A 22-year-old ex-Yankee from a North Carolina town with only 1.4 square miles to its name.
A 23-year-old former Division I basketball player who grew up in California and Las Vegas.
A 21-year-old from a northeast Alabama town that’s had the same mayor since 1984.
A 22-year-old who attended the same Connecticut high school as former Reds reliever, Nasty Boy Rob Dibble.
A 22-year-old from South Florida whose baseball idol is Roger Clemens.
The Pensacola Blue Wahoos starting rotation reads more like a casting call than a collection of gifted young pitchers.
“Everybody’s different, but I don’t know if there’s much difference between us,” says Jackson Stephens, in his thick Alabama accent.
Given their respective origins, Stephens, Rookie Davis (the North Carolina native), Amir Garrett (the ex-hooper), Sal Romano (who throws as hard as Dibble), and Nick Travieso (who had a dream fulfilled when he recently spoke to Clemens over the phone), would seem to be a disparate mix. But whether it’s in the dugout, in the outfield during batting practice, or in various hotel rooms in Southern League cities, there’s an authentic connection between the five touted pitching prospects that make up the starting rotation of the of the Cincinnati Reds’ Double-A affiliate.
Garrett, Romano, Stephens, and Travieso have largely suited up for the same squad since 2012. With Davis (acquired from the Yankees over the offseason in the Aroldis Chapman trade) added to the fold in Pensacola, the hard-throwing quintet has flourished into a dominant force. Through Wednesday’s games, Davis, Garrett, Romano, Stephens, and Travieso have combined to surrender just 20 earned runs and 21 walks, striking out 87 batters in 89.2 innings.
“We’ve got power guys,” says Travieso of his rotation mates, “and when you have other power guys out there, you want to do the same thing the next day.”
The origin of Garrett, Romano, Stephens, and Travieso’s baseball bromance begins in June 2012, shortly after Travieso (first round) and Stephens (18th round) were drafted by Cincinnati. The two were assigned to the Arizona League Reds, which plays at the club’s spring training complex in Goodyear, Arizona, and is one of the organization’s Rookie ball teams. Stephens and Travieso were joined on the AZL Reds by Garrett (22nd round, 2011 draft), and the trio combined to K 49 batters and yield 29 earned runs in 56.1 innings over that summer.
Before heading north to suit up for the Reds’ other Rookie-level squad, the Billings (Montana) Mustangs, the 6’5, 260-pound Romano—drafted by Cincinnati in the 23rd round of the 2011 draft—was present at the Reds’ complex, startling Stephens with his sheer size.
“I saw this gigantic human being and I was like, ‘Oh, Lord,’” says Stephens. “But he was really nice.”
Garrett began his 2013 season at Billings, but by late July, he had joined Romano, Stephens, and Travieso at Low-A Dayton. The summer in Southwest Ohio proved to be a collective struggle, as Stephens—who was splitting time between starting and relieving—posted the lowest ERA (4.59) of the group. All four averaged at least two and half walks per nine innings.
The four remained at Dayton for the entirety of the 2014 campaign, finishing first through fourth on the Dragons in innings. Romano and Travieso were first and second, respectively, in the Midwest League in innings, with the latter being named the Reds’ minor league pitcher of the year. He recorded a 3.04 ERA and won 14 games.
Last year at High-A Daytona, Stephens, Garrett, Romano, and Travieso (in that order) led the staff in innings and started nearly 66 percent of the Tortugas’ contests. Garrett (who fanned 133 in 140.1 innings), Stephens, and Travieso each posted ERAs under three, while Romano’s ERA of 3.46 was a career-best.
Joined at Pensacola this season by Davis—all five were among the Reds’ top 30 prospects in FanGraphs’ preseason ranking of Cincinnati’s farm system, with Garrett (regarded as a top 100 prospect across baseball) and Travieso slotting in at No. 4 and No. 7, respectively—the close-knit group of hurlers appear to be blossoming simultaneously.
Reds Director of Player Development Jeff Graupe explained that that while the Reds have not grouped Garrett, Romano, Stephens, and Travieso together by design, the fact that the four are young men of a certain age (21-23) and developing at a similar rate has made the decision to keep them on the same staff year after year a relative no-brainer.
“I think having the constant challenge of wanting to keep up with each other brings a little bit of the rising tide mentality, where they’re having fun, they’re pushing each other, they’re challenging each other, and not only do they want to do really well individually, but they want to be known as this group of young pitchers,” says Graupe. “It’s an identity for them that they take pride in. No one wants to be the guy who doesn’t hold his weight in a series.”
The rivalry between the starters is a healthy one. And due to the hours they’ve spent watching each other pitch in various locations around the country, they are able to function as each other’s pitching coach, detecting the subtle flaws that no else can spot.
“Sometimes if I’m not feeling good or I don’t have my stuff, I’ll come in and ask somebody, ‘Hey what do you see?’ And most of the time it’s something minor,” Travieso said. “It’s good to have guys behind you who know what they’re doing and that have seen you for the past four years.”
As Stephens noted, the five of them are different…but not that different. Davis, Stephens, and Travieso enjoy golfing in their spare time, though the same can’t be said for Garrett and Romano. Stephens and Travieso both like to fish, but Stephens prefers freshwater locales as opposed to Travieso’s fondness for saltwater. Travieso said he typically rooms with Romano on the road, but is also paired up with Davis and Stephens from time to time.
Davis has seamlessly integrated himself into the group, evidenced by a picture he tweeted during spring training with Garrett, Romano, and Travieso that included a telling caption: “We’re here to stay…#MyBrothers.”
“We get made fun by a lot of people on our team because even though we don’t try to do it, we just migrate together during batting practice and just happen to be in the same area. It’s, ‘Oh, look who’s next to each other again,’” Stephens said. “It’s weird, but it’s a neat experience.”
And every so often during those impromptu hotel gatherings on the road, the five of them allow themselves to ponder a future together in Cincinnati.
“That’s the dream (for each one of us). But we take it one step at a time,” says Stephens. “That’s what we would love, is to be all on the same team and to be able to play together.”