Dragons 2023 Preview, Part 7: Starting Pitchers
Three weeks from today, the Dayton Dragons will take the field at Day Air Ballpark for their 23rd home opening night game. Opening night is Tuesday, April 11th against the Great Lakes Loons at 7:05 p.m. Dragons single-game tickets and season ticket plans are available now. The season ticket plans
Three weeks from today, the Dayton Dragons will take the field at Day Air Ballpark for their 23rd home opening night game. Opening night is Tuesday, April 11th against the Great Lakes Loons at 7:05 p.m. Dragons single-game tickets and season ticket plans are available now. The season ticket plans feature the Dragons new Business Club and Family Club and are loaded with special benefits. Call the Dragons at (937) 228-2287 or go to daytondragons.com/tickets for more information.
This is part seven of an eight-part series previewing the 2023 Dragons. Players listed here are candidates for positions on the Dragons season-opening roster.
This preview is an unofficial projection of possible roster candidates. Minor League rosters are not established until April 4. Spring training variables including performance, injuries, trades, and additional player acquisitions will impact the roster accordingly.
The Starting Pitchers
Click links on each name for career stats and player information.
Candidates: Chase Petty, Javi Rivera, Sam Benschoter, Julian Aguiar, Bryce Hubbart, Tanner Cooper.
The 2022 Dragons opening day starting rotation will go down as one of the best ever constructed in team history, and perhaps the very best. The 2006 Dragons rotation might currently hold the crown as the best in franchise history, featuring Johnny Cueto, Travis Wood, Carlos Fisher, Jeff Stevens, and Zach Ward. Four of those five went on to the Major Leagues, two pitched in MLB all-star games, one was a 20-game winner, and the one who did not reach the big leagues, Ward, set a Dragons single-season ERA record that still stands to this day.
The 2022 Dragons rotation featured Andrew Abbott and Connor Phillips, both currently considered high-level prospects in the Reds system, as well as flame-throwing Joe Boyle, highly-regarded hurlers Thomas Farr and James Proctor, and James Marinan, who was on the Reds 40-man roster at the start of the 2022 season. Of that group, Abbott went on to become the Reds 2022 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, Phillips rates as one of the top three pitching prospects in the entire organization, and Boyle might have the best arm of anyone in the system. Farr is likely to open the 2023 season in Chattanooga and shows promise. Proctor suffered a most-unfortunate career-ending shoulder injury and is now working for Major League Baseball. Marinan did struggle in 2022 and was released by the Reds earlier this week. The 2023 Dragons rotation could rival the success of the group from 2022.
Chase Petty will enter the 2023 season, by most accounts, as the highest-rated pitching prospect in the entire Cincinnati Reds organization. All four of the major ranking services (Baseball America, MLB.com, the Athletic, and Fangraphs) have Petty listed highest among Reds minor league pitchers. He is ranked #5 overall in the Reds system by the Athletic, behind infielders Elly De La Cruz, Cam Collier, Noelvi Marte, and Edwin Arroyo. He is ranked #6 overall by Baseball America and Fangraphs, and #8 overall by MLB.com.
In 2022, the Reds made several trades in which established major league veterans were dealt for prospects, and Petty was involved in the first of those deals, acquired from the Minnesota Twins for former MLB all-star Sonny Gray and former Dragon Francis Peguera on March 13, 2022. Petty had been the Twins first round draft pick in 2021, the 26th overall selection of the draft, out of Mainland Regional High School in Linwood, New Jersey. He tossed just five innings in the Twins system in 2021 before the trade.
Petty was named the New Jersey Gatorade Player of the Year after his senior season of high school, and was ranked by Baseball America as the hardest-throwing high school pitcher and fifth best overall high school pitching prospect in the 2021 draft. His fastball was clocked at 100 mph at the 2020 WWBA National Championship in Marietta, Georgia. He also pitched in the prestigious Perfect Game All-American Classic in 2020 in Oklahoma City and had committed to play at the University of Florida before signing professionally.
Petty was assigned to the Reds Single-A affiliate at Daytona at the end of spring training in 2022, shortly after he had arrived in the trade. He was utilized in a tandem role for the first half of the season, alternating starts and relief appearances. Over the course of the season, the Reds protected Petty’s young arm by limiting him to no more than five innings in any outing, and his pitch count never topped 77 on the year. With Daytona, Petty posted an ERA of 3.06 in 68 innings. From June 1 until being promoted from Daytona to Dayton on July 27, he recorded an ERA of 2.34 (34.2 IP, 9 ER), as his fastball generally ranged 92-96 mph.
Petty’s first inning with the Dragons was his worst of the year, but he made major improvements from there. He gave up five runs in his first inning with the Dragons on July 31, but only 10 more over the remainder of the season covering 30 innings. He allowed no runs in three of his seven starts with Dayton, including an outing on August 11 vs. Lansing when he fired four no-hit innings, retiring 12 of 13 batters faced with six strikeouts. Beginning with his third start with Dayton, he posted an ERA of 2.38 in his final five outings of the season covering 22.2 innings with three walks and 28 strikeouts, frequently dominating Midwest League hitters despite being one of the youngest pitchers in the league. He will not turn 20 years old until April 4 of this year, two days before the start of the Dragons 2023 season. His final ERA with the Dragons was 4.40 in seven starts.
