Pender likes what he sees in Reds farm system

Dragons shortstop Elly De La Cruz is a key member of the Reds' young and talented group of minor leaguers. CONTRIBUTED/Jeff Gilbert

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Dragons shortstop Elly De La Cruz is a key member of the Reds' young and talented group of minor leaguers. CONTRIBUTED/Jeff Gilbert

Top talent is young and moving through Dayton

When Cincinnati Reds’ minor-league overseer Shawn Pender surveys the rosters, he likes the talent he sees more than he ever has.

And that talent — especially in Dayton — is young. Dragons shortstop Elly De La Cruz, the MLB.com No. 2 prospect in the Reds’ system is 20, and starting pitcher Connor Phillips, who was promoted this week to Class AA Chattanooga, is 21.

“We’re certainly well ahead of where we were,” said Pender, the Reds’ vice president for player development. “There’s been a more conscientious effort to develop our talent and also bring in additional talent as we try to rebuild the farm system. It’s not always equated to wins, but I certainly think we’re younger than we’ve been at a lot of levels, which is a really good thing.”

Baseball America ranked the Reds No. 7 this spring in its annual organizational talent rankings. That’s 22 spots better than in 2019.

Dayton’s roster has been populated by more of the Red’s top-rated prospects this season than usual. Phillips (No. 13) and outfielder Allan Cerda (No. 21) were promoted to Chattanooga this week along with third baseman Nick Quintana. One of the new players in town is infielder and No. 9 prospect Tyler Callihan.

Here are five takeaways from a conversation with Pender:

1. Callihan making progress: The Reds drafted Callihan out of high school in 2019 because of his bat.

“We see him as a guy that has a chance to be a very good offensive player at the big-league level,” Pender said.

Callihan has mostly played second base but opened with the Dragons on Tuesday at third base. With Jose Torres at second, Pender said Callihan will get work at third, second and DH. The DH duties are part of Callihan rebuilding his strength. He had Tommy John surgery last year and then a thumb injury.

“The kid’s a gamer and he’s going to want to play every day, all day,” Pender said. “But we’re going to try to bring it along in a away that’s most beneficial for him.

2. Middle infield depth: De La Cruz, who might be the best player in the Midwest League, leads a group that includes Torres, Callihan, former Dragons Jose Barrero, Matt McClain, Francisco Urbaez and Ivan Johnson and rookie leaguers Carlos Jorge and Leonardo Balcazar.

“That’s certainly our strength right now that gives us some depth there that we haven’t had for a while,” Pender said. “That’s absolutely a very positive thing.”

3. McGarry not too old: First baseman Alex McGarry returned to Dayton as a 24-year-old and is trying to earn one of the prospect rankings. He was one of the best all-around hitters in the league until a recent promotion to Chattanooga.

With the Lookouts, McGarry is batting .328 with a .967 OPS, four homers and 11 RBIs in 15 games. The time is fast approaching when the Reds will need a replacement for Joey Votto.

“He’s put himself into that pipeline with the way he’s performed.” Pender said. “He’s shown some power and showed some ability to manipulate the bat head.”

4. Starting pitcher talent: The Dragons’ two best starters this season are part of the younger set. Phillips is 21 and Joe Boyle is 22.

Phillips was 4-3 for the Dragons with a 2.95 ERA in 12 starts. He struck out 90 and walked 32 in 64 innings.

“Phillips has been very exciting to us because he’s got a really strong four-pitch mix with the ability to compete and throw strikes,” Pender said. “He can pitch as well as he’s got stuff, and that’s a real commodity.”

Though Boyle is a year older, he’s not quite ready for AA. He didn’t pitch a lot in college at Notre Dame, and the Reds have kept his pitch and inning counts lower than other pitchers. Still, he has been dominant with a 0.72 ERA in 11 starts. He has struck out 78 and allowed only 14 hits in 50 1/3 innings but has walked 37.

“He’s around the plate with three quality pitches, and now he needs to continue to improve his command and control,” Pender said. “He’s really stood out as a super talented kid with great stuff, but really is learning how to pitch.”

5. Cerda’s power is noticeable: Cerda hit 13 homers for the Dragons. He hit many of them flew out of Day Air Ballpark. He also homered in his first game in AA.

Cerda’s next step in development is to make more contact. He batted .219 in Dayton and has a career batting average of .242. He strikes out over a third of the time.

“He needs to control the strike zone a little bit more in his approach, but he’s got power and he’s got impact bat potential,” Pender said. “Very dangerous hitter. We have a lot of confidence in his upside.”

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