13 August 2006

The Pipeline's top 20 Royal prospects

With the '06 season winding down in the minors, it's time for The Pipeline (with gas prices the way they are, maybe I should change the name) to run down the top 20 organizational prospects. This, to me, includes players 25 or younger, with 25 even being kind of high for prospect status. I've vacillated on whether to include players like Mark Teahen and Zack Greinke, since they fit the age requirement but have seen significant MLB time.

I gotta say I like what I've seen since I last wrote about the big league Royals in, what, May? Allard Baird had his chances to improve the Royals at the major league level for years and failed to do so, so despite his widespread acclaim as a good guy, he wasn't a good GM and needed to go. Dayton Moore has made what appear to be some risky but not-too-risky moves. He has already improved the minor league pitching ranks and made some moves for power and speed without losing any player of crucial need. His deal of Elmer Dessens to LA for cash, pitching prospects Blake Johnson and Julio Pimentel, and Odalis Perez alone confirmed he's got something on the ball. Now if only he'd do something with Buddy Bell that involves him not having a KC on his hat anymore....

As a note to this list of capsule reports, the good news is there are a good amount of pitchers on it. The bad news is the highest is at AA and probably no less than 2 or 3 years away from being major-league ready -- Luke Hochevar (pleasepleaseplease let him pan out) aside. There also aren't many infielders in my top 20, altho Josh Johnson at Burlington and Angel Sanchez at Wichita have potential. Johnson needs to develop a little power and hitting consistency while Sanchez needs defense and OBP help. They're both still fairly rough. Chris McConnell has also been a mainstay on KC prospect lists on other sites but couldn't hit his way out of a wet paper bag at Burlington and hasn't exactly lit the world on fire in limited time back at Idaho Falls this summer, even tho he has improved from his time in low-A. As of the time of this writing, only 1 prospect on this list (Huber) is at AAA. All stats listed are through Aug. 11. Also, bear in mind most (but not all) of these reports are made sight unseen. They go only as far as stats do, so some intangibles in each player's game aren't taken into account -- good and bad.

1. Alex Gordon, 3B, 22 (age by end of season), currently at AA Wichita, batting .314/.416/.558 with 22 HR and 75 RBI in 109 games, 62 BB/93 K, 31 doubles, 1 triple, 21/24 SB, 13 E

*** The Royals' highest draft pick in history (until this season, that is) has shown flashes of what could be this season in Wichita. He has hit for power, shown good baserunning speed and instincts and been consistent offensively. Reports put him at average at worst on defense despite 13 errors this season and he has gotten on base well. One bad thing to note is his nearly 100 Ks but, as I said, he has also shown ability to draw a walk. Now former Royals farm director Shaun McGinn has stated Gordon will be in Wichita all season as the crew of prospects "learns how to win together," or something like that, which is fine, but he probably could have gotten a sniff of Omaha this season and been in better position for a call up in '07. With Moore bringing in J.J. Picollo to replace McGinn over the weekend, maybe plans will change. We'll see. He has also not hit any kind of "wall" in terms of stamina from the looks of things. If anything, he seems (without checking the stats, just from personal memory) to have hit better as the season has progressed, which is another good sign. The prognosis for Gordon is good. He may be in the majors by late '07 or the start of '08 likely for sure.

2. Luke Hochevar, RHP, 23, preparing to make his debut at low-A Burlington this week, stats with indy league Fort Worth Cats, 1-1, 2.38 ERA, 1 HR allowed in 4 starts/22 2/3 IP, 20 hits/11 BB/34 K, .244 BAA.

