Saturday, February 22, 2014

2014 Royals Top Prospects, Part 4.

#4: Sean Manaea

Pos-T: SP-L
H-W: 6’5”, 235 lbs
DOB: 2/1/1992 (22 years old)
Signed: Supplemental 1st Round (#34), $3.55 million bonus, 2013, Indiana State U.
Stats: None

This is the first spot on the list where I differ from the consensus opinion – every other Top 10 list I’ve seen has placed Manaea behind either Bonifacio, Almonte, or both. And I certainly understand the concern – Manaea had surgery essentially immediately after he was drafted, and while it was both expected and routine, he has yet to throw a professional pitch.

But I’d still rather have him than either Bonifacio or Almonte, for this simple reason: one year ago today, before Manaea’s hip issues surfaced, he was probably the favorite to be selected with the #1 overall pick in the draft. He was the talk of the Cape Cod League in the summer of 2012; left-handed pitchers who throw 98 with an above-average slider tend to get the scouts abuzzing. (He struck out 85 batters in 52 innings on the Cape, the most strikeouts by any pitcher in that league since at least 2000.)

The Royals only had a shot at Manaea because he had a torn labrum in his left…hip, possibly the result of pitching through an injured right ankle. His velocity was down for most of the season, generally pitching in the low 90s – and yet, in a credit to his talents as a pitcher, he still had a 1.47 ERA and was third in the NCAA in strikeouts per nine innings (11.4).

You’ll recall that for about two hours last June, we thought the Royals had lost their minds, selecting Hunter Dozier – who no one saw as better than about the 15th-best player in the draft – with the #8 overall pick. But the Royals had a plan, and when Manaea was still there at #34 – by luck or by shrewd planning, and I’m betting the latter – it fell into place perfectly. Manaea got the bonus money that was awarded for Dozier’s slot and a little more; his bonus is the second-highest in history for a draft pick after the first round.

It’s possible that his velocity won’t pick up even now that he’s had surgery and fully recovered. If that’s the case, his prospect status takes a hit, although being left-handed I’d still imagine he’d project as a major league starter. But if his velocity is back…you’re looking at a pitcher with quite possibly the best stuff of any left-hander in the minor leagues. (Well, until Carlos Rodon signs.) It was a very shrewd gamble by the Royals, and frankly I don’t know why so many other teams elected not to take the gamble.

Remember, this was the second straight year that a pitcher who had the potential to be a #1 overall pick showed injury concerns before the draft. In 2012, it was Lucas Giolito who fell to the #16 overall pick because he sprained his ulnar collateral ligament three months before the draft. He had a real shot at being the first right-handed high school pitcher ever to go #1; instead the Nationals signed him for $2.925 million, and a few months later he underwent Tommy John surgery. He returned last July and made 11 starts in rookie ball, and showed such devastating stuff that he ranked #21 on Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospect list. (Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus was even more effusive; his scouting report on Giolito is borderline pornographic. If Giolito reaches the upside Parks projects for him, he might be the best pitcher in baseball.)

Manaea’s recovery might not go as perfectly as Giolito’s has, but if it does, he’s a Top 25 Prospect in the game by mid-summer. I could see him starting in Wilmington, and moving to Northwest Arkansas by June or July – and if everything goes right, he could be ready for a major league audition by September. If the Royals are in a playoff race, adding Manaea’s arm – even out of the bullpen – would be a huge boost to the team when it needs it.

If he’s fully recovered. Which we don’t know yet. But we ought to know soon – spring training is in session and the minor leaguers arrive shortly. I know this much – when they do report, how Manaea looks, and what the radar gun says, is the one piece of information I’m looking forward to getting the most.

