Thursday, April 1, 2010

Prospect Rundown, Part 7.

Let’s finish up with a few quick comments on prospects that have so far escaped the reach of my keyboard. This isn’t necessarily a list of the best prospects that I haven’t covered yet, just the prospects that I think warrant mentioning because they’re relatively close to being major-league ready.

Jeff Bianchi: Well, this one’s easy – Bianchi’s out for the year with a torn UCL necessitating Tommy John surgery. His entire career has been an exhibit in promising talent limited by injury. He hit over .400 in rookie ball in both 2005 and 2006, but a torn labrum in his shoulder in 2006 ended his season after 12 games, and he was awful in 2007 and only slightly better in 2008. Last season, he showed the talent that made him a 2nd round pick in 2005: he hit .300 in Wilmington and .315 at Northwest Arkansas, with a little pop (9 homers, 29 doubles) and some speed (22 steals). His plate discipline isn’t great (39 walks against 95 Ks) but acceptable for a shortstop.

When he was drafted, the upside comparison I heard was Michael Young. After last season’s resurgence, he projects as a poor man’s Michael Young – a line-drive hitter whose solid fundamentals allow him to play shortstop despite below-average range. That’s not a great player, honestly, maybe a league-average shortstop at his best, or a very good utility player. Still, he projected as better than Yuniesky Betancourt, which would have made his injury a big blow to the Royals – if Mike Aviles wasn’t the surprise of camp. If Aviles is healthy, the Royals won’t miss Bianchi this season.

We’ll see if he can come back next season and make good on his promise. It won’t take much for him to be a success by recent Royals standards. For as much attention as the Royals have received for the failure of their high first-round picks, they’ve gotten a pass for their 2nd round picks, which have been terrible. Here’s a list of every 2nd rounder drafted in the last 15 years:

1996: Taylor Myers

1997: Dane Sardinha (did not sign)

1998: Robbie Morrison

1999: Wes Obermueller & Brian Sanches

2000: Mike Tonis

2001: Roscoe Crosby

2002: Adam Donachie

2003: Shane Costa

2004: Billy Buckner and Eric Cordier

2005: Jeff Bianchi

2006: Jason Taylor

2007: Sam Runion

2008: Johnny Giavotella

You don’t expect to hit on all your 2nd round picks, but oh my God, that’s awful. No wonder the Royals gave up their 2nd round pick last season when they signed Juan Cruz.

Obermueller pitched briefly, and not successfully, in the majors; Sanches made it to the majors as a middle reliever when he was 27, and actually had a good year for the Phillies last season at age 30. Tonis got six at-bats in the majors. Costa was Shane Costa. Buckner has a 5.74 ERA in the majors.

And those are the success stories. No one else on that list reached the majors. (Eric Cordier was throwing 95 this spring and has a lot of people excited again about his future. Of course, he’s the guy the Royals gave up for Tony Pena Jr.) The two guys drafted after Bianchi, Jason Taylor and Sam Runion, are at the moment two of the biggest busts in the organization.

Jarrod Dyson: During my brief stay at the Winter Meetings the Royals held a press conference for Trey Hillman, and at the end of the presser I got in a question, asking Hillman what prospects he was looking forward to bringing up to the major league roster this season. He immediately brought up Dyson, which was…curious, given that Dyson wasn’t even listed when Baseball America ranked the team’s top 30 prospects.

It would be all too easy to mock the Royals for thinking so highly of Dyson, who is 25 years old and still hasn’t demonstrated the ability to, you know, hit. In four minor league seasons, he has a .270 lifetime average, and his next homer will be his first as a pro.

But Dyson has one undeniable tool – speed – and to his credit has developed that tool into two identifiable skills: baserunning prowess and defensive range. The kid can fly, and he’s a stolen base threat every time he reaches base – which is far too rare. (In his career he has reached base of his own accord 308 times, and has 107 steals – an incredible ratio.) But he’s also a defensive whiz in centerfield. Those two skills don’t make a ballplayer, but they do make for a handy fifth or sixth outfielder – if teams had the space for five or six outfielders, which they don’t.