Petty was selected by MLB.com as the Reds pitching prospect with “Best Slider” and named Honorable Mention for “Best Change-up” and “Best Control.”
Petty is far from the typical scatter-armed, hard-throwing youngster that you sometimes see in the minor leagues. He does throw very hard, but he has walked only 32 batters in 103 career innings. With the Dragons in 2022, he walked only seven and threw only one wild pitch in 31 innings.
MLB.com included the following in Petty’s scouting report: “Petty’s athleticism -- some say he looks like a shortstop on the mound -- works to his advantage and he pitches with a ton of energy. His move up a level to Dayton in 2022 helped him learn about professional routines and preparation as well as to trust his stuff in the zone more, with more advanced hitters less likely to chase…and (he) looks like he has the combination of stuff and command to be a solid big league starter.
Update: Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer reported this week that starting pitcher Chase Petty, the highest-rated pitcher in the Reds system and the projected ace of the Dragons 2023 starting rotation, “will be delayed in his start to the season because of injury.” Nightengale says that “if Petty progresses as expected, he’s expected to debut at the end of April or early May.”
Javi Rivera has an interesting background as a former infielder who converted to pitcher during two seasons at Indian River State College in Florida. He spent his junior year (2021) at Florida Atlantic University and enjoyed success on the mound, going 7-0 with a 4.83 ERA in 14 starts. Rivera, who was born in Puerto Rico and played at Freedom High School in Orlando, majored in Biological Sciences at FAU with aspirations of becoming an orthopedic surgeon, but his baseball career has offered great potential.
The Reds selected Rivera in the 20th and final round of the 2021 draft. He made his professional debut with Daytona in 2022 and was outstanding with the Tortugas. Rivera was named Florida State League Pitcher of the Month for June, going 1-0 with a 0.48 ERA in five games (one run allowed in 18.2 innings). His ERA from June 1 until August 9 was 1.86 (38.1 IP, 8 ER), earning him a mid-season promotion to the Dragons. Rivera’s fastball averaged 91-95 mph with Daytona and his control was exceptional as he allowed just 18 walks in 74 innings. Rivera’s final ERA with Daytona was a strong 2.81.
Rivera drew attention in his second start with the Dragons on August 19 at Fort Wayne, when he fired five no-hit innings, allowing no walks with six strikeouts in a dominant performance. He made five starts with the Dragons and a couple of bad innings drove his final ERA to 5.12, but he limited opposing batters to a combined average of .211 and struck out 23 in 19 innings. Rivera, a player taken in the very last round of the draft in 2021, did enough in 2022 that he is beginning to make a name for himself on some of the prospect lists. Fangraphs ranks Rivera as the Reds #45 prospect, and RedsMinorLeagues.com, which covers the Reds farm system more thoroughly than any other media outlet, has Rivera ranked at #25. Rivera seems to be rising and could be a quality arm in the Dragons starting rotation.
Steve Hajjar was one of three prospects acquired from the Twins in exchange for former Dragon Tyler Mahle at the trade deadline last August. The other two players acquired in the trade, third baseman Spencer Steer and first baseman Christian Encarnacion-Strand, both look like tremendous pick-ups for Cincinnati, and Hajjar hopes to have a healthy 2023 season and move up the prospect list.
Hajjar was a high school star at Central Catholic in Lawrence, Massachusetts and was selected as the Gatorade state player of the year in 2018. He played college baseball at the University of Michigan and was First Team All-Big Ten in 2021 as a junior. The Twins drafted Hajjar in the second round in ’21 and gave him a signing bonus of more than $1.1 million.
Hajjar opened the 2022 season with the Twins Low-A club at Fort Myers in the Florida State League and posted a 2.47 ERA in 12 starts, limiting opposing batters to a combined average of just .168. He gave up just 25 hits in 44 innings and struck out 71. Immediately after the trade, he was assigned to the Dragons and made two starts before his season was shut down due to shoulder soreness. He has reportedly been pitching in minor league games this spring (though information from minor league spring training games is very difficult to obtain). If healthy, he is a very interesting prospect. He is ranked as the Reds #28 prospect by Fangraphs.
Update: Hajjar was traded to Cleveland as the player to be named later in the deal that brought Major League outfielder Will Benson to Cincinnati.
Sam Benschoter showed enormous potential in four starts with the Dragons in 2022 and looks like a great find by the Reds as an undrafted free agent. Benschoter played five seasons at Michigan State University from 2017-21 and was a four-time All-Academic Big Ten selection with a degree in special education—learning disabilities. He had mixed success on the mound during his college career, showing plenty of ability at times, such as a start against Nebraska on April 25, 2021, when he struck out 17 batters in one game. But Benschoter’s career ERA at Michigan State was 6.97 (7.40 in 2021), causing him to be completely passed over in the draft. The Reds signed him as a free agent late in 2021.
