03 April 2007

Game 1/Royals on the Farm preview

Royals fans can't ask for much more from opening day as they got. A great outing from $55 million man Gil Meche, two triples from SS Tony Pena Jr., a 3-hit game from Grudz, and a couple XBH from John Buck, topped off with a Royals win. I have no delusions of a 100-win season, but it's nice to be 1-0 and in first place, at least for a day or two. Anything's better than going 0-for-whatever to start the season and starting to feel like the '88 Orioles. As I obtained tickets in February for Wednesday's game 2 in hopes of catching Matsuzaka's first MLB start, my hope was broken a couple weeks ago by learning Daisuke is Boston's #3 starter, for some reason, and not #2. My depression has been tempered, however, by the prospect of seeing Alex Gordon's first MLB hit or HR after he went 0-fer on opening day. I'll take that trade-off, I guess.

As a preface to the minor league preview, the rosters at the Royals Schematic have been updated in time for opening day Thursday. The complexion of the system has changed quite a bit over the last 12-15 months. As opposed to AAA being filled with has-beens and never-will-bes as it was, Omaha has some players to watch this year. Most of the unknowns are at Wichita while the Wilmington and Burlington rosters are intriguing in several spots.

Omaha (AAA) -- The AAA roster is headlined by DH/OF Billy Butler, who quests to become adequate enough in the outfield to be brought up when a spot opens. He hit well in spring training but has yeoman's work to do in the field so your guess is as good as mine where this will go. Plenty of other teams have put up with marginal defense at one spot to get a good bat in the lineup -- the question is will the Royals do so and can they afford to, not only in terms of defensive ability but also in terms of starting his service clock ticking at the same time Gordon's has. Once-upon-a-time prospect Justin Huber is now back at first after the LF experiment in '06. The question is now can he keep hitting and stay healthy, and will he be given a chance at some point to sink or swim in the majors? Outfield prospects Mitch Maier and Shane Costa will join with Joey Gathright and Butler to fill out the 7-9 positions defensively for the O-Royals. Maier is getting his first crack at AAA while Costa is making it old hat. I was among those who figured he'd be the fourth OF coming out of spring, but he didn't make his case in ST and the Royals didn't move either Emil Brown (newly disgruntled) or Reggie Sanders (no better than a 4th OF at this point) to make room, so he's stuck in Omaha for the time being. The infield features SS Andres Blanco and 2B/3B (now, I guess) Angel Berroa, who is trying (unsuccessfully, probably) to get back into the organization's good graces after finally forcing the hand of Dayton Moore. I hope he hits well enough that the Royals can dump his salary on somebody else. If Dayton hasn't used up his apparent favors from Atlanta or Milwaukee, surely something can be worked there, right? God, I hope so. The rest of the positional roster is filled out by C Paul Phillips, 2B Fernando Cortez, 32-year-old Graham Koonce, C Matt Tupman and IF Mike Aviles -- none of whom I'm expecting to threaten for a breakout. The pitching staff is headed up by two 26-year-old NL castoffs, Brian Bannister and Ben Hendrickson. Bannister had a rotation job in hand entering the spring and pitched himself out of it after coming from the Mets for Ambiorix Burgos (a wash at worst) and Hendrickson came over from the Brew Crew late in ST for a minor-league FA catcher the Royals signed going into the season, which makes me wary that Milwaukee would give him up for that. He's pitched well at AAA but gotten smoked in the majors, and the AL is less kind on pitchers than the NL. The other starter highlight is Tyler Lumsden, who as a 23-year-old lefty came over last season in the MacDougal deal. I'm interested in seeing how he does at Omaha and hoping he can fill out the rotation at KC late in the season after de la Rosa or Duckworth implodes. The rest of the rotation consists of Zach Day (fighting back from arm surgery) and Dewon Brazelton (never-was prospect getting long in the tooth as a "prospect" at 27). The bullpen is highlighted by RP Matt Wright, who more liked enough from Atlanta to bring in as a free agent, and RP Neal Musser, who seemed to hit his stride last year in the pen at Wichita. The rest of the pen seems like filler, altho Ken Ray saw time with the Braves last season and Jason Standridge may be able to contribute at KC at some point in the right role. RP Leo Nunez starts the season on the DL with a broken wrist, as do SS Angel Sanchez with elbow surgery (unfortunately delaying his development) and C Jared Price, who fits in with the roster filler section.

Omaha's season starts Thursday with a 4-game set at the Albuquerque Isotopes (Marlins AAA). The 'Topes feature former Royal pitchers Nate Field, Chris George and Wes Obermueller and no hugely touted players, although OF Reggie Abercrombie played some with Florida last season and SS Robert Andino was an all-star at AAA last season at the age of 21.

