11 December 2008

Yes, I live....

Just dropping a note to wish all Pipeline readers a Merry Christmas.....Happy Holidays....and all that. Haven't posted in a while, been fighting through a mild cold, plus been busy with work and family stuff.

* Wasn't a big fan of the Mike Jacobs trade, like the Coco Crisp trade better from the Royals standpoint. Jacobs doesn't get on base, and Kauffman eats most mediocre power hitters for lunch. We'll see how that pans out. Crisp is a good CF and I've been a proponent of moving DeJesus or Teahen for whatever the Royals can get anyway. We'll see if that happens.

* I've also been mourning the demise of one of my two money league fantasy teams in round 1 of the playoffs. Wouldn't you know the first time I can actually get Peyton Hillis in my lineup he has a decent first quarter/first half and then goes down for the season.....plus TO and Eddie Royal did me few favors either. Oh well....I've gotta hope my other money team can get me some cash, as Kurt Warner, Chris Johnson, and Anquan Boldin have helped me reach the final four there. My fingers are crossed and prayers are being said, not that it's a major world crisis.

* Other than that, it's a matter of getting ready for Christmas here in a couple weeks. With three kids it's sometimes fun, sometimes stressful. Thanks for reading, and, like I said, have a good holiday season....

06 November 2008

Set Spotlight::::Upper Deck football....and some comments on the hobby

A busy spring and summer has curtailed my card trading, although for some reason I keep buying cards. I guess the main hassle involved is that they're mostly low-end products. I'd noticed it before, but as I've tried to get back into the trading groove online the last couple weeks, it's hard because 99 percent of traders post on trade sites looking for autos and patches and Lettermen cards, or cards of that level and seemingly ONLY that level. Don't get me wrong, I love that stuff too. Check my site (link to the right) and I'm looking for all kinds of autographs and game-used cards, but limiting what I'll take to those reeks to me of snobbery. There's a lot of that going around these days when it comes to a hobby that's supposed to be based in fun, right? It started creeping in around the time I got back into collecting in 1999, when traders here and there would voice their disgust with cards produced by Collector's Edge and Pacific. God knows that, now, I wish I had somewhat fewer numbers of those cards, but they did (Pacific more so) put out some good product, and had some unique ideas. Some (they were among the first to put out game-dated game-used cards) worked better than others (Pacific Card-supials?). As game-used cards became gradually easier and easier to pull, now a simple jersey card isn't enough for many collectors. It has to be an autographed patch or letter card numbered under 500. It has to be a high-end rookie from 2008. Card bloggers blast Topps and Upper Deck (Topps more so) for putting out gimmick cards. They blast Beckett for their influence in the hobby. Hey, all three companies are in it to make money, that's what business is about. Don't look down on collectors, though, who want to use Beckett to set book values for trades or continue to buy Topps and Upper Deck product without the disgust in maybe getting a gimmick card. It'd be different if they were tripling their pack prices because of those cards, but they aren't. If you want to boycott them and rail against Beckett tyranny, that's your right, but don't act like its gospel truth and don't act like it's sullying a pristine hobby. It all boils down to....too many people take what's supposed to be a fun hobby waaaaaaaay too seriously. I've been guilty of it myself at times, I'll admit that. It's hard to find that balance between feeling your getting what your cards are worth and feeling that somebody is trying to feed you a crap deal. Anyway, that snobbery is, in my mind, the number 1 problem with the hobby today. Which leads me to the point of this topic, which is a set spotlight on Upper Deck football, which reflects on a company that has given us the good and the bad in the hobby today. They were the driving force between autographs and game-used in packs, which started as a cool, rare pull and has now evolved to where it smothers the industry.

When I was a kid, the thought of ever being able to have a piece of a jersey worn
by Barry Sanders or, earlier than that, John Riggins or Art Monk or Joe Montana, wasn't even in the picture. You'd see memorabilia of full jerseys and stuff, but as a kid that's completely out of your price range. In 1991, with the debut of Upper Deck football, a certified autograph of a legend on a card became a possibility, and in 1996, thanks again to Upper Deck, getting that Sanders or Montana jersey in a card without spending the hundreds of dollars on a full jersey became a possibility. Over the years UD has tweaked and stretched the ideas that started with those sets in the 1990s to help create a monster that now allows a collector to own a jersey card of virtually any player in the game, whether that player ever actually plays in a game or not. It's created a climate in the hobby where now a simple jersey card isn't enough, and where sets issued without the added benefit of autos or jerseys included are mostly the lower echelon, fodder only for the hobby's bottom-feeders. It's impossible to acknowledge the greatness of Upper Deck without also realizing the side effects of the company's impact.

Collectors know that Upper Deck burst onto the scene in 1989 with a landmark baseball set. One year later, the company issued its first hockey set and, for the 1991-92 basketball season and 1991 football season, those sports, too, had a debut Upper Deck product. Let's take on Upper Deck timeline style, year-by-year....

1991: A football card industry that expanded to three brands in 1989 began to explode by 1991 as Fleer and Pinnacle had joined the industry and companies began to issue multiple products. Upper Deck made its mark, however, by issuing a 700-card two-series set featuring a key rookie of then-unknown QB Brett Favre, plus the added innovations of holograms, as had been incorporated into the company's baseball products. The key addition, though, were two 10-card insert sets honoring the careers of Joe Montana and Joe Namath known as the first of the football "Heroes" insert sets. The sets also included a chance at a random pull of an autograph of Montana or Namath, which made the product as high-end as cards got in 1991. The rarity of the cards led UD to entice collectors on low-series boxes to "Find the Montana". As Pro Set and Score mixed artwork in with their sets, UD followed suit with subset cards of painting-style artwork of key players for team checklist cards. UD even threw in its first short prints in football by adding a card honoring Darrell Green as the Fastest Man in the NFL and marking coach Don Shula's 300th win.

Grade: A (all grades are for UD regular set)
Best RC: Favre, easy.
Highest $$$ card (whole set including inserts): Joe Montana auto

1992: As the football card industry continued to expand, Upper Deck followed up its successful 1991 debut with a slight sophomore slump in 1992. The main problem was the lack of a good rookie class in '92, and the base set design wasn't as attractive as in 1991. The holograms were back and, more importantly, the Heroes insert sets returned to feature Dan Marino and Walter Payton, with Payton autos a rare pull in low series packs and Marino autos available in high series packs. The company did change some things up to add a "gold" insert and a few other new inserts, including the debut of a Pro Bowl insert set. The draw of the Payton autos has kept prices steady on boxes of the product even today. The base set is highlighted by one of the few RCs of WR standout Jimmy Smith, and UD included two more SPs for '92 to honor wideouts James Lofton and Art Monk for career milestones. As competition in the industry increased, the importance of putting out a more unique set continued to increase as well. Instead of the Smith, I put an Elway card up there. I wasn't an Elway fan but I do miss the old Broncos unis.

Grade: B
Best RC: Jimmy Smith, but he doesn't get much competition.
Highest $$$ card: Walter Payton auto

1993: The football portion of the industry got more crowded as Playoff joined the field and as card brands continued to branch out, Upper Deck was wise to start a new higher-end card product with the debut of SP. A good rookie class led by Jerome Bettis, Drew Bledsoe and Robert Smith didn't hurt either SP or the regular UD product, either. Perhaps because of the addition of SP, UD dropped the autographs from the regular UD set for 1993, moving instead to a "Rookie Exchange" program seeded with exchange cards one in every 72 packs. The set was also trimmed to 530 cards issued in one series. There were no SPs or holograms in '93 but the Pro Bowl insert was back along with an insert set honoring the Dallas Cowboys and a "Future Heroes" insert honoring young stars of the game. The changes marked the start of a three-year run where the Upper Deck regular set seemed to be put in the backseat while the company established the SP brand name, although it was done to much success for SP. Wasn't a Kelly fan, either, but, man, I miss the old Bills unis too.

Grade: C
Best RC: The Bus, but Bledsoe was at one time the best one.
Highest $$$ card: no one card really.

1994: Companies had the chance to make some hay in the football card industry in 1994 thanks to the baseball strike and the number of offerings from card companies was bigger than ever. In reaction to the success of SP, Topps joined the high-end fray with the debut of Finest, Collector's Edge got about as high-end as it would get with Excalibur, Skybox put out Skybox Premium and Playoff debuted Select. Upper Deck took a rare misstep in some ways with the debut of Collector's Choice as a low-end product, putting the base UD set smack dab in the middle between CC and SP. The Pro Line sets continued to try and corner the market in autographs, and UD stayed out of that race for the time being. Instead, SP featured foil RCs of Marshall Faulk along with new die-cut parallels and a "holoview" holographic insert. Upper Deck followed the '93 formula, with a set further trimmed to 330 cards, but threw in the new "electric gold" and "electric silver" parallels, a new "Predictor" insert offering prize cards for the cards from the set that marked award winners and league leaders, and jumbo rookie inserts. Faulk and Isaac Bruce keyed the rookie class in the set but, again, SP was at the forefront for the company.

Grade: C
Best RC: Marshall Faulk.
Highest $$$ card: again, nothing too pricey. Favre or Elway Pro Bowl insert, maybe?

1995: The high-end trend gained steam in '95 as Bowman's Best, Crown Royale (Pacific's high-end effort), Flair, Playoff Contenders and Zenith joined the fray. Collector's Choice returned for UD complete with an Update set, and the company branched out SP to also put out an SP Championship product later in the season. SP continued to be the cornerstone with foil RCs, SPs of Marino and Montana seeded 1 in 380 packs and the debut of the All-Pros insert set as the die cuts were shifted to SP Championship. The regular UD set followed the baseball set design and featured, at the time, a good rookie class that hasn't especially stood the test of time. The Predictor inserts and electric parallels returned with the main new additions being a special edition foil-style parallel and a "Joe Montana Trilogy" cross-brand insert to honor the retiring QB. Simply put, Upper Deck was still a mainstay in the card industry but the base set that established the company in the football side was starting to get stale. I used the Favre because I have a soft spot for 1995 cards. 1994 was my favorite NFL season ever. As a Niners fan, they won their 5th Super Bowl, marking the first team to 5 SB rings, and Prime Time helped lead the way. Plus that was the NFL's 75th anniversary season and all the teams had the cool throwbacks they wore that season. The Niners' version had a cool shadow effect on the numbers. I also remember the Broncos wearing their cool old '70s unis with the orange helmet with the white gangly looking Bronco on it.

Grade: C
Best RC: tough call, Steve McNair, I say.
Highest $$$ card: another snail race, guess one of the better Pro Bowl inserts.