*** Hochevar entered the organization as the top pitching prospect and looks to stay in that spot as he makes his debut for Burlington this week. He was one of the top pitchers in the '05 draft, hired Boras, got picked by the Dodgers, fired Boras and initially agreed to a deal then backed out, fired his agent, rehired Boras and began a year-long holdout before the Royals made him the #1 pick in '06. The gamble paid off as he got a better deal this season and will make major-league money in the minors. His stats in a showcase move early this season pitching for an independent league team in Fort Worth weren't awesome but he only had a 2.38 ERA in 22 IP and had a 3-1 K/BB ratio. He joins a good rotation in Burlington and the plan is reportedly for him to make 4 or 5 starts for the Bees before joining the Arizona Fall League to keep working and then start '07 in, I assume, Wichita or Omaha. The former Roger Clemens Award winner has the stuff and an athletic pedigree as his dad was a standout basketball player and he also did well in basketball in high school. Only a couple of the '05 first-round pitchers have hit the majors thus far so he doesn't have a lot of catching up to do in regard to the guys with whom he originally hit the draft. I can see him being rotation ready in 2007 or not until 2008. I hope it's the former.

3. Billy Butler, OF/DH, 20, AA Wichita, batting .325/.382/.495 with 15 HR and 91 RBI in 115 games, 39 BB/66 K, 33 doubles, 7 errors in RF, only 1 SB

*** If Butler's defense was anything close to average he'd be rivaling Gordon for #1 on this list. His only 7 errors in the games in which he hasn't been DH belies problems with mobility, speed and range that will likely make him a Hafner-like DH in the majors. He doesn't walk or strike out as much as Gordon but has plenty of power as exhibited in a great Futures game appearance in July in which he was MVP. From day-to-day watching of the box scores, Butler is prone to slumping and will go for stretches without much productivity, but when he's on, it's fun to watch. He leads Wichita in RBI so has come through with runners on base. He'll likely start 2007 in Omaha and be called up to KC either on one of Sweeney's three annual trips to the DL or in September '07 with a look to start in 2008 as the full-time DH.

4. Billy Buckner, RHP, 23, AA Wichita/High-A High Desert (early season), Wichita numbers: 3-2, 6.14 ERA, 6 HR allowed in 8 starts and 44 IP (not counting a 6 IP/1 ER start Saturday), 1.68 WHIP, 27 BB/40 K. High Desert numbers: 7-1, 3.90 ERA, 6 HRA in 16 starts and 90 IP, 1.54 WHIP, 47 BB/85 K.

*** Buckner's stock has risen this season as he posted good Cal League numbers in High Desert with 85 K in 90 IP but a not-so-great less than 2-1 K/BB ratio. He was moved up to Wichita after 16 HD starts and had a couple rough outings early at AA before settling down in his past couple starts. He had 40 K in 44 IP at Wichita and his WHIP hasn't been stellar at 1.68 but that was prior to the last few starts when the WHIP has been somewhat better. He's already matched his HR allowed total at HD in half as many starts and innings at Wichita and his K/BB ratio hasn't improved much yet (recent starts aside) but has easily outshone former top pitching prospect Luis Cota. He may be ranked high here at 4 with a listing above Huber, Lubanski and Maier but his 2006 performance has shown promise. I wouldn't expect to see him in Royal blue until 2008 at earliest. Maybe he could get a September '07 call up.

5. Justin Huber, OF, 24, MLB (if you count his time there this season as play)/AAA Omaha, Omaha numbers: .286/.367/.511 with 14 HR and 31 RBI in 76 games, 30 BB/68 K, 14 doubles, 2 triples, 2/4 SB, 7 E at 1B/LF. MLB numbers: .200/.273/.300 in 5 G (only 10 ABs), double, RBI, 1 BB/4 K, 1 SB.

*** Huber has had a rough 2006. He started at 1B in Omaha, got called up when Sweeney got put on the DL, got jerked around by Buddy Bell, who wouldn't play him over Doug Mientkiewicz, got 10 ABs in 5 games, got sent back to Omaha and moved off 1B to LF, where he slumped for a while, missed some games with a sore thumb, heated up, had a "tight" hamstring put him on the DL, and has just recently returned from that injury. He's not getting any younger and a position switch isn't a great sign. He may be trade bait in the future for Dayton Moore unless he can show some consistency and decent defense in left to merit keeping him around. He has slugged over .500 in 76 games at AAA but has also had problems being consistent at the plate and drawing walks. He has more than twice as many Ks as walks. Some of his struggles can likely be attributed to his nagging injuries and movement both in the system and on the field. He'll need to bounce back the rest of '06 and in early '07 and may still have a shot at a call up for an OF spot if his defense earns it for him. He needs to get it done before Butler and Gordon are ready as their bats right now would have them ahead of him in line for the call. If he stays with the organization, he'll be part of the '07 Royals either from the start or late in the season and may be counted on as a contributor in '08.

