Thursday, August 6, 2009

Minor League Update, Part 1.

First off, I owe you guys an apology. On our radio show this Monday, Jason Anderson and I started the show by promising to stay positive for the duration of the show…and then we spent the next hour ripping the team from every direction. It wasn’t intentional, I assure you. It’s just that the abyss has become so deep that I simply can’t find an angle that portrays the Royals in a positive fashion. Some people are so ugly that no trick of lighting can flatter them.

This is where we’re at: three months after the Royals were 18-11 – the front office has made sure that none of us will ever forget the 2009 Royals’ record after 29 games – they have the worst record in the American League, and the second-worst record in the major leagues. Call me an unrepentant optimist, but even the most hardened cynic could not have imagined in May – or even a month ago – that we’d be in the running for the Bryce Harper Sweepstakes. I never would have imagined that, come August, I’d be scoreboard watching the Nationals in the hopes that Washington might go on a hot stretch (five in a row, baby! Just five games back!), or rooting for their negotiations with Stephen Strasburg to go fubar.

Instead, if the season ended today the Royals would draft in the top 3 next year – meaning they were one of the three worst teams in baseball this year – for the fifth time in six seasons. They’d draft in the top 2 for the fourth time in six seasons. Three years after we thought we hit bottom, three years after Dayton Moore told us where the parade would be held, we’re once again forced to subsist on nothing but dreams of a Tuesday in June – and hoping that this time we strike gold with a Top-3 pick.

And on that note, and because I’m trying to find that something positive, it’s time to take a long look at the minor leagues. As horrible as the team that Dayton Moore has fashioned is, he wasn’t brought in simply to fix the major league roster – he was brought in to fix the organization. And one of the reasons I was so positive about his hiring for so long was that he seemed to determine to fix the organization the right way – by expending every possible resource towards building the farm system. Over the last three years the Royals have spent all kinds of resources on the minors, not just in terms of money – they spent a major-league record $11 million on their draft picks last season – but in terms of things like having a seventh minor league team, and opening a new academy in the Dominican (granted, something that was in the works before Dayton was hired).

The Royals dug themselves into the hole they’ve been in since 2004 by neglecting the farm system for 15 years. (From 1993 to 2001, the Royals had fifteen first-round picks – and Mike MacDougal has turned out to be the best of them. Mike Macdougal.) It was going to take years of successful drafting and development to reverse that trend, and if you told me in 2006 that the Royals would continue to suck for three or four years before the farm system burst forth with talent? That’s a trade I would have made – if the farm system burst forth.

So that’s ultimately the question: while we’ve all been watching the team in Kansas City burn to the ground, have the Royals been quietly planting the seeds for the team’s renaissance in places like Springdale and Wilmington and Burlington? If so, all the sins of 2009 may be forgiven; if not, well, judgment is nigh.

Unfortunately, the most recent organization-wide assessment of the Royals’ farm system came from Baseball America three weeks ago, and it was less an assessment than an indictment. The Royals were listed as one of three organizations “headed down” based on how their top prospects have fared since the start of the season, including this comment: “Not much has gone right in the minors, from modest seasons by power plants Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas to spotty pitching at upper levels.”

Well, then. If that’s indeed the case – if the Royals have endured as much disappointment in the minor leagues as they have in the majors – then it’s time to turn out the lights. But is that a fair assessment? There’s only one way to find out.

Over the next few posts, I’m going to take a look at how the Royals’ top 30 prospects from before the season – as judged by Baseball America – have fared this year. For each player I will also assign a letter grade based on whether they appear to have a brighter future today than they did in March. I’ll go with a B- curve – a B- grade means the player has essentially the same outlook today as they did before the season. Keep in mind that the grade takes into account the player’s standing – a B- grade for your #1 prospect is a fine grade, because it means that he still projects as a #1 prospect. On the other hand, an A- grade for your #30 prospect means that he might have elevated his stock into the 11-20 range – he’s gone from a long-shot to make the majors to maybe projecting as a bench player, hardly something to get excited about.