#3: Kyle Zimmer

Pos-T: SP-R
H-W: 6’3”, 215 lbs
DOB: 9/13/1991 (22 years old)
Signed: 1st Round (#5), $3 million bonus, 2012, U. of San Francisco

2013: 108 IP, 91 H, 36 BB, 140 K, 11 HR, 4.32 ERA in High-A (90 IP) and Double-A (19 IP)
2012: 40 IP, 39 H, 8 BB, 42 K, 1 HR, 2.04 ERA in Complex (10 IP) and Low-A (30 IP)

The decision on whether to place Kyle Zimmer or Yordano Ventura higher was probably the most difficult ranking decision on this list for me. When I started this list, I actually had Zimmer ahead of Ventura. The Top Prospect lists are mixed; some (Baseball Prospectus) have Ventura higher, some (Keith Law at ESPN) have Zimmer higher, some have them almost equal (Baseball America has Zimmer #23, Ventura #26.)

But I’ve decided that Ventura should rank higher, for a pretty simple reason. The #1 concern we have with any young pitcher, no matter how good the stuff, is whether he will stay healthy or not. These concerns are a little more acute for both Ventura and Zimmer, but for different reasons.

In Ventura’s case, the reason is simple: he’s 5’11”. Short pitchers are not expected to be as durable as tall pitchers, and short pitchers who somehow break triple digits are expected to break down more often than pitchers whose long levers present a simpler biomechanical explanation for their velocity.

In Zimmer’s case, the reason is also simple: we’re concerned about whether he will stay healthy because he hasn’t stayed healthy in the past. A minor procedure to remove bone chips in his elbow ended his first pro season prematurely; some mild tightness in his throwing shoulder ended his second pro season prematurely. And now, some mild tendinitis in his biceps will delay his third pro season temporarily.

On their own, none of these injuries are too worrisome. Bone chips happen all the time; pitchers have come back from surgery within six weeks to pitch good as new. The Royals insist that Zimmer was shut down last year out of an abundance of caution, and they insist that they’re taking it slow with him this year because they want him to be able to pitch into September – and if need be, October. That’s a new priority for the Royals, and it’s hard to criticize them for thinking optimistically.

We still know a lot less about how to prevent injuries than we’d like to, and we’re still less able to predict injuries than we’d like to. But the variable that predicts future injury risk the most – by far – is simple: a previous injury history. The concerns about Ventura are purely theoretical; with Zimmer, they’re practical.

And beyond that, I hate to say this, but when it comes to pitchers coming back from arm problems, no matter how mild, the Royals have cost themselves some credibility in my eyes by the way they handled John Lamb.

I’m not blaming the Royals for the fact that Lamb’s career has been all but ruined by Tommy John surgery, a surgery that pitchers return to full health from 90% of the time. I’m not saying it’s not their fault – certainly there ought to be some soul-searching going on in the organization over that – but it’s quite possible that Lamb didn’t take his rehab nearly as seriously as he should have. I don’t know who to blame, or even if there’s any blame to place at all.

But I am blaming the Royals for consistently downplaying concerns about Lamb’s rehab – the decline in velocity when he first returned, the longer-than-usual time it took until he returned in the first place – when it was obvious to anyone that Lamb’s recovery from Tommy John surgery was not proceeding normally. We were told that everything was fine right up until he took the mound last April – 22 months after surgery – and put up a 5.63 ERA in Wilmington, with a fastball that wouldn’t get out of the mid-80s. Maybe it's not fair to blame the Royals for not coming out publicly and saying, "yeah, we're really worried about him", but if that's the case, it doesn't make sense to take anything the Royals say about Zimmer - or any other pitcher with injury concerns - at face value.

So I think it’s reasonable to be concerned about Zimmer until he proves that he’s healthy and proves that the adjustments he made in the middle of last season – from June 29th on, Zimmer threw 44 innings, allowed 25 hits and eight walks, and struck out 63 – were for real. If he does and he does, he could be the ace of the staff when James Shields departs at the end of the year. But at this point I’m a little more convinced that Ventura will fill that role than Zimmer.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

2014 Royals Top Prospects, Part 3.

#6: Miguel Almonte

Pos-T: SP-R
H-W: 6’2”, 180 lbs
DOB: 4/4/1993 (20 years old)
Signed: NDFA ($25,000 signing bonus), Dominican Republic, 2010

2013: 131 IP, 115 H, 36 BB, 132 K, 6 HR, 3.10 ERA in Low-A
2012: 77 IP, 56 H, 13 BB, 74 K, 2 HR, 1.75 ERA in Dominican (50 IP) and Complex (27 IP)

Almonte had pitched all of 27 innings on the mainland at the end of the 2012 season, but that was enough for Jason Parks, the lead prospect analyst at Baseball Prospectus, to rave about Almonte after seeing him pitch in instructional league – naming him a Top 10 prospect in the system right then and there and even comparing him to a poor man’s Julio Teheran.

