If Wilmington is the minor-league hottie that the Royals are constantly trying to please, then Burlington is the slightly overweight girl with self-esteem issues that’s just happy the Royals called, and never mind where they’ve been the last few days.
The Royals have sampled much of the Midwest League over the last quarter-century. Their low A-ball affiliate has moved from Appleton, Wisconsin in 1987, to Rockford, Illinois in 1993, to Springfield, Illinois in 1995, to Lansing, Michigan in 1996, to a two-year sabbatical in the South Atlantic League in Charleston, West Virginia in 1999, and finally to Burlington, Iowa in 2001.
The fact that I had to include the state along with the name of each city tells you what you need to know: none of these teams play in large cities, and none of them –with the exception of the Lansing Lugnuts – are a particularly desirable location for a minor league affiliate. In particular, the Midwest League teams have to deal with, well, Midwest weather. The Royals can afford a state-of-the-art drainage system at Kauffman Stadium, and can have the players back on the field just as soon as the Tornado Warning expires. The Burlington Bees can’t. Just by way of example, the Bees were rained out this Tuesday, and Wednesday the game was suspended in the seventh inning due to rain. That’s pretty typical. It could be worse; at least the Mississippi hasn’t flooded this year.
The Royals have stuck with Burlington for the last decade nonetheless, probably because it’s close by, and because the Bees put up with teams that are as consistently wretched as the Blue Rocks are consistently great. The Charleston Alley Cats were 61-80 and 53-80 in 1999 and 2000, and since moving to Burlington, the team has eight losing seasons in nine years, and finished at least five full games under .500 seven times.
The exception was 2008, when after a 30-39 first half, the Bees went 46-29 in the second half to clinch a playoff spot, then blew through three rounds of playoffs to win the Midwest League championship. And you guys all thought Mike Moustakas wasn’t a leader.
The Bees are on pace for their worst season yet in 2010, as even a doubleheader sweep on Thursday night only improved the team’s record to 30-52. Now, winning isn’t everything in the minors, and at this level of the minors winning isn’t much of anything. But this team is as weak in prospects as its win-loss record suggests.
The big exception to this is Wil Myers, and he alone makes the Bees worth watching. (Or he did, anyway.) Myers was drafted in the third round last year, but the Royals nearly took him with their first-round pick, and gave him mid-first-round money ($2 million) to sign. It’s been money well spent. As a 19-year-old in a tough hitters’ league, Myers started out slowly, hitting just .232 (but with good pop) in April. He heated up in May and June, and by the end of June his overall line was .289/.408/.500, with 10 homers, 19 doubles, and 48 walks.
Those numbers are ridiculous for a teenager in the Midwest League. Two years earlier, at the same age, Moustakas hit .272/.337/.468, with 22 homers and 25 doubles in a full season, and everyone was duly impressed. Myers’ performance for Burlington was very similar – except that Myers had more walks by the end of June than Moustakas had (43) all season long.
It’s so hard to evaluate the batting eye of a high school hitter, because they face so much inferior competition that sometimes they’re forced to expand their strike zone for the good of the team. Reports before the draft were that Myers had a good batting eye, but no one expected this level of patience.
Myers is clearly on a faster track than Moustakas was, because he was promoted to Wilmington at the start of this month. He’s only getting hotter; in eight games with the Blue Rocks, Myers has hits in seven of them, and last night he went 4-for-5 to raise his average with Wilmington to .438 (14-for-32). He only has two doubles and one walk in those eight games; we’ll cut him some slack.
Did I mention Myers is a catcher? No, I guess not. He is, you know. A 19-year-old catcher who has hit his way to high-A ball, where he’s batting right behind Eric Hosmer. Hosmer, who is one of the organization’s best prospects, is a year older than Myers and plays first base.
Wil Myers, the catcher, might well be the best prospect in the entire organization.
The problem is that it’s less than 50/50 that Wil Myers really is a catcher. The tools are there – he’s thrown out a solid 34% of attempted basestealers this year, and made just 4 errors – but he also has allowed 18 passed balls in just 51 games behind the plate.
Myers wasn’t a full-time catcher in high school, so he has barely a year of full-time backstopping to his credit at this point. I think the impact of blocking balls behind the plate is overrated. The Royals survived a couple of seasons of Miguel Olivo just fine; they can survive Wil Myers. Myers’ offensive skills, solid arm, and weaknesses with the nuances of catching remind me of Jorge Posada, who to this day drives the Yankees crazy with his defensive deficiencies. (Hey, it’s hard to catch with so many rings on your fingers.)
