If you’re wondering why I’m focusing so much on the farm system to the exclusion of the major league team, here’s why.
On Monday night, after the Royals had lost an excruciating game to the Nationals, 2-1, despite out-hitting Washington 11-4, here’s what Ned Yost had to say:
“That doesn't shut down your [running] game when a catcher throws well,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “You’ve still got to try and score runs when you're not doing much at the plate.”
This makes perfect sense, except that the Royals converted 11 hits into just 1 run in large part because of their running game, which contributed two caught stealings (and a runner picked off – from second base!) and no steals. The opposing catcher, Ivan Rodriguez, just happens to be one of the greatest-throwing catchers in baseball history. To use Yost’s words, when a catcher throws well you absolutely SHOULD shut down your running game.
And as for “not doing much at the plate” – the Royals had 11 hits in the game, despite giving away five outs – the three above and two sac bunts. They actually batted .333 in the game. Sometimes, doing nothing is the best thing a manager can do. For some managers, it’s also the hardest thing.
And then, after Wednesday’s 1-0 win against the Mighty Strasburg, Yost explained why he was so reluctant to use Joakim Soria outside of save situations on the road:
“If you use your closer on the road in the eighth inning when you’re behind,” Yost said, “to me, that says you’re giving up. It’s much easier to use him (in those situations) at home.”
Yes, yes, of course. Nothing says “I give up” quite like PUTTING YOUR BEST PITCHER IN THE GAME.
So this is why I’m studiously attempting to avoid discussion of the major-league team, and I apologize for falling off the wagon there for a moment. I like Ned Yost; I want to keep liking him. The best way for me to do that at the moment is to ignore him.
Which brings us to Northwest Arkansas, and thankfully, we’ve found the mother lode. The prospect train which Dayton Moore assembled in rookie ball three years ago has since passed through Burlington and Wilmington, and has pulled into Wal-Mart country. The Naturals ran away with the division early, clinching the first-half playoff spot with a 42-28 record that was the best in the Texas League.
Mike Moustakas and Michael Montgomery, whom we’ve already discussed, headline the prospects. It bears mentioning that Montgomery, who missed a few weeks with some elbow soreness, came back and pitched well on a strict 55-pitch count…and then went back on the DL with more elbow soreness. The Royals are adamant that his elbow tenderness is very typical, his MRI is clean, and they are just being cautious with their most prized arm. We all hope that is the case, but it’s never a good sign when someone goes back on the DL just hours after they came off of it. I’m not scared, but I am a little worried.
Moustakas, meanwhile, just keeps mashing the ball – he’s already surpassed his homer total from last season, and is hitting a ridiculous .350/.417/.701. He has to be considered one of the front-runners for Minor League Player of the Year honors, however meaningless that award might be. (Alex Gordon won the award in 2006.)
The only other first-round pick on the roster is Aaron Crow, and there’s no way to sugarcoat it: Crow has been a huge disappointment this season, almost certainly the most disappointing player in the system. He looked strong in spring training, to the point where there were rumors the Royals were considering breaking camp with him in the majors (much as the Reds did with Mike Leake, who the Royals were hoping would fall to them in the draft.) Crow went to Double-A instead, and was expected to shine, if not dominate.
Instead, he’s been taken out behind the woodshed, and if anything the beatings just keep getting worse. Crow had a 3.94 ERA in April, a 5.97 ERA in May, and has an 11.66 ERA in June, having allowed 28 runs in his last 18.2 innings. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is 53 to 40, which is pretty lousy; he’s also given up 94 hits in 79 innings.
The one saving grace to Crow’s record is that he’s getting groundballs in bunches. According to minorleaguebaseball.com, his G/F ratio is 3.37, and his last start was the first one of the season in which he didn’t get at least twice as many outs on the ground as in the air. That’s a sign that his sinker is working, at least, even if nothing else is. The sinker hasn’t kept him from giving up 9 homers already, although at least he’s trending well in that department, as 5 of those came in April.
