Friday, February 7, 2014

2014 Royals Top Prospects, Part 2.


#8: Bubba Starling

Pos-B: CF-R
H-W: 6’4”, 180 lbs
DOB: 8/3/1992 (21 years old)
Signed: 1st Round (#5 overall), 2011, Kansas (Gardner-Edgerton) HS


2013: .241/.329/.398, 22-3 SB-CS in Low-A
2012: .275/.371/.485, 10-1 SB-CS in High-Rookie

After receiving the largest amateur bonus in the history of the franchise in 2011, and after being kept in rookie ball for all of 2012, it was hard to overstate just how crucial 2013 was for Bubba Starling to prove that he wasn’t a bust. He refused to answer the question, though, as his performance was just good enough to maintain hope that he might turn out to be more than yet another top-ten pick wasted on a high school athlete with immense tools but no baseball skill.

Which is far from saying that he actually lived up to the hype. A line of .241/.329/.398 is nothing to be particularly proud of, not in the South Atlantic League, not when you turned 21 years old during the season. And not when your success, limited though it was, is largely owed to your home park: Starling hit .270/.341/.496 at home, including 12 of his 13 homers, but just .211/.317/.292 on the road. Starling still has a steep uphill road to climb.

But at least he’s walking. The most vital ingredient for Starling’s future success is to get the repetitions he needs to improve. We knew he was raw when he was drafted; perhaps not quite this raw, and while a Mike Trout- or Byron Buxton-level learning curve was unrealistic, we assumed his athleticism would allow him to improve quicker than most players. The absolutely worst thing that could have happened to Starling was that injuries kept him off the field, which is what has happened to Donavan Tate. Tate, who was the #3 overall draft pick in 2009, is basically Starling’s worst-case scenario – he had terrific tools but less baseball sense than the Padres had thought, and thanks to injuries (and a 50-game suspension for a drug of abuse), he’s played 40 games in a season just once since he was drafted. He’s hit .238/.355/.320 with three home runs in his pro career, has yet to get out of A-ball, and is 23 years old.

Starling has avoided this worst-case scenario in large part because he’s stayed healthy – he’s played in nearly as many games (178) the last two years as Tate has in the last four years (194), and that doesn’t count all the simulated games Starling played in while he was in extended spring training in 2012. The only time he missed last year was for a very good reason – after starting the season hitting .213/.286/.354, he took a week off in mid-May to have LASIK surgery, and hit .253/.346/.416 after returning. His plate discipline improved significantly after getting his eyesight fixed; Starling had 41 strikeouts and nine walks with blurry vision, and 87 strikeouts vs. 43 walks with 20/20 eyesight. And the Department of Selective Endpoints would like to point out that from July 17th through the end of the season – 41 games – Starling hit .309/.394/.511.

It’s hard to overstate just how crucial 2014 is for Bubba Starling, because with a really good season he could re-establish himself as a Top 100 Prospect, and with a really bad season he could be written off completely, and his skill set is weird enough that I have no idea which way he’ll go. He’s not a spring chicken anymore, and most observers think his swing is just too long to ever tap into his raw power. But on the other hand, for a kid who played amateur ball in Kansas and was almost 20 before he played his first pro game, his performance doesn’t give off the vibe of someone who’s totally overmatched. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is perfectly acceptable; he strikes out a lot but no more than your typical young power-hitting prospect, and he walks at a better clip than your average prospect (to say nothing of your average Royals prospect). And he’s been a terrific percentage basestealer so far, 32 of 36 in his career, which doesn’t sound like a big deal, but even prospects with blazing speed will get nailed a lot if they have no baseball instincts to speak of.

And then there’s the matter of his defense, which is already major league-caliber. If he’s a league-average hitter in the majors, he’ll be a 3-4 win player just by virtue of his speed and glove.

So 2014 is a crucial year…and unfortunately, he’s headed to Wilmington, where hitters get crushed, and right-handed hitters get crushed more. I can’t emphasize this enough: if Starling just replicates his 2013 numbers in 2014, but spends the whole year in Wilmington, I would consider that a success. I’ve written this before, but in his first crack at Wilmington, at age 20, Carlos Beltran hit .229/.311/.363. Beltran returned to Wilmington at age 21 and hit .276/.364/.427 before getting promoted to Double-A, where he hit .352/.427/.687, and the next year he was the AL Rookie of the Year. It’s hard to hit in Wilmington, where the fences are far away and the batters’ eye isn’t very good. So I’m worried that Wilmington might get into Starling’s head, and while no one really thought he had NFL potential as a quarterback coming out of high school, the worst thing that could happen for the Royals is that Starling hits .200 the first half of the season, and his mind starts to drift towards what it would be like at the University of Nebraska.