1996: '96 was the year Upper Deck would up the ante. As the number of sets continued to balloon, keeping one's product "fresh" became more important than ever. Action Packed issued "Studs" cards including a diamond chip, plus the usual 24K gold cards. Collector's Edge issued a "Cowboybilia" autograph insert and game-used ball cards, including a set of Super Bowl game-used ball cards. The number of autographs available continued to increase; Playoff put out a set of leather-style cards and another set of pennant cards. Topps Chrome debuted. Upper Deck carved out its own chunk of history, however, by including a set of 10 game-used jersey cards in the regular UD product, seeded 1 in every 2,500 packs. For the first time, SP and the new SPx brand included autographs. Collector's Choice and its Update set returned, and UD also issued the Silver set with a design echoing the '95 UD design. A fairly good rookie class strengthened an already strong product in the regular UD set as the Predictors returned and some new inserts made their debut. The Game Jerseys were pretty much the story of the year, though, as the set featured Barry Sanders, Dan Marino (pictured), Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, and Steve Young, among others. Singles of the jerseys still book up into the $300 range, and the design of the first landmark jersey set has become a legend in the hobby.

Grade: A+ for hobby impact, B otherwise, let's make it a B+ overall
Best RC: Marvin Harrison
Highest $$$ card: Marino or Montana jersey cards

1997: The game-used and autograph boom echoed into '97 as the run of higher-end products continued. UD brought back a pretty-tired Collector's Choice brand for '97, debuted Black Diamond as another effort at a higher-end set, turned SP into SP Authentic for good, and issued another landmark set in UD Legends, which featured 162 autographs of retired players and was an all-around strong set. While SP Authentic continued to outclass the other high-end products and the Legends set was an additional big hit for UD in '97, the company pretty much stuck to the '96 formula for the '97 regular set. The Game Jerseys were back with a new design and featured new players, including Brett Favre, John Elway and Troy Aikman. The odds of pulling one stayed steep, however, at 1 in 2,600 packs, making the cards almost a once-in-a-lifetime pull. UD also went for rarity in issuing game-dated moment foil parallels of certain cards at a seeding rate of 1 in every 1,500 packs. Some new inserts and a serial-numbered MVPs insert were added, and the base set was bolstered by a decent rookie class. With a rookie class to beat all rookie classes in '98, UD would continue to hit its stride.

Grade: B
Best RC: probably Tony Gonzalez
Highest $$$ card: Favre or Elway jerseys

1998: '98 was the boom year the football card industry had waited for as the driving force of Peyton Manning and a stellar rookie season from Randy Moss along with a group of other talented rookies gave all products an added kick. Upper Deck responded by adding numerous serial-numbered cards to its Black Diamond set and adding a Black Diamond Rookies set, putting out the best SP Authentic set yet with an expanded group of autographs, adding a serial-numbered heavy SPx Finite set, and also adding the UD3 higher-end set and UD Encore set late in the season. Collector's Choice was changed up to be called UD Choice in '98 and, although it was improved, the set was on its last legs. The success of the rookies, which were short-printed for the first time in set history (available 1 in 4 packs), combined with another solid group of not as hard to pull game jerseys took the set to another level. UD switched things up by making the first 10 of the 20 available jersey cards available in the usual 1 in 2,500 packs. The last 10 cards, however, including one of rookie Manning, were available 1 in every 288 hobby packs, making them a much more possible hit for the collector. UD added a bronze parallel #d/100 and a gold 1/1 parallel of the base set along with a new batch of inserts in '98. In a year where many products had their best year ever, UD didn't disappoint as the short-print rookies were a hit and the RCs proved to hold their value over time. The 1998 set became the foundation for many Upper Deck base sets to come.

Grade: A-
Best RC: competitive this year....Peyton Manning
Highest $$$ card: Manning jersey

1999: The 1999 year saw the market flooded even further with football product. Upper Deck killed off the Collector's Choice/UD Choice product and replaced it with an equally ill-fated but slightly better UD Victory one-rookie-per-pack product. Another good group of rookies helped keep the buzz from 1998 going to some extent, and UD put out another strong SP Authentic product complete with a Walter Payton auto and jersey auto insert, and a bevy of buyback autos from previous products. The new SP Signature set was a to-that-point expensive buy by the pack or the box but promised an autograph per pack with a good lineup and nice card design. SPx also made the leap to include autographed RCs for the first time as Playoff had used the concept to success with Contenders SSD in '98. Those two sets would set the standard for all the auto-RC sets we have seen to date. SPx also debuted the "Winning Materials" game-used set as UD began to expand its jersey offerings. Other new sets like UD Ionix, UD Century Legends, UD HoloGrFX, the lower-end MVP, Retro, the concept set PowerDeck with CD cards, and Ovation joined the lineup with each having its share of autos and/or game-used cards. It was Upper Deck's biggest output ever. In the middle of all this, the regular Upper Deck set was the anchor, bringing back the short-print RCs and jerseys (this time with a patch version seeded 1 in every 7,500 packs). UD made the split between hobby and retail by seeding jerseys 1 in every 288 packs for the more elite players in hobby packs and 1 in every 2,500 packs otherwise. PowerDeck CD cards were also seeded into regular UD packs as an insert there. Other new insert sets were introduced, including one honoring Denver RB Terrell Davis' milestone '98 season. Following the boom in '98 UD continued to be at the forefront of success in the hobby. I opened a ton of '99 UD football and, for the most part, wasn't that lucky. I did pull a Quarterback Class insert of Tim Couch #d to 25 that I flipped for something good while it still had value. Never did get any of the good RCs (OK, I had one Culpepper) or a jersey, but at that point it was hard to expect a jersey card in that product.

Grade: B
Best RC: Donovan McNabb, for now
Highest $$$ card: Terrell Davis auto jersey???

2000: As the 2000s dawned, the football card industry was getting....bloated. The 2000 listings in Beckett Football span over 16 pages, as an example, when it took 16 pages to list the sets from 1986 to midway through the 1996 sets. The successes of 1998 and '99 had every company jumping on the bandwagon and it was starting to get stuck in the mud. Upper Deck was doing its part to bloat the industry as most of the laundry list of '99 products returned for 2000. Black Diamond added jersey rookies; SPx expanded its autographed rookies to auto jersey rookies in a trend that holds to the present day; Ultimate Victory was added as a higher-end companion to the basic Victory product; Gold Reserve was added as basically a parallel to the base set; and Pros and Prospects debuted early in the season but didn't exactly take off. The regular Upper Deck set was expanded to include more jersey and autograph versions and the company responded to the growing Internet presence in the hobby by offering "e-Card" prizes where collectors would pull an insert, and enter a code online for a chance to turn the card into a jersey, ball, autograph or jersey autograph card of that player, including a few rookie players. The set was supported by a solid but mostly unspectacular group of rookies until 2001 when Tom Brady emerged and took the 2000 products that included his cards to a higher level. The game jerseys returned at the same old 1 in 287 pack rate. I think I finally pulled one that year, and it was Brian Griese. I was still happy to pull it. The jerseys came with autographed parallels, as did the patch insert. Another jersey auto insert set was added with Game Jersey Greats autos, which were included in several UD products and featured players like Johnny Unitas, Terry Bradshaw and Bart Starr, among others.

Grade: B-
Best RC: Brady
Highest $$$ card: probably one of the Game Jersey Greats autos

2001: The industry lost a player in 2001 as Collector's Edge finally went under but Upper Deck powered on with another full slate of game-used and autograph-laden products. The company bade farewell to Black Diamond, SP Authentic took the leap into jersey and jersey auto RCs, SP Game Used and UD Game Gear pushed the game-used "envelope" to a new high, SPx had one of its best sets yet, and the company introduced a new high-end product with UD Graded. Other new sets included the late season quasi-parallel Rookie F/X, somewhat forgettable Top Tier, and here-and-gone retro-styled UD Vintage. The regular Upper Deck set included more jerseys then ever and it was even easier to pull one. Odds for a jersey pull ranged from 1 in 144 packs up to Premium Patches in 1 in every 5,000 packs. Short-printed RCs had become a mainstay in the product and UD gave the e-Card concept one more try before dropping it all together for 2002. Basically the 2001 set ended up only adding more water to an ever-more-saturated memorabilia market as more and more everyday players got their own jersey card. But the company did come through again with a good base set design and nice quality inserts, so at least they were doing it in style.

Grade: B
Best RC: LaDainian Tomlinson
Highest $$$ card: Manning jersey auto?

2002: Upper Deck took advantage of a new season to revamp its lineup. SP Authentic and SPx continued to be high-end products, and SP Legendary Cuts joined that vein in offering collectors a chance to pull rare autos, albeit at a 1 in 192 pack chance. All three products continued to beef up their jersey and autograph lineups, and UD contined to push the envelope with Sweet Spot, which included the high-end Impressions autos, oversized football swatches and special jumbo commemorative patch cards in every box. UD Graded was back for a second year and UD Authentics and UD Piece of History made one-year appearances along with XL. Upper Deck Honor Roll also started a 2-year run. As usual, the regular UD set was a solid offering with a new wrinkle of a 1 in 12 packs Sunday Stars subset to go with the short-print RCs. Buyback autos were included randomly and the easier-to-pull jerseys were back again. UD moved further into the "Rookie Premiere"-worn arena by including Rookie Futures jerseys for the first time at a rate of 1 in every 72 packs. There would be 14 autographed or game-used insert sets included with 2002 UD compared to only three regular insert sets. The game jersey and auto saturation would apparently reach its peak as 2002 was the final year for Pacific products, which were a main culprit of spearheading the jersey craze. As a final note on 2002, I have to say it's one of my least favorite base designs of UD football, especially the year after a really nice 2001 design. '02 UD was disappointing from that standpoint.

Grade: C
Best RC: Clinton Portis or Brian Westbrook
Highest $$$ card: probably one of the Buyback autos

2003: With the demise of Pacific, Upper Deck scaled back the jersey saturation in its regular set but, again, had a ho-hum base set design for the product. With Donruss-Leaf-Playoff joining UD in taking high-end products to a new level, SP Game Used was back for '03 in place of Legendary Cuts, and SP Signature made its return at the $30 per pack level. UD also issued Ultimate Collection for the first time in football as an ultra-high-end product. Sweet Spot had made a name for itself in '02 and returned to include a new helmet-style signature card for '03. UD Patch Collection was short lived and featured commemorative-patch-style cards and inserts that weren't very toploader-friendly. Standing O also made a one-and-done appearance in the lineup. The Finite brand was brought back complete with the heavy serial-numbered format and Honor Roll, MVP and Pros and Prospects made their final appearances. A significant move that has paid off for the company came in the regular set as UD brought back the short-printed Sunday Stars subset, the 1 in 4 pack SP RCs and added new levels of rookies short-printed to 1 in 8 packs (hobby packs only, to boot) and 1 in 24 packs. One of the hobby RCs was a Tony Romo RC that has helped keep the rookie class in the product one of the best this decade. Six incarnations of jersey card versions plus the Rookie Future jerseys and auto version were back, but it was still a far cry from the 14 auto or game-used inserts in the '02 product. The Rookie Premiere insert was included in retail packs and only two other inserts were included with the product. As the football card landscape continued to evolve, so too did the UD regular set, although more changes were on the way.

