I have to confess: no matter how many times it happens, it never gets old. I write a column arguing that maybe Dayton Moore isn’t the worst GM in baseball, and I get labeled a sellout by many of my commenters. You guys are the best. Never let go of that passion, fellas.
Maybe I am getting soft. Or maybe my eyes have been opened a little by the events of the last two months. Let me ask a very simple question: have the Royals had a good 2010 so far?
A casual fan, I suspect, would say no, 2010 hasn’t been a good year. The Royals started 11-23, they fired their manager, Zack Greinke is mortal, Gil Meche is toast, Alex Gordon is in Triple-A, and on June 1st the Royals are 10.5 games out of first place.
I would agree. 2010 hasn’t been a good year so far. It’s been a very good year. Maybe even a great year.
It all depends on your perspective. And my perspective all season has been focused on one thing: the minor leagues. The results at the major-league level have been aggravating, but they’ve also been a sideshow to the main event. The business of the Royals this season was the development of what we were told before the season was the best collection of minor-league talent the Royals have had in 15 years.
As you may know if you’ve followed the farm system this season, business has been very good.
It didn’t start that way. In spring training, left-hander Danny Duffy, ranked by both Baseball Prospectus as the team’s #6 prospect and by Baseball America at #8, retired. The Royals’ system is deep, but no system is so deep that they can simply cross off a guy in the middle of their Top 10 list and not feel it. (The Royals are understandably reluctant to talk about Duffy’s situation. However, my gestalt from exploring the situation is that Duffy’s retirement is almost certainly temporary. I am reasonably confident he’ll be back before the end of the season, and would not be surprised if he reports to camp by the All-Star break, if not sooner.)
That happened right after Jeff Bianchi, a Top 10 Prospect and the only prospect in the high minors with the potential to move Yuniesky Betancourt off of shortstop, tore his UCL and was lost for the season with Tommy John surgery. And to top things off, Mike Moustakas, who was facing a pivotal first season in Double-A, pulled an oblique muscle and was expected to miss the first month of the season. I can’t say I was feeling particularly optimistic as the season began.
A lot has changed in the last two months, and I hope to recount the highlights here. I was fortunate to speak with Royals’ Assistant GM J.J. Picollo last Friday, and it’s testament to how many Royals prospects are worth following that despite talking for close to an hour, we weren’t able to cover all of them. I can’t give you verbatim quotes, because my hand simply can’t write fast enough to keep up with everything he told me, but I’ll do my best to give you the main points that I learned from talking with Picollo.
Light broke through the clouds early, thanks to the consensus pre-season #1 prospect in the system, Michael Montgomery. Montgomery entered the season with an exciting combination of future projection and present performance; last year he had a 2.21 ERA split between low-A and high-A ball, and he was didn’t turn 20 until the middle of the season.
Six years ago, some of you remember, some idiot was so excited about a young pitching phenom that he wrote in the pages of Baseball Prospectus 2004, “With apologies to Jon Landau, I have seen the future of pitching, and his name is Zack Greinke.” Okay, I was that idiot. Needless to say, no one has been so stupid as to co-opt that classic quote about Bruce Springsteen to describe a baseball prospect since.
“I’ve seen rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”
After watching a Springsteen live show in 1974, Rolling Stone rock critic Jon Landau set off a massive amount of hype with that one sentence. At the time, Springsteen had two poorly selling records. Not long after Landau's comments, Springsteen released “Born To Run”, was on the cover of Time and Newsweek magazines at the same time and made the leap from unknown singer to rock and roll superstar.
I'm not nearly as talented as Landau, and I'm not a scout with a trained eye, but after watching Royals lefthander Mike Montgomery throw against the Kinston Indians, it was hard not to want to yell something equally audacious. You could watch minor league games every day year after year and never see a better outing. Some of the scouts at Tuesday's game were debating if they had ever seen a minor leaguer pitch any better.
Cooper was referring to this start, when Montgomery faced 23 batters, allowing just two to reach base (a scratch single and an RBI double), and struck out 13 of them. Despite striking out 13 batters in 7 innings, he only threw 84 pitches. Those of you who listened to my first radio show of the year heard Cooper himself describe what he saw that night. The big take-away point was that Montgomery used three different pitches – his fastball, his curveball, and his change-up – to record strikeouts at least three times each. Most guys are happy with a single out-pitch; that night, Montgomery had three of them.
Montgomery hasn’t pitched quite that well since, but still plenty good. After four starts for Wilmington – he struck out 33 batters in 25 innings, allowing just 14 hits and 4 walks – he was promoted to Double-A. He’s slowed down a little, but just a little; in 25 innings he’s allowed 22 hits and 9 walks, whiffed 22, and even allowed his first homer of the season. For the year he’s got a 1.98 ERA, allowed 36 hits and 13 walks in 50 innings, and struck out 55. Those are studly numbers, and he’s still just 20.
Picollo on Montgomery’s improvement: was throwing 90-93 last year, touching 95…now working 92-95 and touching 97…more efficient with his pitches, saving his fastball for when he needs it…his curveball continues to make strides, as he used to throw a palm curveball his dad taught him, but now throws a traditional curve most of the time.