While the consensus opinion on Almonte is not quite as optimistic as Parks – who actually ranked Almonte the #46 prospect in all of baseball on his Top 100 list this year – Parks clearly was on to something. Almonte jumped to full-season ball last year and was quietly excellent. He had a 5.40 ERA in April, but from May 1st on he had a 2.69 ERA and had nearly as many strikeouts (119) as hits and walks combined (123). He pairs a low-90s fastball with a changeup that’s already above-average and has the potential to be an out pitch. He needs to settle on a breaking ball and get consistent with it, but he doesn’t turn 21 until around Opening Day, and a good breaking ball is really the only thing he’s missing at this point.

I have him ranked a little lower than most others, because he’s a pitcher who hasn’t gotten out of A-ball yet, and you can't just ignore the attrition rate for pitchers who are four levels from the majors. Also, if it were that easy to throw a good breaking ball, everyone would be doing so. But Almonte is a very, very good prospect, and if he develops without any hiccups – something precious few pitchers in the Royals system have done recently – he should be a #3 starter at the very least. He’ll probably start this year in Wilmington; far less talented pitchers have put up excellent numbers there, so try to temper your excitement if he has a 0.86 ERA into mid-May or something.

#5: Jorge Bonifacio

Pos-B: CF-R
H-W: 6’1, 192 lbs
DOB: 6/4/1993 (20 years old)
Signed: NDFA ($135,000 signing bonus), Dominican Republic, 2009


2013: .298/.372/.429 in Complex (9 G), High-A (54 G), and Double-A (25 G)
2012: .282/.336/.432 in Low-A (105 G)

With Wil Myers having been traded, and with Norichika Aoki being a free agent at the end of this season, Bonifacio is the Royals’ right fielder of the future, and they’re hoping that future begins in 2015. It doesn’t seem like an unreasonable hope to me.

Bonifacio has been very young for his levels; he started in full-season ball in 2012 when he was still 18 years old, and he’ll start this season at age 20 – he’s two months younger than Almonte – even though he’s already reached Double-A and hit well in a short stint there. He has a compact swing that many project will add power over time.

That time may not be this year, however. Bonifacio was hitting .325/.404/.452 for Wilmington on May 12th when he got hit by a pitch and broke his hamate bone. He returned six weeks later; after a ten-day rehab in Arizona he returned to Wilmington, and while he only hit .250/.307/.338 in 20 games there, he impressed the Royals enough that he was sent to Northwest Arkansas for the final month of the season, and hit .301/.371/.441.

Hamate bone injuries are notorious for taking a long time to recover completely from; in particular, hitters frequently see their power sapped for a year or even more afterwards. So don’t panic if Bonifacio fails to reach even his career high of 10 homers this season. Given his youth, swing, and the injury, he could easily be the kind of player who goes from hitting eight homers in the minors in 2014 to 15-20 homers in the majors in 2015.

Projecting forward, everything about Bonifacio suggests that he’ll be a league-average right fielder. He projects to hit .270-.280, he projects to hit 15-20 homers, he projects to have average plate discipline, he projects to be an average defender. That might sound like I’m damning with faint praise, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. A league-average player making the league minimum is a huge asset, and if he’s capable of being a league-average guy when he’s 23 or 24 years old, he might be a borderline All-Star when he’s 26 or 27. He’s already reached the high minors, he’s still very young for his level, and he has a job opening waiting for him next year. There are sexier prospects in the system, but there may be none safer.