Grade: C+
Best RC: Romo, for now, altho my money's on Grossman (kidding)
Highest $$ card: Brady nameplate patch

2004: With several '03 products scrapped from the lineup, the '04 Upper Deck roster of products included some new brands. Reflections made its debut with serial numbered RCs and parallels and a cadre of jersey and auto inserts. SP Game Used returned but SP Signature did not. UD Diamond All-Star joined as a lower-end product, as did UD Diamond Pro Sigs. Ultimate Collection was back to go after the collectors with deeper pockets. Finite returned as Finite HG and with more game-used inserts than '03. UD Foundations and Rookie Premiere also debuted along with kid-friendly Power Up. UD Legends also made a welcome return from the 2001 lineup. The regular set also underwent some changes. The subset SPs were dropped and rookies were inserted either one per pack or one in every 8 packs for the SP selections. Printing plates were inserted to offer collectors 1 of 1 pulls. Jerseys returned to echo the base set design with the usual patch variations intact. A "Rewind to 1997" jersey insert was included to honor stars still in the league from that year, and the Rookie Futures event-worn jersey insert was again back. Rookie Prospects was the only non-jersey or autograph insert in the '04 regular set. The set was pretty much a lateral move from '03, on one hand you could get a rookie in every pack but the value suffered, other than the SP RCs. It was easier to pull a basic game jersey or Rookie Futures jersey but hard to get a variation or one of the other jersey inserts. UD had also scaled back the autographs available in the set.

Grade: C+
Best RC: probably end up being Eli
Highest $$$ card: Stephen Jackson auto/39? or, in the end, maybe the Brady patch when all is said and done

2005: Another one bit the dust in 2005 when Fleer collapsed and was later purchased by UD, so a good chunk of sets were gone from 2004 across the industry. DLP pushed jersey and auto pulls to yet another level with Gridiron Gear and Throwback Threads, and UD decided Ultimate Collection wasn't quite high-end enough so Exquisite Collection was released. I don't know how you can get more ultimate than "Ultimate", but I guess UD felt "Exquisite" was even more swanky. They put out Ultimate, too. The product was full of auto, jersey and patch hits, although it had better be for the price. Reflections returned to the lineup but SP Game Used was booted. UD put out Mini Jersey Collection, and UD Portraits with jumbo signature cards. The first UD set issued under the Fleer name was '05 Ultra as the product pretty much kept its traditional style. UD moved into Arena Football League card production with an AFL set in '05 and also hooked up with ESPN to produce the UD ESPN set focusing on player cards and inserts related to the sports network. Kickoff and Rookie Debut joined the low-end products while Foundations, Legends and Rookie Materials returned. The 2005 regular UD set followed the '04 model with a rookie in every pack and 25 rookies short printed to 1 in every 8 packs. The Heroes inserts from the early '90s returned to honor Barry Sanders and Troy Aikman and, this time, included jerseys and an auto numbered to 5. The number of jersey cards was again scaled back but game jerseys and rookie futures jerseys were seeded 1 in every 8 hobby packs and 1 in 24 retail packs. Predictors returned for the MVP and Rookie of the Year awards and the Rookie Futures jerseys included dual versions for the first time at a much harder to pull 1 in 288 pack rate. UD also kept autos as a hard pull from the product with another round of Signature Sensations numbered to each player's jersey number. By the time the dust settled on 2005, UD was larger than ever.

Grade: C+
Best RC: still up in air, I say Frank Gore, but Aaron Rodgers could give him a run
Highest $$$ card: probably a Sanders or Aikman Heroes auto

2006: The main change for Upper Deck in 2006 was further resurrecting the Fleer brand name as UD put out another Ultra set plus regular Fleer, Hot Prospects and Flair Showcase. Hot Prospects made a splash with the company's first autographed "Lettermen" cards for rookies. SP, SPx and Sweet Spot had become mainstays and Exquisite and Ultimate Collection sets returned. A second AFL set came out and Rookie Debut was beefed up a little as Foundations, Reflections, Portraits, Mini Jersey Collection and Kickoff were gone. The '04 and '05 rookie formula was followed in the regular set with more non-game used inserts included to mark the 10 Sack Club, the 1,000 Yard Receiving and Rushing clubs and the 3,000 Yard Passing Club. An exclusive Gridiron Debut insert was put in Wal-Mart packs and exclusive rookies were put in Target packs. The Heroes inserts honored Joe Theismann and Roger Staubach, complete with jerseys and the autos /5. The '06 Rookie Futures jerseys not only came in duals but, with a big rookie class headlined by Reggie Bush, Vince Young and Matt Leinart, variations were offered for autos and dual auto jersey cards. The Target exclusive rookies also had an auto variation, and Upper Deck created another big pull with XL jerseys featuring four swatches of material. A better balance had been created in the set between the premium inserts and regular inserts compared to recent years past. Boosted by the rookie class, it resulted in one of the company's best regular set offerings in years.

Grade: B
Best RC: arguable, I'd lean toward Jay Cutler or Reggie Bush, Leinart could still be in running
Highest $$$ card: probably Staubach auto, altho Bush jersey auto /10 isn't bad either

2007: More changes took place as the company entered its 17th year of football production. The Fleer brands, other than Ultra, were dropped, and Exquisite Collection and Ultimate Collection were joined by UD Premier as another ultra high-end product. The company also went more high-end with SP products expanding to SP Chirography (auto heavy set), and SP Rookie Threads. Artifacts and Trilogy also joined the company ranks. Rookie Debut was replaced by UD First Edition and Legends was given the year off in place of the aforementioned Artifacts. UD revamped its regular set inserts to include a 1964 Philadelphia-style insert, a College to Pros insert, a Football Heroes insert of '07 rookies, expanded auto offerings including bringing back the Inkredible auto name and adding a Rookie Ink and NFL Ink insert. The MVP and ROY predictors returned along with a Super Bowl predictor insert, and the odds for jersey and auto pulls were weighted toward hobby packs for the '07 set. Rookies were also seeded 1 in every hobby pack but 1 in 8 retail packs. Target exclusives were again included and other exclusive rookies were included in "fat packs". Overall, I'd call it a small step back in some ways and a step forward in other ways. Hobby buyers had no complaints, I'm sure, but the retail value wasn't near what it was in '06.

Grade: C+
Best RC: Adrian Peterson
Highest $$ card: Adrian Peterson NFL Ink auto???

2008: And that brings us to 2008. The company is bigger than ever but also faces its stiffest competition ever. Topps and DLP have been willing to try and slug it out in the ultra high-end market with UD. Upper Deck continues to try to keep fresh ideas out there, as the company has already released several new products for '08 -- UD Masterpieces (artwork based set), UD Draft Edition (rookie based, heavy with autos), Heroes (expanding on the insert set with the addition of parallels and more autos and jerseys), and Icons (Lettermen-heavy, also a lot of parallels and jerseys, also including some celebrity autos). The company dusted off its old StarQuest insert from '98 UD Choice for a return in this year's regular set and First Edition. The regular set versions have several parallels and are seeded 1 in each pack. Rookies were reverted to where now there's 2 in every retail pack and 4 in every hobby pack, although, again, a chunk of them are short-printed. The College to Pros insert is back for year 2, and UD inserted a 10-card Masterpieces Preview. Rookie Autos were included along with rookie jerseys this year and, again, the Target exclusives return. Another rookie insert, Potential Unlimited, is included while Superstar honors league stars and a new jersey insert is called Team Colors jerseys. With the company's strength in tradition, I'm sure we'll see some more new things out of UD this season.

Grade: B+
Best RC: Matt Ryan has early edge
Highest $$$ card: McFadden or Ryan rookie auto?

To sum it up, Upper Deck has outlasted its competitors and made its bones on continuing to stay a step ahead, or to take what other companies have started and take it one notch further. This year's new offerings show the company's commitment to keeping their products fresh, although in this day and age there is rarely anything THAT new in the card world anymore. I can't say I've always thought UD provided the best value for the money, especially in the higher-end products, but as far as the UD regular sets have gone, that product has almost always been a good buy. Even if you don't pull a big hit, you usually get something that holds value, and the rookies are among the best of any of the middle-grade products for holding value over the years. UD planted the seeds of the autograph and jersey craze we see in all sports in the hobby today, so there is a mixture of credit for innovation and blame for creating an environment where it's not good enough for a card even to be a plain rookie anymore to be placed. UD shouldn't be singled out, however, as all the companies are guilty in that case. One thing for certain is that, if there's something new or innovative associated with the football hobby (or any sport, for that matter), UD is usually involved.

23 October 2008

New Royal prospects blog out there

Just wanted to drop a quick note to point out a fledgling Royals blog in pretty much the same vein as the Pipeline. Royals Prospects has started and "Victorious Secrets" is posting daily updates on the action in the AFL and Hawaiian Winter League from the Royals' perspective. Give it a look, it's worth the time.....

15 October 2008

NPB Notes::::::Rakuten Golden Eagles

Founded: 2004, so the Eagles haven't yet developed any kind of rich history.
Owner: Rakuten online shopping mall operator
Home base: Miyagi Stadium, making them the official team of The Karate Kid. Kidding....at first it was known as Kleenex Miyagi Stadium but is now
Fullcast Miyagi Stadium. Hold that, they just changed it back this year to Kleenex Stadium Miyagi.
Titles: none yet

While the major leagues in the U.S. spent the '90s diluting pitching league-round by adding the Marlins, Rockies, Rays and Diamondbacks to the ranks, expansion had been a rare commodity in Japan. Then, in 2004, Kintetsu's financial problems became too much to handle and the Buffaloes merged with the Orix Blue Wave to become the Orix Buffaloes. This left a void in the Pacific League that was filled when the Sendai area of northern Honshu Island was granted a franchise that has become the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles.

The Eagles made their first splash by stepping out on a limb and hiring Ameri
can Marty Kuehnert, a longtime Japan resident, former president of the White Sox's Birmingham Barons farm club, and sports management professor and sports bar owner, as the first American general manager in NPB. The Eagles won their first official game in 2005, 3-1, over Chiba Lotte but then lost the second game, 26-0, on a 1-hit shutout, and things went downhill from there. The Kuehnert experiment lasted 27 games until the team was 5-22, then he was demoted and is now an advisor to the team president. The inaugural Eagles team ended up 38-97-1 and 51 games back of first. The team slugged a Royals-like .365 and had a 5.67 team ERA, .305 OAV and 1.59 WHIP. Aging OF Tetsuya Iida hit .331 in 54 games for his best season's batting average since 1997, and SS Yoshinori Okihara came over in a June trade from Hanshin and hit .313 in 67 games but had only 1 HR, which was one more than Iida. OF Manabu Satake also hit .310 for the fledgling Eagles but also hit only 1 HR. The top sluggers on the team were Orix import 1B Takeshi Yamasaki, who hit .266 with a team-leading 25 HR and 65 RBI, and OF Koichi Isobe, who hit 16 HR with 51 RBI and hit the first homer in Rakuten history. He also led the team in runs scored with 65. Yamasaki is an interesting story, as he reportedly saved some people from a burning building in 1990, and in 2005, he promised some elementary school kids he would hit a home run for them and hit a grand slam in that night's game. His best was yet to come for Rakuten, however. 3B Luis Lopez came over from the U.S. and hit 12 HR with 49 RBI for Rakuten in '05 but hit only .223 before heading back stateside after the season. To illustrate the first Eagles' team's pitching, the ace of the staff was righty Hisashi Iwakuma (right), who led the team in wins at 9-15 and in ERA at 4.99. He was one of only 3 Eagles to log more than 100 innings and batters hit .301 off him. He was also the only Eagle with more than 100 K at 124. The only pitcher with more than 50 IP for Rakuten who logged a sub-4 ERA was RP Kazuo Fukumori, who led the team with 11 saves and had a 3.57 ERA but a 1.57 WHIP in 63 IP. Fukumori would escape Rakuten in 2008 to join the Texas Rangers. Other than that, there were a bunch of guys logging innings with ERAs over 6 and WHIPs over 1.5. The other bright light was a 1.93 ERA, .196 OAV and 1.11 WHIP from lefty Koki Watanabe in 28 IP out of the pen. Watanabe was the team's #2 draft pick in 2005.

