Thursday, October 11, 2012

2013 Top Prospects: #2 - #5

While fans of other teams are glued to the present, we’re focused on the future, and hoping that Dan Quisenberry was wrong when he said that “I have seen the future, and it is much like the present, only longer.”

#1: Wil Myers

#2: Kyle Zimmer
H-W: 6’3”, 215 lb
DOB: 09/13/1991 (Age 21)
Signed: 1st Round (#5 overall), 2012, University of San Francisco ($3 million)
Overall Rank in Baseball: #25-35

2012: 40 IP, 39 H, 8 BB, 42 K, 1 HR, 2.04 ERA between Complex League and Low-A

I’ve been stewing for a while on who the Royals’ #2 prospect is, and I finally realized that the reason I’ve been stewing on it for so long is that I just have too many reservations about the player that is the consensus guy for that slot, Bubba Starling. We’ll get to him in a moment.

But I also decided that despite the inherent risks with any pitcher, let alone one that just had (minor) elbow surgery to remove bone chips, the upside for Kyle Zimmer was high enough to list him in this spot. It’s clear that the Royals made the right move in selecting him over Mark Appel, who turned down the Pirates’ offer (which was considerably larger than the offer Zimmer accepted) to return to college. But even ignoring signability, there’s reason to really be excited about what Zimmer brings to the table.

I wrote about him more during my draft recap, but in brief, his combination of 1) fresh arm, given that he was a converted position player who only has about two years worth of mound of experience, 2) youth (he just turned 21, making him 6-12 months younger than most college juniors when they’re drafted), and 3) outstanding control – has me very optimistic about his future.

The bone chips thing freaked out a lot of people, but I’m not too worried. They’re not that uncommon, the recovery is quick and predictable. The greater concern would be whether there’s something about his delivery that predisposes Zimmer to elbow problems. The Royals think that what predisposed him to injury was his conversion from position player to pitcher, and they don’t expect this to crop up again.

I expect Zimmer to start the year in Wilmington, and between his talent and the offense-crushing effects of that ballpark, it would be disappointing if he didn’t overpower the league and get promoted to Double-A by June. College pitchers with this pedigree are expected to move fast. Zimmer is the seventh college pitcher selected by the Royals in the top 12 picks of the draft. The others were:

Jeff Granger in 1993 (#5)
Dan Reichert in 1997 (#7)
Jeff Austin in 1998 (#4)
Kyle Snyder in 1999 (#7)
Luke Hochevar in 2006 (#1)
Aaron Crow in 2009 (#12).

Granger actually debuted in September the year he was drafted; I believe he and Bo Jackson are the only Royals to ever play in the majors the same year they were picked. In Granger’s case, his call-up was a contractual obligation, not something he earned. (He threw one inning and allowed three runs.) But Granger started the following season in Double-A. Reichert started 1998 in the Midwest League, but was in Double-A after just 15 appearances. Austin made 18 starts at Wilmington before a promotion to Double-A in 1999. Hochevar and Crow both started their first full seasons in Double-A. Only Kyle Snyder, who blew out his shoulder in early 2000 and missed two seasons, didn’t reach Double-A within a year of signing.

Every one of those pitchers has been a disappointment in one way or the other, which only proves my point – when a college pitcher gets picked that high, he’s on the fast track even if it turns out he’s not any good. So I expect Zimmer to be at Northwest Arkansas by June, if not sooner; don’t be surprised when you read a column in early March about how Zimmer looks as good as anyone in camp, and how the Royals are tempted to break camp with him. I can’t imagine that they will, but I can imagine that with a good performance in Double-A, that by August fans will be clamoring for him to get called up to the big club. And depending on the team’s needs, and their position in the pennant race, it wouldn’t be a shock if the fans got their wish.