Benschoter opened the 2022 season with Daytona and struck out an amazing 80 batters in 52 innings, posting an ERA of 4.01 in 14 games including nine starts. His fastball averaged 92-95 mph and he showed very strong secondary pitches. He was promoted to the Dragons on August 23 and made four starts with the Dayton club, posting an ERA of 4.32 with 23 strikeouts in 17 innings. In one start on August 28 at Quad Cities, he struck out nine batters in five innings, allowing just one walk and one run. He pitched in the Arizona Fall League after the 2022 season. He looks like another very capable starting pitcher with the Dragons.
Julian Aguiar spent time at two different California junior colleges before being drafted by the Reds in the 12th round in 2021. He signed with Cincinnati, passing up an offer to play at the University of Tennessee. Aguiar showed very good potential in 2022 and like Javi Rivera, has opened some eyes after being somewhat off the radar.
Aguiar spent most of the 2022 season at Daytona, posting a 3.16 ERA in 88 innings, striking out 103 and walking only 22. He was promoted to the Dragons on August 30 and made two starts, the second of which was very strong when he allowed just one unearned run in five innings with six strikeouts. Aguiar has a big arm with a fastball that averaged 94-96 mph at Daytona. He has the potential to establish himself as a quality prospect.
Bryce Hubbart has the least amount of professional experience of any pitcher in this preview. He was drafted by the Reds in 2022 out of Florida State University and tossed just seven innings in the minor leagues after signing with Cincinnati. Hubbart was a third round selection and received a reported $522,000 to sign.
Hubbart starred at Windermere High School about 12 miles west of Orlando (the town of Windermere has a population of only 3,000 but has been home to many celebrities including Ken Griffey, Jr; golfers Tiger Woods and Bubba Watson; former NBA stars Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill, and Vince Carter, and former Dragon Jesse Winker). As a senior in 2019, Hubbart went 9-0 with a 0.73 earned run average and 96 strikeouts in 57.2 innings pitched, earning a selection as a Perfect Game All-American and First Team All-Region in Florida. He was also the Florida Athletic Coaches Association District 11 MVP and the High School Baseball Network 8A Pitcher of the Year.
Hubbart spent three seasons at Florida State (2020-22) and was highly successful. He earned Second Team All-ACC honors in 2022, going 8-3 with a 3.32 ERA. He struck out 10 or more four times in 2022. In 2021, he was Third Team All-ACC, going 6-5 with a 3.80 ERA. He also earned Academic All-Conference honors. In his brief transition to pro ball after the 2022 draft, he made three relief appearances with Daytona, allowing just one hit and no runs in five and two-thirds innings with 10 strikeouts.
Hubbart is ranked as the Reds #20 prospect by MLB.com, #18 by the Athletic, and #43 by Fangraphs. He was named by MLB.com as the Reds pitching prospect with the “Best Control” and Honorable Mention for “Best Change-up” and “Best Curveball.” In 2022, Dragons starting pitchers Andrew Abbott and Thomas Farr made the jump from college pitcher one year to beginning the next year in High-A, and Hubbart could work on a similar timetable.
Tanner Cooper has been part of the Reds farm system since he was drafted in 2019 out of junior college and spent all of 2022 at Daytona.
Cooper began his college career as an infielder and pinch hitter at Stony Brook University in 2018 before transferring to Finger Lakes Community College for 2019 season as a two-way player. Cooper batted .411 with eight home runs in 61 games, posting a .714 slugging percentage. Meanwhile, he was the ace of the pitching staff, going 8-4 with a 1.62 ERA in 72 innings. His 136 strikeouts led the nation at the Division III level of junior college baseball. He planned to transfer to Penn State until signing with the Reds as a 2019 35th round draft pick.
In 2022 at Daytona, Cooper allowed one earned run or less in nine of his 15 starts. From May 25-July 13, he posted an ERA of 2.31 over 39 innings, allowing just 31 hits and seven walks with 40 strikeouts. He finished the year with a 3.55 ERA. He is not overpowering as his fastball averaged 88-91 mph, but he issued only 21 walks in 84 innings, an outstanding ratio. In fact, three of the starting pitchers in this preview, Cooper, Rivera, and Aguiar averaged under 2.5 walks per nine innings at Daytona, a rare accomplishment at the Single-A level.
Next up: Relief Pitchers
More Information:The Dayton Dragons are the affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds and play 66 home games at beautiful Day Air Ballpark, in the heart of the Water Street District. Contact the Dragons by calling at (937) 228-2287, emailing at [email protected], or go to daytondragons.com. For more information, please visit the following links:
- 2023 Schedule: https://www.milb.com/dayton/team/schedules
- Season Tickets: https://www.milb.com/dayton/tickets/seasontickets
- Group and Hospitality Options: https://www.milb.com/dayton/tickets/groupoutings
- Single Game Tickets: https://www.milb.com/dayton/tickets/single-game-tickets