Here we go. Each player’s age is as of July 1st, 2009:

1) Mike Moustakas, 3B, 20. Right from the start, we’ve got a disappointment. Moustakas hit .272/.337/.468 last season and led the Midwest League in homers, the first teenager to do so in over a decade. Promoted to Wilmington this year, he’s hitting just .254/.297/.419, and the reviews of his defense at third base are unflattering enough that it’s likely he’ll have to change his position again before he reaches the majors.

In his defense, we would like to call Frawley Stadium to the stand. The Blue Rocks’ home ballpark is one of the best pitchers’ parks in the minor leagues, and when evaluating Wilmington players, that must be taken into account. At home, Moustakas is hitting .201/.262/.356; on the road he’s hitting .295/.326/.468, which is eerily similar to his numbers from last season.

I’ve said this many times before, but the ballpark effect for the Blue Rocks is so significant that hitters promoted from A-ball to Double-A typically hit better at the higher level. Just this season we have two terrific examples of this, in Jeff Bianchi (.300/.360/.427 in Wilmington, .325/.371/.450 for Northwest Arkansas) and David Lough (.320/.370/.473 vs. .331/.368/.500).

My favorite example of this is Carlos Beltran, who in 1997, at age 20 – the same age as Moustakas right now – hit a puny .229/.311/.363 for the Blue Rocks. The following year, he returned to Wilmington and hit .276/.364/.427, was promoted at mid-season and hit .352/.427/.687 in Double-A. The following year he was the AL Rookie of the Year. Johnny Damon hit .316/.399/.462 for Wilmington when he was 20 – the following year he hit .343/.434/.534 for Wichita and was considered the best prospect in baseball when he was promoted to Kansas City in August.

So it’s way, way, way too early to write off Moustakas as a bust. My concern isn’t with who Moustakas is, it’s with who he’s not. He’s not Rick Porcello, who’s an above-average major-league starter at age 20. He’s not Matt Wieters, who’s enjoying a solid season as the Orioles’ rookie catcher after entering the season as the #1 prospect in baseball. He’s not Jason Heyward, who doesn’t turn 20 until next week and is hitting .422/.505/.722 since being promoted to Double-A last month – with Wieters now in the major leagues, Heyward has taken his spot as the #1 prospect in baseball. Porcello, Wieters, and Heyward were all selected in the top half of the first round in 2007; most observers considered Porcello the second-best player in the draft after David Price, and most considered Wieters third. The Royals decided they couldn’t afford either player – for all the money they’ve spent in the draft the last few years, they chose an awfully inopportune time to save money. And instead of considering Heyward, who BA dubbed the steal of the draft from the moment he dropped to #14 overall, the Royals took Moustakas.

(An underappreciated side effect of the Royals’ disdain for statistics is that they don’t seem to understand the critical importance of age and how it relates to draft picks. The team frequently drafts players who are old for their grade, whether high school senior or college junior. Case in point: Moustakas was born on September 11th, 1988, meaning he turned 18 just a month after he signed. Heyward and Josh Vitters, who the Royals nearly took instead of Moustakas before changing their mind at the last moment, were both born in August, 1989.

A year of development doesn’t mean much when comparing a 27-year-old to a 28-year-old – but when comparing a 17-year-old to an 18-year-old, it’s critical. It remains to be seen whether the Royals should have taken Vitters or not – after a monster start in low-A ball this year, Vitters has struggled since joining Moustakas in high-A ball. But Heyward, like a couple of other 17-year-old hitters drafted in the first round (Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez), has made a quantum leap in development from age 17 to age 19, and now sits at the doorstep of the major leagues. If the Braves make the playoffs, he could be their version of Andruw Jones, the preternatural rookie who makes a postseason impact before he’s legally eligible to partake in the champagne bath afterwards.

Oh, and Moustakas’ teammate at Chatsworth High, fellow first-rounder Matt Dominguez, was also born in August 1989. Dominguez just got promoted to Double-A as well.)

But getting back to Moustakas…he has been disappointing this year, certainly, but not critically so. It’s not hard at all to envision a scenario in which he goes to Springdale next spring, hits .300 with power, and becomes a trendy Rookie of the Year candidate for 2011. But next year is crucial for him. He’s been passed by enough fellow first-round picks as it is. Grade: C-.