The greatest impediment to Myers’ glove might be his bat. If he keeps hitting like this, he’s going to force himself to the majors before his glove is ready, and the Royals will be tempted to move him to the outfield. In their defense, that might even be the correct move. Myers’ body type – a lanky 6’3”, 190 – lends itself more to running around an outfield than squatting behind the plate. His offense will definitely play in a corner, and he has the speed (10 steals this year) and arm to make himself into a quality right fielder in short order. And while catchers are always in demand, the Royals have less depth in the outfield than they do at almost any other position.
Still, you hate to give up on the potential to have a catcher who hits like Myers does. For now, the Royals don’t have to make that decision. If Myers keeps hitting the way he has, though, he might be ready for the majors by the time he’s 21, and then a decision will have to be made. It’s a dilemma other teams would love to have.
Picollo on Myers: Very good hands, good athleticism, but footwork is not good. Pop times to second base are 1.8-1.9 seconds, which is good…footwork is an issue partly because he’s tall and lanky…if he doesn’t smooth out his actions behind the plate there are some worries about his long-term health if he stays at catcher…his defense isn’t helped by the fact that A-ball pitchers are much more erratic than in the majors…has heard from scouts that Posada [he brought up Posada’s name on his own] looked much the same way in A-ball – some nights he looked awful, some nights he looked good.
With Myers gone, the cupboard is almost bare. The second-best hitter on the team, outfielder Carlo Testa, is hitting a modest .255/.331/.450, and is 23 years old. There isn’t another hitter anywhere on the roster who strikes me as more than a long-shot prospect.
On the mound things are equally bleak. The pitching staff includes some notable names, but they’re not notable for their performances this season. One’s notable for being an early-round bust (Sam Runion), another for struggling to return from Tommy John surgery (Matt Mitchell), and another for being talented but with a perpetually sore arm (Kelvin Herrera).
Keaton Hayenga was a late-round pick in 2007, even though he had torn his labrum on a bad slide during his senior year of high school. The Royals were enamored enough with his arm that they gave him $300,000 to sign, then waited patiently for 2 years for him to return to the mound last season. This year, the wrapper was finally taken off, and the Royals were excited to see the return on their investment.
What they’ve received is a pitcher with an 8.23 ERA, and just 17 strikeouts in 43 innings. When you gamble on prospects, sometimes you’re going to crap out.
Bryan Paukovits, who was a junior college draft-and-follow from 2006, has been the Bees’ best pitcher this season. In 62 innings, he’s allowed just 43 hits and 16 walks, with 65 strikeouts. The problem is that he just turned 23; he’s a few levels below where a prospect his age should be. The Royals have promoted him to Wilmington, and he gave up nine runs in his first start, although he’s pitched better since then. He’s a prospect, but a marginal one.
With all that said, there’s at least one pitcher on the Bees’ staff who has true All-Star potential. That would be Tyler Sample, who was the Royals’ third-round pick in 2008 out of a Colorado high school. Sample was considered quite raw – and had already had Tommy John surgery in high school – but he threw very hard and had a very promising knuckle-curve. He was very much a project, and in his pro debut he walked more than a batter per inning, but last season he walked just 22 batters in 55 innings.
He made his full-season debut this year, and his control issues resurfaced, as he walked 27 batters in his first 30 innings. His control has slowly but dramatically improved since; in his last ten starts, he has walked just 28 batters in 49 innings, and in his last two starts he has just two walks (against 14 strikeouts) in 12 innings.
He’s still a long ways from the majors, and he just turned 21. But his stuff is undeniable, as he’s allowed just 59 hits in 79 innings while striking out 71. He’s a monster at 6’7”, 245, and sometimes it just takes tall pitchers a while to straighten out their mechanics and repeat them on every pitch. If there’s one pitcher in the organization that I’d bet on to jump up the prospect rankings in the next 12 months, it’s Sample. If the light bulb goes on, he could move very, very quickly.
But that’s it for Burlington. One top prospect, one sleeper prospect, and a whole lot of chaff. That’s a pretty standard fare for a minor-league team. It’s a tribute to the organization that “pretty standard fare” makes Burlington easily the weakest full-season team in the system.
I’ll be back next week with a brief overview of the short-season leagues, and then try to tie it all together with my unscientific rankings of the organization’s top 30 prospects.