With Kuehnert demoted, his managerial pick, Yasushi Tao, also didn't return for 2006 and Nankai legend (see the Softbank Hawks post) Katsuya Nomura was brought i
n. The result was a slightly better but still bad finish at 47-85-4, 33 games back of first and, again, last in the Pacific League. Team slugging was again poor, and pitching was still bad but improved with a 4.30 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and .279 OAV, although all three marks were good for last in the PL. The team had its first all-stars in 2006 in IF Jose Fernandez and P Fukumori. Free agent signing (from Seibu) 1B/3B Fernandez earned his only Best Nine appearance to date by hitting .302 with a .911 OPS, 28 HR (led team) and 88 RBI (also led team). He also led Rakuten with 33 doubles and 72 RS. Yamasaki followed up his 2005 slugging performance by hitting .241 with 19 HR and 67 RBI. The other big splashes for the Eagles in '06 included American IF/OF Rick Short, who played for Lotte in 2003, came back to the U.S. and chased .400 for the Nationals' AAA team in '05. Rakuten brought him back to NPB in 2006 and he replied by hitting .314 with 27 doubles and set a team record with a 5-hit game in August. OF Teppei Tsuchiya also emerged after coming over from Chunichi to hit .303 with a .748 OPS and led the team with 7 triples. 2B Yosuke Takasu played more than 100 games for only the second season in his career and hit a career high .300 with 16 doubles. Despite the improved pitching numbers as a whole, three pitchers tied for the team lead in wins at a lowly 7. American righty Ryan Glynn led the team in winning percentage in going 7-7 with a 3.96 ERA but a 1.41 WHIP in 127 1/3 IP. He was one of three Eagles to pitch more than 100 innings and, with 121 Ks, was one of 2 with triple digit strikeouts. The other was '05 #1 pick righty Yasuhiro Ichiba, who went 7-14 with a 4.37 ERA and 1.43 WHIP with 151 Ks in a team-leading 193 2/3 IP. He did have 5 complete games for the Eagles. Veteran righty Hiroki Yamamura matched his career high in wins by going 7-10 but had a 5.35 ERA and 1.49 WHIP in his 136 1/3 IP. The pitching trio combined to give up 56 HR on the season. Fukumori had another exceptional year as closer with 21 saves and a 2.17 ERA with a 1.33 WHIP in 58 IP. Batters only hit .231 off of him in '06. Two other pitching highlights were veteran righty relievers Rui Makino and Hisashi Ogura. Makino came over from Hanshin to post a 2.49 ERA and 1.20 WHIP in 43 1/3 IP and Ogura was even better with a 2.18 ERA and 1.10 WHIP along with 51 Ks to only 13 BB in 62 IP.

Nomura was back for 2007 and the Eagles were competitive for the first time as a franchise before finishing 67-75-2 for fourth in the Pacific League, 13.5 games out
of first. The Eagles had a cadre of 8 all-stars including Fukumori, Tsuchiya, Takasu and Yamasaki (right), and also rookie sensation righty Masahiro Tanaka, the Eagles '07 #1 pick. Tanaka would take rookie of the year honors but it was Yamasaki's year to shine. The 38-year-old became the first Eagle to lead the league in a major category with 43 HR and 108 RBI while hitting .261 with a .936 OPS. He also led the team by striking out 142 times and scoring 86 runs. Short didn't make the all-star cut but did come within 4 percentage points of a batting title by hitting .330 with an .813 OPS. He led the team with 31 doubles. Fernandez followed his '06 by hitting .270 with 22 HR and 79 RBI, which was a distant second on the team in both categories. Tsuchiya hit .254 with 10 HR and 48 RBI; OF Isobe hit .277 to earn an all-star nod; C Motohiro Shima proved the difference in cultures by getting an all-star bid despite hitting .183 thanks to his defense; and Takasu earned an all-star bid before finishing the season at .283 with a career high 26 doubles, although he couldn't match his '06 slugging and OBP rates. Second-year 3B Daisuke Kusano also made a splash by hitting .320 with an .845 OPS with 19 2B and 8 HR, and rookie SS Naoto Watanabe hit .268 in his debut with a team-leading 25 SB. Tanaka (right) was at the forefront of a more potent Rakuten pitching attack by finishing with a team record in wins at 11-7 with a 3.82 ERA and 1.34 WHIP along with a .260 OAV. The rookie also pitched 4 complete games and struck out a team-record 196 batters with only 68 walks in 186 1/3 IP. Righty reliever Akira Matsumoto got an all-star spot but finished the season with a 6.12 ERA and 1.61 WHIP in 32 1/3 IP, and Fukumori also played as an all-star and finished with 17 saves, although his other numbers weren't as good with a 4.75 ERA, .306 OAV and 1.69 WHIP in 36 IP. Righty Shinichiro Koyama ended up being the go-to guy at the end of games with 16 saves, 0.58 ERA, .183 OAV and 1.06 WHIP in 31 IP, which probably made it a little easier to let Fukumori fly stateside. Starter Hideki Asai ended up behind Tanaka in IP at 144 1/3 but finished strong at 8-8 with a 3.12 ERA, .274 OAV, 1.29 WHIP and 107 Ks. '07 #1 draft pick righty Satoshi Nagai was next with 127 IP of a 7-7 record, 3.61 ERA, .249 OAV, and 1.32 WHIP with 98 Ks, and Iwakuma bounced back from an off 2006 to finish with a 3.40 ERA, .269 OAV, and 1.31 WHIP in 90 IP. Veteran righty Hiroki Yamamura also had a decent season at 6-2 with a 3.26 ERA, .255 OAV and 1.21 WHIP in 66 1/3 IP.

Fans had to be hoping the Eagles would take another step forward in 2008 but it was more like Rakuten was in neutral as the Eagles finished 65-76-3 for fifth in the league, 11.5 games out. The team's .272 BA and .340 OBP led the league but, again, a .385 slugging percentage had them tied for next to last. The pitching marks of a 3.89 ERA and 1.36 WHIP didn't hurt the Eagles too bad but also didn't help them overcome their drawbacks, either. There were only 4 Golden Eagle all-stars in 2008, led by Short, Yamasaki and Iwakuma, who brought Rakuten the franchise's first batting and ERA champions. Short hit .332 with an .842 OPS, 62 RS, 31 2B, 12 HR and 71 RBI, but the offensive MVP might have been Fernandez, who in his 3rd year as an Eagle hit .301 with an .843 OPS, team-leading 81 RS, 40 2B, 18 HR, and 99 RBI. Yamasaki continued his late career surge by hitting .276 with 26 HR and 80 RBI. Kusano didn't live up to his 2007 performance by slipping to a .271 BA and .666 OPS. OF Toshiya Nakashima stepped up somewhat by hitting .315 with a .397 OBP and .863 OPS in 81 games. IF Fernando Seguignol came over from Nippon Ham as a free agent in July and hit .324 with a 1.070 OPS for the Eagles in 39 games, including 13 HR and 40 RBI, and Takasu followed up his 2007 by hitting .282. Tsuchiya hit .270 with 29 doubles and 6 triples and Naoko Watanabe had another decent campaign with a .251 BA and 34 SBs, although his weak bat led to only a .283 SLG. Iwakuma was lights out in a triumphant return to the forefront of the Eagles' pitching staff. He finished the season by shattering the team record in wins with a 21-4 record, posted a 1.87 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and .220 OAV, and K'd 159 batters in 201 2/3 IP to put him in contention for the Sawamura. Tanaka followed up his rookie season by going 9-7 with a 3.49 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, .262 OAV and 159 Ks in 172 2/3 IP. Asai wasn't quite as good as in '07 by going 9-11 with a 4.38 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, .285 OAV and 122 Ks in 148 IP, and Nagai went 6-7 with a 4.68 ERA, .267 OAV and 1.43 WHIP with 111 Ks in 117 1/3 IP. Nomura went with a bullpen by committee as Koyama notched only 4 saves and went 3-5 with a 3.72 ERA, .234 OAV, 1.23 WHIP and 71 Ks in 67 2/3 IP. Lefty Kanehisa Arime was solid with 2 saves, a 2.05 ERA, .220 OAV and 1.14 WHIP in 44 IP, and righty Tsuyoshi Kawagishi was also lockdown out of the pen in going 4-3 with 3 saves, a 1.94 ERA, .244 OAV, and 1.24 WHIP in 55 2/3 IP. It's hard to believe with all that together the team didn't fare better than fifth in the league race, but the weak points were equal to the task. Rakuten's mission from here forward is to try to fit the pieces together for more success, as apparently some of the right pieces are on hand.

08 October 2008

Odds and ends

I'm gradually shaking off the mental fatigue from another season of RotF reports, plus my usual job, which also involves writing. Hopefully I can crank out some more posts in coming times, including slapping together a 2008 Royals post for the Legacy countdown and getting back into NPB Notes and other stuff.

For those wondering about BA's rankings of minor leaguers in the other leagues in which the Royals have affiliates, here's how they broke down. P Kelvin Herrera was 10th (nice) and P Sam Runion ranked 17th on the Appalachian League list while 3B Fernando Cruz was 20th despite another underwhelming season. But he's very young. Despite the fact Idaho Falls was, I think, better than the B-Royals this season, nary a Chukar made the Pioneer League Top 20. Hosmer probably would have made it if not for the Boras/Alvarez fiasco. Mike Moustakas took the top spot on the Midwest League Top 20 with lefty Danny Duffy 10th and righty Danny Gutierrez 18th. Can't complain there. Righty Blake Wood was 7th in the Carolina League Top 20 despite spending a chunk of this season at AA. That was it for Wilmington guys, which I think was crap. Although I guess none of the other guys took the doubt out of a top-20 listing. I think Dickerson could have made it, were it not for his injury. In the Texas League Top 20, righty Dan Cortes ranked 7th with Kila Ka'aihue 12th. Can't really argue for anyone else -- maybe Chris Hayes, but he's 25. Righty Carlos Rosa was the only organizational rep on the PCL Top 20 at 18th, not surprisingly.