2) Eric Hosmer, 1B, 19. The second of the Royals’ Twin Towers, Hosmer is having an equally disappointing season. Hosmer was sent to Burlington and was expected to exceed Moustakas’ performance there last year, but instead hit just .254/.352/.382, with a puny five homers in 79 games. He struck out in nearly a quarter of his at-bats (68 of 280), and scouts were critical of the fact that he stood too far away from the plate, making him vulnerable to outside pitches. He changed his stance last month, started to hit a little better, and the Royals decided to promote him to Wilmington despite his struggles – in 14 games so far, he’s hitting .208 with just two extra-base hits. He does take walks, but the light-tower power that we were promised has yet to materialize outside of batting practice.

If it’s too early to write off Moustakas, it’s way too early to write off Hosmer…but as I said on draft day last year, if the point of drafting Hosmer is that in three years he’ll be one of the best hitters in the minor leagues, why not draft the college guy who will be one of the best hitters in the minors the day he signs? The Royals passed on Justin Smoak, who fell to the 11th overall pick, and Smoak is hitting .295/.407/.460 this year and is already in Triple-A.

At the beginning of the year, there was a lot of controversy over which prospect rated higher – BA had Moustakas #1, but BP had Hosmer #1. We’re going to have the same debate this off-season, for all the wrong reasons. Unless Hosmer starts to rake a little for the Blue Rocks this month, he’s had the slightly more disappointing season, and the relative rankings of these two players won’t change. Grade: D+.

3) Danny Cortes, RHP, 22. Yeah, because I really want to relive this again. Cortes was having a truly disappointing season – his walks were way up, his strikeouts down, despite repeating Double-A – before he was traded for Yuniesky Betancourt. (If Alexei Ramirez is the Cuban Missile, can Betancourt just be the Cuban Crisis?) Since the trade he has made four starts with the Mariners, and continues to walk guys (13 in 20 IP), but at least he’s getting the strikeouts (22). It’s easy to forget: he’s just 22, younger than Aaron Crow, and he still has the power stuff, he’s just lost his command. I have this sinking feeling that he’s going to arrive late next year as a shutdown setup man for the Mariners. For metamorphosing into Betancourt, I’m tempted to give him an F- grade, but based on his actual performance, Grade: D.

4) Michael Montgomery, LHP, 20. Like so many other Royals prospect, he was old for his draft class – he actually turned 20 on July 1st, just a year after he was drafted – but unlike so many others, he’s developing nicely. In 12 starts for Burlington he had a 2.17 ERA, with 52 Ks in 58 innings, before he was promoted to Wilmington – he’s allowed three runs in nine innings so far. When Cortes was traded there was a lot of talk about Danny Duffy being the Royals’ best pitching prospect, but I still think Montgomery is better. His velocity is a tick better – sitting in the low 90s as opposed to touching the low 90s – and his body has a little more projection than Duffy’s does. The Royals have a ton of high-upside arms in their farm system, but Montgomery might have the highest upside of them all. If Moustakas and Hosmer don’t get it going soon, Montgomery’s a legitimate candidate to be rated the #1 prospect in the organization at year’s end. Grade: B+.

5) Tim Melville, RHP, 19. The Royals signed Melville, a Missouri high school product, in the fourth round last year when he fell from his projection as a late first-round pick because of signability concerns. His selection may well represent a tipping point in the history of the Royals’ draft – the moment when the Royals went from being one of the victims of the draft’s economics to one of the aggressors. Before Melville, the last time the Royals got a first-round talent this late in the draft was probably Bo Jackson in 1986.

Melville started the year in extended spring training, but debuted with Burlington in May and has been consistently good, not great, all season. In 15 starts he’s thrown 68 innings, allowed 64 hits, walked 29, struck out 65, and surrendered 6 homers. There’s some hint that he may be improving as the season goes on – in his last six starts he has a K/BB ratio of 35/11 in just 28 innings. The perfect Grade: B- guy – he’s exactly what we thought he was at the beginning of the year. That’s a compliment.

More to come…