It’s in the Royals’ best interest to give Starling as many tangible signs of progress as possible, and Wilmington stands as a big roadblock. But I’m not sure what else the Royals can do. You can’t return him to Lexington without giving him the stigma that comes with repeating a level, and while Northwest Arkansas is a good place to hit, it would be very risky to jump him all the way to Double-A. The dream scenario is that Starling looks so good in spring training that the Royals are justified in doing just that; even if he struggles and has to be sent to high-A, they could justify it by saying that he had skipped a level in the first place.

It’s not an easy spot the Royals are in. They want Starling to be the best player he can be in the long run, but to keep him fully engaged, they need to put him in position to succeed in the short run.

I’m probably a little more confident than I was a year ago that Starling won’t be a total bust; I think that if he sticks with it, he’s likely to reach the majors, even if it’s in a fourth outfielder role. But I’m also a little more confident that his upside is a Drew Stubbs-like career, as a guy whose defense and pop make him a viable everyday player, but who doesn’t hit enough to be a star. Which is a shame, given both the money he was given and the options the Royals had in the draft. It’s true that the Royals wanted a pitcher, and would have taken any of the four guys picked ahead of him (two of whom – Danny Hultzen and Trevor Bauer – have been big disappointments themselves so far).

But look at the four guys taken directly after Starling: #6 Anthony Rendon, #7 Archie Bradley, #8 Francisco Lindor, and #9 Javier Baez. Rendon was the obvious alternate to Starling on Draft Day – the best college hitter in America whose only knock was an inability to stay healthy. Rendon hit .265/.329/.396 as a 23-year-old rookie for the Nationals last year, and man would he look good at second base right now (with the $8 million a year the Royals are paying Omar Infante spent elsewhere instead). The next three guys are all among the ten best prospects in baseball right now. The Royals took Christian Colon and Starling with back-to-back top-five picks, and that, as much as anything, is why there’s so much pressure on the team to win in 2014. While the farm system is deep, the prospects who were supposed to headline the farm system haven’t.

The Royals had seven top-five draft picks in eight years. Three of them were Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas. But three of them were Luke Hochevar, Colon, and Starling. (Kyle Zimmer’s the seventh.) As much talent as the Royals have produced, they could have done even better. A lot better.

#7: Hunter Dozier

Pos-B: 3B-R
H-W: 6’4”, 220 lbs
DOB: 8/22/1991 (22 years old)
Signed: 1st Round (#8 overall), 2013, Stephen F. Austin State University (Texas)


2013: .308/.397/.495 in High-Rookie (54 games) and Low-A (15 games)

Look, Hunter Dozier was a college junior – an old college junior who turned 22 just two months after he was drafted – playing in rookie ball. As a top-ten pick, he was supposed to mash. That he did so doesn’t make him an elite prospect. He’s two weeks younger than Mike Trout, and granted that it’s unfair to use Trout as your comparison when talking about a prospect’s age, I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Dozier’s performance last year means nothing at all.

That’s not to say he was a bad pick, because drafting him – at a below-slot price of $2.2 million, lower than anyone else who signed in the top 16 picks – set up the Royals’ pick of Sean Manaea, who we’ll get to later. The Royals had a strategy, and they executed it perfectly. Flip their two picks around, make Dozier the supplemental pick, and he’s a good value. I do like the combination of strike zone command (38 walks, 37 strikeouts) and doubles (30 doubles in 273 at-bats) he showed in his first pro season – but again, he was a man hitting against boys for most of the season.

Dozier turns 23 in August; if he wants to really be taken seriously as a prospect this year, he needs to hit his way to Double-A by season’s end. I like the Jeff Kent comp as a best-case scenario for Dozier; when Kent was 22, he hit .277/.360/.465 in high-A ball, at age 23 he hit .256/.379/.418 in Double-A, and he finally reached the majors at age 24, which is pretty late for a guy who played in 2298 major league games and has a viable Hall of Fame case. The vast majority of guys who reach the majors when they turn 24 don’t turn out like Kent, but Dozier needs to double-time it if he wants to even match that timetable.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

2014 Royals Top Prospects, Part 1.

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

Pos-T: SP-R
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

Pos-T: SP-R
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.