6. Chris Lubanski, OF, 21, AA Wichita, .278/.361/.466 with 12 HR and 61 RBI in 115 games, 58 BB/99 K,
30 doubles, 8 triples, 6/13 SB, 6 errors in LF/CF

*** Lubanski has been streaky again after having an amazing second-half and playoff run with High Desert in '05. He started slowly at Wichita, got hot, slumped and has heated up again in the second half. He was being played in CF early in the season but was moved to left to accommodate Mitch Maier in center. He has also had problems making contact at times with nearly 100 Ks but has also shown an ability to take walks and has shown good speed, if not great stealing instincts, on the basepaths. His second-half performance has spoken well for his adjustment to AA but he's still somewhat raw. Defense hasn't been a detriment in his case. Another factor working in his favor is, like Butler, he is still young at only 21 and can start in AA in 2007 with a move to Omaha perhaps later in the season and, if things stay on track, a chance to play in KC in 2008.

7. Mitch Maier, OF, 24, AA Wichita, .289/.341/.458 with 12 HR and 74 RBI in 116 games, 33 BB/82 K, 29 doubles, 6 triples, 10/19 SB, 5 E in LF/CF

*** Maier started out '06 as an RBI machine and cooled off somewhat before rebounding over the past month to lift his BA back into the .290s. He has also shown problems getting on base with only 33 walks drawn compared to 82 whiffs but has also shown good speed and decent power with 6 triples. His defense is also OK for a converted catcher who is now a centerfielder. He is also hit-and-miss in stealing bases and is getting older as prospects go at 24. Like Lubanski, he may also need to start '07 at AA before moving to AAA. I don't see him at KC until 2008 at the earliest. Even then it may be as a 4th outfielder or a part-time injury replacement. He could easily drop a couple places on this list.

Tyler Lumsden, LHP, 23, AA Wichita/AA Birmingham (CWS organization pre-trade), Wichita numbers: 0-1, 2.84 ERA, 2 HRA in 3 starts and 12 2/3 IP, 1.50 WHIP, 8 BB/9 K. Birmingham numbers: 9-4, 2.69 ERA, 9 HRA in 20 starts and 123 2/3 IP, 1.25 WHIP, 40 BB/72 K

*** Lumsden was one of Moore's big near-deadline pickups in the Mike MacDougal deal along with Dan Cortes (#18 on this list) and, despite missing 2005 with bone spurs on his elbow, has rebounded nicely in 2006 to beef up the minor pitching ranks. He had a nice 2.69 ERA and 1.25 WHIP in 20 starts for the White Sox' AA team before moving in to Wichita, where he has been solid over 3 starts despite taking a line drive off his leg in his second start. He is still adjusting to the Texas League with a near 1-1 K/BB ratio in 12 IP but I expect that to improve before the year is out. His ratio in the White Sox system in '06 wasn't great at almost 2-1 but he has shown the stuff to be a middle-of-the-rotation starter in the pros someday. He probably has a longer timetable than Hochevar but, as the top lefty in the organization, may have a shot at a late '07 callup or a spot in the 2008 rotation.

9. Luis Cota, RHP, 21, High-A High Desert, 5-10, 6.69 ERA, 16 HRA in 24 games (23 starts) and 117 IP, 1.57 WHIP, 51 BB/118 K.

