Daytona Cruises

Cincinnati's first round selection last season, Nick Howard, is starting off his first full season like he might force a promotion to AA by the end of the year. After two starts he hasn’t allowed an earned run as the new Reds affiliate in Daytona has an early position close to the top of the Florida State League Standings.

Daytona improved to 6-3 and pulled to within a half game of first place with a 9-1 victory over visiting Tampa on Saturday. The Tortugas took an early lead by plating a run in each of the first three innings when Alex Blandino tripled in the first before scoring on a groundout, Taylor Sparks led off the second with homer, and the first three batters of the next frame singled plating Phillip Ervin on an RBI hit from Blandino. They then blew the game open with a six runs in the fourth which included run-scoring hits from Blandino, Sparks, Joe Hudson, and a two-run double by Sebastian Elizalde. Sammy Diaz, who led off the inning with a walk, drove in the final run with a groundout.

Blandino led the attack by going 4-5 with two runs scored and a pair of RBI. Three of his teammates contributed two runs each: Elizalde, Sparks, and Carlton Daal. Joe Hudson and Nick Benedetto both reached safely twice via a hit and a walk apiece. Hudson, who spent most of his season at Dayton last year where he hit .216 is now batting .375 with a .444 OBP. On the mound starter Nick Howard got the win by holding the Yankees to only one unearned run on two hits/five walks in five innings with four strikeouts. Joel Bender got the save by throwing four scoreless frames.

Howard was Cincinnati’s first round selection in last year’s draft and thus far in 2015 he’s looking like, well, a first rounder. He’s 2-0 after two starts with a zero ERA and has allowed only four hits in ten innings pitched. He has been generous with nine walks, but his stinginess allowing hits has prevented them from crossing the plate. He’s coming off a professional debut last year where he kept his ERA under four while tossing 33 innings at Dayton.

Howard is a 6’4”/215# right-hander who was picked with the 19th overall selection after completing his career at the University of Virginia. Walks issued have inflated his pitch counts thus reducing the number if innings. Also, the Reds are probably careful to limit innings because he’s coming off a collegiate career where he split time between the infield and closing.

Actually, he digressed offensively his final year with the Cavaliers but that didn’t bother Cincinnati because their use of him since arriving shows they were more interested in his arm. He was a starter in college his first two years before his conversion to the pen produced an overpowering closer that struck out 50 hitters in only 29 innings. His main weapon to achieve that was a mid-90’s fastball that he used to attack the plate which he mixed in with a curve, slider, and changeup.

Cincinnati is not bashful about taking college closers and throwing them into minor league rotations as Howard, Michael Lorenzen, and Tony Cingrani quickly come to mind. One advantage of drafting college players is that it’s easier to fast track them up the system and in the case of relievers that can be facilitated by giving them extra innings. Along the way if they prove rotation ready for the long haul it’s all the better. In Howard’s case his collegiate career gives reason to believe he can improve his command and his four-pitch repertoire gives him plenty of options on the mound if he can develop his off-speed offerings.

Howard is now 22 years old and the road to the MLB level can be shorter for relievers. His arrival schedule will likely depend on his ability to stick in the rotation and Cincinnati must have felt there was a decent chance of that happening before investing the first round pick. Right now his upside would be a solid mid/top rotation pitcher with a downside of an effective reliever, possibly closing. From the start of his 2015 season it appears his immediate future will be at AA Pensacola by the end of the season.

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