It was nice to see the Royals rebound big-time in September after it looked like they put it in neutral in August. If not for that stretch, maybe they could have gotten to 80 wins? This should be a pivotal offseason for KC. I'm hoping to see good things in the first year of the new K in 2009. Personally, I'd like to see Buck, DeJesus, Teahen, Gload, Pena, German or Callaspo, Jason Smith and others shipped out, some of course via trade and others cut. If some of them are back, that's OK, but I don't want them all back -- no more than 1 or 2. We'll see how serious Dayton Moore is when he says changes will be made. The whole Guillen ordeal all season just proved the point more that KC had no business bringing him in and it was a desperation move after losing out on Hunter and Andruw Jones. Thank God for Mike Aviles, who they finally stumbled into giving a chance and he more than paid off. His numbers weren't superstar, but they were pretty damn good. Let's hope they only get better or stay level at worst in 2009. I was disappointed Ka'aihue didn't get more ABs but with the way Shealy was hitting I can understand, I guess. Pitching-wise, it was Greinke/Meche/Davies/Soria, some solid relievers and then the rest. If Greinke, Meche and Davies can replicate their late performances next year and Moore can figure out the offense along with the new hitting coach, 2009 could be interesting.

I was recently excited to get Metallica tix for their show in KC Oct. 25. If you haven't heard "Death Magnetic" you're missing out.

My fantasy baseball seasons went well -- made the playoffs in all four leagues chronicled in April, won the first Pipeline league (don't know how hard anyone else was trying), and placed top 3 in two others. Not too bad. I was off to a 3-0 start in both my pay fantasy football leagues but have dropped 2 straight in my bigger money league, but maintain a division lead. In my other league, I'm sitting pretty at 5-0 thanks to Kurt Warner, The Burner Turner, Clinton Portis and TO.

In case you're wondering, Royals farmhands are playing for the North Shore Honu in the Hawaiian "Winter" League and, as usual, the Surprise Rafters in the Arizona Fall League. Both seasons are under way.

15 September 2008

Four Royals make BA AZL Top 20

Four Royals farmhands have been named to Baseball America's AZL Top 20 Prospects list as released today. The best news is lefty Mike Montgomery was named the #1 AZL prospect. I don't subscribe to BA online because I don't have that kind of cash to spend on an online subscription, but you can check out the list here.

#1 Mike Montgomery, LHP
#8 Tyler Sample, RHP
#10 Yowill Espinal, IF
#13 Jose Bonilla C

Sample was ranked pretty high for having the rough outings he had, but kinda came out of the draft this season as a project. I'm also a little surprised to see Espinal ranked ahead of Bonilla but maybe Espinal's defense made a difference.

13 September 2008

Royals on the Farm 9/13 -- Bees win title by default

A - Burlington: With hurricane season once again active and crazy weather all over the U.S., the Midwest League decided to cancel the rest of the MWL Championship Series, making Burlington the first Royals affiliate to take a league title since I started doing these reports in 2005. It's the Bees first MWL title since 1999 and 4th overall. I guess the fact instructional leagues are coming up also led to the decision, which I think is an odd one, but they do have a point. Today's game 3 was already postponed and who knows when they would've gotten it in. The Bees finish the playoffs a perfect 6-0 and finished the regular season 73-65 overall. They went 27-9 starting Aug. 1.

Tops in OPS (min. 100 ABs)

IF Kyle Martin .316 BA/.373 OBP/.537 SLG, .910 OPS, 26 RS, 13 2B, 1 3B, 9 HR, 28 RBI, 17 BB/40 K, 2/4 SB, 10 E in 56 games and 190 ABs -- kinda flew under radar this season for Bees, but had fine first full season in pro ball
OF Nick Van Stratten .345/.400/.489, .889 OPS, 22 RS, 13 2B, 2 3B, HR, 18 RBI, 12 BB/20 K, 5/8 SB, 1 E in 40 games and 139 ABs -- hope he gets better look next year in Wilmington
1B Clint Robinson .264/.333/.472, .806 OPS, 53 RS, 22 2B, 3 3B, 17 HR, 64 RBI, 37 BB/67 K, 0/3 SB, 6 E in 106 games and 379 ABs -- had higher expectations for Clint, but numbers are skewed by poor early performance, suffered through .182 BA and injury in May, rebounded to hit over .300 with an .880 OPS in August, surely will move up
3B Mike Moustakas .272/.337/.468, .805 OPS, 77 RS, 135 hits (led team), 25 2B (led team), 3 3B, 22 HR (led team), 71 RBI (led team), 43 BB/86 K, 8/12 SB, 22 E (led team) in 126 games and 496 ABs (led team) -- rate stats are a little underwhelming but are skewed down by .228/.285/.386 pre-all star line, hit .321/.392/.557 after break, which is more like it, anxious to see how he handles Carolina League in '09
1B Jason Taylor .242/.372/.418, .790 OPS, 79 RS (led team), 17 2B, 4 3B, 17 HR, 58 RBI, 81 BB (easily led team)/97 K (second on team), 40/54 SB (led team), 20 E in 127 games and 433 ABs -- promising numbers in first full season of pro ball, hit for .886 OPS in July and .878 OPS in August

others of note.... OF David Lough .784 OPS (131 hits, 48 XBH, 11 3B (led team), 12/23 SB, led off but had only .329 OBP, showed some nice pop in bat).... 2B Johnny Giavotella .776 OPS (18 2B, 25 BB/34 K, 10/17 SB, 13 E in 68 games and 278 ABs, showed good skills as #2 batter in pro debut).... OF Nick Francis .761 OPS (11 XBH, 10 BB/35 K in 31 games).... OF Adrian Ortiz .720 OPS (hit .308, 29/44 SB, 130 hits, 20 XBH, 15 BB/68 K in 100 games and 422 ABs prior to call-up, needs to move those BB and K numbers closer together).... OF Jamar Walton .698 OPS (20 2B, 21 BB/86 K, .305 OBP in 98 games and 357 ABs, hit .320 with .800 OPS after all-star break, helped lead offense in playoffs).... C Ryan Eigsti .654 OPS (104 Ks led team, hit .219 but had .294 OBP thanks mostly to propensity to take HBP).... SS Juan Rivera .595 OPS (.305 OBP, 19 BB/45 K, 10 XBH, 14 E in 76 games and 259 ABs, not much in return for Angel Berroa, but worth it to get rid of Aw-hell).... OF Wilson Tucker .517 OPS (12 XBH, 4 BB/39 K, hit .184 in 42 games before going onto reserve list for reasons I haven't read)

Tops in WHIP (min. 20 IP and on roster)

Danny Duffy 8-4, 2.20 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 4 HRA, 25 BB/102 K in 17 starts and 81 2/3 IP -- absolutely nothing not to like here, hope back problems that cut postseason short aren't chronic
Brandon Sisk 1-1, 1.19 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 2 SV, 0 HRA, 9 BB/36 K in 10 games and 22 2/3 IP -- was also lockdown in playoffs, small sample size but numbers are very promising
Alex Caldera 12-6 (led team in wins), 2.89 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 6 HRA, 36 BB/120 K in 25 starts and 149 1/3 IP (easily led team) -- didn't know his IP total was that high, hope it doesn't come back to bite organization, also had some very nice numbers
Tony Bradley 1-4, 2.14 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 4 SV, 1 HRA, 18 BB/35 K in 26 games and 42 IP -- nice season out of pen but after hot start was more mortal post-all star break
Danny Gutierrez 4-4, 2.70 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 7 HRA, 25 BB/104 K in 19 games (18 starts) and 90 IP -- also very nice numbers, not quite to Duffy's standards but pretty good

others of note.... Ed Cegarra posted an 0.94 WHIP in his 54 IP prior to getting called to Wilmington deservedly.... Ray Liotta 1.06 WHIP in 16 innings before finished season in Wilmington.... Kelvin Herrera 1.18 WHIP (2-0, 2.13 ERA, 2 BB/7 K in 12 2/3 IP in first taste of A ball, should start '09 in Bees rotation, at least).... Matt Mitchell 1.21 WHIP (8-8 (led team in losses), 3.47 ERA, 9 HRA, 25 BB/77 K in 25 games (21 starts) and 116 2/3 IP, decent numbers but nothing spectacular).... Zach Peterson 1.21 WHIP (5 SV, 3.13 ERA, 7 HRA, 20 BB/82 K in 30 games (4 starts) and 77 2/3 IP, nice K rate and K/BB, good power P stats).... Eduardo Paulino 1.22 WHIP (3.68 ERA, 19 BB/80 K, 9 HRA in 19 games (17 starts) and 100 1/3 IP, hopefully bounces back well from injury, also had nice stats, keep in mind with all these stats that MWL is bigtime pitcher's league).... Joe Augustine 1.33 WHIP (3.77 ERA, 9 SV (led team), 10 HRA (led team), 34 BB/85 K in 28 games (5 starts) and 105 IP, nothing too spectacular in first full season, had good moments and bad moments).... Brent Fisher 1.41 WHIP (comeback trail from arm surgery).... Luis Cota 1.49 WHIP (ditto, 5.80 ERA, 4 HRA, 14 BB/32 K in 8 starts and 35 2/3 IP, had great championship series start, hopefully he returns to form that once had him a top-10 prospect in the organization).... Sam Runion 1.55 WHIP (5.75 ERA, 9 BB/11 K, 7 HRA in 9 games and 5 starts, 40 2/3 IP before being demoted)

That pretty much does it for the season's purposes. I may post fall updates as time allows....been a long strange trip this season but a team winning a league title is the way to finish it.

12 September 2008

Royals on the Farm 9/12 -- rain delay

Game 3 has been rained out and will be made up at noon Saturday as the Bees try for a sweep for the MWL title. Kelvin Herrera is set to start for Burlington.

11 September 2008

Royals on the Farm 9/11 -- Bees roll in game 2

A quick note of remembrance for the events of today, seven years ago. Watched the History Channel stuff about it tonight, and......I don't know, words fail.

A - Burlington: Bees 12, South Bend 0 (4-hitter)

2B Giavotella 3-4, HR (2), 3 RBI (8), 3 RS -- .375
RF-CF Van Stratten 3-5, 2 2B, 2 RBI (6), RS -- .292
C Eigsti 2-4, 2B, RBI, K, RS -- .278
3B Moustakas 2-5, 2 2B, RBI (5), RS -- .227
1B Taylor 2-4, BB, RBI (4), RS -- .348
LF Walton 1-5, HR (3), 2 RBI (5), K, RS -- .333
CF Lough 1-2, 2 BB, HR, RBI (2), 3 RS -- .136
DH C. Robinson 1-2, HBP, RBI (4) -- .316
* The Bees stranded 11.

Caldera 6 IP, 3 H, 3 BB, 6 K -- W, 2-0, 1.64 ERA
Augustine IP, K, WP -- 0.00 ERA
J. Rodriguez and Z. Peterson IP each scoreless relief

*** Burlington drilled the Silver Hawks for 12 runs in the first 3 innings and Alex Caldera lived up to Danny Gutierrez's game 1 example as the Bees took control of the MWL Championship Series. David Lough got it started with a leadoff homer in the 1st and the Bees poured on 4 more runs on a Clint Robinson RBI groundout, Nick Van Stratten RBI double and 2-run Jamar Walton homer. Johnny Giavotella slammed a 2-run homer in the 2nd and the Bees kept the heat on with 5 runs in the 3rd on a Ryan Eigsti RBI double, Giavotella RBI single, Mike Moustakas RBI groundout, Jason Taylor RBI single and another Van Stratten RBI double that made it 12-0. Caldera stranded 2 in the 5th and Joe Augustine, Jacob Rodriguez and Zach Peterson followed with 3 IP of scoreless relief starting in the 7th to finish the shutout victory. South Bend SP Christian Beltre lasted only 2/3 of an inning and allowed 5 ER to fall to 0-2 with a 37.13 ERA. Four Hawks had a hit each.

