Wednesday, June 30, 2010


The Royals’ connection to the Wilmington Blue Rocks is a source of fascination for me. The Wilmington franchise appears from the outside to be one of the most desirable franchises in all of high A-ball for a major league team to affiliate with. As the only pro baseball team in Delaware, they consistently do very well in the attendance category – currently second in the Carolina League. They play in a beautiful ballpark. And of the three high A leagues – the California and Florida State being the others – the Carolina League clearly seems to have the most going for it.

The California League is too hitter-friendly as a whole, while the Florida State league is dotted with small cities and negligible attendance. Prior to hooking up with Wilmington, the Royals’ used to have their high A affiliate in “Baseball City” – their spring training complex in Haines City, where the attendance for some of their games could easily be mistaken for a pitch count.

But the Royals snagged Wilmington as an affiliate when the Blue Rocks, new ballpark in hand joined the Carolina League after a 40-year hiatus from pro baseball, and with the exception of a two-year exile, have remained connected ever since. Those two years away (2005-06) were spent in the thin air and swirling winds of High Desert, the place that made Chris Lubanski a stud power hitter. The Royals were forced to join High Desert after the Red Sox made a compelling offer to the Wilmington franchise in the biannual dance between major league teams and minor league affiliates. At the time, I thought there was no way in hell the Royals would ever get Wilmington back. Yet when their two-year contract with Boston was up, the Blue Rocks were eager to re-form their partnership with the Royals. Why would a minor league hottie like the Blue Rocks stay (mostly) loyal to a frumpy, overweight, unemployed loser of a franchise like the Royals?

Because he treats her right. He sends her all his good ballplayers, makes sure she’s competitive year in and year out. The Royals hooked up with the Blue Rocks in 1993, finishing 74-65 that year, and in 1994 the Blue Rocks went an astonishing 94-44. I don’t have time to check all the way back to 1969, but I’m quite certain that’s the best winning percentage for a full-season minor-league team in the history of the Royals. The following year the Blue Rocks went 85-55, then 80-60. After a losing record in 1997, in 1998 they went 86-54.

Between 1993 and 2004, the Blue Rocks finished with the best overall record in the league six times, and second-best twice. They had only two losing seasons in those 12 years. Alas, Wilmington developed a case of wanderlust and decided to shack up with the rich investment banker who bore a stunning resemblance to Jon Hamm. It did not go well; the Red Sox came home late every night, and usually with alcohol on their breath, and then it turned out they had a girlfriend on the side. The Blue Rocks went 60-80 in 2005, and 67-71 in 2006, although they somehow finished with the best record in the Northern Division in that second year. Having learned her lesson, the Blue Rocks came back to her old flame, who gladly forgave her – let’s face it, it’s not like he had any better options.

To end this tortured and overly-drawn out metaphor before it spins completely out of control, the second round of the Royals-Blue Rocks relationship has been strong, if not as unequivocally successful as the first. The Blue Rocks went 75-62 in 2007, best in the Northern Division, but were just 69-71 in 2008. Last year, they once again had the best record in the league at 84-55. This year, it’s been a struggle; the team went 32-38 and finished 9 games out of first in the league’s first half, although they’re 4-2 since the break.

The team’s best prospect is also their best player, Eric Hosmer, about whom we’ve written enough already. All I’ll add to that is that Hosmer has hit two homers in the last two weeks, doubling his season output. He still only has four homers in 75 games, but with 26 doubles, 6 triples, and an overall line of .351/.425/.528, 1) the home run power will probably come, and 2) he’s still a pretty damn good prospect even if it doesn’t.

The main reason for the Blue Rocks’ sub-.500 record is that Hosmer’s about it when it comes to offense. The second-best hitter on the team is Jamie Romak, who was previously released by the Pirates and is in his eighth pro season. The only other regular with an OPS of even 700 is Adrian Ortiz, a former fifth-round pick out of Pepperdine who was arguably the fastest player in college the year he was drafted. Speed is not just his main tool, it’s his only tool; while he’s legged out enough infield singles to hit .305, he just hit his first home run in two seasons last night. He has just 4 homers in his entire four-year pro career, which would be forgivable if he got on base a lot, but he also has just 63 walks as a pro. He’s the poor man’s Joey Gathright, basically, and the original version was nothing to write home about.