When he was drafted, it was almost too easy to compare Crow to Luke Hochevar, as both of them failed to sign as college juniors, then both signed with the Fort Worth Cats in the independent American Association, then both were drafted by the Royals in the first round. But today the comparison between the two is even more striking. Like Crow, Hochevar started his first pro season in Double-A and was expected to dominate, and like Crow he struggled much more than was expected. Compare their numbers:
Crow: 6.27 ERA, 79 IP, 94 H, 40 BB, 53 K, 9 HR
Hochevar: 4.69 ERA, 94 IP, 110 H, 26 BB, 94 K, 13 HR
Hochevar pitched better, particular in terms of commanding the strike zone. But his numbers were not what you’d expect from the #1 overall pick. Like Crow, he gave up a lot of homers despite being a fierce groundball pitcher.
So I do think there may be something to the notion that after pitching hardly at all for 18 months, it may be too much to expect even a top pitching prospect to go to Double-A and dominate. Hochevar was moved up to Omaha in July and pitched about the same – a high ERA masking some decent peripherals. But the following year he was excellent in three Triple-A starts before arriving in the majors.
I think it’s fair to call Aaron Crow a poor man’s Hochevar, with all the loaded meaning that implies. Hochevar has been infuriatingly inconsistent, but also undeniably talented. I think Crow may be fated to be the same way – not a complete bust as a pitcher, but someone whose results will lag behind his stuff. I think Hochevar is close to closing the gap – or he was before he went on the DL – and I hope that Crow one day will as well. But that day is still far off. For now, I will be happy if he simply pitches better in the second half than he did in the first half, and genuinely earns a promotion to Omaha for 2011.
J.J. Picollo on Crow’s struggles (remember, this conversation happened 3 weeks ago): He’s trying to be fine – he’s not good with his first-pitch strike efficiency…too fine with his two-seamer, which batters are laying off of, meaning he can’t use his slider and changeup…in spring training the team thought he might be ready by June…trying to get him to throw more four-seamers on his first pitch…they’ve learned from handling Hochevar not to rush him.
If Crow really has lost his spot on the list of the team’s top prospects, you don’t have to look far to find someone to replace him. Out in center field, Derrick Robinson has been a revelation.
Robinson was a fourth-round pick in 2006, who got $850,000 – second-round money – to sign. He was a pure tools play; he was arguably the fastest player in the draft that year, and the Royals were betting they could teach him to hit. They decided to double-down by teaching him to switch-hit at the same time. For the first three-plus seasons of his pro career, it looked like a bad gamble. Robinson hit .245/.316/.322 with no homers in his first season at Wilmington in 2008, and when he was given a second chance at the same level in 2009, he hit even worse, and his plate discipline deteriorated.
Until the end of July, when in desperation – the Royals were considering giving up on the switch-hitting experiment and letting him bat right-handed full-time – Robinson asked if he could change his batting stance from the left side, standing more upright at the plate. He hit .311/.362/.513 in August, with five homers, after hitting just three in his entire pro career to that point. His overall line (.239/.290/.324) was still worse than the year before, but at least you could dream on him a little.
The dream is starting to take shape this season. As my friend Kevin Goldstein loves to say, “always bet on tools”, and at age 22, Robinson’s tools are finally shaping into skills. Despite making the biggest jump in the minors, the one to Double-A, Robinson started the season looking like a completely different player. In April, he hit .324. He drew 12 walks in 19 games and had a .427 OBP. After years of hitting better from his natural right side, he hit better left-handed, a strong sign that his new batting stance made the difference. Now that he was getting on base, he was free to use his game-changing speed even more. He had stolen over 60 bases in both 2008 and 2009, remarkable given his low OBP. This April, alone he stole 15 bases.
He couldn’t keep it up, and didn’t, going into a prolonged slump in early May. But to his credit, he got hot again, and for the month of May hit .286 with a .374 OBP. He slumped terribly a few weeks ago, but is starting to pick it up again, going 10-for-his last-35. For the season, he’s hitting a very respectable .292/.362/.375. Those numbers look a lot better when you consider 1) he’s still only 22; 2) he already has 30 stolen bases in 42 attempts; 3) his speed gives him Gold Glove potential in center field – one of his catches made ESPN’s SportsNation show last month.
