Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Minor League Update, Part 2.

Let’s dispense with formalities and just pick up where we left off last week:

6) Danny Duffy, LHP, 20. The consensus opinion is that Duffy is having a terrific season for Wilmington and is one of the brightest lights in the organization. I don’t entirely disagree with that, but I think it’s important to sound a note of caution. Just as we have to make allowances for Moustakas because Wilmington is such a tough hitter’s park, we have to discount Duffy’s numbers for being the product of the same ballpark. Those numbers are good – 3.51 ERA, 95 K and 31 BB in 100 IP – but not great, even for a 20-year-old.

Look at this line from a former Wilmington left-hander: 10-6, 2.55 ERA, 134 H in 162 IP, 154 K, 33 BB, 8 HR. Looks like a pretty good pitcher, huh? What if I told you this pitcher didn’t turn 20 until late in the season? You’d think he was a stud prospect. And once upon a time, Jimmy Gobble was a stud prospect.

Let’s try another left-hander, and this one spent his entire season at Wilmington at age 19: 9-7, 3.60 ERA, 145 IP, 142 H, 53 BB, 142 K, 8 HR. This line once belonged to Chris George. George and Gobble had eerily similar careers; both were supplemental first-round picks, both had great seasons for Wilmington the year they turned 20, both were in the Royals’ rotation two years later (George at age 21, Gobble a few weeks after he turned 22)…and both turned out to be massive busts.

I’m not saying that Duffy is destined to follow their career paths – at one time both George and Gobble projected as #3 starters in the major leagues, so obviously something went wrong. But Duffy’s repertoire is just similar enough to give me pause. His fastball is just average, maybe a tick above average; even with the makings of a good curveball, the potential is there for him to be just good enough to get bombed in the major leagues. He hasn’t done anything wrong this year, but he hasn’t taken a big step forward either, and at some point he needs to take a big step forward out of the shadow of the guys who came before him. Grade: B.

7) Danny Gutierrez, RHP, 22. If I had written this piece a few weeks ago, my evaluation of Gutierrez would be very different. Gutierrez broke out last season as one of the most intriguing arms in the organization; the former 33rd-round draft-and-follow showed an improved fastball and dynamite curveball on his way to striking out 104 batters in 90 innings for Burlington last season. But his debut this season was delayed by an arm injury – continuing a trend, as he missed a month last season with a fracture in his pitching elbow – and then had a fight with the organization over his rehab process.

I confess to not having a handle on all the details; if I understand things correctly, he also took on Scott Boras as his agent during this time frame, and Boras has already picked a fight with the Royals over their rehab process (the Carlos Beltran affair of 2000). One way to look at this is that Gutierrez has some growing up to do. Then again, given my opinion of the Royals’ training staff, it’s hard to be too upset with the kid.

In any case, Gutierrez finally regained his health and was assigned to Wilmington two weeks ago. Working out of the bullpen, he allowed just three hits and one walk in eight innings, striking out 10…and then earlier today he made his first start for the Blue Rocks and threw four hitless innings, with a walk and 3 Ks. We’re only talking about 12 innings, but those are 12 damn impressive innings. He seems healthy again if nothing else, and his upside rivals anyone in the organization. I’ll give him a Grade B- for now, though I’m tempted to just give him an incomplete.

8) Carlos Rosa, RHP, 24. Rosa has long been one of the most well-regarded arms in the organization, but his perpetually fragile elbow – he had Tommy John surgery in 2005, and his forearm strain last season spooked the Marlins into refusing to take him instead of Leo Nunez in the Mike Jacobs deal – finally forced the Royals to give up on him as a starter and move him to the bullpen full-time. Given his stuff, this was expected to be an easy transition; back in March I imagine the Royals thought he’d be firing his bullets as Soria’s setup man by now.

Things haven’t gone according to plan. He had a terrible May (22 hits, 11 walks, 20 runs in 15 innings), and after working his way back into dominant form in July, he’s struggling again, having allowed 13 hits in just six innings this month. For the year he’s struck out 64 batters in 59 innings, but he’s also allowed 58 hits, 29 walks, and six homers, for an ERA of 5.19. It’s possible he’s not completely healthy yet; it’s also possible that all the repeated injuries have sapped away some of his stuff. He’s still a good bet to be a part of the Royals’ bullpen at some point next year, but the dream of Rosa as a shutdown reliever is fading fast. Grade: D+.

9) Kila Ka’aihue, 1B, 24. If you want to be charitable, you can say that the Royals were right: he’s not as good as he was last year, when he hit .314/.456/.628 and smacked 37 homers between Double-A and Triple-A.

