Saturday, March 6, 2010

Prospect Rundown, Part 3

First off, I’d like to thank the fine people at for naming me to their list of the “Top 25 Sports Bloggers, Writers, and Tweeters.” Unfortunately, I’d much rather that the Royals make the Official Standings list of the “Top 25 Major League Baseball Teams.” (Last year they finished tied for 26th. So close!)

Still, it is an honor, and I’m especially pleased to be part of Kansas City’s domination of the list. Joe Posnanski and Jason Whitlock need no introduction, but both Jason King and Sports by Brooks’ Brooks Melchior worked at the Star before branching out into the wild world of the internet. The sportswriting scene in Kansas City continues to be the bizarro version of the Royals, the scrappy small-market outfit that dominates its larger, better-funded competitors.

Back to the prospects. After discussing Mike Moustakas, the third baseman with a catcher’s body, it’s only appropriate that we move onto Wil Myers, the catcher with an outfielder’s body. But unlike the case with Moustakas, where Moose’s prospect status is threatened by his lack of a stable position, the fact that Myers’ ultimate position is undefined only adds to the intrigue. In Myers’ case, at least at this point his bat projects at any position. If he can master the tools of ignorance, well, you go from talking about a potential star to a potential superstar.

Myers was considered a dark-horse first-round candidate before last year’s draft, ranking #31 on Baseball America’s draft chart; he only ranked that low because, playing at a private high school in North Carolina, he rarely faced strong competition outside of showcase events. The Royals reportedly considered taking him with their first pick, and might well have done so if Aaron Crow had not been available. Myers then fell to the third round, in large part because teams were worried about his bonus demands, and the Royals – continuing a recent trend for which Dayton Moore & Co. deserve massive credit for – snagged him in the 3rd round, with the 91st overall pick. They signed him for $2 million, roughly mid-1st round money, and double what any other third-round pick (save one) received.

It appears to be money well spent. Myers quickly laid to rest the concerns about his bat against pro competition. In 22 pro games after signing, he hit .369/.427/.679, with 14 extra-base hits in just 84 at-bats. Numbers like that are nice, but may not be that meaningful in such a small sample size. True, Billy Butler hit .373/.488/.596 in his first pro season straight out of high school; on the other hand, Jeff Bianchi hit .408/.484/.745 in his first year.

There are a couple reasons to think that Myers is closer to Butler than Bianchi on the prep hitter spectrum. For one, most of his performance came at Idaho Falls, one rung above rookie ball, and away from the thin Arizona air that always inflates hitters numbers. Butler spent his entire first season in Idaho Falls; Bianchi benefited from the Arizona League.

But the main reason to think Myers’ numbers are meaningful is simply because his scouting reports are equally impressive. He has everything you’d want from a teenage hitter; tremendous raw power, quick wrists that allow him rip line drives to both fields, and the ability to wait on pitches and avoid swinging at ones out of the zone. It’s early, but Myers looks like the most special bat the Royals have drafted out of high school since Butler. There’s a reason why Myers landed at #83 on Kevin Goldstein’s list, and was strongly considered for the Top 100 by both Baseball America and Keith Law. That may not sound like much, but it’s very rare for a player to make a Top 100 Prospect list the winter after he was drafted unless he was a first-round, or even top ten, pick.

Now, it’s way too early to compare Myers to Butler offensively. Myers would have to reach Double-A this summer and hit .313 with power during his time there to match Butler’s performance when he was 19 years old. But whereas Butler’s entire value resided within his bat, Myers has the tools and athleticism to help his team in multiple ways. Butler has spent five years working on his defense, and it was still considered a major breakthrough for him last season when he played a passable first base in the majors. Just based on his physical build, Myers figures to have far more defensive value than Bam Bam. Myers is taller (6’3” vs. 6’1”), leaner (190 pounds vs. 240), faster, and far more athletic than Butler. He throws in the upper-80s, and moves well behind the plate.

