So with the Royals presumably done with their off-season machinations, and spring training just two weeks away, my plan is to analyze each player individually between now and Opening Day, and then finish by previewing the team as a whole. We’ll start with my list of the organization’s top 10 prospects.
#10: Christian Binford
H-W: 6’6”, 217 lbs
DOB: 12/20/1992 (21 years old)
Signed: 30th Round, 2011, Pennsylvania HS
2013: 135 IP, 129 H, 25 BB, 130 K, 7 HR, 2.67 ERA in Low-A
2012: 40 IP, 40 H, 4 BB, 31 K, 1 HR, 2.02 ERA in High-Rookie
I seriously contemplated just making this the organization’s Top 9 prospects, because damned if I could tell you who is #10 in this system. The various prospect experts are pretty much in agreement about nine guys – the nine players to follow all rank in the top 10s from Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, Keith Law, Fangraphs, and John Sickels at SB Nation, except Sickels has Jason Adam at #11. But after that it’s a free-for-all. I consider Orlando Calixte here, but I’m worried about his defense and can’t get a Yuniesky Betancourt comp out of my head.
I also thought about Elier Hernandez, who got a higher signing bonus ($3 million) than any player the Royals have ever signed out of Latin America, and hit .301/.350/.439 in rookie ball at age 18. Flip a coin; I went with Binford, who was a late-round find in the 2011 draft.
Well, he was a late-round pick, but he wasn’t really a find. The 2011 draft was the last draft before the signing bonus cap was instituted via the last CBA, so it was the last chance teams had to just throw money at draft picks until they caved and signed on the dotted line. The Royals gave Bubba Starling $7.5 million, but they also gave third-rounder Brian Brickhouse $1.5 million, fourth-rounder Kyle Smith $695,000, fifth-rounder Patrick Leonard $600,000, and then liberally sprinkled in big bonuses to guys who dropped for signability reasons. Jack Lopez, taken in the 16th round, got $750,000 to sign; 29th-rounder Jake Junis got $675,000, and Binford, taken in the 30th round, got $575,000.
Counting second-rounder Cameron Gallagher, who got $750,000, the Royals gave $575,000 or more to eight different players. It remains one of the most expensive drafts in MLB history, and thanks to the new draft rules it will probably stay that way for a while.
It was one of the most expensive drafts ever, but it was far from the best. We’ll get to Bubba later. Gallagher remains a prospect, but it’s unlikely he’ll be more than a backup catcher in the majors. Brickhouse has good stuff but is coming off Tommy John surgery. You know how I feel about Smith, who was traded for Justin Maxwell, but realistically being a #3 starter is his ceiling. Leonard was the throw-in in the James Shields trade and is a long-shot to amount to anything. Lopez has a nifty glove but hit .230/.297/.301 last year; he was just 20 and in Wilmington, and I could see him topping out as a utility infielder. Junis had an ERA over 7 in rookie ball last year.
That’s not to say the Royals wasted their money, because they really only have to hit on one guy in the later rounds to recoup their entire investment and then some. Aside from Bubba and Brickhouse, the Royals basically spent third- and fourth-round money on the other six guys, and how often do third- and fourth-rounders pan out usually? Smith got them a nice bench player in Maxwell, and if Binford becomes even a #4 starter, the money was well spent.
He could be more than that. Binford is an enormous, storky dude; look at his height and weight listings; and note that he may have grown since the draft, as Baseball America now lists him at 6’7”. He doesn’t throw that hard – mostly 90-92 – but the height gives him a nice downward angle and a lot of sink on his fastball, and he has impeccable command. He had Tommy John surgery in high school but hasn’t had any health issues since. The issue is that none of his secondary pitches are above-average yet, and while commanding your fastball is the #1 key to success for every pitcher, he’s going to have to come up with something that wiggles as he moves up the chain.
I’m a sucker for guys with strikeout-to-walk ratios of better than 5 to 1, but he still has a lot of work to do. He’ll start the year in Wilmington, where the ballpark will make him look like a stud even if he’s not, so temper your enthusiasm if he has a 1.50 ERA at the end of May.
#9: Jason Adam
H-W: 6’4”, 219 lbs
DOB: 8/4/1991 (22 years old)
Signed: 5th Round, 2010, Kansas (Blue Valley NW) HS
2013: 144 IP, 153 H, 53 BB, 126 K, 12 HR, 5.19 ERA in Double-A
2012: 158 IP, 148 H, 36 BB, 123 K, 18 HR, 3.53 ERA in High-A
2011: 104 IP, 94 H, 25 BB, 76 K, 9 HR, 4.23 ERA in Low-A
Adam didn’t look like a stud at Wilmington, and I was down on him at the start of last season, figuring the move to the hitter-friendly environs of Northwest Arkansas would knock him down. He nearly suffered a first-round TKO; in his first four starts of last season, he allowed 27 runs in 15 innings. Yeah, 27 runs in 15 innings.
But from that point on, he was actually pretty good: 132 innings, 122 hits, 45 walks, 110 strikeouts, 9 homers, and a 3.81 ERA, against better competition and in a tougher park than in 2012. He made some changes to his delivery, and started leaning less on a curveball and more on a slider. Adam is a big-bodied kid with a reputation for durability, and he’s thrown over 300 innings the last two years, something few minor-league – or even major-league – pitchers can say.
What will make or break Adam, I think, is his fastball. You might recall that in instructional league in 2010, shortly after he was signed, Adam was the talk of camp, showing a fastball in the mid-90s; Keith Law, who’s not prone to hyperbole, saw him and said he might have gone in the first round had he showed that kind of stuff before the draft. But in his first pro season his velocity was down all year; I saw him at Kane County in August – admittedly, he might have been tired – and he was throwing 86-88 in the sixth inning. His fastball was a little more consistent in 2012, but rarely broke 91-92. Per Baseball America, though, his fastball gained a tick last season.
The dreams of Adam being a front-of-the-rotation starter are probably gone for good, but I think he’s got a good chance of being a #4 starter, with aspirations of being the 200-inning league-average guy that the Royals haven’t been able to develop, forcing them to give millions to first Jeremy Guthrie and then Jason Vargas. Adam is ready for Triple-A and he’s got a stellar health record, so there’s not much of an excuse for the Royals to blow it with him. If they do succeed, and Adam is ready to be in the back of the Royals’ rotation to start 2015, it will again raise the question of why they really needed to commit to Vargas for three more years after this one.