RC's Top 25 Royals Prospects
Well, it's finally here. RC has spent weeks crunching the numbers on our gigantic calculator, and we'veexpanded our prospect list to the top 25. We argued amongst ourselves about what constitutes a "prospect," and we developed a standard that determines eligibility for the list. To be eligible, position players must not have played in 50 games or had 300 plate appearances. Pitchers are broken down into two categories. The threshold for starting pitchers is 100 innings or 20 starts, while relief pitchers must not have reached 20 appearances or 50 innings pitched. In addition, anyone with over one year of Major League service time is ineligible, even if the majority of that time was spent on the DL. The critieria eliminates a few players who would have otherwise made the list, such as Leo Nunez, Denny Bautista, and Ruben Gotay, but most of the key youngsters who finished the season in Kansas City are still eligible.
When looking at the list, there is much to be optimistic about. While the pitching ranks are admittedly thin, the Royals have done a nice job accumulating offensive talent that should pay dividends in the coming years.
Without further delay, we present the Top 25 Royals prospects:
1) Alex Gordon
Gordon ended months of doubts and speculation by signing for a KC record $4 million in late September. He's presently taking his first professional cuts in the Instructional League, and if all goes well, the Royals hope to have him assigned to their Arizona Fall League club. It is also possible that Gordon could make up for lost time by playing in the Puerto Rican winter league, so we'll be sure to keep on the lookout for updates.
Despite his long layoff, Gordon arrives at the top of RC's prospect list, narrowly beating out Billy Butler because of his superior athleticism. We expect Gordon to start next season at High Desert or Wichita, and we anticipate he will move very quickly through the system. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: August 2006.
2) Billy Butler
Since being drafted by the Royals in the first round of the 2004 draft, Butler has done nothing but hit. In his professional debut, Butler led the Pioneer League in hitting and was second in extra-base hits, earning Baseball America's designation as the Royals' top prospect.
This season was no letdown, as Butler appeared to get even better. The youngest player in advanced A ball, he was named the starting third baseman for the California League All-Stars, and RC was in attendance as he took second place in the Carolina/California League All-Star Game Homerun Derby. Butler put on the Derby's most impressive power display, sending a number of balls completely out of the stadium at the deepest parts of the park, shots that certainly must have traveled over 450 feet.
Butler's electric performance in the California League necessitated a promotion to Wichita, where he immediately continued his hot pace. For his efforts this season, Butler was named the California League's fifth-best prospect by Baseball America, and he was named by the Royals as High Desert's co-player of the year. We expect to see him start next season back in Wichita, and the only thing that might slow him down is his defense in left field. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: September 2006.
3) Justin Huber
Justin Huber checks in at number three after leading the Texas League in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. His efforts there resulted in promotions to both Omaha and Kansas City, where he finished the season. RC was frustrated that Huber didn't receive more playing time while in KC, and we expect him to see more action in Omaha to start next season. Perhaps it's for the best, as he did not look very comfortable in the big leagues, both at the plate and in the field.
Huber was listed by Baseball America as the Royals' fifth-best prospect prior to the season, and he did nothing dispell that notion during the season. He was named to play in the Futures Game, where he took home MVP honors after hitting a key three-run double, and he was named the Royals' 2005 Minor League Player of the Year. Anticipated arrival (for good) in Kansas City: May 2006.
4) J.P. Howell
J.P. Howell, a 2004 draftee, zoomed through the Royals minor league system in 2005, making brief stops at High Desert, Wichita, and Omaha before debuting for the Royals in Arizona on June 11. Howell showed flashes of brilliance, as well as flashes of serious control problems, but he finished the season strong. His fastball is well below league average, topping out in the mid to upper 80s, but his curveball and change both profile to be above average pitches, provided he can pinpoint them. RC even heard one scout refer to Howell's curveball as "the heaviest curveball you'll ever see."
We expect Howell to seriously compete for a big league rotation spot next season, where we expect him to improve even more as he continues to get a feel about how to get Major Leaguers out. If the Royals land a couple free agent starting pitchers in the offseason, it's possible Howell will start at Omaha, which also couldn't hurt. Anticipated arrival (for good) in Kansas City: April 2006.
