*MLB Prospect Watch will be recapping each farm system as a whole, focusing on particular players who did something noteworthy this season. For the next 30 (business) days, we will be featuring one organization per day.
The Reds system is not terribly strong after promotions in recent years have depleted the system. They're on the right track with some solid pitching prospects, most of whom should be ready in the next year or two, but their lack of impact bats is a glaring weakness.
Biggest Step Forward: Jesse Winker, OF: Sometimes, just backing up a good season with another solid year is all we need from a prospect. That's the case of Winker, who didn't surprise us with a breakout performance or anything like that, but had his second straight solid season with the bat. He was impressive at the Futures' Game that helped bring him some national spotlight, but it didn't change his ability as a prospect. He struggled in a late-season stint in Double-A, but it's nothing that he can't fix when he returns there next season. He's the best hitting prospect in the Reds system, and further cemented that status with a solid 2014 season.
You could also make a case for Michael Lorenzen in this spot, who had a good year for Double-A Pensacola and calmed many of the concerns that he was destined for the bullpen.
Take a Step Back: Robert Stephenson, RHP: What Winker did this year was all we wanted from Stephenson, who had established himself last season as one of the game's top prospects after handling three different levels of full-season ball as a 20-year-old. He took a step back, however, struggling in Double-A as his below-average command turned into below-average control and his walk rate skyrocketed. He's still just 21, so we're far from writing him off as a prospect, or even as a starting pitcher, but it is time for him to take a step forward with the fastball command.
Ready for the Majors: Yorman Rodriguez, OF: Rodriguez may not be quite ready for the majors yet, but he's in Cincinnati this September anyway because the Reds needed to add him to the 40-man roster this off-season anyway. He'll probably return to Triple-A to start next season, but his plate discipline did take a nice step forward this season which should help allow his raw power to play better in games. He feels like he's been around forever, but Rodriguez is still just 22 and could be in the majors by next summer.
Statistical King: Ben Lively, RHP: Lively got off to a remarkable start to the season, going 5-0 in five April starts with a 0.31 ERA - in the California League of all places. That put some unrealistic expectations on the former fourth-round pick, who profiles as a back-end starter. He came back down to Earth as regression set in, but he continued to hold his own in a tough hitter's league then handle a promotion to Double-A quite well. He's not going to anchor the Reds rotation, but he could be a member of it at some point, which is more than we probably thought before his breakout season.
Newest Addition: Nick Howard, RHP: Selected 19th overall this past June, the 6'3" right-hander out of the University of Virginia handled an assignment to full-season Dayton well and could head straight to High-A Daytona next season. He projects as a potential mid-rotation starter and immediately becomes the best pitching prospect in the Reds system not named Robert Stephenson or Michael Lorenzen.