*** Cota's stock has suffered in 2006 as the once hyped Royals pitching prospect, who had a standout first half of '05 in Burlington before tanking out in the second half, has had a strange 2006 in the California League. Frequent absolute beatings by the opposition have been interspersed with sometime shutdown pitching from Cota, who is still young at 21. His ERA has been over 10 this season and is actually an improvement at 6.69. He does have a better than 2-1 K/BB ratio and has 118 Ks in only 117 IP so has kept the power portion of his game going. Cota could bounce back to start '07 in HD and get moved to Wichita, or could start '07 in Wichita. I'm not sure of the best way to evaluate Cal League pitching since almost, if not every game is in Coors Field-like conditions. I just know if I was a pro pitcher I wouldn't want to pitch in that league for the potential impact on my stats. If Cota can rebound and stay both injury free and cranking out Ks, he could be a spot starter in '08 or challenge for a rotation spot in 2009. He could also be trade bait depending on how other pitchers in the organization pan out. It is nice to have a pitcher posting those kind of K numbers in the organization, because there aren't many doing so.

10. Chris Nicoll, RHP, 23, Low-A Burlington, 4-8, 2.76 ERA, 13 HRA in 21 starts and 124 IP, 1.07 WHIP, 34 BB/125 K.

*** Nicoll has had more good starts than bad in 2006 and has been a mainstay in a decent rotation in Burlington. I hadn't realized his K numbers were that good, but both his K/9 numbers and K/BB ratio are awesome this season. More than 9 Ks in 9 IP and a nearly 4-1 K/BB ratio have made his 3rd-round selection in the '05 draft out of Cal-Irvine a good turn. His record is just evidence of a horrible Bees offense this season that has had problems buying a run at times. He has also given up some longballs but his 1.07 WHIP and the K numbers show the potential is there. Hopefully he has a Buckner-type early part of '07 at High Desert and is in Wichita before 2007 ends. I can see him being a late '08 call-up and potential 2009 MLB spot starter/rotation pitcher. His stock may have risen more than Buckner's in '06.

11. Carlos Rosa, RHP, 22, Low-A Burlington, 7-6, 2.65 ERA, 6 HRA in 23 starts and 132 2/3 IP, 1.27 WHIP, 52 BB/96 K.

*** Rosa has the Tommy John Surgery badge upon him and missed the entire 2005 season for that reason but has rebounded well in 2006 for the Bees. His sub-3 ERA has been augmented by a decent WHIP and ability to get some Ks, although his K/BB ratio is less than 2-1. He doesn't give up homers, tho, and is in his first year off TJS so has a shot, at least, to improve in 2007, although being stationed at High Desert may temper that. Other than Mike Stodolka's surprise output in the switch from pitcher to position player, Rosa's comeback from surgery may be the best story in the organization this season. As his recovery continues, I would expect Rosa to spend 2007 at High Desert and maybe split '08 at Wichita/Omaha before getting a shot maybe late in '09 or to start in 2010. Long relief or set up work may also be an option for Rosa. He may also be a potential trade bait candidate in the future, but isn't (nearly) everyone?

12. Jeff Bianchi, IF, 20, Rookie AZL (injured), .429/.537/.667 with 2 HR and 6 RBI in 12 games, 9 BB/3 K, 4 doubles, 1/2 SB, 1 E at SS.

*** The saga of Jeff Bianchi has taken another operatic turn in 2006 as his blistering of AZL pitching in '05 that was followed by season-ending back problems was repeated in '06 as shoulder problems have effectively killed his season. When healthy, he's been nearly unstoppable at the rookie level and looked to move up to Idaho Falls this season. He could easily be a top-5 organizational prospect but injuries have done more to hurt his stock (no pun intended) than anyone else getting an organization paycheck. His biggest challenge in 2007 will be staying healthy. If he can do that, he could very well rise quickly through the ranks and be a KC infielder of the future. I have no idea on a prognosis for Bianchi as back and shoulder problems are nothing to mess with. The front office needs to get them addressed and get him back healthy and raking. I guess if things go well in '07, he could be in single-A in 2008, AA in 2009, and be a potential late-season call up in 2010. The Pipeline is pulling for Bianchi to make it happen.

13. Matt Kniginyzky, RHP, 24, Low-A Burlington, 9-4, 3.24 ERA, 13 HRA in 21 starts and 122 1/3 IP, 1.21 WHIP, 33 BB/98 K.

