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Prospects point to a Royal renaissance
03/15/2008 10:00 AM ET
The future success of every Major League team lies in its Minor League system. With that in mind, each preseason, takes a top-to-bottom look at all 30 organizations, from top prospects to recent draft picks.

The notion that the Royals are coming on as an organization is not a new one. We've been touting them for the last season or two, pointing to their solid drafts, the good young players they've developed and the emergence of a top-notch front office as the reasons behind the renaissance.

While it might appear that Kansas City's time is finally at hand, we're not going make any bold predictions about where the club will finish this season. Rather, we'll just continue to enjoy the Royals' farm system and let everyone know they shouldn't be surprised if big things happen this year.

"We hope it will be in 2008," Kansas City director of player development J.J. Picollo said. "We've defined that we have to draft and develop power pitching, and that's not falling off the trees in the U.S. So we've beefed up our international scouting department. [Special assistant and head of international operations] Rene Francisco does a great job there.

"We went to the Dominican in November and worked with a dozen kids who had average or better fastballs. We also know we have to be athletic in our stadium. Last year, we drafted three guys who were 70 or better runners [on the scouting scale]. We just have to put the plan in place and as the years continue, keep stockpiling, which is how we will build toward our goal."

That goal is close to being realized. Here's a closer look at how Kansas City is moving toward achieving it.

10 Spot
Ten prospects to watch out for in 2008:

Mike Moustakas, SS
The slugger from California almost wasn't a Royal, negotiating all the way to the Aug. 15 deadline on agent Scott Boras' advice before signing. He took the money ($4 million) and went to Idaho Falls, where he had a modest 41 at-bat debut without a home run. Five of his 12 hits went for extra-bases, though, and Kansas City has few worries about a kid who collected 52 home runs during his high school career.

Moustakas projects to have big power numbers over the next few seasons, with the Royals hopeful that he'll soon be a staple in the middle of their lineup. For now, he will be staying at shortstop. While Kansas City believes he has the mental composition to ultimately change positions, the plan is to let him play shortstop now and get off to a good start at Burlington without the distraction of a defensive move.
Audio: Moustakas comes through in his first pro AB

Here are a few players on the brink of breaking into the Major Leagues:

Luke Hochevar, RHP -- The top pick in the 2006 Draft had mixed results in his first full season as a pro. He was 4-9 with a 4.86 ERA in 27 games (26 starts) between Double-A Wichita and Triple-A Omaha, though scouts generally agree that he pitched better than those numbers would indicate. He seemed energized when he was called up to Kansas City, posting a 2.13 ERA over 12 innings.

With a low-90s fastball and off-speed stuff that is above average, Hochevar can be dominating at times. He'll be given every opportunity to make the Royals' staff in Spring Training but may begin the year in Omaha to get more seasoning.

Ryan Braun, RHP -- The hard-throwing reliever has had an opportunity to make an impression in the Major Leagues each of the last two seasons but hasn't done much to justify a call-up. The 27-year-old Canadian has a 6.66 ERA over 50 Major League innings, which may be devilish but certainly isn't going to earn him a full-time spot in Kansas City's bullpen. He's got an explosive fastball in the high 90s and a big-time curve, neither of which he seems able to control above Triple-A.

If Braun can find the form he possessed at Omaha last season, when he held opponents to a .173 batting average while striking out 36 over 33 innings, he'll have a role with the big club when the season begins.

"I don't know if you can do any better than what he did in Triple-A," Picollo said.

Carlos Rosa, RHP -- He was 6-6 with a 4.36 ERA in 21 games (17 starts) after joining Double-A Wichita last year. Rosa looked sharp early in the Carolina League (0.39 ERA in 23 innings) before moving to the Texas League. He struggled at first but came on late and was 2-0 with a 0.83 ERA in his last four starts before straining an oblique muscle in August.

"He had a great start in the Carolina League and when we moved him up, he struggled at first," Picollo said. "But over the last month, his ERA was around [2.00] and he started turning the corner. He was very impressive in Major League camp last year and got off to the same start this year. We plan to keep using him as a starter in the Minors, especially as he's at Double-A."

Mitch Maier, OF -- The 2003 first-rounder has made a steady climb through the system and appears ready to make his mark in the Major Leagues. He spent the entire 2007 season at Omaha and hit a solid .279 with 14 homers and 62 RBIs. He may not develop into a .300/20-homer/90-RBI player, but he's demonstrated that he can be a serviceable Major League who can contribute to Kansas City's renaissance.

Rowdy Hardy, LHP
The Royals have proven with Hardy that they don't need the top pick in the draft to find talent. Hardy, an undrafted free agent out of Austin Peay, not only led the Carolina League with 15 victories but was named by as the Royals' organizational pitcher of 2007. He finished second in the league in ERA (2.48) and will anchor a staff at Northwest Arkansas that features four of last year's top six Carolina League ERAs.

Hardy walked 16 over 167 innings and had a WHIP of 0.96. He's not a burner by any stretch of the imagination, relying on pinpoint control rather than power. And he has a nickname that marketing folks will love. (His real first name is Lenny).