It’s still a long shot that he’ll reach the major leagues as a catcher. While Myers’ arm helped him to throw out 5 of 12 potential basestealers last season, his inexperience showed when it came to blocking errant pitches – he allowed six passed balls in just 10 games. Myers played all over the field in high school, so while scouts feel he has the necessary tools to become at least an average catcher, he is a very much a work in progress.

I absolutely agree with the Royals’ decision to try Myers behind the plate for at least all of this season. But the Royals may find themselves in a strange paradox: the quicker his bat develops, the more they may be pressed into moving him to a less demanding position rather than hinder his progress up the chain. He doesn’t have the classic body type for a catcher – he’s a little too long and lean – and it’s no surprise that two players he’s been compared to are Dale Murphy and Jayson Werth, both guys who developed as catchers but only blossomed in the majors after a move to the outfield.

Myers, at 6’3”, is pretty much at the upper bound of how tall you can be and still play catcher – the taller you are, the more of a pounding your knees take from all the squatting and standing. Joe Mauer is 6’5”, but Mauer defies historic comparison in so many ways. (And Mauer has already dealt with significant knee and back problems.) In the live-ball era, only one other player that stood 6’5” has caught even 600 games: Sandy Alomar, who seemingly had knee problems from the moment he entered the league. Nine guys measured at 6’4” have caught 600 games, including our main Jamie Quirk; the most successful were 60s-era Johnny Edwards and Tom Haller. Werth is 6’5”, Murphy is 6’4”. Drop the bar down to 6’3”, and you find a wealth of successful and long-lasting catchers, including Mike Piazza, Lance Parrish, and Iron Man Carlton Fisk.

Can Myers make it as a catcher in the majors? It’s certainly worth giving him that shot. But I think his bat is special enough that I won’t be too heartbroken if he has to move to the outfield, because as much as the Royals’ need a long-term solution at catcher, their long-term outlook in the outfield isn’t much better. The team hasn’t come remotely close to developing an outfielder since David DeJesus was a rookie in 2004, and as it stands, all four of their potential starting outfielders (DeJesus, Podsednik, Ankiel, and Guillen) are all potential free agents after this season. (DeJesus, fortunately, is tied to a club option in 2011.) While the Royals have some decent short-term replacement options in Jordan Parraz and David Lough, and a couple of long-term lottery tickets in Derrick Robinson and Hilton Richardson, they don’t have a single outfielder in the system who’s a Grade A, or even Grade B, prospect.

So if Myers’ future is in the outfield, as say a prototypical power-hitting right fielder with a strong arm and range afield, I’ll be perfectly happy with that. But if the light bulb goes on this season and we start getting glowing reports about his catching skills, then feel free to get really excited. I know that I’ll be watching closely to see how he hits this season – Myers, more than anyone else in the system, has the potential to rocket himself into phenom territory this season, the guy who winds up in Baseball America’s Prospect Pulse and Kevin Goldstein’s Monday Ten-Pack every week. I’ll be watching, but I’ll be listening even more intently to the scouting buzz about his defense. A lot can go wrong on the road from Idaho Falls to Kansas City. But Myers has a chance to be that Special Talent that we all thought Moustakas and Hosmer would be.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Prospect Rundown, Part 2

Continuing where we left off last time…

While I admire Keith Law’s willingness to put himself out there with Eric Hosmer, I agree with the consensus opinion that the Royals’ best prospect is Mike Montgomery. Montgomery ranks #35 overall on Baseball Prospectus’ list, and #39 on Baseball America’s list (Law has him just #75 overall). Montgomery is a good piece of scouting, a projectable left-handed arm out of southern California that the Royals took with a supplemental first-round pick in 2008. His elite ranking stems from the fact that he makes scouts and stats types go equally gaga over him.

His stats are terrific; last season, split between Burlington and Wilmington, Montgomery threw 110 innings, allowed just 80 hits and 36 walks, and struck out 98 batters. He allowed one homer all year. His career ERA as a pro is 2.06. But what separates Monty from, say, Danny Duffy, who has nearly as impressive stats but not nearly the prospect cache, are two things: 1) his stuff and 2) his projection.

