons history. His name was Ronald Torreyes. I was told his last name was pronounced tuh-RAY-us. He was listed at five-foot 10, 150 lbs.
I looked up his statistics and they were rather impressive, to say the least. He was in his first season of professional baseball and had started that summer with the Reds team in the Venezuelan Summer League, where he batted a convincing .390 in 67 games with an on-base percentage of .468. He was moved up to the Goodyear Reds for the final weeks of the season and again knocked the cover off the baseball, batting .349 in 18 games. Torreyes had been moved up to Dayton from Goodyear, not Billings, a higher affiliate. The Billings team was in the playoff race, so as is often the case in the minor leagues, a playoff contender's roster was not disrupted for a temporary need, in this instance, six games to close out the Midwest League season.
I went down to the locker room to meet Mr. Torreyes as he arrived, as I do with every new player, to doublecheck the pronunciation of his name and verify other basic matters for our roster. My initial thought was that the Dragons had gotten a new bat boy. No, I was told, this was our new second baseman. Immediately, I knew that Torreyes was nowhere close to 5'10" and probably not 150 lbs. either. And while there are some 17-year-olds that could pass for 20, Torreyes was just the opposite. He could have easily passed for 14. The next spring, Mr. Torreyes would report to Reds spring training and be officially measured and weighed. I was told in 2011 that he checked in at five-foot seven, 140 lbs., making him the smallest player in Dragons history.
I watched Ronald Torreyes play six games for the Dragons in that final week of the season. It was one of the most amazing weeks I have seen in my 29 years in Minor League Baseball. Defensively, every night, Torreyes made incredible, diving plays to his left and right, taking away base hits, making quick, perfect relay throws from shallow right field to nail runners at the plate. He was a huge upgrade in the field from Rodriguez, who had been the Dragons best player that season. Offensively, he showed some punch. He had two doubles and a triple in his six games, collecting one three-hit game and a two-hit game. The triple prompted Dragons manager Todd Benzinger to joke that Torreyes "was on his horse" as he raced around to third, a veiled reference to the fact that Torreyes' size was similar to what one would expect from a jockey. After the final game of the year, for the one and only time in my history with the Dragons, I emailed the farm director about a player. I asked Terry Reynolds of the Reds, "where on earth did you guys find this kid? He is amazing!"
The next spring, the plan initially was for Torreyes to take the next step in his progression and report to Billings. He would spend the first half of the season in extended spring training, then join the Mustangs when their season began in late June. However, Torreyes played so well that spring that he changed the plan. On June 17, he was promoted from Goodyear straight to Dayton, never spending a day with Billings. The Dragons were wrapping up the first half with a record of 35-35. But the arrival of Torreyes gave manager Delino DeShields a lift. As Torreyes joined the club, DeShields said, "we just went from a pretender to a contender."
DeShields installed Torreyes in the number two spot in the batting order, right behind lead-off man Billy Hamilton, guaranteeing that Torreyes was sure to see a steady diet of fastballs. After his first 10 games with the Dragons, Torreyes was hitting .429. The team responded. After the first 30 games of the second half, the Dragons were 22-8. In a three-game set in mid-July, Torreyes collected 12 hits, including a 4 for 5 game followed by a 5 for 5 night. As late as August 4, he was still hitting .394. As the Dragons roared to a final second half record of 48-22, still their best record ever in a half in the Midwest League, Torreyes cooled off a bit at the end of the year. He finished at .356 but still posted the best batting average in a half for any player in Dragons history. The record continues to hold up to this day, as does his distinction of being the smallest player ever to put on a Dragons uniform.
Before the start of the 2012 season, Torreyes was dealt to the Cubs as part of a trade that brought Sean Marshall to Cincinnati. In 2015, he made his Major League debut. In 2016, now a member of the Yankees, he spent the entire season in the big leagues, appearing in 72 games and batting .258. He is still listed at 5'10".
The Dragons likely starting second baseman in 2017 is Brantley Bell, the son of two-time National League all-star and former Reds bench coach Jay Bell. Brantley Bell spent the entire 2016 season with the Dragons as a 21-year-old and showed improvement over the course of the season. He was the Dragons opening night starting third baseman and played mostly third base for the first three months of the season. When first round pick Nick Senzel, a third baseman, arrived on July 1, and starting second baseman Shed Long was promoted not long afterwards, Bell moved to the right side of the infield, where he is expected to stay in 2017.