*** Kniginyzky, who was a 23rd-rounder in 2005 out of High Point University in North Carolina, has also bolstered the Bees' rotation but has had some nagging injury problems keep him from making some starts. His numbers are similar to those of Rosa but his K/BB ratio is better. He has given up homers in bunches at times but has benefitted from the Bees' better run support to post a nice record. At 24 he's on the older edge to move up and could suffer in High Desert in 2007. If he can keep the ball down in the Cal League, he will likely spend the '07 season there and move to AA in 2008. I wouldn't expect to see him in Royal blue until late '09 or 2010, maybe 2011, even if no complications arise. He may also end up useful in long relief as the organization's needs go.

14. Brent Fisher, LHP, 19, Rookie AZL, 1-1, 2.42 ERA, 2 HRA in 10 starts and 48 1/3 IP, 0.89 WHIP, 14 BB/66 K.

*** Fisher was a 7th-rounder in '05 out of the Arizona high school ranks and has pitched well in the AZL. This year he has posted a sub-1 WHIP and good ERA with only 2 HR allowed in 48 IP and a whopping 66 Ks in that time with only 14 walks. That's a nearly 5-1 K/BB ratio, albeit in a smaller sample size. At 19, his potential is huge. We'll see if he gets moved to Idaho Falls before the season ends. If so, he could be in Burlington's rotation in 2007 and move up from there. Fisher is another young pitcher the organization can hopefully hang its hat on in the future. A year from now when this list is compiled he could very well be top 10.

15. Blake Johnson, RHP, 21, High-A High Desert/High-A Vero Beach (Dodgers organization pre-trade), High Desert numbers: 1-1, 6.30 ERA, 1 HRA in 2 starts and 10 IP, 1.50 WHIP, 0 BB/9 K. Vero Beach numbers: 4-5, 4.92 ERA, 11 HRA in 20 games (18 starts) and 106 IP, 1.32 WHIP, 19 BB/73 K.

*** One of Moore's apparent steals in the Dessens deal, Johnson had a great first start with High Desert but then got hammered in his second start, so Mavericks fans have seen the best and worst of times already with the young pitcher. His numbers at high-A in the Dodgers organization weren't great but his WHIP wasn't horrible and he did post a decent nearly 4-1 K/BB ratio. He too is somewhat prone to the longball, which is deadly at High Desert, but it's good that he doesn't walk many batters, so some control is there. Once he gets off the surface of the moon in HD I can foresee his numbers improving. The Royals had nothing to lose in the deal, so any production they get from Johnson is gravy. He's only 21, too, so has some time to grow.

16. Joe Dickerson, OF, 20, Rookie Idaho Falls, .309/.363/.526 with 6 HR and 25 RBI in 41 games, 12 BB/26 K, 9 doubles, 3 triples, 7/14 SB, 2 E in CF.

*** The guy picked after Gordon, Bianchi and Nicoll in '05 has followed up a nice season in the AZL last year with a consistent showing for Idaho Falls in '06. Dickerson has exhibited both power and speed with the Chukars in the hitter-friendly Pioneer League and has stayed on a fairly even keel in terms of hitting consistency. He has had some problems with the strikeout but has also shown to be able to draw a walk. Unlike Bianchi, he has been able to stay healthy and has been fearless in CF. He was removed from one game earlier this season after reportedly running full-tilt into the centerfield wall and was back the next day. That might speak to a potential for injury in the future but also speaks to the fact he plays hard. He may start '07 in Burlington or may be in IF again. With the way Burlington's offense has played this season, the Bees will need all the help they can get so he may get a shot there.

17. Erik Cordier, RHP, 20, Low-A Burlington/Rookie Idaho Falls (earlier), Burlington numbers: 2-1, 2.03 ERA, 1 HRA in 6 starts and 31 IP, 1.00 WHIP, 11 BB/19 K. IF numbers: 1-0, 3.38 ERA, 0 HRA in 3 starts and 16 IP, 0.88 WHIP, 3 BB/19 K.

