Today we have another guest columnist, Rany Jazayerli of Rany on the Royals. Here is Rany's current take on the condition of the Kansas City farm system, and the optimism that it gives him as a Royals fan.
John picked a good time to ask me to step in for him. Or at least, a good year.
If he had asked me a year ago if I'd like to write an article about the Royals farm system for his site, I would have come down with a sudden case of mono, or a hangnail, or maybe I would have gone old-school and contracted a case of Ross River Fever (points for the reference.)
A year ago, the top prospect in the system, who was drafted #2 overall on the premise that he had monster power, had just hit a modest .250 with 16 homers and a .297 OBP in high A-ball. The #2 prospect in the system, who had signed the largest amateur bonus ($6 million) the Royals had ever handed out, a former #3 overall pick advertised to have the sweetest swing in the nation, had hit a combined .241 with just six homers in the low minors. He had also missed nearly a week down the stretch while waiting for the Royals to deliver contact lenses with the right prescription.
There was some talent in the system, to be sure, most notably some high-school left-handers with good projection. But a team that had just lost 97 games - for the seventh time in the past 11 years - needed an extraordinary farm system to make people take notice. The Royals didn't have one.
That was last year.
This year was one of those rare years where every dial is perfectly positioned, every tumbler falls into place, and the safe cracks open to reveal the treasures inside - at least at the minor league level. This was the year I've been waiting for since I came of age as a Royals fan in the late 1980s. This was the year that the Royals finally put together the best farm system in baseball, for the first time in...well, quite possibly ever.
It's been a heady experience. And while it hasn't made the losing at the major-league level easier to endure, it has certainly made the losing easier to ignore.
The renaissance of the farm system coincided with the rebound of those two top picks. Mike Moustakas proved that his struggles in 2009 were more ballpark-related than anything else - Wilmington is a brutal place to hit - and despite missing the first two weeks of the season with an oblique strain, he led the minors with 36 home runs between Double-A and Triple-A. He also batted .321 and hit 41 doubles, while striking out just 67 times. Only one other player in the minors hit at least 20 homers with more extra-base hits than strikeouts.
That player would be Eric Hosmer, who followed Moustakas on the list of Royals' first-round picks, and followed Moustakas on the fast track through the minors this year. Hosmer had LASIK surgery after his disastrous 2009 season, and equally as importantly, allowed a fractured finger that he had played through much of the season to heal.
Playing in the hitters' graveyard in Wilmington, Hosmer batted a remarkable .354/.429/.545, with the only knock on his performance was a lack of home run power, as he hit just 7 in 87 games. Naturally, in his first game in Double-A, he homered, and finished with 13 homers in 50 games at Northwest Arkansas with a line of .313/.365/.615. For the season Hosmer had 20 homers, 43 doubles, and even 9 triples - while striking out just 66 times. He then homered five times in the playoffs, including two game-winning homers in his last at-bat.
You can make the case that both Moustakas and Hosmer rank among the top ten prospects in baseball. You can also make the case that neither of them ranks as the best prospect in the Royals system.
That case rests on the argument that Wil Myers is every bit their equal with the bat - Myers hit .315/.429/.506 between low and high A-ball as a 19-year-old - and by virtue of his ability to catch, outranks them with the glove. Realistically, Myers is likely to wind up in right field - he was already taking balls out there during instructional league - but he has the speed and arm to be an above-average corner outfielder with an All-Star caliber bat.
The success of these three hitters yet again hammers home one of the most basic, and least controversial, tenets of sabermetrics: draft picks are the best investment in baseball. During the Allard Baird Era in Kansas City, when ownership was so cheap that they refused to hold a Negro Leagues Turn Back The Clock Day one season because the uniforms would have cost six grand, the Royals probably wouldn't have signed any one of these guys.