I’ve seen people compare him to Joey Gathright, which is silly for two reasons. One is that Gathright actually hit: in his first full season, Gathright hit .331 in the minor leagues, then hit .334 the following season between Double-A and Triple-A, and was in the majors by the time he was 23. But the other is that Gathright, despite his amazing speed, was never a particularly good outfielder, which is why he has been unable to stick in the majors as a backup (he was just released by the Blue Jays the other day.) The better comparison for Dyson, I think, would be to a poor man’s Endy Chavez, who was briefly with the Royals as a Rule 5 pick many years ago.

Chavez has never hit well enough to play every day in the majors, but he could always run, and if he were an everyday player people would recognize him as one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball. His running over-the-wall ice cream-scoop catch of Scott Rolen’s home run ball in Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS would rank as one of the three most important defensive plays in playoff history had the Mets not lost the game anyway on Yadier Molina’s ninth-inning home run.

I doubt that Dyson will ever develop enough to be a regular, or even semi-regular, outfielder in the majors. But if nothing else, he has tremendous value as a September callup, because when you have unlimited rosters, a guy who can pinch-run and play great defense off the bench will always have value. If anything, Dyson might be more valuable to a better team – a team that’s in the hunt in September could use a guy like Dyson that might steal them a game with his legs or glove. A team like the Royals needs September to look at guys who might be regulars for them in the future. Barring a radical improvement in his offensive game, Dyson won’t be that guy. If Hillman really thinks Dyson can help the Royals as an everyday player, he’s only fooling himself.

Kila Ka’aihue: The Royals keep trying to bury him, and he keeps making himself difficult to ignore. The power he showed in 2008 was unsustainable – Ka’aihue hit 37 homers but just 15 doubles, and that’s not a ratio that even the most hulking behemoth of a slugger can maintain for long. Sure enough, his homers dropped to 17 last season even as his doubles jumped to 27. But the drop in his batting average was more concerning; after hitting .315 in 2008, he hit just .252 for Omaha last year.

Fortunately, his plate discipline, his greatest skill, remained unharmed. He drew 102 walks last season after drawing 104 the year before. Remember, no Royal has walked 100 times at the major league level since Kevin Seitzer two decades ago. And while some guys draw lots of walks because they watch a lot of close pitches, including a lot of called strike threes, Ka’aihue has never struck out 100 times in a season.

He’s not as good as he looked in 2008, but he’s not as bad as he looked in 2009 – and in 2009, his performance still translated to have been a big improvement on Mike Jacobs. Jacobs is gone now, and while Jose Guillen has the DH spot for now, I have this suspicion that the odds Guillen loses the job to injury, non-performance, or simply a refusal to adapt to the position are quite high. Ka’aihue has had a monster spring, punctuated with a two-game stretch last week when he ended one game with a walk-off, bases-loaded walk, and hit the go-ahead homer in the eighth inning of the next game.

The Royals have pinned him with that awful label, “slider-bat speed”, a label that’s harder to get rid of than herpes. I’m not sure it’s true, and I’m not sure it’s relevant. Jacobs could hit a good fastball, but the problem was that he swung at a lot of bad fastballs as well. Ka’aihue may not be able to catch up to a perfectly-placed fastball, but few hitters can. And the good sense to lay off fastballs outside the strike zone mitigates that weakness.

Honestly, I wish some more of the Royals had slider-bat speed. If Guillen had slider-bat speed, maybe he’d actually hit some of those sliders he swings at. Somehow, the fact that Miguel Olivo had “fastball-bat speed” was okay. It’s okay if you swing over every off-speed pitch in the book, but God forbid you can’t hit a really good fastball.

Ka’aihue is one of the five best hitters in the organization right now, no matter what speed his bat is. If the Royals ever give him the chance to perform, they might be surprised at the results. Even if the rest of us won’t.