Picollo on Montgomery’s last start, when he was pulled after 3 innings after his velocity dropped: his fastball ranged from 86-96, was throwing a lot of changeups, admitted to some mild soreness in back of his elbow and taken out. Had similar elbow soreness at end of spring training ’09, recovered fine…probably will miss one start…not particularly concerned.
The first 2-3 weeks of the season were Montgomery’s time to shine. Then the spotlight moved east, to Wilmington, where Eric Hosmer looked nothing like the hitter he was last season, and everything like the hitter he was expected to be when he was drafted with the #3 overall pick.
Hosmer was one of the biggest enigmas in all the minor leagues last season, a can’t-miss hitter who, was doing a lot more missing than hitting – he hit .241/.334/.361 between Burlington and Wilmington. There was the vision issue, and the broken pinky finger issue, but even so most observers were concerned. BP ranked Hosmer as just the #8 prospect in the system (behind Bianchi), while BA had him at #5. Keith Law, alone among the mainstream prospect analysts, maintained that Hosmer’s struggles were entirely health-related, ranking him as the #34 prospect in baseball.
Law won this round, as by the end of April even his ranking looked a little conservative. That’s what happens when you hit an almost unfathomable .421, as Hosmer did in April, in one of the toughest hitters’ parks in the minors. As recently as May 19th he was still hitting .388, but a recent slump (he’s 9-for-42 in his last 10 games) has his overall numbers at .349/.416/.508.
It’s interesting how the narrative of a player is shaped by the sequence of his performance. If Hosmer had started 9-for-42, but then heated and up and then hit .421 in May, he’d be the talk of baseball. But because he hit .421/.500/.618 in April and then “only” .301/.355/.434 in May, some people are starting to get concerned. He’s 20 years old, people! And he’s putting up numbers that compete with the best I’ve ever seen from someone who played half their games at Frawley Stadium. (Hosmer is hitting .325 at home, and .368 on the road.)
The Royals have been affiliated with the Blue Rocks since 1993, I believe – there was a two-year exile to High Desert that thankfully was reversed quickly. I took a few minutes to look up the best seasons by any Blue Rock (including their time as a Red Sox affiliate) hitter with 50+ games and age 22 or younger. Here’s that list:
Michael Tucker, 1993: .305/.391/.456 (age 22)
Johnny Damon, 1994: .316/.399/.462 (age 20)
Mike Sweeney, 1995: .310/.424/.548 (age 21)
Dee Brown, 1999: .308/.431/.568 (age 21)
David DeJesus, 2002: .296/.400/.434 (age 22)
Eric Hosmer, 2009: .349/.416/.508 (age 20)
Dee Brown is a massive cautionary tale for any prospect. He has the highest OPS of anyone on that list, and while he only played 61 games for Wilmington that year, that’s because he was promoted to Double-A and hit even better (.353/.440/.591) there. BA ranked him the #11 prospect in all of baseball the following spring. He never hit remotely that well again, and finished his major league career with 814 at-bats and a .233/.280/.333 line.
If he can avoid what happened to Brown – and I still haven’t heard a good explanation for what happened to Brown – Hosmer should have a very good career ahead of him. DeJesus has had a fine career, and Tucker had a long if not particularly distinguished one. Neither had numbers that matched Hosmer’s, and both were two years older. If he maintains these numbers, I feel comfortable ranking Hosmer with Mike Sweeney and Johnny Damon as the best three prospect-seasons by a Wilmington Blue Rock. Sweeney is arguably the second-best hitter the Royals have ever developed, and Damon is at least a 50/50 shot to make the Hall of Fame.
The other concern I’ve heard boils down to something like this: “sure he’s hitting for average, but where are all the homers we were promised?” I understand this complaint – Hosmer has just two homers this year and eight in his career. I just happen to think it’s ridiculous.
For one, Hosmer is hitting for power. He’s got 16 doubles and 4 triples in just 189 at-bats. Very few 20-year-olds – even 20-year-olds who project to be power hitters in the majors – hit a lot of homers in the minors. But they do tend to hit doubles. Miguel Cabrera hit just 9 homers in a full season of high-A ball in 2002. But he hit 43 doubles, and he was just 19 years old. The following year, after slugging over .600 in Double-A he was called up to the majors and hit 12 homers in 87 games, then 4 more homers in the postseason. The year after that he hit 33 homers.
We know Hosmer has power – he regularly puts on a show in batting practice, and did so even when he was struggling last year. When he was drafted, the book on him was that he had as much power as anyone in the draft, but what separated him from the pack – and why the Royals drafted him over someone like Justin Smoak – was that he was a great pure hitter who happened to have power.