Indeed, the Royals didn't decide to draft Moustakas until the morning of the draft - they were leaning towards Josh Vitters instead - before they decided that Moustakas' higher price tag was worth it. He almost didn't sign; the word is that Moustakas went over the head of his agent (a certain Scott Boras) to sign for $4 million minutes before the deadline. The Royals offered Hosmer $6 million, and the deal wasn't finalized until minutes after the deadline, which came to light during the brief Pedro Alvarez-Pittsburgh Pirates skirmish. And the Royals signed Myers, a late-first-round talent who fell to the third round because of his bonus demands, for $2 million.
Moustakas and Hosmer represent the two highest bonuses the Royals have ever given a draft pick; Myers got the highest bonus given to a Royal draft pick after the first round. It was money well spent.
And then there are the pitchers. Or more precisely, the left-handed pitchers. Historically, the Royals have done a terrible job at identifying and developing left-handed pitching. Consider this: in the history of the Royals, they have drafted just three left-handed starters who would win even 20 games during their Royals tenure: Paul Splittorff, Danny Jackson, and Jose Rosado. Yet today, the Royals quite simply have the most left-handed pitching depth I have ever seen in a single organization. They may have more high-quality left-handed starters in their farm system right now than the team has developed in its 41-year history - combined.
Picking the best lefty in the system is akin to picking the best outfit at the Oscars: it's simply a matter of taste.
Do you prefer the classic projectable tall southpaw, who since signing out of high school has added 5 mph to his fastball - he now touches 95-96 - along with an above-average changeup and curveball? Then Mike Montgomery is your man.
Have a weakness for a left-hander who maybe throws a touch slower - although his fastball still sits in the low 90s - but with impeccable command, the same two quality off-speed pitches, and exudes an aura of fearlessness on the mound? Then go with John Lamb.
Or would you rather have the thinking man's left-hander, who briefly took time away from the game this spring to re-assess his priorities, then came back with more giddyup on his fastball and more depth to his curveball? May I introduce you to Danny Duffy?
Or maybe you like your left-handers wild and intimidating? If you think a left-handed pitcher can survive in the rotation with just two above-average pitches - a mid-90s fastball and maybe the best curveball in the bunch - and if you don't want opposing batters to ever get too comfortable in the box, then I'd like to recommend Chris Dwyer.
These seven prospects - three hitters and four left-handed starters - are all likely Top 100 prospects, and by themselves would give the Royals arguably the best farm system in baseball. But what's scary is that this only the first wave of talent to come through. If the Royals released all seven players today - don't give them any ideas - their farm system would still probably rank in the middle of the pack.
There's Aaron Crow, last year's first-round pick and a rare disappointment in the system this year. Despite putting up ERAs well above 5 in both A-ball and Double-A, scouts still love his stuff, and think that, worst-case scenario, he'll still thrive as a late-inning reliever.
There's Christian Colon, a compromise #4 overall pick this year in a draft with only 3 elite talents. The Royals passed on Chris Sale at the last moment, which is a shame if only because if they had taken him, I'd be scouring the history books to see if any team had ever had so much left-handed pitching depth. But Colon is the perfect complement to the farm system, a shortstop who makes up for his lack of quickness with good positioning, terrific fundamentals, and a wicked line-drive bat.
There's Johnny Giavotella, who might be a poor man's Chuck Knoblauch when all is said and done. There's Seabiscuit himself, Tim Collins, who launches low-90s fastballs from a 5'7" frame, and was somehow pilfered from the Braves this July for the desiccated remains of Kyle Farnsworth and Rick Ankiel. There's a wave of Latin American talent headlined by Salvador Perez, a 20-year-old two-way threat behind the plate, and Cheslor Cuthbert, who at age 17 held his own in the Pioneer League.
There are a couple more hard-throwing right-handers who are young enough to work out their mechanical issues in Tim Melville and Tyler Sample. There's a pair of Willie Mays Hayes wannabes in Derrick Robinson and Jarrod Dyson. There's the Texas League Triple Crown winner in Clint Robinson. There's an entire bullpen full of potential relievers in Patrick Keating and Louis Coleman and Blaine Hardy and Kevin Chapman. There's a couple of promising teenage hurlers signed out of the Dominican in Yordano Ventura and Robinson Yambati. There are a couple of promising players rehabbing from a missed season in Jeff Bianchi and Noel Arguelles. There's a pair of over-slot picks from the 2010 draft in Brett Eibner, who could be the power-hitting outfielder the Royals have been missing for so long, and Jason Adam, who flashed first-round stuff during instructional league this year.
