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January 22, 2007

Future Shock

Kansas City Royals Top Ten Prospects

by Kevin Goldstein

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Excellent Prospects
1. Alex Gordon, 3b
2. Billy Butler, lf/rf
3. Luke Hochevar, rhp
Very Good Prospects
None
Good Prospects
4. Chris Lubanski, of
5. Ryan Braun, rhp
Average Prospects
6. Danny Christensen, lhp
7. Brent Fisher, lhp
8. Tyler Lumsden, lhp
9. Mitch Maier, cf/rf
10. Jeff Bianchi, ss/2b

1. Alex Gordon, 3b
DOB: 2/10/84
Height/Weight: 6-1/210
Bats/Throws: L/R
Drafted: 1st round, 2005, University of Nebraska
What he did in 2006: .325/.427/.588 at AA (577 PA)
The Good: Without a weakness offensively. Tremendous bat speed, quick wrists and raw physical strength means he will hit for both average and power, with balls flying out of the park from pole to pole as he doesn't have to fully square a ball up for it to leave the yard. Excellent pitch recognition with the ability to identify which pitches he can pull and which he can slice the other way. Surprisingly good runner for his size, and excellent instincts for the game.
The Bad: Anything one can say here is nitpicking. Gordon can press at times in clutch situations and overswing when it's not necessary. While he'll never win a Gold Glove, he's a solid defensive third baseman. There were some complaints about Gordon's big league attitude at times, but nobody questioned his work ethic.
The Irrelevant: In three starts at first base, Gordon was 1-for-12 with five strikeouts at the plate.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A perennial All-Star and MVP candidate.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low. At the end of 2006, the Royals were universal in insisting that Gordon would at least see some time at Triple-A before reaching the big leagues. That kind of talk has quieted down, and Gordon will only return to the minors if he has a miserable spring training performance. Don't tell the guys in your fantasy league, but he's a solid favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year honors.

2. Billy Butler, lf/rf
DOB: 4/18/86
Height/Weight: 6-2/225
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted: 1st round, 2004, Florida HS
What he did in 2006: .331/.388/.499 at AA (535 PA)
The Good: Gifted hitter won the Texas League batting title as a 20-year-old thanks to remarkable hand/eye coordination and excellent swing mechanics. Raw power is well-above average, and Butler works the count well. Shows no discernible weakness when it comes to pitch types or locations.
The Bad: Butler's 2005 campaign at High Desert may have created some inflated expectations, as both his home run and walk rates took a significant dip in 2006. Originally drafted as a third baseman, where one scout called him "The worst professional infielder I've ever seen." Butler has made significant improvement in the outfield, but the upgrade has really only been from "indescribably horrific" to "not for the squeamish." He's a born DH.
The Irrelevant: Butler's teammate at Wolfson High in Jacksonville was righthander Eric Hurley, also a first round pick in 2004 and one of the top prospects in the Rangers system.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A middle-of-the-order run producer with zero defensive value.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low. Like Gordon, the Royals say they want Butler to begin the year at Triple-A Omaha, only this time they mean it. He will likely get his first shot at the big leagues when Mike Sweeney makes his first unavoidable trip to the disabled list.

3. Luke Hochevar, rhp
DOB: 9/13/83
Height/Weight: 6-5/205
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted: 1st round, 2006, University of Tennessee
What he did in 2006: 2.38 ERA at Indy League (22.2-20-11-34), 1.17 ERA at Low A (15.1-8-2-16)
The Good: Missing nearly a year of competition due to draft negotiation hijinks, Hochevar looked just as good if not better than he did in college when he returned to the mound. Low-90s fastball touches 95-96 mph at times and bores in hard on right-handed batters. Hammer curve is a plus offering, and he mixes in a quality slider from time to time that he likes to use as a chase pitch. Good deception and fade on his changeup, and he can throw all of his pitches for strikes at any point in the count.
The Bad: Hochevar is more the case of good stuff + good command = excellent pitcher as opposed to an overwhelming talent. He can be guilty at times of working too high in the strike zone. He enters the season as a 23-year-old with just 15.1 innings of pro experience plus a couple of post-season starts and a brief Arizona Fall League stint.
The Irrelevant: Luke's little brother Dylan is considered the family's top athlete, and recently committed to follow in his big brother's footsteps at the University of Tennessee beginning in 2008.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: An above-average big league starter, and a number one for a team like the Royals.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average. Hochevar will begin the season at Double-A Wichita, but there ain't a whole lot in the current Royals rotation that's going to keep him down on the farm if he pitches well.