His stuff is already major-league caliber – he throws in the low 90s, which is plenty for a lefty, and he has the makings of both a [high-]quality curveball and changeup. His curveball overmatches minor leaguers, but he throws a weird palm curveball that people are skeptical will work at higher levels, and the Royals are working with him to master a more traditional one.

Right now, he has the repertoire of a #2 or #3 starter. But what vaults Montgomery into elite status is that, at 6’5” and just 180 pounds, he was expected to add velocity when he was drafted, and while it’s up a tick, many think that his fastball hasn’t peaked yet. He gets high marks for his mechanics, and he repeats them well, also leading credence to the theory that the best is yet to come. He doesn’t turn 21 until July 1st. He’s famously competitive – thrown off his high school basketball team for committing too many technicals – and his work ethic is such that the Royals had to work with him to dial down his between-starts throwing regimen last spring. He should start the year in Double-A, and while everyone thinks Aaron Crow will be the first of the Royals’ wave of young pitchers to reach the majors, I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if Montgomery is pitching in the majors come September.

Crow is the consensus #2 prospect in the organization; BP ranks him #53, and BA ranks him #40 (right behind Montgomery) overall. Law has him #87. Crow is in many ways the opposite of Montgomery – he’s almost a finished product, a right-hander drafted out of college (and then, when he didn’t sign, drafted out of the independent leagues by the Royals a la Luke Hochevar).

His fastball is maybe a tick faster than Montgomery’s, though without the projection for more, and from the right side his velocity is not quite as special as Montgomery’s. What makes Crow’s fastball special is his command of the pitch, as well as the fact that it has natural sinking motion. And whereas Montgomery – like most Royals’ prospects – throws a curveball, Crow’s out pitch is a tight slider that is unhittable when it’s on. His changeup, though is still a work in progress, and some people worry about his mechanics.

I’ve seen Crow compared to a lot of pitchers, but the comparison I’d like to make – because I like being reckless – is that if everything works out, he could sort of resemble Kevin Appier. Appier worked primarily off a good sinking fastball and a hard-breaking slider, rarely threw a changeup, and people worried about his unorthodox motion for years even though he never suffered a serious arm injury until an off-field injury tore up his shoulder. I don’t think Crow will be quite that good, but it’s something to shoot for.

With Crow, we simply won’t know for a while what we have, because his only pro experience to date is a short stint in the Arizona Fall League. He gave up 17 hits in 15 innings pitched – no surprise, given the hitter-friendly nature of the league – but more tellingly, he walked just 2 batters and struck out 12. It’s a very small sample size, but fits with the notion that Crow is an advanced arm, who will probably start in Double-A, and could be ready for a major-league audition as soon as mid-season.

While Montgomery and Crow are a pretty easy consensus for the Royals’ two best prospects, the competition for the third spot is a heated one. In one corner you have Mike Moustakas, the #2 pick in the land in 2007, but who suffered through a disappointing 2009. In the other you have Wil Myers, the Royals’ third-round pick just this past summer, but who after signing for a $2 million bonus opened eyes and dropped jaws with his performance in rookie ball.

Both BA and BP rank Moustakas ahead on their Top 100 Prospects list; BP has Moustakas #79 and Myers #83, while BA has Moustakas #80 and doesn’t rank Myers. But strangely, the Baseball America Prospect Handbook, which ranks the top 30 prospects for every organization, ranks Myers as the Royals #3 prospect and Moustakas #4.

Moustakas seems destined to me to a disappointment, as much as for what others (like Matt Wieters and Rick Porcello) have done as for what he hasn’t done. What Moustakas hasn’t done is convert his still formidable skills into performance. He has ridiculous bat speed, but he swings at too many bad pitches to take full advantage of it. In 2008, he hit a promising .272/.337/.468, walked a reasonable amount (43 times in 496 AB), and hit 22 homers (the most by a teenager in the Midwest League in years). Last season, his offensive game took a step backward in every way: he hit just .250, he walked just 32 times in 492 AB, and he hist just 16 homers (although he did hit 32 doubles). Overall, his line of .250/.297/.421 was unacceptable.

