At 24 years old, reliever Jesse Stallings isn’t quite a gray-beard among his Dragons teammates, but he could be.
The Cincinnati Reds’ Class A affiliate usually is stocked with high-profile draft choices and youthful unknowns, all hoping to eventually earn a can’t-miss call-up.
Stallings doesn’t fit any of that. He’s in his second term with the Dragons, but hasn’t been with the club since a memorable 2017 season. Promoted to Class-A Advanced Daytona last season, his arm wore out by June. Following rehab at Arizona, he finished strong in rookie ball at Billings (Mont.) and embraced a return to Dayton to begin this season.
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“There were a lot of cuts after spring training and I wasn’t one of them,” said Stallings prior to Wednesday’s final workout before Thursday’s 7 p.m. season opener against the Bowling Green Hot Rods at Fifth Third Field.
“The way I like to look at it, if I have a jersey on my back, I still have a chance. I still have a job. It doesn’t matter if I’m here or in Double-A to start the season. This is a chance for me to play. I’m doing everything I can do to hopefully have the opportunity to go somewhere.”
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Unlike recent seasons when as many as 15 former Dragons returned, there will be just seven somewhat familiar faces among a roster of 25 who will wear the mostly white, green and black. Pitchers Connor Bennett, Andy Cox and Jared Solomon all ended last season at Dayton and return. So did outfielder Shard Munroe, a Bahama native.
Credit the Reds’ purchase of the Greeneville (Tenn.) Astros of the Appalachian League prior to last season as the main break from an abundance of returning Dragons. Renamed the Greeneville Reds, that also is a rookie ball franchise. Now, players who might have anchored at Dayton are just as likely to remain at Billings or Greeneville.
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Solomon, a right-hander from Millville, Pa., and Lackawanna College at Scranton, earned the opening-day start. He led the Pioneer League in most pitching categories before a late call-up to Dayton last season.
Jacob Heatherly, a lefty from Cullman, Ala., gets the second-day pitching start on Friday against the Hot Rods. Dayton begins a road trip at Bowling Green on Saturday and completes a four-day trip to Fort Wayne on Thursday, April 11.
Many Dragons are like infielder Dylan Harris, a Land O’ Lakes, Fla., infielder who signed with the Reds as an undrafted free agent. Outfielder Mariel Bautista of the Dominican Republic spent the last three seasons in rookie ball before earning a promotion to Dayton. For many Dragons, learning English ranks high on a to-do list along with a promotion.
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Dragons manager Luis Bolivar, whose roster wasn’t finalized until last weekend, has been impressed.
“It’s one of the most talented groups I’ve seen,” he said during a meet-the-team event for local media on Wednesday. “They’re young and they have a lot to learn. There’s a lot of potential in these guys and they’re going to surprise a lot of people in this league.”
Stallings has ably handled every reliever role, even closer. At this point, he’s just glad to be on the mound again with a healthy arm.
“As long as I don’t question myself and just do what I do, things are going to work out,” he said.