There's enough talent here that you could fashion an entire projected roster for the 2013 or 2014 Royals without using a single player who's currently in the majors.
Anyway, that's the dream. The reality is that prospects fail. They get hurt, they stop improving, they turn into Alex Gordon. It happens.
But not, usually, to all of them. And that's the promise of the Royals' farm system today - that not all of these guys will pan out, but some will. The problem with the Royals' farm system in past years is that while they'd come up with a couple of top prospects at a time, there was no depth behind them to prop the team up when some of those top prospects inevitably failed. Carlos Beltran turned into a superstar; Carlos Febles turned into a pumpkin. Billy Butler has fulfilled his promise; Alex Gordon hasn't. Zack Greinke was a failure and a success all wrapped up in one player.
This time, there's so much depth of talent that it's hard to identify any one single player as the face of the Royals' youth movement. Mike Moustakas will probably be the first to arrive, but it's far from a consensus that he's the best prospect in the system. (Last month, the Kansas City Star unconventionally and courageously ranked him fourth, behind Hosmer, Myers, and Montgomery.) The system is too deep to be torpedoed by the failure of any specific player.
The Royals' system isn't just the best in baseball for this year; it compares favorably to the best farm systems of the past decade. John's preliminary rankings for the 2011 Royals give them six prospects with a grade of B+ or better. To the best of my knowledge, only the 2006 Diamondbacks and the 2008 Rays, both with seven B+ or better prospects, can compare. It's not a coincidence that most Royals fans look to Tampa Bay for inspiration, to the point where for months, the tongue-in-cheek tagline at Royals Review was "Home Of The Year After Next's Two Years Ago Rays."
As a Royals fan, the success of the farm system is exciting, but purely as a baseball fan, the Royals represent a fascinating test case for the basic question: can a small-market team become a contender through player development alone? I think it's fair to say that Dayton Moore hasn't distinguished himself on the free-agent market, to the point where most Royals fans would just as soon avoid signing free agents entirely. But even the Tampa Bay Rays didn't build a pennant winner in 2008 solely through the draft; they lucked into Carlos Pena on the free talent market, and some savvy trades - most notably getting Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza for Delmon Young, and Dioner Navarro and Edwin Jackson for nothing - put them over the top.
With the notable exception of Joakim Soria, every key member of the Royals' current major-league roster was originally signed by the team. None of the free agents that Dayton Moore has signed has made any kind of lasting impact, and even after trading David DeJesus to Oakland for Vinny Mazzaro, none of the players acquired in trades appear to be impact guys.
Moore has done considerably better on the free talent market - along with Soria, he picked up Robinson Tejeda on waivers, and signed Wilson Betemit to a minor-league deal. But can a team fashion a contender using only their farm system and waiver-wire pickups? As a student of the game, I'll enjoy seeing how this pans out, much as I enjoy watching a TLC documentary of a guy who carves elegant sculptures on the head of a pin or a guy who decorates his home using only objects he found at the local landfill. It's sort of fascinating to watch someone overcome self-imposed obstacles to create something memorable.
But as a fan of the Royals, it's sort of excruciating. Dayton Moore has built the best farm system in baseball in four years, and deserves the opportunity to see this rebuild to fruition. He's also the same person who gave Jose Guillen 36 million dollars, who gave Kyle Farnsworth and Willie Bloomquist and Jason Kendall multi-year contracts, and who traded for Yuniesky Betancourt. As such, the Royals might be the one team in baseball whose fans hope that their off-season plan consists of doing nothing.
The talent is here, and it's spectacular. Which means that either the Royals will experience an spectacular turnaround in the next few years, or the front office is going to make an spectacular mess of things. If you're a baseball fan, you can't lose either way. If you're a Royals fan, you certainly can. Which is why, while we're hoping this time is different, we're certainly not expecting it to be.