The elephant in the room is Daniel S. Frawley Stadium, where the Wilmington Blue Rocks play. The Blue Rocks have played in one of the minors’ best pitchers’ parks since they joined the Carolina League nearly two decades ago, and Moustakas would hardly be the first Royals prospect to struggle there. At the same age Moustakas was last year, Carlos Beltran hit just .229/.311/.363 for the Blue Rocks; two years later he was the AL Rookie of the Year.

There’s a well-researched article here which points out that while Wilmington is a tough place to hit overall, it’s actually not a bad park for left-handed power hitters, because the right-field fence is considerably closer than the left-field one. That may be true, but the fact remains that last season, Moustakas hit just .205/.266/.373 at home, and .292/.331/.473 on the road (numbers approximate). Maybe Frawley Stadium affected him mentally more than physically – its reputation precedes itself – but regardless, on the road Moustakas’ numbers were a doppelganger of his 2008 performance. With a promotion to relatively hitter-friendly Northwest Arkansas this year, we’ll see if there’s a breakout performance coming.

I’m still confident that he will develop into a strong power threat, but I’m increasingly worried that he’ll never develop the plate discipline that he needs to be an above-average player. Case in point: after his disappointing season for Wilmington, Moustakas headed to the Arizona Fall League, and took advantage of the thin air to slug .560 and hit 5 homers and 11 extra-base hits overall in just 75 at-bats. But he drew just 2 walks the entire time he was down there, and finished with a .288 OBP. We have enough sub-.300 OBPs on the roster already. Moustakas is young enough to improve in that regard, but he’s also in arguably the worst organization in baseball when it comes to teaching him the strike zone.

The other major concern I have with Moustakas is a lack of a defined position, which stems in part from the fact that he has a weird set of defensive tools. He has a cannon for an arm, strong enough that he hit the low-90s from the mound while in high school. The problem is that he just doesn’t have the body type to play the infield. I finally got a good look at Moustakas during the AFL all-star game, and was struck by just how unathletic he looked. He has what the scouts call a “thick lower half”: he has big thighs, and – there’s no nice way to put this – a big ass. Honestly, the first thought I had when I saw him was, “he looks just like Billy Butler.” That doesn’t mean he can’t hit, but as Butler has proven, that does mean that you can’t play the left side of the infield without eliciting an unending stream of guffaws. (And in three plate appearances, Moose saw a total of four pitches, twice putting the first pitch in play.)

With that arm, he could certainly move to right field, but in addition to losing a lot of positional value out there, I’m not sure he has the speed to be even an average defender out there, and he’s not going to pick up speed as he ages. In addition to being an average runner at best, Moustakas is also short and squat. He’s listed as 6’0” and 195 pounds in BA’s Handbook, and it would be wonderful if that were the case. According to his player page, he’s 5’11” and 230 pounds.

Over the last few years there have been two grassroots movements afoot to move two Royals into different roles. The first has been the campaign to move Joakim Soria into the starting rotation. I would love to see how Soria would do as a starter, to satisfy my curiosity if nothing else, but I have made my peace with the Royals’ decision to keep him in the bullpen. There are legitimate concerns about him losing velocity in the rotation, his slight frame, his history of arm problems – I can understand the Royals’ reluctance to meddle with one of their greatest assets, particularly with a wave of young starting pitching about to crest.

But I’m riding shotgun for the other bandwagon movement, the one that says that the Royals should move Moustakas behind the plate. This isn’t a new idea; I’ve heard baseball analysts like Law suggest it for two years now. And as much as the Royals want to dismiss the idea as just so much fan-induced craziness, it’s neither crazy nor fan-induced. On the contrary, the most vehement supporters of this idea are generally scouts for other teams.