Bell is rather tall for a second baseman at 6'3" but he runs well. He finished the year with the Dragons with a batting average of .248 with one home run (he lost another on a missed call by an umpire) and 36 runs batted in. He stole 23 bases and posted an OPS of .620. He enjoyed his best month in August to finish the year when he batted .322. Bell also saw action in 21 games at shortstop to go along with 47 games and third base and 28 games at second base.
Bell was the Reds 11th round draft pick in 2015. He started his college career at the University of Mississippi and played well as a freshman in 2014. He transferred the following year to a junior college, State College of Florida, making him draft eligible after his sophomore year. After being signed by the Reds, he played at Billings in 2015 and batted .275 without a home run in 62 games. Bell is still growing into his 185 lbs. frame and should add more power as he develops. He hopes to maintain the momentum of his strong finish in 2016 and carry that into a new season. Bell is a natural leader, a former team captain of both his high school baseball and football teams in Phoenix, Arizona. Evidence of his personable nature lies in the fact that he was selected by the Dragons booster club as the "friendliest" Dragons player in 2016, an annual award presented by the group.
Shane Mardirosian could return to the Dragons in 2017 after spending the entire 2016 season with the Dayton club. Mardirosian, a native of Riverside, California, was an outfielder in high school before being drafted by the Reds in the seventh round in 2014 and immediately converted to second base. He had a strong season at Billings in 2015, batting .297 in 44 games, earning a promotion to the Dragons for 2016.
With Shed Long firmly entrenched at second base, Mardirosian got the bulk of his playing time in the outfield for the Dragons in 2016, playing mostly left field but also seeing action in center. He appeared in 67 games in the outfield compared to 22 at second base. He played well defensively, committing just five errors all year in 111 games with the Dragons. He hit .226 with two home runs and 24 RBI. He also added nine stolen bases. Mardirosian did show signs of coming into his own as a hitter, but he could not find the necessary consistency. He hit .289 in May, but slumped in June. He picked it up in July, but struggled in August.
The Dragons outfield picture looks crowded heading into spring training, so if Mardirosian returns to the Dragons, he may see more time back in the infield, though he showed in 2016 that he is capable of playing both left field and center field. The left-handed hitter will hope for a bounce-back year after a strong showing at Billings in 2015.
Alejo Lopez was a regular in the Billings lineup last season, splitting his time between second base and third base. He projects as a second baseman going forward. Born in Mexico, Lopez now resides in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, Arizona, where he was a star at Greenway High School. He batted .447 over his final three seasons at Greenway and was selected as an Honorable Mention high school All-American in 2015 by Perfect Game and rated as the #8 H.S. prospect in the state of Arizona. He had committed to play at Arizona State University before the Reds drafted Lopez in the 27th round in 2015 and signed him to a professional contract.
Lopez played briefly as Goodyear in 2015, batting .419 in just 12 games. At Billings in 2016, Lopez hit .273 with one home run and 29 RBI. He also added 11 stolen bases and was an excellent contact hitter. He struck out just 19 times in 205 at-bats, the second best ratio in the Pioneer League. His 21 walks gave him more bases on balls than strikeouts. Lopez is still only 20 years old, so he may have to wait his turn behind more experienced players battling for spots in Dayton. He is a switch-hitter and is listed at 5'10", 170 lbs. Lopez is well-known to Dragons pitching coach Derrin Ebert, who operates a baseball school in the Phoenix area that Lopez attended as an amateur.
Ty Blankmeyer was a 36th round draft pick by the Reds last summer after four seasons at St. John's University, where his father, Ed, has been the head coach for the last 22 seasons. Ty was a part-time player at St. John's and batted .241 with a .408 on-base percentage as a senior in 2016. Blankmeyer was picked as the top defensive second baseman in 2015 in the Northwoods League, a college summer league. He hit well at Billings last summer after being signed by the Reds, batting .280 in 26 games without a home run. Blankmeyer was strictly a second baseman at Billings and committed just two errors in his 22 games in the field. He is listed at 5'7, 160 lbs.
The starts at second base at Billings in 2016 were divided three ways, almost equally, between Lopez, Blankmeyer, and former Florida State star John Sansone, who is expected to be the Dragons starting third baseman in 2017 and will be previewed at that position.
Next up: Shortstop