The most remarkable part of his success last season was that he hit all those homers while striking out just 67 times. This year, his K rate is up (from 17% of his at-bats to 21%), and as a result his batting average has dropped over 50 points, to .261. The other weird thing about his performance last year is that he hit 37 homers but just 15 doubles, which is an unsustainable distribution; even the best power hitters hit nearly as many doubles as homers. This year, Ka’aihue is getting extra-base hits at nearly the same pace (11% of his at-bats this year, 13% of his AB last year), but the distribution is totally different: 26 doubles, 1 triple, 14 homers. As a result, his slugging average is just .450.

But if the Royals were right that he’s not as good as he was last year, I’m still right that the Royals would have been better off playing him at first base than trading for Mike Jacobs. His average may have dropped, his power may be off, but if there’s one thing Ka’aihue can do consistently, it’s work the strike zone. He has 85 walks and a .398 OBP. Using Clay Davenport’s work, we can translate Ka’aihue’s numbers into what he would have hit at the major league level: .245/.373/.426. Jacobs is hitting .236/.309/.432. I have absolutely no faith that the Royals will ever give Ka’aihue a shot, but if they don’t have a use for a minimum-wage 1B/DH that hits .245/.373/.426, I’m sure there are a lot of teams that would be willing to give him that opportunity. Ka’aihue has been a little disappointing this year – I figured his power numbers would drop, but not quite this much – but just as we all knew he wasn’t as good as he looked last year, I think he’s a little better than he’s looked this year. And he hasn’t looked bad this year. Grade: C+.

10) Blake Wood, RHP, 23. Another disappointment. Wood shook off back issues that slowed him down in 2007 last season, and was dominant for Wilmington before a promotion to Double-A, where he struggled (5.30 ERA) but had a healthy strikeout-to-walk ratio of 76 to 32 in 86 innings. Expected to take a big step forward this season with the Naturals, Wood stagnated instead; he had a 5.27 ERA in 13 starts, and struck out just 46 batters in 72 innings. He’s been out since June 21st with “inflammation in his right elbow”. The combination of disappointing performance record and arm issues is a tough one to overcome. Grade: D.

11) Johnny Giavotella, 2B, 21. The square peg in the round hole that was the Royals’ 2008 draft, Giavotella was the rare college hitter selected in a draft that was typically heavy in high schoolers and pitchers. You had to figure the Royals saw something special in Giavotella to draft him in the second round, and he hit the ground running, getting assigned to a full-season league in Burlington last season and hitting .299/.355/.421. He’s spent this season in Wilmington, and is hitting .259/.367/.376.

Giavotella is the rare draftee who was young for his grade level – he didn’t turn 21 until a month after he signed, and just turned 22 last month. Away from Frawley Stadium he’s hit .270/.382/.425, and he has terrific command of the strike zone, with 62 walks against just 47 strikeouts. He doesn’t have much power, and his defense is still a little rough at second base, but he might be my favorite sleeper prospect in the organization.

I think the comparison I made when he was drafted last year was that he could develop into “Chuck Knoblauch without the speed”, and I still think that holds. He’s not that fast (although he does have 19 steals this year) and he doesn’t hit for power, but he does everything else well. I have a feeling that he’s going to have a breakout year for Northwest Arkansas next season, and this time next year we’ll be wondering why the Royals won’t make room for their new second baseman. Grade: B.

12) Kelvin Herrera, RHP, 19. Signed out of the Dominican when he was 16, Herrera was called up from short-season ball to Burlington late last season, and at age 18 held his own in the Bees’ rotation. There was a lot of hope that Herrera would be the star Hispanic pitching prospect the Royals haven’t had in, well, ever. Quick question: can you name every above-average starting pitcher the Royals have ever signed and developed out of Latin America? No? Congratulations – you’re correct! In forty years, the best Latin American starter the Royals have ever developed is probably Hipolito Pichardo. Hipolito Pichardo. If you disqualify Pichardo because he was mostly a reliever, you’re left with Runelvys Hernandez. Runelvys Hernandez. (Actually, the answer is probably Melido Perez, who won 78 games in the majors – but only one for the Royals before he was ill-advisedly included in the trade for Brian Bannister’s dad.)

Herrera started the year in extended spring training, then made his debut with five scoreless innings for Burlington on May 6th. He hasn’t pitched since. I’m having trouble finding out the reason, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say it’s not a good one. Grade: D pending more information.

More to come…