Position: RHP Height: 6-4 Weight: 210 Born: 7/15/82 Bats: Right Throws: Right
I decided to write about Cincinnati Reds prospect Ryan Wagner this week because it may be my only chance to do a full prospect profile on him. He's already shown he can get major-league hitters out, and it is likely he'll spend 2004 in the major leagues, eliminating his eligibility for Down on the Farm coverage. But Wagner is still a rookie, so here goes. The University of Houston right-hander had one of the most dominant seasons in NCAA Division I history, earning a first-round slot in the '03 draft. He zipped through the minors very quickly, and finished the year dominating hitters in The Show. Wagner is definitely Cincinnati's closer of the future, and that future is very soon indeed.
Wagner's best pitch is his slider, which is a killer. Scouts already grade it as among the best pitches in baseball; right-handers can't touch it, and even lefties have trouble picking it up. Complementing the slider is a 90-94 mph fastball that has great movement. The fastball moves so well that it is sometimes confused with a breaking ball. Wagner also has a changeup, though it is less refined than his other two offerings. His command is good for a pitcher his age, and when everything is going right he is essentially unstoppable. Wagner is a decent natural athlete. His biggest flaw is mechanical consistency, which sometimes impacts his command. Although he's been durable so far, scouts worry about the effect the slider will have on his elbow. With less-than-perfect mechanics, he is best suited for a relief role since he'll be less likely to blow out his arm.
Performance analysts and statheads (like me) love Wagner as much as scouts do. He set an NCAA Division I record in K/9 IP in '03, and he continued striking batters out at an excellent clip in pro ball. His K/BB and H/IP ratios are also strong, and of course it is hard to overlook a 1.66 ERA in his first 17 major-league games. Pitching ratios K/BB and K/IP are the best statistical predictors of future performance, and Wagner scores great in both departments. The numbers support the subjective observations of scouts that Wagner is one of the best prospects around.
So far, Wagner has not had a problem with his health. However, as mentioned above, scouts worry about his elbow, due to the slider. There are also concerns about his shoulder in the long run, since his delivery can be rather violent. This adds to his deception on the mound, but it could lead to rotator cuff or labrum problems down the road. Keeping him in relief reduces the risk, but does not eliminate it.
What to expect
Playing for the University of Houston and then the Cincinnati Reds means that Wagner has had a bit less exposure than he deserves. If he played for a team on the coasts, he'd already be a national name. As it is, his reputation in professional circles is high indeed, but the general baseball public is still not as aware of him as it should be. That will change. The only two things that can stop Ryan Wagner from being a star are injuries or a sudden loss of control.
John Sickels is the author of the 2003 Baseball Prospect Book, which can be ordered from his Web site, JohnSickels.com. His biography of Bob Feller will be published this fall by Brassey's. He lives in Lawrence, Kan., with his wife, son, and two cats. You can send John questions or comments at JASickels@aol.com.