PERHAPS IT IS mere coincidence that two teams loaded with homegrown talent and other talent brought in by said homegrown talent played in the World Series this season.
The Kansas City Royals have much in common with the San Francisco Giants as it relates to looking inward to fill out a 25-man roster. Kansas City is now four seasons removed from The Best System In History (as crowned by Baseball America and many other outlets prior to the 2011 season) and thanks to some savvy trades by general manager Dayton Moore, the Royals reached the World Series roughly one year quicker than anticipated.
If the Royals are to make it back to the World Series in 2015, more homegrown talent will need to either rise to the challenge or become useful parts of a big trade to fill some gaping holes on the big-league roster.
The problem for the Royals is this: Those holes do not match up with what currently is percolating through the farm system.
Kansas City needs a rightfielder, a starting pitcher and someone who can capably play either backup catcher, third base or rightfield part time while being a part of a designated hitter rotation. At the recently concluded GM meetings in Phoenix, the Royals were linked to Torii Hunter and the latest Cuban phenom Yasmany Thomas to fill right field. Ervin Santana, who pitched for KC in 2013, was the most oft-mentioned replacement for departed free agent James Shields.
As for the DH spot, Kansas City appears willing to get very creative as talk of taking on Ryan Howard (if Philadelphia picks up all but roughly $6-8 million of Howard’s annual salary) made the rounds.
There are other irons in the fire as well. Moore’s long history with the Atlanta Braves fuels the possibility of KC chasing after Jason Heyward, Justin Upton or Evan Gattis. Of that trio, Gattis would be the most intriguing, for being under team control and as someone who could spell All-Star catcher Salvador Perez with the two switching off between catcher and DH. The Braves have come to suspect Gattis is more suited to the American League and the Royals would have the farm system to spin up a deal.
About that farm system: Its best talents either are coming off of surgery (Kyle Zimmer) or are years away (Low-A Wilmington and rookie-league Burlington were loaded this summer). There are a few trade-high prospects floating around in the form of third baseman Hunter Dozier, pitcher Christian Binford and possibly the Wilmington duo of pitcher Miguel Almonte and Raul Mondesi Jr.
What really stands out about the Top 15 Prospects list that follows is just how many spots are represented by first-rounders and international free agent signings. What does that mean? Simply put — the Royals’ scouts are doing an outstanding job. There are six first-rounders and six IFAs among the top 15. Of the other three prospects, two were second-rounders. Impressive.
Omaha won the Triple-A National Championship for the second consecutive season with a record-breaking number of Quadruple-A players whose upside is that of big-league backups, so few answers will emerge from the Storm Chasers next spring.
For now, here are the Royals’ Top-15 prospects to watch:
Triple-A: Omaha Storm Chasers
Double-A: Northwest Arkansas Naturals
High-A: Wilmington Blue Rocks
Low-A: Lexington Legends
Short Season: Idaho Falls Chukars
Rookie: Burlington Royals
Cheslor Cuthbert – 3B
Date of birth: Nov. 16, 1992
Acquired: Int’l Free Agent, July 2, 2009
|2014||21||-3.6||2 Teams||2 Lgs||AA-AAA||KCR||121||495||446||47||122||24||1||12||64||10||4||45||79||.274||.339||.413||.752||184||13||1||0||3||2|
Analysis: Cuthbert found himself at Triple-A Omaha this season in large part because once he began to experience success at the Royals’ Double-A bandbox, they needed to move him out in order to promote Hunter Dozier from High-A, where he was showing signs of toying with Carolina League competition. That said, Cuthbert – who actually is a year younger than Dozier – tantalizes the Royals with his raw power and began to show the organization’s patented free-swinging, low-strikeout, low-walk look at the plate (for better or worse)
Cuthbert should thrive at Omaha for a full season in 2015, but it could be something of a crossroads season for him, should Dozier continue his ascent behind him. Though he plays a serviceable third base, his big arm and thick lower half do fit the profile of a corner outfielder or possibly first base. He’s in a tough spot, trapped between big-leaguer/playoffs hero Mike Moustakas and rising star Dozier. We’ll see if that competition brings out the best in him in 2015.