Trade Suitability: This is a new item I’m throwing in for each prospect. Given the Royals need for starting pitching, and the likelihood that they will explore the trade market as an avenue to acquire some, I’m going to evaluate each prospect based on how much sense it makes for him to be part of a trade. I’m factoring in how much sense it makes for the Royals to part with him as well as how much sense it makes for an opposing team to want that prospect as part of a trade.

In Zimmer’s case, his trade suitability is Very Low. For one thing, he can’t be traded until one year after he signed, which was in mid-to-late June. That doesn’t preclude a trade entirely, since a player can be a “player to be named later” in a deal for up to six months. (For instance, last March the Royals traded D’Andre Toney as part of the deal for Humberto Quintero and Jason Bourgeois. Toney’s name was finally announced at the one-year anniversary of his signing in June.) But even then, the Royals would have to wait until mid-December to trade Zimmer, and that would limit their options.

Plus, for a team to trade a high first-round pick soon after drafting him – and before he had clearly gone bust – would be very rare. It’s not unheard of; the Indians traded Drew Pomeranz, the #5 pick in the 2010 draft, less than a year later as part of the Ubaldo Jimenez trade. (Pomeranz was a PTBNL for about two weeks until the one-year deadline passed.) But that hasn’t exactly worked out for the Tribe. It’s hard to imagine the Royals trading Zimmer under any circumstances this winter.

Let me also do a Trade Suitability for Wil Myers, which I would classify as Low-to-Medium. On the one hand, Myers has enormous trade value, and is the one guy in the farm system that the Royals could essentially trade straight-up for an established starting pitcher who still has two or three years left on his contract. On the other hand, Myers is ready to play right field in the majors right now, and the Royals’ current right fielder 1) is a free agent next winter and 2) sucked giant boulders this year. I do think the Royals are probably less reluctant to trade Myers than I am. But I’d still bet on Myers being in the organization when camp opens.

#3: Bubba Starling
Pos-B: CF-R
H-W: 6’4”, 180 lb
DOB: 08/3/1992 (Age 20)
Signed: 1st Round (#5 overall), 2011, KS High School ($7.5 million)
Overall Rank in Baseball: #30-45

2012: .275/.371/.485, 10/11 in SB, in 53 G in Rookie Ball

The debate over Bubba Starling rages on, and is unlikely to end any time soon. On the one hand, he has a body that drips athleticism, a physique that would make a Tribute from District 1 jealous. On the other hand, he was exceedingly raw when he was drafted, having played against low-level high school competition in Kansas.

On the plus side, his tools are so extraordinary that even McKayla Maroney is impressed. On the down side, the Royals kept him in rookie ball the entire year.

He hit 10 home runs and stole 10 bases in 53 games? Good! He struck out 70 times in 200 at-bats? Bad!

And, of course, hovering over the whole thing is the fact that Starling is already 20 years old; he’s less than a year younger than Zimmer.

I’ve made my concerns about Starling clear, particularly the ones about his advanced age. And in the context of the amazing 2011 draft, the standard to hold Starling to is even higher than it should be for a typical #5 overall pick. Beyond that, the scouting opinions on Starling are varied; some scouts think he’s going to be a superstar, some scouts think his swing is a disaster and that he’ll never hit for average.

There are two hidden positives to take away from Starling’s first pro season. The first is that he was an outstanding defensive centerfielder, to the point where the Royals felt he was almost major league-ready in that regard. I’ve been told that one thing Starling started to do in 2012 was that, when the pitch was delivered, he did not stand with his feet perpendicular to a line between him and the batter (the way 99% of outfielders stand), but rather at a 45-degree angle.

This stance makes an outfielder a little bit vulnerable to balls hit in a specific area behind him, but it comes with an advantage: by watching the batter from a slight angle, it makes it easier for Starling to judge the depth of flyballs more quickly. That first step – the ability to determine where a ball is going to land right off the bat, and start heading in that direction – is the most underrated part of defense, because it happens before the camera is on you. I’ve been told that Dwayne Murphy, one of the great defensive centerfielders of the last 40 years, operated out of the same stance. I don’t know how much it matters, or even if it will continue, but it’s certainly interesting.