*** Cordier is another guy coming off injury -- his was a knee problem in '05 that kept him out for the season. The second round pick in '04 out of a Wisconsin high school has also shown flashes of brilliance, more so in Idaho Falls but also in Burlington this campaign. The organization only gave him 3 starts for the Chukars as he posted a 0.88 WHIP and 6-1 K/BB ratio in 16 IP before he was moved up to Burlington to join the Bees rotation. Through Friday he had made 6 starts and posted a 1.00 WHIP but struggled a little more with walks at the low-A level. His K total is the same in 31 IP at Burlington as it was in 16 IP at IF, so he has seen a slightly stiffer challenge in moving up. He picked up another win Sunday in a mediocre start that boosted his ERA but it's still under 3.00 and his recovery to his top pitching form likely continues. He may start '07 in either Burlington or High Desert.

18. Dan Cortes, RHP, 19, Low-A Burlington/Low-A Kannapolis Intimidators (Dodgers organization pre-trade), Burlington numbers: 1-0, 8.31 ERA, 4 HRA in 3 starts and 13 IP, 1.85 WHIP, 8 BB/13 K. Kannapolis numbers: 3-9, 4.01 ERA, 6 HRA in 20 games (19 starts) and 107 2/3 IP, 1.37 WHIP, 38 BB/96 K.

*** Cortes has shown some raw power thus far at low-A in both the Dodgers' and Royals' systems. Prior to being included in the Dessens deal, Cortes posted a ho-hum 1.37 WHIP but had 96 K in 107 IP and a more than 2-1 K/BB ratio. He didn't give up a ton of homers in that time (only 6) but has had some problems with that in 3 starts at Burlington. He's already had a couple rough outings in 13 IP with the Bees but does have 13 K thus far. I'd say Johnson looked to be the bigger key to the Dessens trade but, like with Johnson, whatever the Royals get out of Cortes is gravy for what they gave up in the trade. It's nice to add another power pitcher to the minor ranks. At only 19 he'll probably start '07 in Burlington.

Rayner Oliveros, RHP, 21, Low-A Burlington, 5-3, 3.02 ERA in 26 games (5 starts) and 83 1/3 IP, 1.16 WHIP, 17 BB/47 K.

*** Oliveros has been a Pipeline favorite since pitching well in the AZL in '05. He didn't fare as well in a late call up to Burlington last season but has been versatile as a long reliever and spot starter for the Bees this season. Doing most of his work out of the 'pen he's posted a good 1.16 WHIP with a nearly 3-1 K/BB ratio over 83 1/3 IP. He is closer to finesse style than power with only 47 K this season and has taken a couple rough outings but has put up a ERA hovering around the 3.00 level. Over 75 IP in the AZL in '05, he had 48 Ks compared to only 5 walks (!). He hasn't rivaled those numbers thus far in Burlington but has shown potential. I like him more as a starter but, for some reason, the organization has kept him in the bullpen so his future may be in long relief. Either he'll start in Burlington in '07 or he may come out of the pen in HD.

20. Mike Stodolka, DH/1B, 25, High-A High Desert, .313/.420/.506 with 11 HR and 63 RBI in 97 games, 65 BB/84 K, 31 doubles, 2 triples, 4/6 SB, 11 E at 1B

*** I had to include Stodolka in this list, even though his true potential with the bat won't be proven until he moves out of the California League. The failed pitching prospect from the fiasco draft in 2000 was moved to first base to start 2005 and has been one of the top hitters in the league for High Desert. Even though he's struck out 84 times, he has also shown a good eye with 65 walks, which can't be attributed much to the Cal League conditions, to post a .420 OBP. Eleven homers and 31 doubles, which can be attributed to the thin air in California, have added up to a .500-plus slugging percentage and I've been anxious for a couple months now to see what he can do in Wichita. With Billy Butler joining the USA team later this week, maybe Stodolka will get a shot in AA for the rest of '06. At 25, his value as a prospect is limited but he's been THE story of the year for the Royals minors this season. The future could hold anything for Stodolka, but the Royals look to get more out of him as a hitter than they ever did on the mound.

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