Sam Selman – LHP
Date of birth: Nov. 14, 1990
Acquired: 2nd round, 2012 draft
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Analysis: Selman sure seems to fit right in with the Royals’ wealth of big-fastball hurlers as his velocity checks in at mid-90s. He also flashes a sometimes-deadly slider, but cannot seem to consistently throw it for strikes just yet. It’s a combo that best fits under the moniker “effectively wild” for he struck out more than 10 batters per nine innings between Double-A and Triple-A in 2014.
While that fastball-slider combo is big-league ready right now, nothing else about him is, including his long-term role. There is a split in the organization about whether he is a starter or back-end reliever. That means 2015 in Omaha will be all about developing his fringy changeup into a serviceable big-league offering. If not, expect to see him in KC’s bullpen if the Royals find themselves in another pennant chase late next season.
Marten Gasparini – SS
Date of birth: May 24, 1997
Acquired: IFA, July 2, 2013
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Analysis: Rated by MLBPipeline.com as the No. 4 international prospect in 2013, the Royals threw a wheelbarrow ($1.3 million) of cash at the kid conseider to be the best prospect ever to come out of Europe.
At Burlington to start 2014, Gasparini showed some brilliant natural ability playing short but was predictably inconsistent with routine plays and often overmatched at the plate. Both of those shortcomings can easily be explained by him being just 17. Still, that did not stop the Royals from bumping Gasparini up to Short-Season Idaho Falls for the final week of the season, where he hit .455 with his first professional home run in 11 at-bats.
The Royals seemingly get themselves in trouble with their rapid promotions of painfully young prospects (see Raul Mondesi later in this list) but find themselves doing so due to numbers. Because KC closed down their Arizona rookie team prior to the 2014 season, Burlington was loaded down with a 38-man roster, so when any of the high school-age picks show even a glimmer of progress, it’s on to Idaho Falls to play with the college kids.
Where will Gasparini play in 2015? Anyone’s guess. KC could stash him at Low-A Lexington with a plan to ship him to Idaho Falls when the Pioneer League opens for business. That’s something the Royals often do. He is a long way from The Show, but you can’t teach his batspeed and his switch-hitting approach appears to be yielding consistent gap power from both sides.
Christian Binford – RHP
Date of birth: Dec. 20, 1992
Acquired: 30th round, 2011 draft
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Let’s focus on those minor league numbers, though: Binford toyed with Carolina League competition during the first half of the season, pitching to a 5-4 record with a 2.40 earned run average. He fanned 92 and walked 11 in 82 2/3 innings.
That earned him eight starts at NW Arkansas where he managed a 3-2 mark with a 3.19 ERA while toiling in an extreme hitters’ environment. As a part of the Royals’ postseason push, Binford was moved to the bullpen in Omaha during the season’s home stretch to prepare him for a possible role in the September KC bullpen. He flunked that audition, but it was nothing that would be held against him.
That’s because if Binford is going to make it in baseball, it will be as a starter. His offerings all rate out as average while his control rates as above average. His upside is that of a No. 3 starter and his frame and style scream durability. That said, a strike-throwing pitcher with average stuff can get pummeled in The Show … or become Jeremy Guthrie. The Royals would probably take that.
Ramon Torres – SS
Date of birth: Jan. 22, 1993
Acquired: IFA, July 13, 2009
|2014||21||-1.0||2 Teams||2 Lgs||A-A+||KCR||117||477||425||60||121||20||5||5||34||20||7||26||56||.285||.329||.391||.720||166||2||3||21||2||0|
Analysis: Man, oh man, the Royals system is overrun with shortstops. Torres has been somewhat lost in the glow of Raul Mondesi and Marten Gasparini, among others which likely means his future might be on the other side of the infield, where he could evolve into an above-average second baseman.