The other hidden positive for Starling is that, in addition to his power and speed, he showed patience at the plate; he drew 28 walks (two intentional) in 200 at-bats. I wouldn’t say he showed plate discipline yet, not when he’s striking out in 35% of his at-bats, but he demonstrated an understanding that not swinging at four pitches off the plate gives you first base. When you look at tools freaks who get drafted in the first round and become busts, an inability to walk is one of the most common causes for their downfall. Starling may strike out 200 times in the majors, and that may keep him from batting higher than .250. But you can play everyday in the majors if you’re an outfielder that hits .250 and draws 60 walks a year; you can’t if you hit .250 and draw 30 walks a year.

Even if Starling is a .250 hitter in the majors, his combination of power, speed, walks, and defense would turn him into a Drew Stubbs-type player. Stubbs isn’t great, but at least until this year was a useful everyday player for the Reds. Stubbs himself was the #8 overall pick in 2006, albeit out of college. If Starling turns into Stubbs, I’d say he was a huge disappointment, but not quite a bust.

The upside is that Starling cuts his strikeouts a little, just enough to hit .270 in the majors, and taps into his power more than expected, and becomes the new Eric Davis. I don’t think that’s likely – and when Davis was 19 in Rookie Ball, he hit .322/.467/.561 with 40 steals – but even the possibility that Starling turns into a Davis-type talent keeps him in the upper half of a Top Prospect list.

He’ll start the year at the Royals new low-A ball affiliate in Lexington, and with a strong season could be in Wilmington by August. If he doesn’t get a mid-season promotion this year, he should get one next year, meaning one way or the other, he ought to be in Double-A by his 22nd birthday in August, 2014. He’s not on the fast track. But he might be carrying a ton of freight when he arrives.

Trade Suitability: Very Low. The Royals would risk a riot if they traded away the most highly-touted local prospect in their history, and given the concerns about his game, if the Royals put him on the market, you’d have to figure that would be a giant red flag to the other 29 teams.

#4: Jake Odorizzi
H-W: 6’2”, 185 lb
DOB: 03/27/1990 (Age 22)
Signed: Supplemental 1st Round (#32 overall), 2008, IL High School ($1.06 million)
Overall Rank in Baseball: #40-60

2010: 121 IP, 99 H, 40 BB, 135 K, 7 HR, 3.43 ERA in low-A
2011: 147 IP, 134 H, 44 BB, 157 K, 17 HR, 3.73 ERA in high-A and AA
2012: 145 IP, 132 H, 50 BB, 135 K, 14 HR, 3.03 ERA in AA and AAA
7 IP, 8 H, 4 BB, 4 K, 1 HR, 4.91 ERA in two major league starts

I really don’t have much to say about Odorizzi, because he is what he is. He’s almost major-league ready, so there’s not much projection here. He has good stuff but not great stuff, good command but not great command, and gets bonus points for his good mechanics, which makes him less likely to get injured, and his athleticism, which makes his delivery repeatable and also makes him likely to get injured. There are dozens of guys in the minors with higher upside, but very few who are a better bet to make at least, say, 100 starts in the major leagues.

The hope is that Odorizzi’s athleticism gives him a fighting shot at adding a touch of velocity to his repertoire. Right now, his fastball is at a tipping point. He only throws in the low 90s – in his two major-league starts, Pitch f/x has his fastball averaging just 90.5 mph – and even with good command and three solid secondary pitches, it’s hard to be more than a #3 starter when you’re a right-hander who rarely breaks 91. But bump that up to 92-93, and you’re in good shape. It’s not common for a 22-year-old to add velocity, but it’s not uncommon either, and Odorizzi’s athleticism gives him a fighting chance.