"He's an interesting guy, but you know he's going to have to answer the call on every level," said Royals director of player development J.J. Picollo. "But he was the Carolina League Pitcher of the Year last year and it's hard to ignore that."
Video: Interview with Rowdy Hardy

Julio Pimentel, RHP
While we're talking Carolina League ERA leaders, why don't we just go down the line to Julio Pimentel, who completed the Class A Advanced Triple Crown last year at Wilmington? Over the last two seasons, he's also pitched in the Florida State (Vero Beach) and California Leagues (High Desert), but 2007 was by far his best foray. He was 12-4 with a 2.65 ERA in 27 games (22 starts) and is 14-5 in 39 appearances for Kansas City after coming over from the Dodgers in a deal for Elmer Dessens.

Pimentel has a low-90s fastball that moves and better-than-average off-speed offerings. The native of the Dominican Republic will join Hardy at Northwest Arkansas next month.
Audio: Pimentel strikes out eight

Daniel Cortes, RHP
Cortes is also the product of a trade, coming over from the White Sox in 2006 for Mike MacDougal. While his numbers weren't as gaudy as Hardy's or even those of Pimentel -- Cortes was 8-8 in 24 starts -- he is no less explosive or dominating on the mound. He fanned 120 over 123 innings last season, walked only 45 and was fourth in the league in ERA (3.07). Cortes went 6-0 with a 0.77 ERA in his final eight starts, striking out 48 while walking 12 in 47 IP.

He's got a mid-90s fastball and a nice fall-off-the-table curve that keeps hitters honest. Some believe he has more potential than Pimental or Hardy, and his 2007 performance was much stronger than his previous seasons. Cortes was 5-15 with a 4.77 ERA in his previous 42 appearances (33 starts), leaving this year in the Texas League as a true test of his progress. He turned 21 earlier this month.

Monday, Feb. 25Chicago Cubs
Tuesday, Feb. 26Milwaukee Brewers
Wednesday, Feb. 27Cincinnati Reds
Thursday, Feb. 28Astros and Pirates
Friday, Feb. 29St. Louis Cardinals
Saturday, March 1Baltimore Orioles
Sunday, March 2Tampa Bay Rays
Monday, March 3Boston Red Sox
Tuesday, March 4Toronto Blue Jays
Wednesday, March 5New York Yankees
Thursday, March 6Los Angeles Angels
Friday, March 7Seattle Mariners
Saturday, March 8Oakland Athletics
Sunday, March 9Texas Rangers
Monday, March 10New York Mets
Tuesday, March 11Atlanta Braves
Wednesday, March 12Philadelphia Phillies
Thursday, March 13Nationals and Marlins
Friday, March 14Cleveland Indians
Saturday, March 15Kansas City Royals
Sunday, March 16Minnesota Twins
Monday, March 17Detroit Tigers
Tuesday, March 18Chicago White Sox
Wednesday, March 19Colorado Rockies
Thursday, March 20Arizona Diamondbacks
Friday, March 21Los Angeles Dodgers
Saturday, March 22San Francisco Giants
Sunday, March 23San Diego Padres

"Cortes is one guy that we want to make sure of because of his age," Picollo said. "We need to feel good about where he is mentally. What he did in the second half of last year was so good. He did exactly what you hope a guy does -- have his ups and downs early and then in the second half find out what he's made of."
Audio: Cortes fans his eighth

Blake Johnson, RHP
The former second-round pick also came over from the Dodgers in the Dessens deal and he, too, completed the Advanced-A trifecta while pitching last season in Wilmington. He distinguished himself much more in the Carolina League than he had in either the Cal or Florida State Leagues the previous year, going 9-6 with a 3.28 ERA in 26 games (22 starts). He won his last six decisions (10 starts) and had a 1.28 ERA over his final 56 1/3 innings.

Despite a nice low-90s fastball -- he also has a decent curveball and changeup -- Johnson won't strike out many. But he gets hitters out and finished strongly last year. Good things are expected of him in the Texas League this season.
Audio: Johnson fires six scoreless innings

Derrick Robinson, OF
The 2006 fourth-rounder has speed and knows how to use it. He stole 35 bases last year (34 of which came at Burlington). The Royals know that he needs to reach base more to fully take advantage of his speed. Robinson hit .243 in the Midwest League to go with an underwhelming .299 on-base percentage. He drew 32 walks and struck out once every 4.07 at-bats -- stats that should change as he gains more patience and experience at the plate.

The former football player -- he turned down a scholarship to play college ball -- has the tools to be a solid leadoff hitter. He's a better-than-average defensive center fielder (seven errors in 233 chances last year) who got better at tracking the ball over the course of last season. Robinson got a brief taste of the Carolina League in 2007 but should get a mouthful this season.
Audio: Robinson hits two-run double

Joe Dickerson, OF
The kid from California is moving up the organizational ladder in steady, if unspectacular, fashion. He enjoyed a fine first full season as a pro in 2007, hitting .289 with 43 RBIs and 26 steals at Burlington. Dickerson spent much of the season batting third or fifth (a combined 87 times), though he doesn't seem to possess enough pop (28 extra-base hits) or run-production ability to fill those spots on a long-term basis.