Also of note is Rey Navarro, the shortstop the Royals got for Carlos Rosa earlier this season, who’s hitting just .241/.281/.331 on the season. He’s only 20; sometimes 20-year-olds surprise. I’m not counting on it, though. (Addendum: I should point out that Rosa gave up 25 baserunners in 13 innings for the Diamondbacks before he was just sent back to Triple-A. Trust me: Moore made the right move in turning nothing into something.) Navarro moved to second base last night to accommodate the newly-signed Christian Colon, who in his pro debut went 0-for-5 with 2 Ks and a GIDP. Clearly, he’s a bust.

Speaking of busts, Jason Taylor, the Royals’ second-round pick the year they took Hochevar #1 overall, hit .173 before he was released. I imagine the two drug suspensions didn’t help. The curse of the second-round pick strikes again.

After Hosmer and now Colon, the only hitting prospect to take seriously is Salvador Perez. Perez entered my viewing range last year when Kevin Goldstein offered his name as one of the organization’s sleepers during a radio interview. Perez was in Burlington at the time, and hit so poorly (.189/.230/.236) that he was shuffled off to Idaho Falls once the short-season leagues began.

But tools and youth make for a powerful combination. With Wil Myers needing to play everyday in Burlington, Perez was aggressively promoted to Wilmington to start the season, and thrived. Through the end of May he was hitting .289/.328/.446. He went into a terrible tailspin earlier this month, something like 3-for-45 at one stretch, and his overall numbers have dipped to .255/.294/.372.

He’s still a very good prospect. Along with a strong defensive reputation, the biggest thing Perez has in his favor is his age. He was just 19 when the season started; he turned 20 last month, and until recently was the youngest player in the Carolina League.

The reason he is no longer the league’s youngest player is because the Royals promoted his battery mate, John Lamb, to Wilmington. The Royals have many prospects who have improved their prospect standing in the last three months, but Lamb might have done so more than anyone. At the start of the season, he was a very intriguing left-handed pitcher who had very good command of good stuff, and was only 19. But he still ranked as only the fourth or fifth best lefty in the system, behind Michael Montgomery, Chris Dwyer, Danny Duffy, and maybe Noel Arguelles.

Today, two different scouts have told Kevin Goldstein that John Lamb “is as good a left-handed pitcher as I’ve seen in the minors this season.” If that sounds familiar, that’s because we were hearing the same thing about Montgomery back in April. Monty’s status is on hold while we wait for his elbow to cool down, but in the meantime Lamb has done his best to keep his throne warm.

Lamb was tremendous in 8 starts for Burlington – 1.58 ERA, 26 hits, 17 walks, 43 Ks in 40 innings – and has been every bit as good for Wilmington, with a 1.77 ERA in 8 starts. If memory serves, just twice in 16 starts has Lamb surrendered more than one earned run. His overall line for the season:

86 IP, 67 H, 30 BB, 98 K, 3 HR, 1.68 ERA.

Did I mention he’s still 19 years old?

Lamb’s formula for success isn’t complicated: three above-average pitches, excellent command, and a fearless approach to attacking hitters – I believe the word one scout used to describe him on the mound was “badass”.

Not that minor league stats mean all that much, but Lamb’s on pace to have the best season by a Royals’ minor-league pitcher since Zack Greinke’s legendary 2003, when he went 15-4 with a 1.93 ERA as a 19-year-old between A-ball and Double-A, and allowed just 114 hits and 18 walks in 140 innings. (If Greinke had spent all of 2003 in the majors – a ridiculous idea, of course, since he had thrown all of 11 pro innings before the season – but if he had, the Royals might very well have won the division.)

Lamb isn’t the best prospect in the Royals’ system, and if Montgomery gets healthy he probably isn’t even the best left-handed pitching prospect in the system. But I guarantee you that he’d rank #1 in half a dozen other farm systems.

Lamb’s presence means that Chris Dwyer is only the second-best southpaw in Wilmington’s rotation, but he’s a top prospect in his own right. Dwyer, you may recall, was a fourth-round pick last year who the Royals gave late first-round money ($1.45 million) to sign. Dwyer was eligible for the draft as a college freshman, a situation only made possible by the fact that he was 20 by the time he graduated high school. Despite a low-90s fastball and an above-average curveball, his one collegiate season at Clemson wasn’t particularly successful on the mound, with a 4.92 ERA. So coming into the season he represented an interesting test case for me. We knew that the Royals were doing a solid job of identifying talent in the draft, but with Dwyer the issue wasn’t identifying talent, it was developing talent. All 30 teams knew that Dwyer had excellent stuff, but at the same time he hadn’t shown an aptitude for translating that stuff into results.

So to me, Dwyer’s success or lack thereof this season would clue us in on the development side of the Royals’ farm system. While it’s just one data point, the coaching staff gets two thumbs up from me based on Dwyer’s performance this season.