4. Chris Lubanski, of
DOB: 3/24/85
Height/Weight: 6-3/185
Bats/Throws: L/L
Drafted: 1st round, 2003, Pennsylvania HS
What he did in 2006: .282/.369/.475 at AA (613 PA)
The Good: For the second consecutive season, Lubanski's season was a tale of two halves as a huge run late in the season gave him nice final numbers. Lubanski clearly became a better hitter in 2006, thanks to a much better approach: both his walk and strikeout rates made significant moves in the right direction. Lubanski simplified his hitting mechanics, using a more upright stance that allowed him to get his bat into the hitting zone quicker and with more life.
The Bad: Drafted as a burner, Lubanski has filled out and is no more than a strong-average runner at this point. He's a bad defensive outfielder with awful reads, bad routes and a below-average arm. His power is average, and may not be enough to profile as an everyday corner outfielder. Few players in the minor leagues generate such diverse opinions as Lubanski, with projections ranging everywhere from future star to career minor leaguer.
The Irrelevant: Lubanski started at least one game at every slot in the lineup but fourth, and spent at least ten games at five different positions in the batting order. His most productive slot was ninth, where he hit .352/.462/.722 with 20 RBI in 18 games.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: An average left fielder, with a shot at a bit more than that if his improvements continue.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average. Lubanski will begin the year in Triple-A. If he can get off to a hot start, which he hasn't done once in his career, he could get a look despite no obvious opening in the Kansas City outfield.

5. Ryan Braun, rhp
DOB: 7/29/80
Height/Weight: 6-2/205
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted: 6th round, 2003, University of Nevada-Las Vegas
What he did in 2006: 2.21 ERA at AA (40.2-30-16-58), 2.16 ERA at AAA (25-23-13-22), 6.75 ERA at MLB (10.2-13-3-6)
The Good: Not to be confused with Milwaukee's top prospect, this Ryan Braun is one of a number of cheap college selections from the 2003 draft. Some Texas League hitters called Braun the toughest reliever they saw all year. Fastball sits at 95-98 mph and features late, heavy sink as evidenced by a strong groundball/flyball ratio of nearly two-to-one. Spiking curveball is second plus pitch that he likes to bury in the dirt.
The Bad: Drafted as a college senior, Braun missed most of 2005 recovering from shoulder surgery, so he'll turn 27 during the season and offers little projection: he is what he is. He has problems throwing his breaking ball for strikes and his violent mechanics have some concerned about further arm problems down the road.
The Irrelevant: Batting average against Braun in the eighth inning: .123; Batting average against Braun in the ninth: .213.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A late-innings reliever with closer possibilities. C'mon, you really think Octavio Dotel is gonna work out?
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low. Braun is a finished product and will compete for a big-league bullpen job in spring training.

6. Danny Christensen, lhp
DOB: 8/10/83
Height/Weight: 6-2/200
Bats/Throws: L/L
Drafted: 4th round, 2002, New York HS
What he did in 2006: 4.89 ERA at High A (162-175-58-153)
The Good: Slow developer performed admirably at High Desert, finishing third in strikeouts in the California League. Good numbers masked by performing in the minor league's most difficult park to pitch in. Big, sturdy lefthander relies on 89-92 mph fastball with good movement as well as effective looping curveball. Changeup has shown progress and projects as an average offering. Two years removed from Tommy John surgery, Christensen showed excellent stamina during the season.
The Bad: Five years after being drafted, Christensen has yet to get out of A ball. He led the California League in home runs allowed (23), which was partially the result of pitching in High Desert, where 16 of them occurred, and partially the result of a tendency to lose focus and groove fastballs or hang curves.
The Irrelevant: In his final five road starts, Christensen had a 2.55 ERA in 35.1 innings, allowing just 22 hits and striking out 36.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A solid left-handed starter in the middle-to-back of the rotation.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Average. Christensen will face the first major on-the-field test of his career with an advancement to Double-A Wichita.

7. Brent Fisher, lhp
DOB: 8/6/87
Height/Weight: 6-2/190
Bats/Throws: L/L
Drafted: 7th round, 2005, Arizona HS
What he did in 2006: 2.12 ERA at Rookie-level (72.1-43-19-107)
The Good: Seventh-round pick has been statistically overpowering in a pair of short-season stints, striking out 176 batters in 122.2 innings. Good command of an 88-92 mph fastball that features nice cutting movement. Slow curveball is a plus offering that gave lower-level batters fits. Mechanics are smooth, and body offers some projection.
The Bad: Some scouts fear that Fisher has a little bit of Yusmeiro Petit in him, depending as much on a deceptive delivery as on the quality of his stuff. His changeup is little more than a show-me pitch right now.
The Irrelevant: On July 19th, Fisher struck out 11 over six no-hit, no-walk innings, yet got pegged for his only loss of the season.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: Too early to peg an exact role at this point, but despite the amazing numbers, he projects as no more than a No. 3 or 4 starter.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: High. Fisher will get his first taste of full-season ball with Low Class-A Burlington.

