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Dragons 2012 Preview: Starting Pitchers

March 27, 2012
Dragons 2012 Team Preview

Part 7 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 starting pitchers.

Starting Pitchers

Hands on Deck: Tanner Robles, Stalin Gerson, Mitch Clarke, Justice French, James Allen, Radhames Quezada, Joel Bender, Jean Duque.

The Dragons starting rotation in 2011 was deep and talented. At the time that Daniel Renken was promoted to Bakersfield late in the season, Renken was not only leading the 16-team Midwest League in strikeouts, but his teammates, Josh Smith and Daniel Corcino, ranked second and third.

Smith eventually won the league strikeout crown and set the Dragons club record. He started the mid-season all-star game for the Eastern Division team. At the end of the first half, his earned run average was 1.59 in 13 starts, and he finished the year at 14-7 with a 2.97 ERA to give the club one of the finest seasons by a starting pitcher in franchise history. Smith was selected as the Cincinnati Reds Minor League Pitcher of the Year for 2011.

Corcino finished at 11-7, 3.42. Renken's 3.18 ERA was much more indicative of his effectiveness than his 6-8 record, and he might have been the Dragons best pitcher at the time he earned the jump to Bakersfield. Renken struck out 141 in just 113 innings. With Smith, Corcino, Renken, and Kyle Lotzkar all moving up, several others who started games for Dayton in 2011 are all candidates to return to the Dragons in 2012.

Tanner Robles made 20 starts for the Dragons in 2011 and could return. Robles is a Utah native who posted a career record of 33-0 in high school, twice earning the state player of the year honor. He went on to Oregon State University before being selected by the Reds in the ninth round of the 2010 draft. Robles began his professional career with the Billings Mustangs in 2010 and was selected as the left-handed starting pitcher on the Pioneer League full-season all-star team. He went 3-3 with a 2.98 ERA with Billings in 14 starts. In 2011, Robles struggled to throw strikes, particularly early in the season. He finished the first half with a 3-6 record and a 7.09 ERA. He made a brief trip to the Arizona League with Goodyear to try to work on mechanics and was much better upon his return. In July, August, and September with the Dragons, Robles posted a record of 4-2 with a 3.11 ERA. He finished the season with the Dragons with a record of 7-9 with a 5.40 ERA. Robles is 23 years old.

Stalin Gerson is a 23-year-old native of the Dominican Republic who was signed by the Reds as a free agent in July of 2007. Gerson pitched for Delino DeShields at Billings in 2010, going 3-4, 4.88 in 15 starts. He began the 2011 season in extended spring training and then joined the Dragons for two starts in June when Robles went to Arizona. Gerson allowed just one run in 11 innings in those two starts for the Dragons before going to Billings when the Mustangs season started, just as Robles was returning to the Dragons. With Billings, Gerson showed more of the same, allowing just one run in 12 innings over two starts to earn a trip back to Dayton. Those four starts in June made Gerson the Reds Minor League Pitcher of the Month as he posted a record of 3-0 with a 0.78 ERA. In his first two starts back with the Dragons, Gerson allowed just one run in 13 innings, and at that point on July 9, his ERA on the year between Dayton and Billings was 0.75 in 36 innings. Scouts were taking notice.

Over the remainder of the season, Gerson came down to earth. He pitched in 10 more games with the Dragons (eight starts) and went 3-2 with a 4.84 ERA. His final 2011 Dayton numbers included a record of 6-2 with a 3.41 ERA in 14 games (12 starts). His return to the Dragons in 2012 would give the club an experienced starter who has had some success in the Midwest League that he can try to build upon.

Mitch Clarke is a left-handed starting pitcher from Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. Clarke is 21 years old and was drafted by the Reds in the 19th round out of high school in 2009. He began to gain notice in 2010 when his fastball picked up velocity. With the Goodyear Reds that season, Clarke was 3-1, 2.08 in 39 innings, posting a walk-strikeout ratio of 8-41. He began the 2011 season in extended spring training and then was assigned to Billings when the Mustangs season began in June. He went 1-1, 3.60 in five games with Billings and earned a promotion to the Dragons. In his first start in Dayton on July 22, Clarke went five scoreless innings and allowed only one hit. He continued to pitch well over his remaining outings with the Dragons and finished with a record of 3-2 and an ERA of 2.81. If you delete one bad outing, Clarke gave up only eight earned runs with the Dragons in 37.1 innings for a 1.93 ERA. He brings Midwest League experience and past success to the Dragons 2012 rotation.

Justice French is a 22-year-old native of the Atlanta suburb of Suwanee, Georgia. French has had a great spring in Arizona to lift himself into the starting rotation picture after being selected in the 25th round by the Reds in 2011 out of Mercer University, playing in the same conference (and with similar success) as 2011 Dragons all-star Josh Smith. French was at Mercer for four years and improved every season before emerging as his team's ace in the spring of 2011. He made 14 starts last year at Mercer, going 6-2 with a 3.26 ERA that ranked second in the conference. On March 30, 2011, French was the starting pitcher in Mercer's 4-2 win over # 6 ranked Georgia Tech. During college, French battled melanoma, a serious form of skin cancer, and was the subject of national news attention as he overcame the illness and began a professional baseball career. The Reds assigned French to the Arizona League with Goodyear, where he made 10 starts and went 4-4 with a 3.99 ERA. He issued just six walks in 58.2 innings, the best ratio in the league. When Goodyear reached the Arizona League playoffs, French was their game one starter. French was selected by Baseball America as the pitcher with the "best control" in the entire Reds organization. With French coming out of the same conference as Smith, one year later, there will be some comparisons in 2012. Considering Smith's success with the Dragons, any similarity would be a good thing.

