09 April 2009

Royals on the Farm 2009 preview -- It's Opening Day

One quick note about the first two Royals games.....It's great to see Trey Hillman have a Grady Little moment, but at least this was in the regular season and not the ALCS. What Royals fan who knows Kyle Farnsworth's history wasn't expecting that when they saw he was in the game? It's one of those decisions almost everybody but Hillman knew was gonna be bad going in. Very frustrating for Royals fans, as the Internet impact has shown, even if it's only game 1. A loss is a loss. Last night was the flipside. Greinke pitched up to expectations with some nasty stuff, Juan Cruz had two dominating innings and then Joakim Soria slammed the door with a nice yakker to Jermaine Dye. That's the way game 1 should have gone.

Pipeline condolences also go out to the family, friends and fans of Angels pitching prospect Nick Adenhart, who was killed in a car wreck this morning after starting for LA last night. On to the RotF preview....

Opening day is here for the top four minor league affililates, and I must say it's nice to be able to say one -- the Burlington Bees -- is a defending league champ. I know the minors is all about development and less about wins and losses, but it's nice to see a team perform at a high level consistently at some point in the organization. The younger players have gotta learn to be winners as a team somewhere. And I'd bet a minor league championship is just as memorable as any other for the players involved, from the superstars to the guys who'll never see the players' side of a major league field. All in all, 3 of the top 4 minors organizational teams made the playoffs last season, so that's gotta speak well for what's coming to KC eventually? Right? Of course, the odd team out was the Omaha Royals, who followed up a solid '07 with a 63-81 record in '08, so the cream has yet to rise to the top, but it appears there's definitely something good going on in the Royals' minors. I'd like to see more offensive prospects in the pipeline, but wouldn't everybody?

To start with, the Schematic has been updated, although a couple more tweaks are likely in order....

Omaha (AAA)

For a change, the O-Royals' regular lineup will start the season with only one player at or near his 30s, and that's DH/1B Ryan Shealy at 30, so that's a good sign. The pitching staff is a little different as you've got 30-somethings Bruce Chen and Brandon Duckworth in the rotation plus Yaz Yabuta (not on the official roster yet) and Tim Hamulack in the pen. The player to watch, of course, on the hitting side is 1B Kila Ka'aihue as he tries to follow up a fairly spectacular, by Royals' standards, 2008 season at NW Arkansas and Omaha. The Omaha lineup is remarkably more potent at first glance as AAA slugger and former Astros and Pirates hot prospect J.R. House is the new catcher and, in a move I support, the Royals just yesterday added 3B Travis Metcalf, a Wamego (Kansas) native and former KU player, off waivers from Texas. Both should provide added punch to a lineup that already includes Shealy and Ka'aihue. New to the organization and rounding out the infield are 2B Tug Hulett and SS Luis Hernandez, who hopefully will be more adequate than Jason Smith or Angel Berroa, defensively, if nothing else. Neither is older than 26, so that's a start....The outfield picture, however, hasn't changed much going into the season as Chris Lubanski is back for another round of AAA along with Mitch Maier. I assume Shane Costa will be back, too. One source of dismay for the Pipeline is that Mike Stodolka is nowhere to be seen on the Omaha roster, which gives me the feeling his days as a Royal may be done. I hope that's not the case, but he is kind of crowded out anymore in the big picture. There's not any big depth on the bench in Omaha as Cory Aldridge is a journeyman who's primarily a DH at this point, OF Tommy Murphy is new to the organization and is a switch-hitting former Angels prospect, C Cody Clark and IF Irving Falu have been with the organization for the last couple years, and C Matt Tupman and OF/DH Brian Buchanan start the season on the DL. We're yet to see a roster move to make room for Sidney Ponson on the KC roster, which may add Brayan Pena to the C mix if he opts not to become a free agent upon being sent to Omaha. I hope they just cut Tony Pena Jr., but that won't happen. Players to watch: Ka'aihue, House, Metcalf.