Wichita (AA) -- The last Wranglers season (at least as current plans sit) starts with a vastly different lineup than the one that finished second to Corpus Christi for the Texas League title in 2006. The AA roster is headed up by OF Chris Lubanski, who will try to start the season hot enough to move up when somebody at AAA can move up. Lubanski has been a streaky hitter and is reportedly sub-par in the OF so he has work to do to prove to the front office he's ready to be advanced. At 22, they have some time to let him figure things out. IF Richie Lewis, who came over in the minor league portion of the rule V draft from the Cubs, was once the '04 Southern League MVP but fizzled with a sub-.300 OBP, mostly at AAA, in 2005 and a .649 OPS at AA last season, so he'll give the TL a try in 2007 with hopes of recapturing his prospect status despite being 27. In the same boat is 1B Craig Brazell, who was once a touted player in the Mets' system but hit for a .740 OPS in AAA in '05 and a .747 OPS in AA in the Dodgers' system in '06. Those marks include a .301 OBP in '05 and a .283 OBP in '06. He hasn't hit well enough or gotten on base enough to earn a promotion, although he has some power. He'll vie with Mike Stodolka for playing time at Wichita, as the former pitcher hit for an .845 OPS (a .396 OBP!) in the Cal League
and a .793 OPS in the Hawaiian Winter League at 25 last season and will try to carry over his hot hitting to Wichita after a late season fade in '06. OF Adam Greenberg continues his comeback from a beaning in his lone MLB plate appearance (as featured recently on ESPN's Outside the Lines) and will start the season in Wichita's outfield along with Moore salvage project Onil Joseph, Lubanski and former Phillie farmhand Jorge Padilla. OF Geraldo Valentin will also try to carry over his slappy hitting from High Desert to AA. The infield includes C Damaso Espino behind the plate (the switch hitter had his bright moments in '06), Eddie Lucas at third (could be a sleeper) and Jace Brewer at short (he was lackluster at AAA for the Rangers in '06 and turns 28 in June). Adam Donachie will split time with Espino after making a run at the Orioles in ST as a rule V pick and IF Irving Falu brings his speedy switch-hitting slaptacular game to Wichita. The Wrangler rotation will be the one to watch in the organization (along with Wilmington) entering the season as Luke Hochevar, Billy Buckner and Danny Christensen are among the organization's top 30 prospects with Hochevar high up on that list and Buckner in the top 10. Christensen looked good enough the organization put him on the 40-man roster to protect him from the rule V draft over the offseason. The other two rotation spots may be up in the air, although I have them going to Jason Cromer and Michael Connolly on the Schematic. Cromer came over from Tampa Bay, where he was good at AA last season at age 25, while Connolly wasn't as good in the Pittsburgh system at age 23 last season. He did pitch well, though, in the Venezuelan Winter League, so maybe it's a matter of right place, right time thinking for KC. The bullpen will be led by closer Gabe DeHoyos, who posted a 2.04 ERA and .159 BAA last season at HD and Wichita in 61 IP. At age 27, he needs to keep putting it together and may have a shot at KC in September. P Juan Cedeno will try to get some consistency this season while Cody Smith will try to keep his decent numbers from last year rolling. The rest of the bullpen features Greg Atencio, Jarod Plummer, Dusty Hughes and Arthur Santos (another Moore salvage from Atlanta). Plummer may be a bullpen sleeper to watch this season, and he's only 23.

The Wranglers kick it off with a rematch of three games with the Corpus Christi Hooks (AA 'Stros) starting Thursday. I assume Hochevar gets the start versus big Astros prospect Troy Patton. The Hooks' roster also features top pitching prospect Jimmy Barthmaier but no daunting positional prospects. By the way, Wichita will become the Northwest Arkansas Naturals after moving to Springdale, Ark., for the 2008 season. No word that I've seen says if the team will remain a Royals' affiliate, although I guess they will as the development agreement is signed through 2008.