5) Chris Lubanski
Chris Lubanski started the season very poorly, hovering around .200 for most of April and May, and RC was nearly ready to cast him onto the scrap heap of failed Royals #1 picks. But then something happened...something clicked for Lubes, and the result was a miraculous turnaround that carried him through the end of the season and into the California League playoffs, where he went 13-for-15.
Lubanski's final numbers are likely quite inflated by High Desert's extreme hitter-friendliness, but it's clear that he has returned himself to legitimate prospect status. In fact, Baseball America even rated him as the California League's 20th-best prospect, a designation that would have been inconceivable in May. Defensively, Lubanski has drawn some criticism for the poor routes he takes to fly balls, as well as a below-average arm, but his skills should play better at a corner, if he can hit enough to stay there. The Royals scout we spoke with is convinced that Lubanski's power is real, and he'll get a chance to prove it in Wichita next season. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: September 2007.
6) Luis Cota
For his efforts this season, Luis Cota was named as the Royals' Minor League Pitcher of the Year. His command still needs fine tuning, but Midwest League managers rated Cota's fastball as the best in the league in Baseball America's 2005 Best Tools Survey. Rated the Royals #7 prospect prior to the season, Baseball America named him as the 13th-best prospect in the Midwest League.
Next season, Cota will most likely start at High Desert, where he will have to work on his secondary pitches. His changeup reportedly needs a lot of work, and while many think he could develop a dynamite slider, he will need to improve his command for it to become an effective pitch. Baird thinks Cota could move quickly through the system. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: September 2007.
7) Jeff Bianchi
Drafted by the Royals in the second round of the 2005 draft, Bianchi went to Arizona and immediately made fools of the scouts who had scoffed when the Royals snatched him two rounds higher than most had him slotted. Before a back injury sidelined him, Bianchi was on pace to win the Arizona League's triple crown, and he earned a reputation as a blue collar type player who maximizes all the ability his six-foot, 175 pound frame can muster. For his efforts, Baseball America named Bianchi as the League's best position player prospect, and the fourth-best prospect overall.
Bianchi showed better than expected speed in Arizona, and while he handled himself well at shortstop, some scouts suspect an eventual move to second base might be in the cards. Regardless, Bianchi is a strong kid who will only get stronger as he matures, and he currently projects into a 15-20 HR hitter in the Major Leagues. It will be interesting to see where he begins next season, but don't be surprised if he skips two levels to start at High Desert. If not, then Burlington is his most likely destination. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: April 2008.
8) Andres Blanco
Blanco had a whirlwind tour of the Royals' minor league affiliates, but it was his performance in Kansas City over the last month of the season that vaulted him into RC's top 10. He's clearly moved ahead of Donnie Murphy on the organization's depth chart at second base, as his defense has been nothing short of spectacular.
It is not often that a player's defensive value fully compensates for dismal offensive production, but with Blanco, we think that is precisely the case. With a developing young pitching staff, Blanco can provide immense value to the big league club, whether he plays shortstop or second base (preferably SS). Offensively, Blanco did take a step forward this season, hitting .263/.328/.382 with his first four professional homeruns in 54 minor league games. He didn't fare quite so well at the Major League level, but he certainly didn't look overwhelmed. Barring the acquisition of a free agent second baseman, we expect to see Blanco starting at second base in Kansas City on April 3, 2006.
9) Donnie Murphy
While some people might be disappointed with Donnie Murphy because of his poor finish to the season in KC, we prefer to look at his year as "two steps forward, one step back." Either way, he's making progress, and we haven't yet written him off as a significant Royals prospect.
Murphy put together a very nice campaign in Wichita before his promotion to KC, posting an OPS of .885 while slamming 10 home runs in 50 games. Due to an injury and managerial impatience, Murphy never got in a groove in Kansas City, and he was a virtual ghost on the roster for the last month of the season. We expect Murphy to begin next season in Omaha, where we wouldn't be surprised to see him get regular duty at 2B, 3B, and SS. We think the Royals will probably give him a full season at AAA before exposing him again to Major League pitching. His future may be as a utility man, but RC is still convinced that Murphy will become a quality Major League ballplayer. Anticipated arrival (for good) in Kansas City: September 2006.