The Omaha rotation will be headlined, as has been made pretty well-known this spring, by last year's KC starters Luke Hochevar and Brian Bannister, at least until the Sidney Ponson and Horacio Ramirez experiments in KC go all Farnsworth on the front office. It at least gives the organization the semblance of some upper-level starting pitching depth, tho. Chen continues his comeback from arm surgery and Duckworth is back as a should-be-innings-eater. The #5 rotation slot goes to lefty Heath Phillips, who Royals officials seemed to like this spring. Your guess is as good as mine when it comes to the O-Royals' closer as there isn't a candidate with a wealth of experience in that slot. I'd say maybe Devon Lowery, or Roman Colon. There are four lefties in the pen including Lenny DiNardo, Dusty Hughes, Hamulack and Josh Newman, plus you've got Carlos Rosa making the switch to the pen. It might be interesting to see what Rosa could do as a primary set-up guy or closer. As it stands, righty Greg Atencio is also in the bullpen mix. Starter Matt Wright starts the year on the DL after a disappointing '08. The Omaha pitching staff is totally revamped from last year, as there are no Tyler Lumsdens or Hideo Nomos or Chin-Hui Tsaos to be seen. Chen is the closest to that, and we'll see what we get out of him, Duckworth and Phillips. Pitchers to watch: Hochevar, DiNardo, Rosa.

Prediction: I see better things for Omaha in 2009. An improved lineup, with some good guys to perhaps bring up from AA if needed or earned, plus a pitching staff that should be decent. I say they contend for the division crown with 70-some wins. Let's go 73-71.

The O-Royals start the season tonight with the first of 4 at the Albuquerque Isotopes (now back to the AAA Dodgers affiliate, as a shuffle took the Marlins to New Orleans, the Mets to Buffalo, the Indians to Columbus, the Nats to Syracuse, and the Jays to the Dodgers' former affiliate in Las Vegas -- I had hoped the Dodgers would bring back the old Albuquerque Dukes with the conquistador guy on the unis, but they stuck with the Simpsons thing with the 'Topes, altho they did change back to the Dukes' red-and-orange colors.) The Isotopes' roster features Dodgers prospects IF Chin-lung Hu, OF Xavier Paul and not a lot of young guys. Former Royals farmhand OF Dermal "Dee" Brown is also in Albuquerque to start the season. Bannister starts tonight in the opener versus 'Topes righty Miguel Pinango.

NW Arkansas (AA)

The bulk of the core of last season's solid Wilmington team moves up to the Texas League this year to fill out the Naturals' roster in the team's second season. Highlights from a positional standpoint are the return of Brian McFall, who is set to play first in NWA this season, and IF/DH Mario Lisson, who will be trying to earn his 40-man slot quite a bit more than he did in a sluggish 2008. I've got Marc Maddox on the Schematic as coming back, but he isn't currently assigned to the Naturals, so may be another odd man out. Catching duties will be held down by Jeff Howell, who was in Wilmington last season, and journeyman John Suomi, who played the '08 season for the Phillies organization. The Royals bumped down 3B Corey Smith to AA after picking up Metcalf, and Smith hit pretty well for the Angels' AA affiliate last season. Ed Lucas is back in AA for another season and is joined on the infield by Josh Johnson and Kurt Mertins, who had their bright moments in '08 in Wilmington. Chris McConnell also brings a solid defensive rep with him from Wilmington, altho he committed more than his fair share of errors at shortstop last season. The outfield is highlighted by the presence of consistent OF Joe Dickerson, who had a hand injury derail the last couple months of his 2008 season, and Cody Strait, who the Royals picked up from the Reds and was a key part of Wilmington's '08 playoff run. Jose Duarte also returns and will try to build on a 2008 season that saw his offense stagnate somewhat. Jordan Parraz is also in the outfield mix after coming over for Tyler Lumsden in trade from the Astros. Parraz hit for an .818 OPS in the Carolina League last year and turns 25 in October. 36-year old C Vance Wilson starts the season on the DL in NWA. Players to watch: Mertins, Dickerson, Duarte.