Wilmington (A-Adv.) -- The Royals return to the Carolina League (thank God) after spending time in the high altitude in the California League in High Desert, so the pitchers will likely be glad to be off the surface of the moon and back on solid earth. That proposition works both ways as the lineup comes mostly from last season's anemic Burlington Midwest League offense, although the MWL is a pitchers' league. The story with the Blue Rocks is pitching, as the starting rotation features Carlos Rosa ('06 Royals minor league pitcher of the year) another year removed from TJS, Chris Nicoll (looked good at Burlington in '06), and Rowdy Hardy (maybe the best name in the system, paced the rotation in Idaho Falls in '06). Michael Penn (2.62 ERA at Burlington in '06) and Patrick Green will round out the rotation. The pen is led by Rayner Oliveros and closer Gilbert de la Vara, both of whom put up solid ERAs in the MWL last season. Joining them will be Julio Pimentel and Blake Johnson (of the Elmer Dessens deal), Justin Barnes, Kyle Crist and David Humen. Johnson will try to regroup from Cal League inspired #s in '06 while Pimentel will try to put two lackluster seasons in the Florida State League behind him, although he pitched well in High Desert in limited action in '06. Barnes and Crist should be solid, including Crist as a starting option, and Humen comes over from the Florida organization, where he pitched in Advanced A and AA last season with middling numbers. The Blue Rocks positional players feature 3B Mario Lisson, who was Burlington's player of the year last season after hitting for a .789 OPS with 41 steals; 2B/SS Josh Johnson, who had a .391 OBP at Burlington in '06 but needs to work on contact and power; OF Jose Duarte, who led the MWL in outfield assists and stole 31 bases in '06 but also needs plate discipline and more power; 1B Kila Kaaihue, who struggled mightily at Wichita with a .199 BA in '06 after raking at High Desert in 2005; C Kiel Thibault, who didn't hit at Burlington in '06, was promoted to HD and hit for a .883 OPS; and CF Brett Bigler, an '06 draftee who posted a .392 OBP at Idaho Falls but showed little power with 5 XBH. The rest of the roster includes IF Valentino Arce (another great name), IF Wilver Perez, OF Brian McFall, C Todd Balduf, C Cody Clark, and OF Ethien Santana. Several of those guys come from last season's light-hitting squad in Burlington.

The Blue Rocks get into action Thursday with game 1 of a 4-game set at the Myrtle Beach Pelicans (A-Adv. Braves). I assume Rosa will get the ball for Burlington. The Pelicans' biggest prospects are 18-year-old SS Elvis Andrus and IF Eric Campbell, and Kila's brother, 1B Kala Kaaihue, is also on Myrtle Beach's roster.

Burlington (A) -- The news for the Bees is an influx of offense from an Idaho Falls team that scored the third-most runs in the Pioneer League in '06 and had the second highest team BA. The Bees will need all the offense they can get after last season in the MWL -- there's nowhere to go but up after batting .242 as a team for second-worst in the league. Leading the charge will be guys like OF Joe Dickerson, who followed up a decent year in the ASL in '05 with a .789 OPS at Idaho Falls last season; IF Kurt Mertins, an '06 draftee who batted .342 with an .828 OPS in 61 games at IF last year; SS Chris McConnell, who was listed highly on the organizational prospects list before hitting .172 with a .455 OPS in 69 games at Burlington last year then improved after getting demoted to IF; 2B/3B Marc Maddox, who hit .336 with a .932 OPS at IF in '06; and 1B Scott Lucas, who hit for an .813 OPS in the ASL in '06. The rest of the roster includes 3 catchers -- Brady Everett (a returnee from the '06 squad), Matt Morizio (posted a .429 OBP at IF in '06 but had only 5 XBH) and Ross Boudreaux -- IFs Jeremy Jirschele (back from '06), Michael Thompson (brought over from the Houston organization after posting sub-.600 OPS in two stops in '06) and Jase Turner (batted only .229 but still managed a plus-.750 OPS at IF in '06) and OFs O.D. Gonzalez (.381 OBP/.785 OPS last season), Alvi Morel (batted .301 at IF) and Jarrod Dyson (.731 OPS with 19 SB at ASL). The main man on the pitching staff will be lefty Brent Fisher, one of the best organizational pitching prospects, who K'd 107 with only 19 walks in 72 IP while posting a 2.12 ERA in '06. He will be joined in a lefty-heavy rotation by Everett Teaford, who posted a 3.71 ERA and .228 BAA in the hitter-friendly Pioneer League in '06; Matt Campbell, a former high draft pick who missed 2006 after shoulder surgery; and Ryan DiPietro, who tore his ACL and missed most of '06 after starting the season with the Bees. Righties Harold Mozingo (struggled at IF in '06) and Mario Santiago (returnee from '06) may also see starts for Burlington. The bullpen will include Chris Hayes, Angelo Morales, Henry Barrera, Tyler Chambliss (solid debut at IF in '06), Josh Cribb and Aaron Hartsock (posted a 2.91 ERA and .202 BAA out of the pen at IF in '06).

The Bees swing into action with new unis Thursday as they open at home with a 3-game set vs. the Kane County Cougars (A Athletics). I figure either Fisher or Teaford will get the ball for the opener. The best prospect at Kane County is either OF Jermaine Mitchell or OF Matt Sulentic.

There's your minor league preview entering the season. I'll try to follow up with reports on the Idaho Falls Chukars, Burlington Royals (new Appy League affiliate) and the ASL Royals when those seasons get close to ramping up. Now I just have to worry about finding time to finish the Royal legacy countdown within a reasonable time while getting into the Royals on the Farm reports.

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