RC's Top 25 Royals Prospects - Part I
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.
Because of the volume of information, we have decided to present our prospect reports over the span of a couple days. Today we tackled the top 10 prospects, and we plan to publish the reports for the remaining 15 prospects over the course of this week. Without further delay, we present the top 10 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.