The bat certainly seems to be there. Torres raked at Low-A Lexington, batting .304 with 22 extra-base hits in 276 at-bats, forcing the Royals to move him up to Wilmington to split time with Mondesi. He played plenty of second base at Wilmington and as he figures to move through the organization with Mondesi, we might have seen the last of him at short.
He is tough to strike out and he shows the kind of pop that would be a huge advantage at second base, let alone short. We’re slightly higher on him here than some other outlets but a lot of that has to do with him currently being listed as a shortstop in a loaded organization. When current Royals second baseman Omar Infante finally decomposes after the 2016 season, Torres should be ready to step in.
Chase Vallot – C
Date of birth: Aug. 21, 1996
Acquired: 1st round compensatory, 2014 draft
Analysis: Vallot was draft for his bat, so let’s not even parse words about that. He flashed his ridiculous power by swatting 14 doubles and seven home runs at Burlington in his first taste of pro ball. That he batted just .215 is of little consequence. The bat plays and his overall hit tools rate at above-average across the board.
The mild surprise came behind the plate, where Vallot’s big arm and underrated defensive tools might be leading the Royals to thinking he could stick back there. Overall, those skills have a long way to go to be big-league ready and he could still find himself with an outfielder’s glove by the time he reaches the upper levels (the Royals do sort of have a solution at catcher at the moment, you know).
For now, he’ll work on cutting down the strikeouts while continuing to nurture that power stroke and taking walks (a .329 on-base percentage despite the .215 batting average). It’s a coin-flip, but like Gasparini, odds are he starts out at Low-A Lexington, then slides over to short-season Idaho Falls … if he needs to.
Scott Blewett — RHP
Date of birth: April 10, 1996
Acquired: 2nd round, 2014 draft
Analysis: Here we start to slip into the Royals’ pitching specialty – plucking high upside arms with a history of injury problems. What is fascinating about Blewett is that he and Christian Binford check in at roughly the same size, but Blewett comes across as utterly imposing.
A lot of that is due to his delivery, in which he comes straight over the top. That creates a steep angle that can be daunting for any hitter hoping to loft a fly ball. The fastball currently lives in the low-90s but as he grows into his frame, it could consistently tick up to its current topping out point of 96.
His other two offerings are a curve and a changeup, both works in progress, but both come with a high differential to the fastball. The curve in particular sits in the mid- to upper-70s. What also rates as interesting is his injury history. The Royals might have gotten themselves a steal for his delivery comes easy and loose and very repeatable, making the organization’s belief that his malady was a one-off event. That said, expect the Royals to move him through the ranks with a cautious approach.
Foster Griffin – LHP
Date of birth: July 27, 1995
Acquired: 1st round, 2014 draft
Analysis: What a treat it is to watch this kid pitch. Griffin oozes natural ability with a fastball that can run all over the place and two other pitches that already rate as near- to above-average. What remains is for him to consistently exercise control over them while filling out and adding velo to an already low-90s heater.
He does have a great feel for all three pitches and no fear of throwing them at any point in the count. He is a classic pitch-backward candidate. With a change that is ahead of his slider at this point, it’s easy to close your eyes and imagine Griffin developing into a left-handed James Shields. It is possible he one day can be a 220-innings workhorse like the Royals now-ex staff ace.
Time will tell, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him follow Binford’s track upward in the 2016 season (from High-A to Triple-A) with a September 2017 arrival in KC.
Miguel Almonte – RHP
Date of birth: April 4, 1993
Acquired: IFA, Nov. 20, 2010
Analysis: Almonte should be far better than his numbers have shown. He has big-league stuff right now, but he spend a significant hunk of the 2014 season at Wilmington fumbling around on the mound without anything resembling a plan.