10) Chris McConnell
Chris McConnell rounds out our top 10 list after putting together a great season for the Idaho Falls Chukars, both defensively and offensively. Scouts rave about his plus range at shortstop, and he reportedly has good instincts, a solid arm, and nice footwork around the bag. His offense was a bit of a surprise, as he posted a very respectable .919 OPS, marking an unexpected improvement upon the .872 OPS he posted in the Arizona League last summer.
Baseball America rated McConnell as the Pioneer League's third-best shortstop and 15th-best prospect overall, while reporting that he draws favorable comparisons to Greg Gagne. It will be interesting to see where he plays next year, although Burlington seems to be a safe bet. It all depends on whether or not Bianchi leaps over McConnell on the minor league depth chart. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: September 2008.
11) Chris Nicoll
The 82nd overall pick in the draft (third round), Nicoll signed with the Royals for $445,000 after a brief holdout. One scout explained to RC that the Royals were in no rush to sign him, as he had thrown a lot of innings in college and would only throw limited innings once he did sign.
Nicoll signed in July and made his debut in the Pioneer League. In 27.1 innings, he struck out 34 batters and walked only nine while compiling a very respectable ERA of 3.62. His fastball tops out in the low 90s, but scouts expect him to add some velocity, and his slider is reported to have good deception while being a tad inconsistent. In his first stint of professional baseball, Nicoll's G/F ratio of 0.88 tends to suggest he'll be more of a fly ball pitcher, but that could change if he improves his slider. Look for Nicoll to start in Burlington next year, although High Desert is a possibility if he shows good command in the spring. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: September 2008.
12) Shane Costa
Shane Costa had a decent 2005 season, earning a surprising promotion to Kansas City in early June. He got off to a fast start in KC, becoming a bit of a fan favorite before pitchers adjusted and Costa started struggling. After 27 games he was shipped back to Wichita, where he continued to put up solid but unspectacular numbers.
Costa is a very strong kid -- his father is a former national bodybuilding champion -- and he possesses a very quick bat and good contact ability. However, his plate discipline leaves something to be desired, and he still hasn't turned his strength into power. If the power never comes, Costa will never be more than a marginal fourth outfielder, because his arm pretty much limits him to left field. Nevertheless, RC does believe Costa still has time to figure it out, and we like just about everything else about him. He'll begin next season in Omaha. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: He'll be up and down starting in mid-2006.
13) Kila Kaaihue
We first took notice of Kila Kaaihue this season, as he propelled himself onto our radar by exhibiting stellar plate discipline and decent power in the California League. We may have over-ranked him a bit, as this was his third full season of A-ball after having to repeat Burlington, but we still really like him.
Kaaihue, a 15th round pick by the Royals in 2002, led the entire organization and the California League with 97 walks and a .428 on base percentage. His 20 homers were almost certainly a product of High Desert's hitter-friendliness, but he does square up on the ball pretty nicely. He has a smooth swing and a funny stance, and he was described by a KC scout we spoke with as being very streaky. Expect Kaaihue to start at Wichita next season, and if he does well, he could begin drawing notice as a Scott Hatteberg type of player. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: 2008.
14) Mike Aviles
Mike Aviles is a very strong kid who should continue developing more power as he matures, but his defensive woes are hurting his chances of ever seeing regular duty in the Major Leagues. He has a very strong arm and average range, but he made over 40 errors this season for Wichita, mostly at shortstop. His bat, however, keeps him moving through the system, albeit slowly.
A scout we spoke with described Aviles as the type of guy who keeps proving himself at every level, and before you know it, you run out of places to send him. His path through the minors should continue next season in Omaha, where we expect he'll split time at third base and short. The Royals think of Aviles as a future utility player, and RC loves the idea because if he improves his defense to an acceptable level, he could become one of the better-hitting utility players in baseball. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: September 2006.