I do believe the Royals need to take it slow with him. After drawing 12 walks in April and 15 in May, he’s walked just twice in June, taking his OBP down with it. His power surge last August hasn’t been replicated – he’s still waiting on his first homer of the season. If he can hit .290 in the majors and take his walks, he can be an offensive force even without power – but if he can’t hit for power even in the minors, there’s the risk that pitchers in the majors will just pound the strike zone and turn him into Jason Tyner or something. The Royals have made comments hinting that they want to take it slow with Robinson, and I agree.
A more flattering comparison for Robinson is Denard Span. Span was a first-round pick of the Twins in 2002, and while he hit better than Robinson in the low minors his numbers were disappointing all the way to Double-A. In 2006, at the same age Robinson is now, Span hit just .285/.340/.349 in Double-A with just 2 homers (a career high!)
And like Robinson, Span’s bat came around after he went back to an old batting stance, as detailed in this interview he gave to Dave Laurila. The Twins continued to take it slow with Span. He spent a full year in Triple-A at age 23 and hit just .267/.323/.355. He returned to Triple-A the following year and the light bulb went on; he hit .340/.434/.481 and was promoted to the majors, and has been an outstanding player since, with high OBPs, good speed, and very good defense more than overcoming his lack of power.
Robinson might be slightly ahead of where Span was at the same age, but I still think he’ll be well served with a full year in Double-A this season, and at least a half-season in Omaha next year before we can think about him patrolling center field in Kansas City. But a year ago at this time, the idea of Robinson making it to the majors at all was a pipe dream. Suddenly, the Royals might have their center fielder of the future. We just may need to look a little farther into the future for this one.
Picollo on the keys to Robinson’s success: It’s a matter of confidence…he has the confidence to get deeper into counts, leading to more walks and two-strike hits. Rusty Kuntz watched him a lot and saw a much more confident approach at the plate in addition to the change in his stance.
The other high-profile prospect on the roster is Johnny Giavotella, the team’s second-round pick in 2008. Giavotella is your classic scrappy 5’8” second baseman, and it said a lot about him that the Royals were willing to spend a high second-rounder on a college player with his profile. He struggled some in Wilmington last year, hitting .258/.351/.380 with sub-par defense, but it was a tough place to hit and he was still young; he was my sleeper pick before the season.
He has played better this year; not a lot better, but better. Giavotella is hitting .283/.365/.375, with as many walks (34) as strikeouts, and while he’ll never be a Gold Glove threat, I’ve heard fewer complaints about his defense this year. Like Robinson he may never hit for power, but he at least has 16 doubles so far this season to keep pitchers honest. The Royals, like every team, were presumably trying to find the new Dustin Pedroia when they took him, but I still think he’s gunning to be the poor man’s Chuck Knoblauch.
A prospect with his profile is in a tough spot, because if he doesn’t hit well enough to play every day in the majors, he doesn’t have the glove to be a utility player because he can’t handle shortstop. Either he’ll be an offensive-minded second baseman, or he’ll be a Quadruple-A player for the next decade. He turns 23 in a few weeks, so he still has time to take one big step forward with the bat. He needs to. Alternatively, given the plethora of second-base options the Royals already have in the majors and the minors, Giavotella would make excellent trade bait.
No other hitter on the roster has the kind of prospect cache that Moustakas, Robinson, and Giavotella do, but that’s not to say there aren’t any other future major leaguers on the team.
Catcher Manny Pina, one half of the haul the Royals got for the lightning arm and loosely-screwed-on head of Danny Gutierrez, looks like a long-time major-league backup at worst. Last year, in the Rangers’ organization, Pina spent the whole year in the Texas League and hit .259/.313/.393. This year his ability to hit for average hasn’t improved – he’s batting .268 – but his secondary skills have. After hitting 8 homers all of last season, he already has 6 this year, and is slugging average (.444) is 50 points higher. And after striking out more than three times as often as he walked in 2009, he has more than doubled his walk rate while cutting his whiffs by 30%, and in 142 at-bats has both 18 walks and 18 strikeouts, leading to a .350 OBP.