And that, frankly, is what we’re seeing. Hosmer isn’t a power hitter – he’s a pure hitter with power, and I love guys like that. It’s a lot easier for a pure hitter to learn to elevate the ball and drive it out then for a slugger to learn to hit for average. Alberto Callaspo didn’t hit a single homer in his first three seasons and 399 at-bats in the majors. Last year, he hit 11, and he already has 7 in 51 games this year. Callaspo didn’t learn to hit for power until he was 26 years old – we’re supposed to be worried because Hosmer isn’t hitting for home run power (but doing everything else) when he’s 20?
I haven’t seen this comparison, but I think it’s instructive to compare Hosmer to Adrian Gonzalez, another top pick who was considered a terrific pure hitter with power as opposed to the other way around. Gonzalez showed more power at age 20, but when he was 21 he hit just five homers in 120 games. His lack of power led two different organizations to trade him. He finally landed in San Diego in 2006, when he was 24, put in the lineup everyday, and his homer totals since read 24, 30, 36, and 40.
Hosmer’s success this year, along with Kila Ka’aihue’s resurgence, presents a happy dilemma for the Royals: with Billy Butler entrenched at first base (or DH), the Royals may have to find a place for all three of them by 2012. There is an intriguing albeit messy solution: move Hosmer to right field. Hosmer is a good athlete for a first baseman (which, yes, is like saying someone is fast for a catcher.) He’s already swiped 7 bases this season – and hasn’t been caught – and has an arm that is frankly wasted at first base. Could he play right field?
If he could, you could imagine this in the middle of the Royals’ lineup in two years:
2) Gordon, LF
3) Butler, 1B
4) Ka’aihue, DH
5) Moustakas, 3B
6) Hosmer, RF
It’s not the greatest defensive alignment in the world, but…damn. That looks like all kinds of fun.
So I asked. Picollo on the idea of moving Hosmer to the outfield: it has been talked about…he’s the most athletic of the three [Butler, Ka’aihue] and the only one who could handle the move…he will sometimes take fly balls during batting practice…it’s too early to think about now, but after Hosmer’s Double-A season, if everything aligns it’s something we will consider.
One guy who did hit for power at 20 – and even at 19 – was Mike Moustakas. The problem was that he wasn’t doing a whole lot else – Moose hit .272/.337/.468 in the Midwest League in 2008, and just .250/.297/.421 at Wilmington last year. Just as Hosmer had extenuating factors, so did Moustakas – namely the ballpark – but it was hard not to be concerned about the performance from the former #2 overall pick. BP ranked him the #3 prospect in the organization and #79 overall, BA #4 and #80. He wasn’t written off by any means, but he wasn’t living up to expectations either.
But just as Hosmer started to cool down, Moustakas started to heat up, and I mean “heat up” the way you might say “the space shuttle heats up upon its return to the atmosphere.” He recovered from his oblique muscle strain in time to make his season debut on April 22nd. In his first at-bat, he homered. In his second at-bat, he homered. He walked his third time up, and his fourth time up he crushed a double off the wall. Two games later he homered again.
And then he got really hot. In 8 April games Moustakas hit .324/.378/.735 with three homers and 9 RBIs. In May, he hit .393/.486/.775 with 9 homers and 32 RBIs in just 25 games. His month came to a premature end last week when he banged up his knee chasing after a foul ball. The injury wasn’t deemed serious – I don’t think he even needed X-rays – but he’s missed a few games waiting for the swelling to dissipate. For the season, he’s at .374/.459/.764. He leads the Texas League in all three rate categories, and despite missing nearly 40% of the games on the schedule, he’s second in the league in homers, fifth in doubles, and first in RBIs.
And keep in mind, even with all his struggles last year, scouts still marveled at his bat speed. His performance this season might be a surprise, but I don’t know anyone who thinks it’s a fluke.
As impressive as the power has been, the improvement in his strikeout-to-walk ratio may be more significant. Last year Moustakas struck out 90 times against just 32 walks; this year his ratio is a much more balanced 20-to-17. The improvement is mostly in his walk rate, and some of that is illusory. Six of his 17 walks this season are intentional, and I’m sure some of the other 11 are of the unintentional intentional variety.
That’s not entirely a bad thing – there’s a clear connection between walks and power, as pitchers are more likely to work around a hitter if they’re afraid he might hit the ball 400 feet. Moustakas’ walk rate is still not where you’d like it to be – but it’s no longer so low that I think it might inhibit his ability to develop as a hitter.
It’s hard to overstate how much Moustakas has improved his future projection in just 32 games. Six weeks ago he looked like a fine player but destined to be known as the guy the Royals drafted instead of Matt Wieters or Rick Porcello or a half-dozen other better players the Royals could have taken in the first round. Now? Hold the phone.
Between Montgomery, Hosmer, and Moustakas, the Royals have a trio of prospects that are rivaled by only a few organizations in the game. Both Hosmer and Moustakas made Law’s revised Top 25 Prospect list from two weeks ago. Montgomery didn’t make the list only because, as we all know, Law hates the Royals. (If you want to know the real reason why, listen to this week’s radio show, as I plan to ask him.)
If those three were the only prospects worth following, the Royals would still be in decent shape. But what makes this season so exciting is that there’s more where that came from. I’ll review the rest of the system next time.