The Bees have a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-5 heading to South Bend Friday. I don't want to jinx it. Kelvin Herrera will try to pop the champagne for the Bees.

10 September 2008

Royals on the Farm 9/10 -- Bees open series with W

A - Burlington: Bees 6, South Bend 0 (2-hitter)

2B Giavotella 2-4, HR, 2 RBI (5), K, 2 RS -- .300
LF Walton 2-3, HR (2), RBI (3), K, RS -- .400
3B Moustakas 1-3, BB, HR, 3 RBI (4), RS -- .176
1B Taylor 0-4, SB (2), E (2) -- .316
DH C. Robinson 0-4, K -- .294
RF Van Stratten 1-4, picked off -- .211

Gutierrez 6 IP, 2 H, BB, 11 K -- W, 1-0, 1.50 ERA, wow
Bradley, Raglione, Bowden 3 hitless IP combined

*** Danny Gutierrez was outstanding and got the backing of three hitless innings from the bullpen as the Bees rolled to the game 1 win in the MWL Championship Series. Gutierrez gave up a leadoff double but then retired 16 of the last 17 he faced starting with the third out in the 1st. Johnny Giavotella got the Bees started with an RBI single in the 3rd and Mike Moustakas came through with his biggest hit of the playoffs as a 3-run homer made it 4-0 Bees and marked Moustakas' 1st playoff homer. Jamar Walton went solo in the 6th to make it 5-0 and Giavotella led off the 7th with his 1st pro playoff homer to make it 6-0. Barry Bowden stranded 1 in the 9th to finish it for Burlington. South Bend SP Jarrod Parker took the loss with 4 ER allowed over 5 IP to drop to 1-1 with a 4.91 ERA. Two different Silver Hawks had the team's hits.

The Bees opened the best-of-5 series with a win. Game 2 is Thursday night as Alex Caldera starts for the Bees. Bees pitcher of the year Dan Duffy has been shut down with back issues. The Bees were 4-2 versus the Silver Hawks in the regular season.

08 September 2008

Royals on the Farm 9/7 -- Bees on to finals

AA - NW Arkansas: done at 75-65

Tops in OPS (min. 150 ABs and on roster)

OF/DH Cory Aldridge .269/.361/.497, .858 OPS, 23 RS, 6 2B, 1 3B, 10 HR, 40 RBI, 25 BB/37 K, 2/6 SB, 1 E in 49 games and 167 ABs -- wonder if he'll be back in '09
1B/3B Juan Richardson .296/.370/.474, .844 OPS, 90 RS (led team), 146 H (led team), 36 2B (led team), 2 3B, 16 HR, 82 RBI (led team), 54 BB/93 K, 2/7 SB, 7 E in 133 games and 494 ABs -- will the Royals keep hold of him? Be interesting to see what he'd do at Omaha. Better than some of the other filler they've had, I'd figure.
3B Ed Lucas .304/.372/.415, .787 OPS, 38 RS, 10 2B, 4 3B, 4 HR, 30 RBI, 29 BB/47 K, 14/21 SB, 8 E in 79 games and 270 ABs -- floundered in chance at Omaha in inconsistent playing time, solid bat for NWA
OF Brian McFall .241/.329/.454, .783 OPS, 42 RS, 16 2B, 2 3B, 18 HR, 61 RBI, 39 BB/103 K, 7/13 SB, 2 E in 106 games and 348 ABs -- probably should be back in AA next year, but we'll see
IF/OF Irving Falu .301/.367/.384, .751 OPS, 57 RS, 11 2B, 2 3B, 5 HR, 42 RBI, 38 BB/31 K (nice), 11/20 SB, 4 E in 101 games and 362 ABs -- quietly had pretty good season, although no one number is very flashy....more BB than Ks is always nice

others of note.... it should be noted that 1B Kila Ka'aihue hit for a 1.086 OPS with 26 HR and 79 RBI for NWA before getting the call to AAA and was obviously the NWA player of the year. He still led the team in HR, batting, OBP, SLG and in BB with 80 (26 more than anyone else on team).... 2B Marc Maddox .738 OPS (30 2B, 48 BB/73 K, 15/27 SB, 10 E, hit .283 in 127 games and 453 ABs, decent year).... OF Jose Duarte .663 OPS (19 2B, 10 HR, 50 BB/91 K, 18/26 SB, 5 E in 133 games and 528 ABs, OBP only .313 in leadoff slot, like I've noted before, 50 points more in OBP and 50 more points on his .350 SLG and he's a much hotter prospect).... 3B Mario Lisson .658 OPS (hit .225 with .284 OBP, 23 2B, 14 HR, 65 RBI, 33 BB/105 K, 31/37 SB, 23 E in 130 games and 476 ABs, we'll see if he holds on to that 40-man slot, hit lower than .205 in three months, boosted numbers by hitting .269 in August, also hit .269 in May, will (I figure) likely repeat AA).... LF Ovandy Suero .641 OPS (led team with 42 SBs and 5 3B).... C Adam Donachie .609 OPS (at one time I thought he had promise, hit .212, slugged .299, 13 XBH, 7 E in 91 games and 264 ABs, catchers take up bottom three slots on team in OPS)

Tops in WHIP (min. 20 IP)

Tim Hamulack 0-1, 1.96 ERA, 0.61 WHIP, 6 SV, 2 HRA, 1 BB/23 K in 18 games and 23 IP -- 30-something journeyman pitched well for the Naturals, gotta love the BB/K
Chris Hayes 5-2, 1.64 ERA (led team), 0.94 WHIP, 12 SV (led team), 4 HRA, 13 BB/39 K in 40 games and 65 2/3 IP -- submariner also pitched well, should move on to Omaha
Gilbert de la Vara 3-0, 2.76 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 2 SV, 0 HRA, 15 BB/21 K in 21 games and 32 2/3 IP -- BB/K not favorable, but other numbers were solid
Chris Nicoll 4-1, 3.09 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 3 SV, 2 HRA, 8 BB/55 K in 19 games (1 start) and 43 2/3 IP -- K rate and K/BB stellar, solid all around season, hopefully shoulder problem not serious
Jarod Plummer 4-1, 4.19 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, 3 SV, 12 HRA, 15 BB/65 K in 29 games and 58 IP -- unfortunate DUI arrest late in season, served up some longballs but otherwise had good numbers, hopefully back in 2009

others of note.... Carlos Rosa posted an 0.82 WHIP and 7 BB/42 K in 45 innings before moving up to Omaha.... Greg Atencio 1.27 WHIP (3.81 ERA, 4 HRA, 25 BB/63 K in 27 games and 54 1/3 IP, bounced between Omaha and NWA).... Dan Cortes 1.35 WHIP (10-4 (tied team lead in wins), 3.78 ERA, 13 HRA, 55 BB/109 K in 23 starts and 116 2/3 IP, team pitcher of year, looked dominant at times, hopefully starts '09 in Omaha).... Blake Johnson 1.44 WHIP (10-9 (tied team lead in wins), 4.85 ERA, 20 HRA (led team), 31 BB/87 K in 26 games (25 starts) and 143 IP, pretty mediocre AA debut).... Rowdy Hardy 1.45 WHIP (6-11, 4.97 ERA, 14 HRA, 31 BB/87 K in 28 games (27 starts) and 155 2/3 IP, struggled in AA, but K/BB was solid, alternated bad months, April/June 6-plus ERA, August 5-plus ERA, May, July ERA under 4).... Blake Wood 1.48 WHIP (5-7, 5.30 ERA, 2 shutouts and 2 CG, 7 HRA, 32 BB/76 K in 18 starts and 86 2/3 IP, those numbers but two complete game shutouts, if he can iron out the wrinkles over the offseason could move up to Omaha).... Julio Pimentel 1.56 WHIP (7-13 (led team in losses), 5.38 ERA, 17 HRA, 52 BB/115 K in 28 starts and 157 1/3 IP (led team), disappointing year, numbers skewed up by 8-point ERA in May and 6-point ERA in July, had a 3.55 ERA in 5 August starts, probably should be back in AA next season)

A - Burlington: Bees 2, Cedar Rapids 1

1B Taylor 2-3, RS, SB, CS, E -- .400
LF Walton 1-3, 2B, RBI (2), K -- .286
2B Giavotella 1-2, BB -- .250
3B Moustakas 1-3, picked off -- .143
DH C. Robinson 0-3 -- .385
RF Van Stratten 1-3, RS -- .200

Cota 7 IP, ER, 3 H, BB, 7 K, WP -- W, 1-0, 1.29 ERA, has to feel good for Luis
Sisk 2 IP, 4 K -- SV, 3, 0.00 ERA, can't say enough about how he's pitched for Bees

*** Luis Cota and Brandon Sisk combined to hold the Kernels to 3 hits as the Bees punched their ticket to the MWL Championship Series. Cedar Rapids scored a run on 2 hits off Cota in the 2nd but Nick Van Stratten hit a run-scoring single aided by a Kernels error in the bottom of the inning and Jamar Walton hit an RBI double to make it 2-1 Bees. Cota dodged some trouble in the 7th and Sisk struck out 4 over 2 perfect innings to make the 2 runs stand up. Kernels SP Michael Davitt went the distance with 8 IP of 2 ER allowed. Three Kernels had a hit each.

The Bees move on to the MWL Championship Series against the winner of the South Bend-Dayton Eastern Division finals. South Bend took game 1 but game 2 was rained out today.

07 September 2008

The Pipeline's Top 20 Royal prospects 2008

The promise of improvement in Kansas City in 2008 has turned into just another year of September malaise among Royals fans, but if the season in the minors showed anything, it showed that help may be on the way. Not necessarily in AAA Omaha, however, as this year's Pipeline Top 20 prospects list includes only three players from this year's Omaha roster....one, Kila Ka'aihue, was only a midseason addition, and another, OF Chris Lubanski, has dropped a couple spots from where he was last season on the list. The other, P Carlos Rosa, pitched great in NW Arkansas, got an early season promotion to Omaha, then hit the KC bullpen, then bounced back to Omaha and lost the last chunk of the season to forearm soreness. AA Northwest Arkansas has a few prospects with promise, but the main chunk of players on this list are in A-ball either in Wilmington or Burlington. I put on one or two from rookie ball, but I'd like to see some full season production from most of those guys before putting them in the top 20. From a prospects standpoint, I'd grade out Omaha as a D+ this season, NW Arkansas as a B-, Wilmington as a B, Burlington (IA) as a B+, Idaho Falls as a C, Burlington (NC) as a D, and the AZL as a C.