15) Brent Fisher
Brent Fisher was still only 17 years old when he began blowing away Arizona League hitters after being drafted by the Royals in the seventh round of the 2005 draft. In 50.1 innings, Fisher struck out a very impressive 69 batters, while only walking an equally impressive 13. His ERA was 3.04, and for his efforts Baseball America named Fisher as the second-best LHP in the Arizona League, and the 18th-best prospect overall.
Fisher isn't overpowering, but reports are that he has an excellent idea of how to pitch. He has command of a sinking fastball, a 12-to-6 curveball, and a solid changeup. We expect Fisher to skip the Pioneer League and start the season in Burlington, where he should continue to blow hitters away. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: 2009.
16) Mitch Maier
After getting off to a blistering start in High Desert, Maier hit a wall after his promotion to Wichita. He did improve his power numbers, and he hit 47 doubles between the two levels, but he'll be 24 next season and his AA performance was a big disappointment. RC has never been all that impressed with Maier, after seeing him play in at least half a dozen games while he was in Wilmington.
The encouraging thing about Maier is that his defensive move to the outfield has yielded unexpected results, as he improved so much that he was manning center field in Wichita. In fact, Allard Baird has said that he believes Maier is the best defensive outfielder in the entire system. He will have to repeat Wichita to start next season, but if he does well, he may earn a promotion to Omaha -- or a cup of coffee in KC -- by mid-season. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: September 2006.
17) Joe Dickerson
When the Royals took Dickerson in the fourth round of this year's draft, most people saw it as nothing more than a pure signability pick. Indeed, Dickerson signed for $250,000, which put him in the lower-half of fourth round bonuses despite being the second pick in the round. However, his performance in his debut season shut up a lot of critics, as he led the Arizona League in RBIs and triples while hitting .294/.371/.491. For his efforts, Baseball America named Dickerson as the Arizona League's second-best outfielder and ninth-best prospect overall.
His game draws comparison's to Mark Kotsay's, as he possesses a good bat, has above average speed, and plays a very good center field. We're still cautiously optimistic about Dickerson, but we're looking forward to seeing what he can do next season. He could start the season in Idaho Falls, although Burlington might be a better bet. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: 2009/2010.
18) Gary Perez
RC had heard all about Perez while he was still playing in the Dominican Summer League, but we really got excited when he began mashing Pioneer League pitching in his first American season to the tune of a 1.024 OPS. After 36 games, he earned a promotion to Burlington, where he didn't fare quite so well. Once in Burlington, he played almost exclusively at second base, with a few appearances at shortstop.
At 22 years old, Perez is getting a bit old for the low minors, so if he can handle it, the Royals will continue moving him quickly. We expect him to open next season in High Desert, where he'll probably put up some inflated numbers. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: 2008.
19) Jonah Bayliss
Jonah Bayliss moved to the bullpen this season, and the result was his reemergence as a prospect. He was outstanding at Wichita, striking out 63 batters in 57.0 innings pitched while walking 26 and holding opposing hitters to a .203 BA. His efforts earned him a promotion to Kansas City in June, where he held his own in 11.2 IP.
Bayliss throws a mid-90s fastball with good movement, an above average slider, a quality curveball, and a mediocre changeup. He'll start next season in Omaha, but he's likely to be one of the first pitchers called up if the need for bullpen help arises. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: Early 2006.
20) Chad Blackwell
Chad Blackwell, a sixth round pick in 2004, was outstanding out of the bullpen for Burlington, which followed a very good 2004 season in Idaho Falls. In 68.2 innings for the Bees, Blackwell struck out 74, walked 27, and held hitters to a .241 BA while compiling an excellent 2.23 ERA.
Blackwell has a funky, low three quarters delivery that is very deceptive to hitters, and it helps him throw a lot of grounders (1.65 G/F ratio in 2005). The Royals weren't worried about Blackwell's mechanics, because he's never had a history of injury, but RC has heard rumors that Blackwell underwent an MRI for a possible torn rotator cuff last week. No news has yet surfaced of this in the KC media, but our source seems to be pretty reliable. If he isn't injured, Blackwell will start in High Desert next season, where his ERA is almost certain to climb. However, a sidearm groundball pitcher figures to fare better than most in the California League, and it will be a good test. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: late 2007/early 2008.