Pina came into the organization as a defense-first catcher, making his offensive improvement even more enticing. He just turned 23, and with the Royals’ clear reluctance to use Brayan Pena as anything more than window dressing, Pina has a chance to back up Jason Kendall as soon as next season. Or, if we’re lucky, Kendall can back him up instead.
Other hitters of note:
Clint Robinson, a former 25th-round pick who’s done nothing but hit as a pro, and is batting .301/.389/.548 as Moustakas’ wingman. He’s also a 25-year-old first baseman, and a bench role as a pinch-hitter/defensive replacement at first base might be his upside. But hey, it worked for Ross Gload.
Tim Smith, the other half of the Gutierrez deal, is a 24-year-old outfielder who’s hit .300 at almost every stop, and is doing it once again at .303/.391/.454. He looks like a Shane Costa-ish tweener to me, but I could be proven wrong. Like Pina, his K/BB ratio has completely turned around; he’s drawn more walks than strikeouts after striking out almost twice as often as he walked last year. Double-A hitting coach Terry Bradshaw has an excellent reputation, and for good reason.
Paulo Orlando, a 24-year-old Brazilian native who astute Royals fans will remember as the player we got from the White Sox for Horacio Ramirez – the first time, when the Royals picked him off of waivers and he was good, as opposed to the second time, when he was re-signed for $2 million and sucked raw eggs. Orlando struggled in Wilmington for all of last season, but like a hundred other guys, he was so happy to leave Frawley Stadium that his bat has come alive, as he’s hitting .316/.382/.468. He’s got a good defensive reputation, and has fourth outfielder possibilities.
With all due respect to you Nick Van Stratten and Anthony Seratelli fans, that probably exhausts the list of hitting prospects. Still, on any given night the Naturals can start a lineup where 7 of the 9 batters might wind up spending a lot of time in the major leagues.
The rotation, behind Montgomery and Crow, is a bit shy on prospects. The outlier here is Edgar Osuna, who the Royals took in the Rule 5 draft from Atlanta, and who the Braves refused to spend the measly sum of $25,000 to re-acquire when Osuna didn’t make the Royals’ roster.
Given how little regard the Braves had for him, you wouldn’t expect anything from Osuna, but he has pitched insanely well this season, making the Texas League All-Star Team (along with 8 of his teammates.) The key for him has been, in a word, control. Last year he had good control, walking 35 men in 150 innings between A-ball and Double-A. This year, his control has been insane; he’s walked just nine batters in 80 innings. His other numbers have been pretty average – 55 strikeouts, 79 hits, 8 homers. But you walk one batter per nine innings, and you can thrive even if you’re average in all other respects.
The scouts aren’t buying it. Osuna’s fastball, I believe, runs between 85 and 88; he’s got a slow curveball that gives minor leaguers fits but major league hitters will spit at. His changeup is a genuine major league pitch, but it’s not enough to be successful, even for a lefty. At some point, his performance demands a promotion, at least to Triple-A. The mere fact that the Braves refused to take him back does not guarantee that he’s a nobody; the Dodgers famously declined to take Shane Victorino back from the Phillies after the 2004 season. Still, anything we get out of Osuna at the major-league level is gravy.
Finally, there’s the bullpen, where the Naturals have no less than three relievers with serious major-league possibilities. Well, they had three, until Blaine Hardy went on a run-ger strike, and threatened not to give up another run until his demand to be promoted to Omaha was met. (Horrible pun, I know.) After allowing two runs in his first outing of the year, Hardy didn’t allow another in his next 11 appearances, covering 24 innings, before joining the O-Royals’ bullpen at the end of May.