But he’s not a phenom, and as I’ve written before, I think he would benefit from another few months in Omaha.

Trade Suitability: Medium to High. I don’t think the Royals are looking to trade him, but if it were me, I’d definitely shop him around. His relative lack of risk would make him very appealing to a team that’s rebuilding or looking for cheap starting pitching. At the same time, he doesn’t have the upside to frighten the Royals that they’d live to regret trading him away. Is it worth trading away six years of a potential #3 starter for, say, two years of a guaranteed #2 starter like James Shields or Jon Lester? Given where the Royals are in their rebuilding process, I might just say yes.

#5: John Lamb
H-W: 6’4”, 200 lb
DOB: 07/10/1990 (Age 22)
Signed: 5th Round, 2008, CA High School ($165,000)
Overall Rank in Baseball: #80-120

2010: 148 IP, 122 H, 45 BB, 159 K, 5 HR, 2.38 ERA in low-A, high-A, and AA
2011: 35 IP, 33 H, 13 BB, 22 K, 3 HR, 3.09 ERA in AA
2012: 13 IP, 15 H, 4 BB, 14 K, 2 HR, 6.92 ERA in Complex and Rookie Ball

I told you not to sleep on John Lamb.

Even though Lamb – not Mike Montgomery or Danny Duffy – was considered the best pitching prospect in The Best Farm System Ever two years ago, and even though Tommy John surgery has an outstanding success rate, I feel like Lamb has been largely forgotten – by both Royals fans and prospect mavens alike.

That’s understandable when you consider that Lamb had TJ surgery in May of 2011, but didn’t pitch competitively again until this August, 14 months later, and even then he was only pitching short stints in rookie ball. He’s missed the better part of two seasons, partly because of the timing of his injury (you’re much better blowing out your elbow in September, guaranteeing you’ll only miss one season), and partly because his return to the mound was delayed by tendonitis in his ankle. Even when Lamb did finally retake the mound, his inability to do any running due to the tendonitis limited his ability to build stamina, which is why he only threw 13 innings in six starts.

But the good news is that he should be at 100% when camp opens next February. His velocity was erratic in his rehab starts; sometimes he was 87-89 for an inning, sometimes 90-92. That’s not surprising, as a guy who’s missed over a year with an arm injury is going to be tentative at first, and needs to overcome the worry that he’s going to feel something tear in his elbow with every pitch. But with a few months of rest now, and the normal slow buildup of pitches that occurs in spring training, Lamb should be ready to hit the low 90s consistently next spring.

And anyway, what made Lamb a great prospect wasn’t his velocity, it was his ability to hit both sides of the plate, work the corners with his breaking stuff, add and subtract as necessary. Last year, his velocity was down all spring long, and into the season he was only hitting the upper 80s. His TJ surgery was a relief on some level, as it explained his missing velocity. (Lamb missed his senior season of high school after breaking his elbow in a car accident, which is why he fell to the fifth round. It may have had nothing to do with his need for elbow surgery, but it probably didn’t help.)

But here’s the thing – even without hitting 90, Lamb was getting guys out in Double-A, when he was 20 years old. He’s almost certain to be throwing harder in his second stint in Double-A, where he is expected to start next season. I see him pitching his way to Omaha by mid-season, and come August, if the Royals are in contention, they might find themselves facing a mini-Strasburg situation of their own, where they have to weigh the risks of letting Lamb throw too many innings in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, versus his potential impact in a pennant race. I hope they come up with a better answer than the Nationals did, but more than that, I just hope the dilemma presents itself in the first place.

Trade Suitability: Low. While it’s not unheard of for a pitcher to be traded while in the midst of Tommy John rehab (the Cubs acquired Arodys Vizcaino from the Braves for Paul Maholm this summer), it’s hardly ideal. Given the length of his rehab, I think that other teams will want to make sure that Lamb is 100% healthy before they would accept him as the cornerstone of a trade.