21) Billy Buckner
Billy Buckner got off to a decent start in Burlington, but he struggled -- as most pitchers do -- once he was promoted to High Desert. However, Buckner continued to display his best weapon, his devastating curveball, and he posted pretty solid strikeout numbers. In 154.1 IP this season between the two levels, Buckner struck out 152 and walked 63.
His control tumbled a bit after his promotion, as he might have been trying to be too fine, and it may have been harder for him to control his breaking stuff in the high altitudes of the California League. He did, however, turn into quite a worm-killer, posting an G/F ratio of 2.13. His prospect status is still in tact, and he will probably get a promotion to Wichita to start next season. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: 2008.
22) Rayner Oliveros
Oliveros is as intriguing a pitcher as the Royals have. Signed as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic, Oliveros was the Dominican Summer League Royals' Pitcher of the Year in 2004, after exhibiting absurd control -- THREE walks in 55.0 innings pitched to go along with 48 Ks and a 2.62 ERA.
We figured those numbers were most likely the result of what is probably a bigger Dominican strike zone, so we took a "wait and see" approach. Well, the 20-year-old Oliveros did not disappoint. In 75.1 IP for the Arizona Royals, he struck out 48 batters while walking FIVE and posting a 2.39 ERA. That means that prior to his late season promotion to Burlington -- where he did poorly in seven IP -- Oliveros had a 130 inning stretch over two years in which he had walked just eight batters while striking out 96. That's a 12/1 K to BB ratio! We expect Oliveros to begin next season at Burlington. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: 2008/2009.
23) Chris Demaria
We first noticed Demaria in mid-April, when we noticed he had the only High Desert ERA under 3 to go along with a great K/BB ratio, and we went about trying to figure out how in the hell the Royals acquired him. What we found was a pitcher with a great minor league track record who was picked up by the Royals in the triple-A portion of the 2004 Rule 5 draft.
In 76 innings between High Desert and Wichita in 2005, Demaria used his plus changeup to compile a stellar 2.13 ERA while striking out 92 and walking just 12. In fact, his performance out of the bullpen was so good, Demaria received a late season promotion to Kansas City, where he was greeted to the tune of a 9.00 ERA in 9.0 IP. We're not sure what to expect from Demaria, as we don't know if someone who throws as softly as he does could possibly succeed in the Majors, but his minor league stats are so good that he's worth keeping around. We expect him to start 2006 in Omaha, but he should see KC again at some point next season. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: mid 2006.
24) Angel Sanchez
Angel Sanchez just turned 22 years old, but he has already played five seasons of professional baseball after being drafted by the Royals in 2001. Allard Baird is very high on him, although 2005 was the first quality offensive season of Sanchez's career, and it came in hitter's paradise.
The only scouting report we can find on Sanchez says that he's got fast hands, a lean body, and long legs with a scattershot, somewhat inconsistent arm. Sanchez should begin next season as Wichita's starting shortstop, but we expect him to be passed on the organization's depth chart soon by the more talented middle infielders who are above him on this list. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City: doubtful. (Editor's note: On second thought, we probably would add someone like Adam Donachie here if we could make this list over again -- our gigantic calculator failed us!!!)
25) Alan Moye
Acquired by the Royals in 2003 in the Jeff Austin trade, Alan Moye put together a fine season overall, hitting a combined .293/.339/.510 with 24 HR between High Desert and Burlington. As you might expect, most of his damage was done in the California League, so his numbers probably ought to be taken with a grain of salt.
However, the Royals truly do like Moye's tools, despite his strikeouts (154 in 2005) and wretched plate discipline. The Royals are still hopeful that he acquires the discipline necessary to be a decent hitter, and if he does, Moye's power could carry him through the system. It's hard for us to picture Moye starting 2006 in Wichita, so we predict that he'll repeat High Desert for at least half the season. Anticipated arrival in Kansas City (if at all): 2009.