Hardy, a left-hander, was a 22nd-round pick just two years ago, out of legendary NAIA school Lewis-Clark State in Idaho. He proved to be a find right away, giving up less than a baserunner per inning for Burlington in the Midwest League last year. Still, no one expected this: despite jumping two levels to Double-A, he allowed just 11 hits in 26 innings (!) before his promotion, and he’s been nearly as effective in Omaha. For the year, he’s allowed just 22 hits in 43 innings with a 1.27 ERA. He has just 31 strikeouts against 12 walks, although his strikeout rate is better than it looks, simply because he’s been so stingy with the hit that he hasn’t had as many strikeout opportunities as you’d expect.
Hardy isn’t overpowering, but he throws around 90 and changes speeds well, works both sides of the plate, and doesn’t show a pronounced platoon split. The Royals have made due with Dusty Hughes as their sole left-handed reliever for most of the season, but pretty soon they’ll have a legitimate weapon in that role.
The second lefty in the Naturals’ pen, Brandon Sisk, is a prospect in his own right. Sisk was signed out of an independent league in 2008. As you’d expect from an undrafted left-hander, his fastball is marginal, but according to Picollo “he has excellent deception” in his delivery. He opened eyes last season by allowing just 30 hits in 61 innings in Wilmington. Now pitching in a more neutral ballpark, he’s allowed 39 hits and 15 walks in 40 innings, with 38 strikeouts. Sisk is a lefty specialist at best, but that’s still quite a find from the indy leagues.
The third prospect reliever, Louis Coleman, was the ace of LSU’s College World Series champion team last season, but also came in out of the bullpen to secure the final out of the championship. The Royals got him in the fifth round because his low arm slot meant that he didn’t project as a starter. So the Royals made him a reliever full-time, and he’s been excellent from day one. He reached Wilmington after signing last season and was very effective there, and hasn’t missed a beat for the Naturals in 2010.
In 48 innings he’s allowed just 31 hits and 14 walks, and struck out 52. Those are outstanding numbers across the board, but a word of caution: as you’d expect from someone with a low arm slot, he has a big platoon differential. Lefties are hitting .257 against him this year, while right-handed hitters are batting just .124. His walk and homer rates are pretty similar from each side, but still, that’s a sizeable difference which limits his effectiveness.
In the modern bullpen, where 7 relievers are standard and most teams carry one if not two LOOGYs (Left-handed One Out GuYs), there’s a place for a ROOGY like Coleman. If Yost spots him correctly, Coleman should be a useful piece of the puzzle as soon as next April.
Picollo on the Naturals’ relievers: Hardy is ahead of the other guys simply because he throws the most strikes…throws 89-90 but touches 93…good changeup, curveball is inconsistent. Coleman has a low three-quarters delivery and throws across his body, also quite deceptive…he doesn’t throw a four-seamer which is unusual for a bullpen guy…his velocity is down to 89-90 after sitting at 92-93 last year, but he’s still getting results.
So to sum up: the Naturals have one Grade A stud hitter (Moustakas), one potential above-average center fielder (Robinson), a potential everyday second baseman (Giavotella), a borderline starter/excellent backup catcher (Pina), three role players (Smith, Robinson, Orlando), a Grade A left-handed starter (Montgomery), an enigmatic right-hander who still has top-shelf stuff (Crow), a Jamie Moyer Scratch-Off Lottery Ticket (Osuna), and three potential long-term relievers (Hardy, Sisk, Coleman).
That’s an impressive collection of talent on one team. There have been years where the Royals didn’t have this many quality prospects in the entire organization. And we’re likely to see more prospects pass through Northwest Arkansas before the year is out. While Hardy has moved to Omaha, his place in the bullpen has been taken by Patrick Keating, a 25th-round find last year who I’ll talk about in the Wilmington piece. There’s a good chance we’ll see Eric Hosmer here before the year is out, and now that he appears to be signed it’s possible Christian Colon might reach Double-A this year. Danny Duffy will probably make his Double-A debut in about a month. A late-season appearance by Chris Dwyer or even John Lamb isn’t out of the question.
Put it all together, and a very strong case can be made that the 2010 Northwest Arkansas Naturals has the greatest collection of future major league talent of any Royals’ farm team in history. But that’s an article for another day.