James Allen was an outstanding relief pitcher at Kansas State University and then with Billings in the Reds organization in 2011, and he could be given a chance as a starter in 2012 with the Dragons. Allen was a seventh round pick last June by the Reds after setting school records for career (31) and single-season (17) saves at Kansas State. The 31 career saves are tied for fourth in Big 12 Conference history. Last spring at Kansas State, Allen went 3-1 with a 1.35 ERA. He was named first team All-American by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association and Collegiate Baseball. After joining the Reds organization, Allen went to Billings and pitched in 22 games, going 2-0 with seven saves and a 1.26 ERA. In 28.2 innings at Billings, he allowed just four earned runs. He walked only five and struck out 39. Opposing batters hit a combined .198 against him. In recent years, the Reds have shown a desire to utilize top prospects who were college relievers as starters in the low minors (Zach Stewart, Brad Boxberger) to allow them to gain more experience and use all of their pitches over longer outings. They might do the same with Allen in 2012.

Radhames Quezada is a hard-throwing right-hander who signed with the Reds as a 17 year old from the Dominican Republic in 2007. Over four years in the Reds organization, Quezada has taken it one step at a time and now looks poised to join the Dragons. Last season at Billings, Quezada made 10 starts and went 2-3 with a 3.83 ERA. While that ERA might not seem overly impressive, it would have ranked second in the league had Quezada not finished a few innings short of the minimum number to qualify in the Pioneer League, where hitters traditionally rule. Quezada struck out 55 batters in 49.1 innings on the year. His best start came July 13 when he notched 10 strikeouts in just five innings while walking only one and allowing only one run. His last start featured five scoreless innings with only one hit allowed, and in another game, he fired six scoreless innings. Known to have a good arm, Quezada is still only 21 years old and could jump onto some of the prospect lists with a strong season in Dayton in 2012.

Joel Bender is a Cincinnati native who joined the Reds organization in 2011 out of Oak Hills High School, the school that produced Pete Rose Jr. and former major leaguers Scott Klingenbeck and Bill Wegman. Bender had signed a national letter of intent to play college baseball at Louisville before signing with the Reds as a 27th round draft pick in 2010. Bender has good size at 6'4", 213 lbs. and is a left-hander. He began his professional career in 2011 with Goodyear in the Arizona League and went 4-3 with a 3.40 ERA in 12 appearances (eight starts). In August, the final month of the AZL season, Bender was outstanding, going 3-0 with a 1.95 ERA in five starts. His control was good all season as he walked just 17 batters in 53 innings. Bender is only 20 years old and should suit up with the Dragons at some point, if not at the start of the 2012 season.

Jean Duque is a 22 year old native of Venezuela who signed with the Reds in the off-season after being released by the White Sox. He spent five seasons in the White Sox organization, almost all of which came with their Dominican Summer League affiliate. In 2010, Duque pitched in the Dominican and went 5-3 with a fine 1.21 ERA in 13 starts, notching 82 strikeouts in 74 innings. Then last summer, the White Sox brought Duque to the states with Bristol in the Appalachian League, with disappointing results. He went 2-9 with a 6.32 ERA in 13 starts. Duque is said to have a good arm and the Reds will try to get him back to his form of 2010.

There are several other names to watch for later in 2012 as Dragons starting pitchers. Daniel Tuttle, a 2009 fifth round draft pick with one of the best arms in the organization, will likely join the Dragons 15 games into the season, upon completion of a suspension. Tuttle was 4-3, 4.87 in 11 starts with the Dragons in 2011 and could build on those numbers in a big way. Jacob Johnson , who spent all of 2010 with the Dragons but missed all of 2011 after shoulder surgery, could return after some extra work in extended spring training. Johnson was 8-7, 4.47 as a 19-year-old with the Dragons in 2010. Drew Cisco, the grandson of longtime major league pitching coach Galen Cisco, missed all of last season after elbow surgery. He was rated as the # 12 prospect in the entire Reds organization entering the 2011 campaign. Cisco will also need a little extra time in extended spring training. Cole Green, a key starting pitcher with last spring's University of Texas club that played in the College World Series, is out for the first 50 games with a suspension. It is possible that by June 1, Tuttle, Johnson, Cisco, and Green will make up four-fifths of the Dragons starting rotation.

Lastly, Robert Stephenson, the Reds # 1 draft pick in 2011, should eventually become the first Reds # 1 since Devin Mesoraco to play for the Dragons. The 19-year-old from Martinez, California has gotten rave reviews for his live arm, maturity, and attitude. Time will tell whether his Dragons debut will come in 2012 or 2013. Stephenson likely will spend some time with former Dragons pitching coach Tony Fossas at Billings this year.

The Dragons open their 13th season in the Midwest League on April 5th against the West Michigan Whitecaps at Fifth Third Field.

Next up: Bullpen preview.