Is that the Royals fault, or is he just struggling to make that transition from uber-talented thrower to pitcher? Hard to say. At any rate, he began to get himself under control late in the season. When he is at his best, he’s throwing a plus-plus fastball for strikes in order to set up a changeup that can corkscrew a batter into the ground.
With 101 strikeouts and just 32 walks in 110 1/3 innings, it is tempting to say he was just unlucky with his 4.49 ERA. If you saw him pitch, you’d understand how that ERA came to be. His occasional lapses have resulted in wooly innings.
He should probably be at Double-A next season, from a confidence-building standpoint, but the better route might be to start him out once more in Wilmington and quickly bump him up. If he gathers himself and continues to develop his currently fringy curve, he could be in KC by 2016.
Jorge Bonifacio – OF
Date of birth: June 4, 1993
Acquired: IFA, Dec. 9, 2009
Analysis: The rubber is about to meet the road on this prospect with huge potential but limited returns to date. Bonifacio is a kid with tremendous power who for some reason has yet to have it translate at the plate.
When you look at all his gifts, his frame and his potential, it’s easy to envision him roaming Kauffman Stadium’s right field for the next 10 years. When you look at his 505 at-bat, four-homer, .240 batting average season at a hitter’s park, you have to squint to see a bat off the bench.
It could be Bonifacio was still dealing with the lingering effect of a hamate bone break he suffered in 2013. If that’s the case, he’s the Royals best batting candidate for a breakout 2015 season. Defensively, he’s not fleet of foot, but he can play the outfield and has a good arm.
Brandon Finnegan – LHP
Date of birth: April 14, 1993
Acquired: 1st round, 2014 draft
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Analysis: Wait a minute, wasn’t this guy one of the heroes of the 2014 postseason? Didn’t he also pitch TCU to the College World Series? Why is he only checking in at No. 5 on this list?
That’s pretty easy to answer, actually. The Royals drafted Finnegan because they firmly believed he was the closest to the majors of any pitcher available when they picked at No. 17. They sought immediate help and they got it.
That said, Finnegan does not project to be a top-of-the-rotation starter and in fact might not project to a starting rotation at all. He does possess a plus fastball that can touch the upper 90s and a high-velo slider. The problem – one that was covered up by coming out of the bullpen – is his lack of a third pitch. It could be that he develops his changeup into that pitch, but it is much more tempting for the Royals to leave him in the bullpen and allow him to join the “Law Firm” of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland.
In fact, with the tantalizing prospect of having Finnegan for a full season or re-signing Luke Hochevar, it would not be a surprise if KC traded high on Holland this offseason. Keep an eye out for that. At any rate, Finnegan is a big-leaguer right now in the bullpen if KC wants it, but probably at least a year away with mid-rotation potential if they are determined to start him.
Hunter Dozier – 3B
Date of birth: Aug. 22, 1991
Acquired: 1st round, 2013
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Analysis: When the Royals drafted Dozier with the No. 8 overall pick in 2013, the industry scoffed until they fully understood Dayton Moore’s plan to use bonus-pool money to lure Sean Manaea into the fold with a compensatory selection. At the time, Dozier was considered to be a late-first round pick at best.
Turns out Dozier is a good enough hitter that he might be proving worthy of that high pick. After a slow start at Wilmington, Dozier caught fire and terrorized the Carolina League with a power tool second only to uber-phenom Joey Gallo.
That power understandably did not translate into home runs at Wilmington, where hitters go to die, and he cooled off in his first taste of Double-A leading to a final full-season tally of 30 doubles and eight home runs.
Dozier’s defense was a surprise. He showed impressive range and a flashy glove to go with a cannon arm and looks to be capable of sticking at the position. He’ll start out at Double-A due to an organizational glut, but don’t be surprised if he swaps places with Triple-A hot corner man Cheslor Cuthbert midway through 2015. As for his future – Mike Moustakas, don’t look back, because something might be gaining on you.
Raul Mondesi – SS
Date of birth: July 27, 1995
Acquired: IFA, July 27, 2011
Analysis: Kansas City signed the son of former big-league slugger Raul Mondesi the second he turned 16. That right there tells you plenty of what the Royals thought in regards to his talent.
