Part 5 of 8 in the Dragons 2012 Positional Preview
Today we continue an eight-part look at the candidates to play for the Dragons in 2012 and look at the third base position.
Hands on Deck: Junior Arias, Sean Buckley.
The third base position has produced some outstanding players since the Dragons began play in 2000. Two Dragons third basemen have reached the major leagues to date. Juan Francisco led the Midwest League in home runs with the Dragons in 2007 when he belted 25, the fourth highest total in team history. Five years earlier, Edwin Encarnacion, who had just joined the Reds organization in a trade with the Texas Rangers, enjoyed a strong season in Dayton, batting .282 with 17 home runs, 73 runs batted in, and 25 stolen bases. Encarnacion was in the big leagues by 2005 and was dealt to Toronto in the Scott Rolen trade in 2009. Francisco reached the majors late in 2009 and is battling this spring for the 25th spot on the Reds roster, out of options.
The Dragons had an interesting group at third base in 2008. Power-hitting Brandon Waring, one of the nicest people you could ever meet, saw the most time at the hot corner that year and belted 20 home runs for the Dragons. He was dealt to the Orioles after that season in a trade that brought catcher Ramon Hernandez to Cincinnati. Since the trade, Waring has continued to hit home runs. He has now hit at least 20 long balls in five consecutive years, the first of which came in a short-season league with Billings. But Waring has battled high strikeouts totals that have kept his batting average down. He hit .222 at Double-A Bowie last season with 21 home runs.
Neftali Soto joined the Dragons in July of 2008 and split time at third base with Waring, with one playing first base or serving as the designated hitter when not playing third. Soto, now on the cusp of a big league career, was a huge addition to the Dragons offense from the moment he arrived and helped the team to the second round of the playoffs. He hit .326 with the Dragons in 52 games. He also hit seven home runs as a very slender 19-year-old. Soto's body has since filled out and he belted 31 homers in 2011, mostly with Double-A Carolina, to earn a spot on the Reds 40-man roster. He could easily see big league time in 2012 with the Reds.
In 2011, David Vidal served as the Dragons third baseman. In a season in which much of the spotlight was focused on others, Vidal was exceptional. For starters, he surprised almost everyone by providing gold glove quality defense at third base, committing just 10 errors all season. Most observers expected Vidal to be strong in the field, but as the season wore on, you heard the same words repeated over and over. "I did not expect him to be this good." At the plate, Vidal was streaky, but his final numbers told the story. He hit .280 with 20 home runs and a team-leading 85 RBI. In Dragons history, only Austin Kearns and Vidal's 2011 teammate, Donald Lutz, have hit .280 or higher with at least 20 home runs. On many Midwest League teams in 2011, Vidal would have been the best overall position player on the club.
Junior Arias is in line to replace Vidal as the Dragons third baseman in 2012. Arias, still just 20 years old, will enter his fourth season in the Reds organization this year, and his first year in full-season baseball. Arias signed as an international free agent of some notability as a 16-year-old in July of 2008, the same year the Reds signed high-priced international free agents Yorman Rodriguez and Juan Duran. Arias was initially pursued by a number of clubs nearly as aggressively as Rodriguez and Duran, but an elbow injury reportedly caused some teams to back off. He was signed as a shortstop out of the Dominican Republic and his progress has been closely followed. Entering the 2011 season, Baseball America ranked Arias as the 17th best prospect in the Reds organization, saying "his hits show plenty of carry when he squares up the ball, and he shows...plenty of opposite field power." Arias received those comments following the 2010 season when he played with the Goodyear Reds in the Arizona League and hit .287 with six homers in 47 games.
Arias advanced to Billings of the Pioneer League in 2011, moved to third base, and got off to a rough start. At the midpoint of the PL season, he was hitting just .206 with two home runs. However, he had a much better second half, and the Reds hope the Arias of the second half of 2011 will carry over to 2012. Still with Billings in the second half, he batted .287 with six HR in 33 games, posting a fine slugging percentage of .541. He connected on home runs in three of the Mustangs last four games. He finished the season at .251 with eight homers, 30 RBI, and seven stolen bases in 219 at-bats. If Arias can translate his performance from the second half in 2011 over a full-season in the Midwest League, his offensive numbers will be quite similar to those of Vidal in 2011.
Sean Buckley was profiled with the first basemen in part two of our preview. Buckley and Arias split time at third base with Billings last season, but Buckley appears headed for first base with the Dragons in 2012. It is possible that he will continue to gain experience at third as well on days when Arias needs a rest. It should be noted that Buckley has had a medical issue that has prevented him from participating in drills this spring.
The Dragons open their 13th season in the Midwest League on April 5th against the West Michigan Whitecaps at Fifth Third Field.
Next up: Outfield preview.