The NWA rotation should stand out, as it is led by Royals top pitching prospect Dan Cortes and also is strengthened by the presence of Blake Wood, who was dominant in Wilmington in '08 but had his struggles in his first taste of the Texas League. Braves castoff Anthony Lerew will be in the rotation as he comes back from arm surgery while Blake Johnson, who had a disappointing '08, and Matt Kniginyzky, who gets the promotion off a solid season in Wilmington, round out the rotation. The bullpen is led by submariner righty Chris Hayes at closer. Henry Barrera may also land in NWA but hadn't been assigned the last I saw...guess he's rehabbing a sore elbow. Lefty Gilbert de la Vara was returned as a rule 5 pick of the 'Stros so should bolster the bullpen along with Greg Holland (a Wilmington call-up), Chris Nicoll (had a strong '08 before being shut down with soreness), and Kyle Crist. Lefty Dan Cevette comes over from the Indians organization after posting a 7.11 ERA in the Carolina League in '08, righty Victor Marte gets his first shot at AA, and lefty Carlos Sencion is another Dayton Moore former Brave pickup who posted a 4.72 ERA in the Southern League last season. All in all, the pitching staff should be solid enough to keep the team in contention. Pitchers to watch: Cortes, Nicoll, Hayes.

Prediction: The Nats were 10 games over .500 overall last season, which took into account a late first-half collapse. I don't think the offense will be as strong, but the pitching should be comparable. I say the Nats dip to 68 wins overall.

The Naturals get started with 3 games at the San Antonio Missions (AA Padres). The Missions' roster features Swingin' Friars prospects P Cesar Carrillo, OF Cedric Hunter, P Will Inman, 2B Eric Sogard, and C Mitch Canham. Cortes starts tonight's opener versus the Missions' Stephen Faris.

Wilmington (A-Advanced)

Wilmington may have the lineup I'm most excited about going into the season among the Royals affiliates, as the guys that formed the Bees' championship team move up one level to a Carolina League that always provides good competition. The big fish is, of course, uberprospect IF Mike Moustakas, who they still list at SS in the roster, but will play third. 2B Johnny Giavotella had a good pro debut in Burlington last season and will try to build on that in his first full season as a pro. Clint Robinson is in the lineup at first after starting out hot last season then cooling considerably. Jeff Bianchi didn't knock a lot of socks off last season but did go a full season without a back injury, which is good. He'll have a chance to start with a clean slate this season at Wilmington. Catching duties are split between Matt Morizio and Ryan Eigsti to start the season with Joe Billick on the DL. Both Eigsti and Morizio had infrequent offensive highlights last season. Anthony Seratelli is also on the roster in the infield as a returnee from last season's Blue Rocks. The outfield should be speedy and solid defensively with Derrick Robinson in center, Adrian Ortiz in left and Paulo Orlando in right. Ortiz and Orlando are the better of the group, offensively, as Robinson had his struggles getting on base last season. Orlando could also use some work in that area. Jamar Walton and David Lough are also in the outfield mix. Lough had a nice 2008 season so could take some playing time from the top 3. OF Jarrod Dyson got busted for PEDs so, like 3B Jason Taylor, starts the season on a 50-game suspension. Players to watch: Moustakas, Ortiz, Giavotella, Lough.

The rotation should be better in Wilmington this season and is led by lefty Dan Duffy, who turns 20 this year and pitched great at Burlington last season. Alex Caldera also makes the move up after also doing well in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League last season. Mario Santiago, Everett Teaford, and either Jason Godin, who is coming back off a facial fracture last season, or lefty Ray Liotta should round out the rotation. The bullpen should also be a strength, although I'm still trying to figure out who the closer may be. The Delaware News-Journal in Wilmington states Aaron Hartsock will start the year as closer, but I may bank on Brandon Sisk, who the Royals got from the Indy leagues last season and pitched very well in Burlington. Eduardo Paulino is also in the mix as perhaps a spot starter. Ben Swaggerty, Chris Chavez and Hartsock have had their bright moments out of the pen as well. Two organizational newcomers are lefties Kelvin Villa, who's *shock* an ex-Brave and struggled somewhat in the Carolina League last season, and Craig Rodriguez, who was good in the A-Advanced Sally (South Atlantic) League last year in the Rockies' organization. Pitchers to watch: Duffy, Caldera, Liotta, Sisk.