If you poll scouts from other organizations who have followed Moustakas, you will find a sizeable minority, if not a majority, of them think that it’s a great idea. That’s both because Moustakas has the perfect raw tools to be a catcher (not too tall, agile but not fast, laser arm), and because he doesn’t really fit anywhere else on the diamond. Just two months ago I spoke with a scout about some of the Royals’ prospects, and the first thing out of his mouth when I inquired about Moustakas was “man, I’d really love to see what he could do behind the plate.”

That the Royals have shown absolutely no inclination to even entertain the idea is not an indictment of the idea, but of the Royals. Once again, we see one of the central failings of the organization: a team that plays in one of the game’s smallest markets, a franchise that was once the class of baseball in large part because of its willingness to think outside the box (the Royals Baseball Academy, anyone?), simply refuses to think of creative solutions to their problems. Moustakas has a great arm and good first-step quickness, but he’s not built to be a third baseman. I suppose he could be a third baseman the way Ron Cey was a third baseman – Cey was known as “The Penguin” because of the way he waddled when he ran. Cey was 5’10” and 185 pounds – Moose has nearly 50 pounds on him.

So Moustakas may not make for a good third baseman, and anyway the Royals still have Alex Gordon over there. While Gordon may remain a bust, it doesn’t make sense to plan for failure. The Royals don’t need Moustakas at first base. He’s unlikely to be anything more than an average right fielder, and a move there would make the deficiencies in his bat that much more glaring. And yet there’s a position on the field where 1) Moustakas has the raw skills to develop into an above-average defender; 2) the offensive requirements are much less demanding – if Moustakas hits .270 with 25 homers, even with poor plate discipline he'd be one of the best-hitting catchers in baseball; 3) the Royals have an enormous need.

Naturally, the Royals have shown absolutely no interest in the idea. Never mind that other teams have had great success with converted catchers. Russell Martin was drafted as a third baseman, and is now one of the best defensive backstops in baseball. Jorge Posada was a second baseman in his first pro season. Michael Barrett – a first-round pick – was a shortstop in his first season in the minors, before he was pointed in the direction of home plate. Geovany Soto dabbled in the outfield and on the infield corners his first two years in the minors. Hell, Mike Piazza had never caught in his life when the Dodgers signed him and handed him a mask.

So yeah, count me among those who think that the only way for Moustakas to reach his true potential is become a catcher. Sure, it might slow down his progression to the majors. But let’s face it: he’s no longer on the fast track to Kansas City in the first place. It’s going to take at least another year or two before he’s ready no matter where he plays. Given that, the Royals might as well move him to a position where he’ll be worth the wait.

Speaking of catchers, more on Wil Myers – and some other top prospects – still to come.

Addendum: After I posted this article, a source with connections to the Royals contacted me to let me know that, late last year, the Royals did in fact quietly broach the subject of moving behind the plate with Moustakas. He made it clear that he had no interest in such a move, and the idea was shelved.

While in a perfect world a team could tell one of their top prospects to jump and he'd respond with "how high?", back in the real world it's probably not a good idea to force a position change on a player without getting some buy-in from him. If Moustakas were a complete bust at this point, the Royals might push the subject a little harder on the premise that they had nothing to lose. But he's not; there's still a good chance that his bat will come around to the point where he's an asset at third base, or any other position. So I stand corrected: the Royals tried, and I can't fault them for not succeeding.

Also, I've been told that immediately after the AFL, Moustakas - at the behest of both the Royals and his agent, the Scott Boras Corporation - enrolled in an intense workout regimen designed to make his soft body a little less so. This fits with the word out of spring training that he looks to be in much better shape than last season. I know, I know - this is National Best Shape of His Life Month. But at least Moustakas recognized there was a problem, and - no one questions his work ethic - applied himself towards fixing it. Of all the Royals' top prospects, he's the only one whose shape I worry about, so if anyone gets a good sighting of him this spring, I'd love to hear about it.