Dwyer started the season in Wilmington, which was an aggressive push for a guy in his first full pro season even if he was 22 years old. In his first seven starts, he was as advertised: occasionally impressive, mostly erratic. In 34 innings he allowed 31 hits, struck out 31 batters, but also walked 24 – including at least three batters in each start. And then the light bulb went on.

In his last seven starts Dwyer has thrown 45 innings, allowed 41 hits – and has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 54-to-7. In his last seven starts he has allowed no walks four times. He had a 1.67 ERA in June. Giddyup. If Dwyer’s changeup catches up to his curveball and fastball, he could be an above-average major league starter; if he winds up being primarily a two-pitch pitcher, he should still follow the Jeremy Affeldt career path to carve out a long-term relief role.

Like Dwyer, Wilmington’s third starter, Tim Melville, was a fourth-rounder in fact but a first-rounder on talent, although Melville was drafted out of high school and is a right-hander. He was a disaster to start the season. In his first five starts, he gave up 18 hits and 14 walks in 17 innings, with an 11.88 ERA. And one of those starts was a five-inning, one-hit, one-walk gem, so you can guess how bad the other four starts were.

The problems were almost entirely mechanical, a problem which isn’t unusual for 20-year-old kids who stand 6’5”. The mechanics got straightened out, and over his last 10 starts Melville has pitched up to his promise: 58 innings, 44 hits, 20 walks, 52 strikeouts, 5 homers. Like Dwyer he works primarily off a fastball-curveball combination, and like Dwyer he’s a flyball pitcher who will probably be susceptible to the homer in the majors. But unlike Dwyer he still can’t drink legally, giving the Royals the benefit of a lot of development time. He’s going to come along slowly, but his long-term upside is right there with any pitcher in the system.

With a nod to Alex Caldera, the long-time organization soldier who was just promoted to Northwest Arkansas and won his Double-A debut, the other prospect in the Blue Rocks’ rotation is another left-hander, Buddy Baumann. Baumann first caught my attention this spring when I explored the long history of the Royals ignoring talent in their backyard, a history which has thankfully come to an end, and realized that Baumann – drafted in the 7th round last season – was the first player the Royals had drafted out of Missouri State (a school which has given us Ryan Howard, Shaun Marcum, Brad Ziegler, and Josh Outman in recent years) since 1993. For that reason alone I was intrigued to see how he would fare.

Like Dwyer, Baumann jumped to Wilmington in his first full season, and pitching out of the bullpen was outstanding, if a little wild: 36 innings, 29 hits, 17 walks, 41 Ks, and no homers allowed. He was then promoted to the rotation on June 19th and responded with five no-hit innings. In his second start, he allowed six hits and one run in five innings, and in two starts has struck out 9 and walked one.

I can’t gauge him as a prospect yet simply because I know next to nothing about him; he wasn’t in Baseball America’s list of the Royals’ Top 30 Prospects before the season. He’s listed at just 5’10”, which makes it hard to see him as a starter in the long term. At this point, he’s just a name. But he’s definitely a name to watch.

And finally, much like the Royals found Blaine Hardy in the late rounds of the 2008 draft, they found Patrick Keating in the 20th round in 2009. Keating had lost his job in the rotation at the University of Florida before he was drafted, but the Royals thought that with some mechanical changes they could get more velocity out of him, and they were right. Moved to the bullpen and told to throw his four-seamer more, he was suddenly touching the mid-90s, and was so effective so fast that he actually made an appearance with the Blue Rocks last year, just two months after he was drafted.

Keating went back to Wilmington this year, but didn’t stick around for long; after 30 innings, 18 hits, 10 walks, and 41 strikeouts, the Royals sent him to Arkansas to look for a bigger challenge. He’s still looking. In 14 innings for the Naturals, he’s allowed 10 hits, walked 7, struck out 12. He has a 1.42 ERA for the season. He’s not a future closer, but like Louis Coleman he could be an effective set-up man in the major leagues by next season.

Between Northwest Arkansas and Wilmington alone, the Royals can put together an all-prospect pitching staff.

#1 Starter: Michael Montgomery

#2 Starter: John Lamb

#3 Starter: Aaron Crow

#4 Starter: Chris Dwyer

#5 Starter: Tim Melville

Swingman: Edgar Osuna

Swingman: Buddy Baumann

RH Reliever: Louis Coleman

RH Reliever: Patrick Keating

LH Reliever: Blaine Hardy (okay, he’s in Triple-A now)

LH Reliever: Brandon Sisk

If pitching really is the currency of baseball, the Royals are freaking loaded.