Prediction: The Rocks won 69 games overall last season and I can see them bettering that, although the Carolina League is tough. I say 75 wins overall, and we'll see if Moustakas earns a call to AA by season's end.

The Rocks start the season tonight with the first of 4 at the Myrtle Beach Pelicans (A-Adv. Braves). It's the only level the Braves and Royals face off head-to-head in. The Pelicans' roster features top Braves prospect OF Jason Heyward, hot Braves prospect 1B Fred Freeman, lefty Cole Rohrbough, righty Craig Kimbrel, lefty Jeff Locke, and lefty Edgar Osuna. Alex Caldera squares off with Osuna in the opener.

Burlington (A)

The newest crop of short-season guys joins the guys who were kind of lost in the shuffle or crowded out of the picture somewhat at Burlington last year. The big name is 1B Eric Hosmer, who got barely more than 10 ABs in his pro debut at Idaho Falls last year before the whole when-was-the-contract-signed squabble forced KC to pull him from the lineup for good. He gets his first major look at pro ball at Burlington, where Moustakas stood out last year. SS J.D. Alfaro moves up from Idaho Falls, where he had a good pro debut in '08. Alwin Perez returns at 2B while Antonio Jimenez moves up from IF at third. Catching should be a strength as Jose Bonilla, Salvador Perez and Sean McCauley are all 3 at Burlington. Bonilla had a great year in the AZL last season while Perez also stood out in rookie ball. McCauley is no slouch, either. Kyle Martin had a good year with the Bees last year and is back to get more PT either in the infield or at DH. The OF is bookended by the "Nicks" -- Francis and Van Stratten, who both had more than their fair share of bright spots in 2008. Patrick Norris is also called up to play CF but will need to upgrade his work at the plate from 2008. Light-hitting IF Juan Rivera and OF Wilson Tucker round out the positional side of things with 1B David Wood on the DL. Players to watch: Hosmer, Martin, Van Stratten, Bonilla.

The Bees' rotation is an unproven commodity, for the most part. The rotation includes Bryan Casey, who was the ace at Idaho Falls last season, Sam Runion, who has yet to put together consistently good performances in his young career, Luis Cota, who showed signs of the old Cota last year in his comeback from arm surgery, Manauris Baez, and Brent Fisher, who is also coming back from injury. I would have figured Kelvin Herrera would start the season at Burlington but he has yet to be added to the roster coming off a fine '08. I figure the closer is Barry Bowden with a bullpen of Zach Peterson, who I've liked, Ivor Hodgson, who could be a spot starter or piggyback with Baez or Fisher, Burke Baldwin, Derrick Saito, Blaine Hardy and new guy Riquy Pena, who didn't fare well in 5 innings pitched of rookie ball last season. Righty James Thompson may also be in the closer mix after an up-and-down season in IF last year. Pitchers to watch: Peterson, Casey, Cota.

Prediction: It's hard to live up to the standard of a championship team, even if that team didn't have a great first half. The Bees won 73 games overall last season, and would be hard-put to match that, but if Herrera and another solid young pitcher like John Flanagan, Mike Montgomery or Tim Melville can step up, they have a shot. For now I'll put them at 68 wins.

The season opens tonight with the first of three against the Clinton LumberKings (A Mariners). Clinton's roster features M's prospects 3B Mario Martinez, righty Brett Lorin, and righty Steven Hensley. Hensley and Casey will clash as the teams open the season tonight.

That's your top 4 minors teams and how they start the season. RotF reports start tomorrow!

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