Spotting the stars early is a game unto itself

By Marc Katz

Of course I knew Joey Votto was going to make it to the big leagues and become a big star with the Cincinnati Reds. It just took a year to come to that conclusion.

His first 60 games with the Dayton Dragons in 2003? Oh, my, gosh. He was a catcher who had played some third base trying to learn how to play first base, and that wasn’t the worst part. I wondered how a guy considered a top prospect in the organization could be hitting just .231 in low-A baseball.

When I arrived at the park one day, he was gone, returned to rookie-level Billings, a
19-year-old with dashed dreams.

The next year, he was back, and this time he could play. I began comparing him, in my mind, to a more powerful Sean Casey and capable of hitting for a higher average.

In 12 major league seasons, Casey averaged .302 with 15 homers and 85 RBIs. Votto, entering his 12th season, has averaged .313 with 29 homers and 94 RBIs.

How’m I doing as a scout so far?

The Dragons open their season this week, and guessing who is going to make it to the majors is one of the most fun parts. There are several categories. Votto and Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns and Jay Bruce and Homer Bailey (and I could go on and on) you knew would make the bigs and be starters unless injuries got in the way.

Others you could see as utility players or specialists in hitting, pitching, fielding.

Justin Turner was a guy I thought could play in the majors, but I didn’t know how much. Neither did the Reds, Orioles or Mets, all of whom had Turner at one time. The Dodgers decided to give him a chance.

He’s going to miss the start of this season with a broken hand, but look for him to be a force with the Dodgers when he returns. He hit .322 last season and was a star in the playoffs. He didn’t have the big, bushy red beard when he played for the Dragons, but you know it’s him.

Here’s how the guessing game is played. You watch a player with the Dragons, look at his draft history and project him out 3–4 years. Does he have something in his history that suggests he’ll make it, or is he a pile of inconsistencies and injuries that will stop him early on?

Todd Coffey pitched here in 2002 and 2003. He was good, but not what I’d call sensational. A 41st-round draft choice, he also entered pro ball already with Tommie John surgery on his elbow and 20–30 pounds overweight.

Then he developed a split-finger fastball, and pitched eight years in the majors
with four teams.

A better come-from-behind story than that involves catcher Ryan Hanigan, who couldn’t beat out the incumbent catcher at tiny Rollins College and was discovered by the Reds in August, 2002, playing in the Cape Cod League.

Desperately needing a catcher because of injuries, Hanigan was signed and played six games for Dayton, doing well enough to be invited to Spring Training 2003. This was a guy who wasn’t drafted by anybody out of high school or college.

Now Hanigan’s a veteran of 11 major league seasons. He went to Spring Training this year with Cleveland, but was released.

The list goes on. Chris Heisey—a personal favorite—was a 17th-round draft pick in 2006 out of tiny Messiah College somewhere in Pennsylvania. He went there to play baseball and basketball and was only spotted by baseball scouts because he attended a Reds camp at the request of a friend. He has eight years in the majors. Adam Rosales was a 12th-round draft pick and scouts kept telling me his bat speed was too slow, but he has been a major league player for 10 years and is expected to start this season at Class AAA Columbus after being signed by the parent Cleveland Indians.

Donald Lutz grew up in Germany and didn’t begin playing baseball until he was in high school. The Reds signed him to a free agent contract and he eventually played parts of two seasons in Cincinnati. He’s now a coach in the system.

These are the mental games I have played at Fifth Third Field the last 18 years. Who is going to make it to the majors? Who is just a fill-in to help the real prospects make it
to the top?

Take a good look at Jeter Downs this summer, and Jose Garcia in the middle infield, and pitcher Hunter Greene when he joins the team, probably just after the season starts.

Just don’t stop there. Make sure you look over all the players on the roster. There might be some hidden gems.

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Columbus-born Marc Katz had a 44-year newspaper career, 41 of those years covering sports, 40 of them at the Dayton Daily News. He now blogs at Reach Dayton City Paper sports writer Marc Katz at

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