The list has again changed quite a bit from last season. Last year's #1, P Billy Buckner, who probably should have been lower on the list, was sent to Arizona in the Alberto Callaspo deal, while #2 Luke Hochevar has hit Kansas City's rotation, albeit with mediocre results. #3 Mike Moustakas moves up to the top spot in a move I'm more confident in, while #4 Matt Wright drops out due to age and the fact he was a gas can in Omaha this season, and #5 Justin Huber is now a Padre. Mitch Maier and Rowdy Hardy aged out, although Hardy would have dropped anyway after his numbers came back to earth in AA this season. Geraldo Valentin, who was #16 on last year's list, is also gone as the Royals simply released him this season. All in all, though, I feel this year's top 20 is stronger than last season's group. We've got 11 pitchers, 9 hitters.

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. The cutoff age is 25, and age is set by what it'll be at the end of the MLB season. I vacillated and left SP Luke Hochevar off the list. I can't imagine he'll be out of the KC rotation to start 2009.

1. Mike Moustakas, 3B, 20 (last year: #3) -- hit .272/.337/.468 for an .805 OPS, 77 RS, 25 2B, 3 3B, 22 HR, 71 RBI, 77 RS, 43 BB/86 K, 8/12 SB, 22 E in 126 games and 496 ABs in A Burlington.

*** Moose led the Bees in HR, RBI, hits, doubles, and errors, leading the Royals to make their first defensive move with him to shift him over to third base. His numbers are skewed down somewhat by a slow start as he hit only .190 in 21 April games but hit .303 in July and .330 in August. A cleaner break is shown in his pre- and post-all-star break stats as he hit .228 with a .671 OPS before the break and .321 with a .949 OPS after it. He struggled somewhat in day games (.194 BA with a .659 OPS) and, as he is a lefty batter, against lefties (.239 BA with a .724 OPS) but showed improvement in his numbers as the season progressed, which was great to see as a Royals fan. My money is on him to move up to Wilmington to start 2009, and hopefully if he hits well there in a league that's kinder to hitters, he can maybe move up to NW Arkansas later in the season. He turns 20 Sept. 11.

2. Eric Hosmer, 1B, 18 (last year: N/A) -- played only 3 games at Idaho Falls and got 11 pro ABs

*** The sample size of Hosmer's first taste of professional baseball was small but he slapped up an OPS over 1.000 in his 11 ABs with the rookie ball Chukars before getting pulled out of the lineup because his agent, Scott Boras, dicked around with Pedro Alvarez and the Pirates. As in 2007 with Moustakas, the Royals drafted a Boras client early, and as usual, he didn't sign until 10 minutes before the deadline so the Royals didn't get a lot of game experience for their #1 draftee again. Hosmer was ranked as one of the best if not THE best HS bat in the draft pool, so I guess we'll have to wait until 2009 when I assume, like Moustakas, that Hosmer may get a crack at Midwest League pitching in Burlington.

3. Kila Ka'aihue, 1B, 24 (last year: NR) -- burst onto scene with .314/.463/.624, 26 HR, 79 RBI line in 91 games at NW Arkansas this season and then a .316/.439/.640, 11 HR, 21 RBI line in 33 games at Omaha, led minors with 104 BB and posted an overall .456 OBP

*** Kila was this year's breakout star in the Royals minors after posting an .806 OPS in Wichita in 2007. He raked AA pitching this season and then hit well in a taste of AAA, all the while showing great plate discipline and plenty of power. He struck out more at Omaha but still drew nearly as many walks as Ks after almost doubling up his walks to his Ks in AA. The Royals rewarded him with a September call-up and thus far, he's gotten 4 ABs but picked up his first MLB hit. Going into this season, his younger brother, Kala, who is in the Braves' organization, was the higher touted of the two but Kila turned that around with a blistering year at the plate. Hopefully he earns a spot in the KC lineup to start 2009. Otherwise, I'm sure he'll be at Omaha with a chance to ride the KC-Omaha shuttle.

4. Carlos Rosa, righty SP, 24 (last year: #8) -- was 4-2 with a 1.20 ERA and sub-1 WHIP with 7 BB/42 K in 8 starts and 45 IP in AA, then moved up to Omaha and was 4-3 with a 4.09 ERA and 1.24 WHIP with 12 BB/44 K in 11 starts and 50 2/3 IP.

*** Rosa was the early story of KC's minors this season by tearing up AA competition, but then had his ups and downs at Omaha. He got a shot at the KC pen but pitched in only 2 games and 3.1 innings before heading back to Omaha. He tried to get back going in the rotation but then struggled with forearm soreness and was shelved for the rest of the year. Keep in mind Rosa only returned last season from Tommy John surgery, so I think it's understandable that he still struggles with stamina over the course of a season. It was probably smart for the organization to shelf him. I'd hope he gets a shot at a #5 KC rotation spot in '09 or the organization may play it safe and start him out at Omaha again.

5. Dan Cortes, righty SP, 21 (last year: #12) -- 10-4, 3.78 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 13 HRA, 55 BB/109 K in 23 starts and 116 2/3 IP at NW Arkansas

*** Cortes has hit the top of several Royals prospects lists and could list higher here, really. I just put him lower than Rosa because Rosa has gotten the job done just as well at a higher level. He was co-leader on the Naturals' staff with 10 wins, and had his dominant moments and other times where control issues from the past seemed to come back on him. His K rate was solid, but he had a small problem with giving up HRs. All in all, it was a good season for Cortes, though, and I would hope he gets a shot at the Omaha rotation to start 2009 with the potential of a call to KC in the cards.

6. Danny Duffy, lefty SP, 19 (last year: #15) -- 8-4, 2.20 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 4 HRA, 25 BB/102 K in 17 starts and 81 2/3 IP at Burlington (IA)

*** Duffy dominated the opposition at Burlington to help lead the team to the playoffs. His K rate was spectacular, and his K/BB was also exceptional. The MWL is a pitcher's league, but these numbers are still outstanding. He won a well-deserved Bees pitcher of the year award. Hopefully this output continues in 2009 in Wilmington. The organization also handled Duffy fairly well by seemingly keeping him on lower pitch counts and monitoring his workload.

7. Joe Dickerson, OF, 22 (last year: #11) -- .297/.376/.442, .818 OPS, 10 2B, 10 3B, 5 HR, 45 RBI, 39 RS, 31 BB/48 K, 24/38 SB, 2 E in 87 games and 310 ABs at Wilmington

*** Dickerson's season was cut short by a finger injury sustained while bunting but the Royals plan to have him play in the Arizona Fall League. He seems to be a solid all-around player, more consistency than flash. He was among the league leaders in hitting while healthy this season and showed some speed on the basepaths, although his basestealing instincts could be better. As noted in today's RotF report, the Rocks could have used Dickerson's consistency at the plate in the playoffs. We'll see how he does next year at AA.

Blake Wood, righty SP, 23 (last year: NR) -- 3-2, 2.67 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, 3 HRA, 15 BB/63 K in 10 starts and 57 1/3 IP at Wilmington, then 5-7, 5.30 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 7 HRA, 32 BB/76 K in 18 starts and 86 2/3 IP at NW Arkansas

*** Wood dominated the Carolina League then was, as I noted several times, a Jekyll-Hyde pitcher at AA. He could come out and shut down the opposition with more than a K per inning, or he could give up 6 ER over 2 innings. Unfortunately, it was more Hyde than Jekyll at NW Arkansas in his first stint at AA, but Wood did show he has the power stuff to dominate. I'd assume he'll be back in AA to start 2009 atop the NWA rotation. Hopefully we see much more Dr. Jekyll in 2009.

9. Chris Lubanski, OF, 23 (last year: #6) -- .242/.306/.448, .754 OPS, 51 RS, 20 2B, 8 3B, 15 HR, 54 RBI, 38 BB/130 K, 5/6 SB, 6 E in 116 games and 393 ABs at Omaha

*** I dropped Lubanski on the list this year, despite a not awful season for him at Omaha. He missed the last couple games of the season with vision problems, which hopefully factored into the 130 strikeouts this season. If he gets his vision right, maybe that number drops next season and he continues to develop. His batting average hovered in the low .200s all season and he doesn't really get on base to any great extent. He did hit 15 HR for the third straight season and led the team in triples. And he's only 23, which is hard at times to remember because of how fast he's been moved through the system. The Royals will have to consider making room on the 40-man for him or take another chance at him getting rule 5'd, although I think there's little to no chance he'd last an entire season on an MLB roster. I assume he'll be back in the Omaha outfield and maybe in the middle of the order to start 2009 for his second full season in AAA. If vision was part of the problem, hopefully that's taken care of and he starts clicking like he can.

10. Julio Pimentel, righty SP, 23 (last year: #9) -- 7-13, 5.38 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, 17 HRA, 52 BB/115 K in 28 starts and 157 1/3 IP at NWA

*** Pimentel was KC's lone representative in the Futures game and led the Naturals in innings pitched, strikeouts, runs allowed, and losses. By his stats you can see he didn't really pitch like a "Futures" guy this season, especially coming off a solid season in Wilmington in 2007. I only dropped him slightly because there aren't any other pitchers in the organization that are definitively better, or at least would be definitively better at the AA level right now. He seems to have the stuff, but had an off year. I expect he'll be back at NWA again in 2009, if the Royals don't feel he can have a shot at Omaha. I wouldn't say he really stepped up to claim that shot this season.

11. Johnny Giavotella, IF, 21 (last year: N/A) -- .299/.355/.421, .776 OPS, 50 RS, 18 2B, 2 3B, 4 HR, 26 RBI, 25 BB/34 K, 10/17 SB, 13 E in 68 games and 278 ABs at Burlington (IA)

*** Giavotella was KC's fasttrack draftee out of the U of New Orleans in rd 2 this season, and he has fared well for the Bees. I wonder if some fatigue factored in as he was pretty solidly above a .300 batting average until the last couple weeks. It has to hurt to finish at .299 rather than .300...a thousandth of a point means a lot there. He seems to be the prototypical #2 hitter. I figure he'll start '09 in Wilmington with perhaps a shot at moving to NWA if the opportunity arises, or if he hits better in the somewhat more hitter-friendly Carolina League.

12. Jeff Bianchi, IF, 22 (last year: #17) -- .255/.290/.442, .732 OPS, 57 RS, 34 2B, 5 3B, 10 HR, 61 RBI, 20 BB/95 K, 13/17 SB, 7 E in 104 games and 396 ABs at Wilmington

*** Bianchi, who has been injury plagued, I guess you could say, in his career since getting drafted in the second round out of a Pennsylvania high school in 2005, hit only .136 in April and dealt with hamstring issues, as it appeared 2008 would be more of the same. Bianchi came back, however, and hit in the .270s with an over-.800 OPS in May and June. He went through a July swoon in hitting .238 for only a .656 OPS that month but finished strong with a .297 BA and .850 OPS in August to pull his batting average over the .250 mark. He didn't enjoy the friendly confines in Wilmington as he hit only .193 at home. He again showed, though, that when he gets hot at the plate, he puts up numbers in bunches. He ended up leading the Rocks in doubles and RBI and was solid in the field other than a short run of errors in August. On the flip side, though, he never walks and a .290 OBP isn't gonna cut it, especially at higher levels. We'll see if he's in NWA or Wilmington to start 2009.