8. Tyler Lumsden, lhp
DOB: 5/9/83
Height/Weight: 6-4/215
Bats/Throws: L/L
Drafted: 1st round, 2004, Clemson (White Sox)
What he did in 2006: 2.69 ERA at AA White Sox (123.2-114-40-72), 3.06 ERA at AA Royals (35.1-35-20-24)
The Good: Acquired from the White Sox in the Mike MacDougal trade, Lumsden was especially impressive considering that he missed all of 2005 after surgery to remove bone chips in his elbow. 90-93 mph fastball has heavy sink and run, and he also works an effective curve in the lower part of the strike zone, with an outstanding groundball ratio of two-to-one. Big, athletic, and fields his position well.
The Bad: Lumsden's inability to miss bats means he'll always require significant support from his defense. His command can falter at times.
The Irrelevant: Lumsden was also a basketball star at Cave Springs High in Virginia, where one of his teammates was former Duke All-American and current Orlando Magic guard J.J. Redick.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A rotation workhorse.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low. Lumsden will begin the year at Triple-A Omaha, but is likely first on the list for a big-league call if the need for a starter emerges.

9. Mitch Maier, cf/rf
DOB: 6/30/82
Height/Weight: 6-2/200
Bats/Throws: L/R
Drafted: 1st round, 2003, University of Toledo
What he did in 2006: .306/.357/.473 at AA (603 PA); .154/.267/.154 at MLB (15 PA)
The Good: Sweet-swinging outfielder recovered from tough first half by batting .348 in 60 games after July 1. Athletic player is a slightly above-average runner and has gap power. Drafted as a catcher and moved initially to third base, he's made great strides defensively in the outfield and has a solid arm.
The Bad: Maier's primary offensive skill is hitting for average. His power offers little projection and he needs to improve his on-base skills. While his effort is unquestioned, he's probably still a little short defensively to be an everyday center fielder.
The Irrelevant: The highest-drafted player in University of Toledo history, Maier finished his three-year career as the school's all-time leader in hits, total bases and RBI.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: A valuable fourth outfielder who can fill in at all three positions and not embarrass himself when he needs to start.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: Low. Maier is slated for Triple-A Omaha, but should return to Kansas City at some point in the season.

10. Jeff Bianchi, ss/2b
DOB: 10/5/86
Height/Weight: 6-0/175
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted: 2nd round, 2005, Pennsylvania HS
What he did in 2006: .429/.537/.667 at Rookie level (54 PA)
The Good: Athletic middle infielder has put up Playstation numbers in two short, injury-plagued complex league stints, boasting career averages of .414/.500/.721 in 176 plate appearances. Lightning-fast, compact swing laces line drives all over the field, and Bianchi's approach is highly advanced. Above-average speed and very good fundamentals make him a very good defender.
The Bad: After a back injury in 2005, Bianchi suffered through a shoulder problem in 2006 that finally led to labrum surgery. His arm was already a little weak for shortstop, so a move to second base seems inevitable now. Body offers little projection.
The Irrelevant: In his brief big-league career, Bianchi has drawn just three walks in 32 at-bats against lefties, but 22 in 108 at-bats versus righties.
In A Perfect World, He Becomes: An above-average offensive second baseman.
Gap Between What He Is Now, And What He Can Be: High. The Royals expect Bianchi to be ready for spring training and his assignment at Low-A Burlington. For 2007, his most important statistic might just be games played.

The Sleeper

Rule 5 selection Joakim Soria is a tall, lanky righthander from Mexico who was lights out in the Mexican Pacific League, but has pitched a total of 16.2 innings in Estados Unidos and turns 23 in May. He relies primarily on a fastball/changeup combination, but could stick as a spot starter/long reliever.

The Big Picture: Rankings Combined With Non-Rookies 25 Years Old Or Younger (As Of Opening Day 2007)

1. Alex Gordon, 3b
2. Billy Butler, lf/rf
3. Luke Hochevar, rhp
4. Mark Teahen, 3b... for now
5. Chris Lubanski, of
6. Ryan Braun, rhp
7. Danny Christensen, lhp
8. Brent Fisher, lhp
9. Tyler Lumsden, lhp
10. Mitch Maier, cf/rf

* Zack Greinke

Teahen had an outstanding second half, but he's going to change positions in 2007, and we might need more evidence before proclaiming him as the next big thing. There are a number of other candidates for the list, but they all fall on the disappointing side of the street, with lefthander Jimmy Gobble and outfielders Joey Gathright and Shane Costa failing to be worth much of anything at the big-league level.

Not ranking Greinke may seem like a cop out, but we are dealing with a special case here. We really don't know what his problems are (or were), and it's frankly none of our business. At the same time, it leaves projecting his future an impossible task, and anybody who wants to act like they have some insight into it without knowing the exact circumstances of Greinke's 2006 problems is a liar.

The Royals system has no depth, but it's hard to final another system with three elite-level prospects like this at the top. Are they enough to save the franchise? Hardly, but they're certainly a legitimate cause of optimism in the City of Fountains.

Next: The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim show us what a deep system is all about.

Kevin Goldstein is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Kevin's other articles. You can contact Kevin by clicking here

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