David Lough: When I spoke with J.J. Picollo a few weeks ago, I asked him for a sleeper from among the pitching and hitting ranks. His pitching sleeper was John Lamb, who we’ve already covered, and Lough was his hitting sleeper. His point wasn’t that Lough was an unknown – he ranks as the Royals’ #10 prospect by Baseball America, and reached Double-A last season, hitting .331/.371/.517 – but that this spring he looked even better than the Royals thought he was. They farmed him out early, but not before he made a big impression in camp.

It’s almost too easy to compare Lough to David DeJesus, but sometimes the easy comparison is easy for a reason. Like DeJesus, Lough projects as a tweener, a guy whose bat can play in center field, and whose glove looks good in a corner spot, but who might not fit at any specific position. And like DeJesus, Lough’s biggest strength is a lack of weaknesses. He hits for a good average, modest power (14 homers last year, 16 homers the year before), steals bases (19 last year, 12 in 2008), rarely strikes out, runs well, and has the range to hang in center or shine in a corner. The comparison even extends to his arm: like DeJesus, Lough doesn’t have great arm strength, but is very accurate with his throws. The biggest difference is that Lough doesn’t walk a lot – just 24 walks last season – and he’ll need to work on that if he’s ever going to have an acceptable OBP.

DeJesus has had a much better career than many expected, and it’s not because he developed any surprising skills like start to hit for power, it’s just that he was maybe 5% or 10% better across the board than he was expected to be, and at his level of performance, that’s the difference between fringe-average and average-plus, as the scouts say. DeJesus started his career in center field, where his glove was average but his bat was a little above-average, and then last year he moved to left field, where his bat was average but he was one of the best defensive left fielders in the game.

Coming into spring training, I was worried that Lough would be a true tweener, a guy who maybe was a good fourth outfielder but just wouldn’t hit enough to play every day. But as with DeJesus, a little improvement goes a long way when you’ve got a broad base of skills like Lough does. If Lough really does take his game to another level this season, he might be ready to take over if and when Rick Ankiel or Scott Podsednik break down, and may play well enough to hold onto the job all season. Lough’s a very athletic guy who was recruited to a Division II college to play football, and is still young in baseball terms, which means that even at age 24, continued development is not unlikely. If the Royals were seeing something real in spring training, he could soon be starting for them for a long time.

Johnny Giavotella: Johnny G is my sleeper, and not just because his name makes him sound like an extra in “Goodfellas”. Giavotella is a true sleeper, in that his first full pro season was widely considered a bit of a disappointment: he went to high-A Wilmington and hit just .258 with 6 homers. He’s also not considered to be a particularly good second baseman defensively.

But look deeper. He was just 20 when he signed – he was unusually young for a college junior – and played most of last season at age 21. Almost on cue, he hit better after he turned 22 in July; he hit .292/.355/.423 in the second half of the season. And he played for the Blue Rocks, where the ballpark is a notoriously tough place to hit, but particularly so for right-handed hitters. He has tremendous bat control; he walked 66 times against just 54 strikeouts last season. He has good speed, with 26 steals. Moving to a much-better hitters’ park in Double-A this year, I think Giavotella may surprise everyone with a breakout season offensively.

When he was drafted, I tried to find major league players that he would compare to, and finally settled on “Chuck Knoblauch without the speed”. So I was quite pleased when I opened this year’s edition of Baseball Prospectus, and under Giavotella’s projection, his most comparable player was…Chuck Knoblauch. (And yes, yes, I’m quite aware that the elves have invaded the PECOTA system this spring, and if you check online I’m sure Giavotella’s closest comp will be Ichiro Suzuki, or maybe Dan Quisenberry. I’ll stick with Knobby.) His glove will continue to be an issue, but you can do worse than a second baseman with a .370 OBP and speed, even if his defense is subpar. The Royals certainly have.