13. Ed Cegarra, righty SP, 19 (last year: NR) -- 2-4, 2.67 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 4 HRA, 5 BB/53 K in 9 games (8 starts) and 54 IP at Burlington (IA), then 6-7, 4.67 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 15 HRA, 21 BB/59 K in 18 starts and 106 IP at Wilmington

*** Cegarra slapped together a stellar line at Burlington (look at that K/BB!) in 54 innings of work, then moved up to Wilmington and had his ups and downs. The ups included a Carolina League pitcher of the week award and the downs included a couple shellings at the hands of his stiffer competition. When the dust settled, however, Cegarra's numbers weren't horrible at high-A ball. He gave up too too many homers and his K/BB rate wasn't sustained, probably because it's hard to sustain a 10-1 ratio and also because the hitters are slightly wiser in advanced A ball. The gravy on the whole deal is Cegarra hasn't hit his 20th birthday yet. This was kind of a breakout year for the Venezuelan, who I expect to see back in Wilmington to start 2009 with a shot probably to move up to NWA at some point if he handles the league like he showed he could at times this season.

14. Jason Taylor, 1B, 20 (last year: NR) -- .242/.372/.418, .790 OPS, 79 RS, 17 2B, 4 3B, 17 HR, 58 RBI, 81 BB/97 K, 40/54 SB, 20 E in 127 games and 433 ABs in Burlington (IA)

*** Taylor presented possibly the best personal story of 2008 as he came back from personal issues that took him away for the 2007 season, reportedly partially attributable to drug problems, and led the Bees in runs scored, walks (easily) and steals. His best attribute was his ability to get on base as he hit in the low .200s most of the season and still led the team in runs scored. He also showed some pop, so I'd think he'd definitely have 30-30 potential if he can develop more power. This is only his first full season of pro ball. I'd expect to see him in the Wilmington infield in 2009. He split time between third and first this season and got most of his errors at third, so I think the jury is still out somewhat on his D. He also proved durable as he was initially reported to have a broken hand or wrist on a HBP midway through the season but I guess it wasn't as he didn't miss a beat.

15. Chris Hayes, righty RP, 25 (last year: NR) -- 5-2, 1.64 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, 12 saves, 4 HRA, 13 BB/39 K in 40 games and 65 2/3 IP at NWA

*** I'd like to see Hayes with more Ks but that's about all you could complain about in his game this season. The submariner was a rock solid closer for the Naturals, and it would be cool in a couple years to see another Quisenberry-type submariner in KC either closing out games or setting up Joakim Soria. Of course, Hayes has yet to tackle Omaha so we'll see how that goes in 2009.

16. Blake Johnson, righty SP, 23 (last year: #13) -- 10-9, 4.85 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 20 HRA, 38 BB/86 K in 26 games (25 starts) and 143 IP in NWA

*** Johnson also drops in the rankings after encountering some struggles at AA, much like Pimentel. The season started with a rumor that Johnson would be shipped to the Reds as the PTBNL in the Brad Salmon deal but that proved untrue. His numbers are actually skewed down a bit by a May in which he posted a 2.50 ERA in 6 starts. Other than that, he didn't post an ERA below 5 in any month. He ended up tying Dan Cortes for the team lead in wins, but also led the team in HR allowed (by 9), and his K rate wasn't anything great. I figure he'll be back in AA to start 2009, as I wouldn't say he earned a slot at Omaha from this line.

17. Mike Montgomery, lefty SP, 19 (last year: N/A) -- 2-1, 1.69 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 2 HRA, 12 BB/34 K in 12 games (9 starts) and 42 2/3 IP in the AZL

*** Montgomery started his career as the Royals '08 supplemental round pick (thanks to the signing of David Riske) with a short scoreless inning streak and held on to earn the AZL pitcher of the year award for the Royals' team. He was another highly touted high school pitcher and got off to a solid start as a pro. We'll see if they handle him like Duffy and start him at Burlington (IA) or keep him back and put him in short-season ball again. It could really go either way -- Appalachian League or Midwest League. I wouldn't be surprised if KC used the Duffy template here, tho.

18. Alex Caldera, lefty SP, 23 (last year: NR) -- 12-6, 2.89 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 6 HRA, 36 BB/120 K in 25 starts and 149 1/3 IP at Burlington (IA)

*** Caldera, a 13th round pick out of a California JuCo in 2007, stepped forward to lead the Bees in wins (he led the Royals minors in wins along with Aaron Hartsock at Wilmington), innings pitched, and strikeouts, and also posted a solid K/BB ratio. He was just solid all-around and is Wilmington bound in 2009. There's really nothing to pick at in his stats. For the most part he was consistently good. Only Dan Duffy's awesome year kept him from the Bees pitcher of the year award.

19. Danny Gutierrez, righty SP, 21 (last year: NR) -- 4-4, 2.70 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 7 HRA, 25 BB/104 K in 19 games (18 starts) and 90 IP at Burlington (IA)

*** Gutierrez was another part of a strong Bees rotation but had less IP than the others due to dealing with some injuries midway through the season. He rebounded to pitch well and post a better than 4-1 K/BB with more than a K per inning. I had hopes for last year's Wilmington rotation in translating to AA this season, and that translation didn't go great for the most part. Hopefully this Burlington rotation translates better to the Carolina League. Gutierrez should be there.

20. Salvador Perez, C, 18 (last year: NR) -- .325/.404/.375, .779 OPS in 13 games at Burlington (NC), then .395/.413/.581, .994 OPS, 5 XBH in 12 games and 43 ABs in Idaho Falls

*** Perez's numbers this year yell "sample size alert" but I can't resist getting a catcher on here that can apparently hit. It can be argued that Wilmington Ps Everett Teaford or Matt Kniginyzky could duke it out for this slot, or maybe Wilmington P Mario Santiago, who was on last year's list. Lots of guys could fit here, but I've got a good feeling about Perez. He's showing some consistent ability at a young age. We'll see next year if it translates upwards, hopefully to the Midwest League.

Honorable mention -- Omaha: IF Angel Sanchez rebounded from elbow surgery but didn't do very well, and he isn't getting any younger. P Devon Lowery is 25 and was Omaha pitcher of the year in a very weak field. He got a September callup. NWA: P Chris Nicoll pitched well in returning from injuries that limited him greatly in 2007 but had a shoulder problem late in the year, so we'll see when he returns. P Gilbert de la Vara also had some nice outings in his second shot at AA, so could be part of the Omaha bullpen in '09. OF Jose Duarte was on last year's list but, despite good defense, doesn't do enough things well to merit a spot on the list this year. I still like his game, but I just wish he was a notch better at getting on base and hitting for power. IF Mario Lisson played well enough to get the 40-man security this year, then proceeded to flop at the plate before rebounding late. The question is if he'll be at NWA, Omaha or out of the organization in 2009. IF Marc Maddox also had his moments this season but I find it hard to get excited about his game. I don't know if it's because he's consistently solid or because he hasn't given me much to get excited about. He just doesn't stick out in my mind. Wilmington: IF Kurt Mertins and IF Josh Johnson had solid years, but, again, nothing spectacular. Johnson can get on base and Mertins has some speed and can hit for contact but neither really steps up consistently enough to merit much attention from my perspective. Mertins will likely get a shot at AA next year, if not both of them. IF Chris McConnell improved at the plate but had a bad defensive year from the looks of the stats (big grain of salt there). OF Derrick Robinson has speed to burn (62 steals) but not much else to brag about from a baseball standpoint. I guess he's OK defensively. OF Adrian Ortiz could have earned a spot low on this list, as he hit for average again, showed he can get on base and stole some bases while playing good D, first at Burlington then in Wilmington. I like his game. I mentioned Teaford and Kniginyzky, who posted similar stats in the rotation with Kniginyzky taking home Rocks pitcher of the year honors. P Greg Holland and P Aaron Hartsock had solid seasons out of the Rocks' pen with Hartsock winning 12 games without a start. Burlington (IA): P Brent Fisher made his return from arm surgery and is slowly rounding back into shape, as are P Luis Cota, who was once a top prospect before suffering an injury of his own, and rule 5 pick P Ray Liotta. All 3 will be players to keep an eye on in 2009. A bevy of other Burlington pitchers did well, but the MWL factor has to come into play somewhere here. I'd rattle off Zach Peterson, Matt Mitchell, Brandon Sisk and Henry Barrera here. IF Kyle Martin had a good year at the plate in hitting over .300 with some pop in the bat. OF Nick Van Stratten also stuck out statistically but didn't get an overwhelming amount of playing time in a somewhat crowded Bees OF. 1B/DH Clint Robinson didn't hit like he did in rookie ball last year but had some good moments and looks to have potential. OFs David Lough and Nick Francis also had their good moments this year. Idaho Falls: C Sean McCauley was the Chukars player of the year but didn't blow me away statistically, although he was better than last season, which was his pro debut. SS J.D. Alfaro could be on this list next year depending on how he does at IF or Burlington (IA). He deserves a shot at the MWL but needs to work on getting on base and some defense. One of the better '08 draftees. OF Patrick Norris didn't hit for average like last season but played good defense and showed some speed and ability to get on base. OF Carlo Testa was another standout among '08 draftees and really rebounded from a slow start to lead the Chukars offensively. IF Devery Van De Keere's hitting exploits were also documented here, but he wasn't consistent enough to challenge for a top 20 spot. Ps Bryan Casey and Ivor Hodgson showed some potential but the Pioneer League is a hitters' league and both guys suffered for that. Burlington (NC): P Barry Bowden was lockdown out of the pen for the B-Royals and earned a well deserved call up to Burlington (IA) for the playoff run. Ps Jacob Rodriguez and John Flanagan also stood out among the B-Royals bullpen staff. I've said it before, I've got a good feeling about Flanagan. Starters Sam Runion, Mike Lehmann and Kelvin Herrera also had good moments in the Appy League in a year that didn't feature a lot for the team. Herrera was another contender for the #20 spot as Burlington's pitcher of the year and has pitched well in his shot at A ball. He's only 18, too, so hopefully that development continues. 1B Josh Vittek was the best hitter for the B-Royals but we'll see if and how he returns in 2009. OF Hilton Richardson had a better '08 than '07 but still didn't post any really flashy numbers. AZL: C Jose Bonilla raked for an OPS over 1.000 but, at 20, is kinda old for that level of ball. Maybe he'll get a shot at A ball in 2009. IF Deivy Batista was a Latin import who stood out among the AZL Royals' hitters, but he's also 20 and didn't stand out like Bonilla did. '08 draftee C Mauricio Matos came on late to post respectable numbers in his first year of pro ball. P Deybi De La Cruz started out hot but struggled down the stretch in the Arizona heat, and P Tyler Sample was a third-rounder this season but struggled at the AZL. I'm pretty sure the Royals were thinking long-term project with Sample, tho. Pitchers Leondy Perez, Jace Smith and Brett Richardson also stood out for the Royals, and Richardson even got a shot at Omaha late.