Mondesi has done absolutely nothing to disappoint the Royals in the years since. For those who have not seen Mondesi play, his offensive numbers are underwhelming. But put those numbers in context – he spent most of the 2014 season as an 18-year-old in the Carolina League in a ballpark that is utterly allergic to hitters.
Mondesi also is a switch-hitter, something that can often mean a slower learning curve at the plate. All the Royals expected of Mondesi at the plate in 2014 was an occasional glimpse at his overall ability. He gave them that. In early August, Mondesi put on a clinic, hitting four home runs in a one-week span. As is, he led the league with 12 triples and stole 17 bases in 21 attempts.
In the field, his defense was Gold Glove-caliber with an occasional slip-up on a routine play. His arm was huge and he proved capable of making all the throws necessary to play short. As he grows into himself, scouts expect a decent uptick in power.
In summation, it is the consensus of scouts that any weaknesses Mondesi has shown to date are due to his extreme youth playing up several levels from where other 18-year-olds should be. His future is as bright as any prospect in the organization and he could be making his Royals debut before or near his 21st birthday.
Sean Manaea – LHP
Date of birth: Feb. 1, 1992
Acquired: 1st round compensatory, 2013 draft
Analysis: How good is Sean Manaea? Mark this down – if he picks up where he left off in 2014 and the Royals find themselves in need of an arm after the All-Star break, Manaea will be there.
No pitcher in the organization flashed anywhere near the potential of Manaea in 2014. After a very slow start at Wilmington, Manaea made a minor adjustment in his delivery which unleashed his dominating repertoire on unsuspecting Carolina League hitters.
Featuring a deceptive delivery that adds extra vigor to a heavy fastball with late life and a slider (or is it a slurve?) that rates well above average, Manaea fanned 146 batters in 121 2/3 innings. As the summer heated up, so did he. Following the All-Star break, Manaea went 5-3 with a 1.96 ERA, fanning 79 in 72 innings. His final start was a seven-inning, three-hit 12-strikeout gem.
All of this came after a 2013 in which hip surgery dropped his previously top-of-the-draft project down to the Royals’ compensatory slot. The Royals have proven they have no fear of a pitcher’s pre-draft injury history, going all-in on the high-risk, high-reward nature of such selections. The Royals believed the hip injury to be of a one-time fluke nature. If so, they gained a top-of-the-rotation hurler who fits in quite nicely between future KC rotations of Yordano Ventura, Danny Duffy and the next guy on our list.
Kyle Zimmer – RHP
Date of birth: Sept. 13, 1991
Acquired: 1st round, 2012
Analysis: Now, it might be tempting to drop Zimmer down from this top spot following yet another health issue late in the 2014 season. He needed minor shoulder surgery in October which shut down his return from another malady that had shelved him for most of the season.
Zimmer was the first in a string of top draft picks spent on pitchers with huge upsides coming off some sort of injury. This also coincided with a shift in the Royals’ training and medical staff which has gone on to be considered one of the best such staffs in the sport. If we give the Royals the benefit of the doubt that each of these injuries are not of a chronic nature, then in Zimmer the Royals own a future ace.
Everything Zimmer throws is above average and his fastball is All-Star caliber. When healthy, his heater has touched triple-digits. He has a curve that seemingly drops down an elevator shaft three feet before home plate and a slider and change that are dueling to become his third offering. Put together, it all rates as comparable to former Royal Zack Greinke.
The Royals had hoped it would be Zimmer – not Finnegan – who slid into their September bullpen, but he just was not ready, then got injured. The Royals expect him to be at or near 100 percent in spring and given the spotty health track record, will likely keep him on a short leash in 2015.
Even then, though, if Zimmer puts together a string of issue-free starts, it would not be a surprise to see him make at least an emergency start after the Super-2 deadline next season.