Matt Mitchell, RHP
The Royals unearthed Mitchell in the 14th round out of high school last year, and he proceeded to win the Arizona League ERA title (1.80). He didn't allow a run over his final 16 2/3 innings and also went 55 innings without yielding a home run. He's got a great deal of poise and nifty off-speed stuff, the likes of which many of the youngsters in the AZL hadn't seen before. The opposition managed a .183 batting average against him, bolstered by his last four outings, during which he allowed foes to hit .102 (5-for-49). Odds are that he'll begin this season in the Midwest League, though he might spend time in another short-season league after extended spring training.

Chris Lubanski, OF
The Royals left the former top pick unprotected in the Rule 5 Draft and there were no takers. That doesn't mean Kansas City has lost faith in Lubanski, but as he enters his sixth season in the system, his climb, though steady, has been slow. He'll turn 23 this month as he prepares for a crucial season. Lubanski generally gets off to a slow start whenever he debuts at a new level. But having spent half a season in Omaha, those problems shouldn't crop up this year.

Lubanski's best season was 2005, when he hit 28 homers and drove in 116 runs in the Cal League. He's averaged 14 homers a season outside the Cal League, which is a better indication of his power. That said, he has great gap power and will find ways to get extra-base hits, averaging 47 in each of his three full seasons outside the Cal League. He'll be in Nebraska to start the season -- Picollo said he earned his way there -- but should get his first taste of Kansas City during the year.
Audio: Lubanski blasts a two-run homer

Blake Wood, RHP
The 2006 third-rounder from Georgia Tech rebounded from back surgery to go 2-2 with a 2.78 ERA over 55 innings, finishing up in the Carolina League. He went on to compile a 2-1 record with a 3.55 ERA in 33 Hawaii Winter Baseball innings, proving that his back was no longer an issue. A mid-90s fastball and big curveball highlight his arsenal, which got some needed fine-tuning last year. How his back -- he had a herniated disc -- holds up over the rigors of a full season remains to be seen, but the folks in Kansas City don't seem to have any worries.

"Had Blake Wood not had back surgery, he'd probably be in that group with them [at Double-A]," Picollo said. "But if my crystal ball is right, I anticipate him being in Double-A by midseason. His strikeouts per nine [innings] is as good, if not better, than all of those guys. He's cleaned up his delivery and he has a power breaking ball. He just missed the time last year."

Under the Radar

Jeff Bianchi, SS
Bianchi was among Kansas City's hottest prospects before missing most of the 2006 season due to labrum surgery. The surgery and time away knocked him out of the consciousness of some. Bianchi's performance last season was more than adequate considering he had missed so much time. He hit .247 in 368 at-bats for Burlington, adding 36 RBIs and 15 stolen bases, but his OBP was an unacceptable .296.

He'll have a chance in 2008 to regain some of that luster in Class A Advanced ball and return to his place among Kansas City's elite. For now, however, the 2005 second-rounder remains under the radar.

Jose Duarte, OF
Duarte has stolen 65 bases over the last two seasons while continuing to develop at the plate. He hit .266 with a .338 OBP and 99 strikeouts at Burlington in 2006 before improving to .290 with a .356 OBP and 77 strikeouts while collecting 27 more at-bats last season in Wilmington.

The young Venezuelan is gangly and doesn't have much power, but he has speed and has a knack for getting on base. He's very good defensively and last year led all Carolina League outfielders in fielding percentage, committing just one error in 334 total chances. Duarte also had 10 assists.

David Lough, OF
The former Mercyhurst star set several school records before the Royals grabbed him in the 11th round last year. He had only 86 at-bats -- leg issues slowed him -- but hit .337 with two home runs and 12 RBIs. Lough projects as a 15- to 20-homer guy who can move quickly.

"He was a baseball and football guy," Picollo said. "He can run and throw and has power. He's about 5-foot-10, but he's very athletic. And from the looks of it last year, he's a pretty advanced kid coming out of nowhere."

2007 Draft Recap

The Royals made Moustakas the draft's No. 2 overall pick and signed him moments before the Aug. 15 deadline. Playing shortstop and occasionally designated hitter, he played 11 regular-season games with Idaho Falls in the Pioneer League, hitting .293 with 10 RBIs in 41 at-bats. He also appeared in two playoff games, going 0-for-7. ... RHP Sam Runion made 12 appearances (51 IP) for the Royals' club in the Arizona Rookie League and while he compiled a 5.82 ERA and .310 opponents' batting average, he did strike out 51 while walking only 17. His best outing was his next-to-last, when he tossed six innings of two-hit shutout ball, striking out six and walking none. ... LHP Danny Duffy had a dominant senior high school season in California and started sneaking up draft charts late in the year, finally landing in the third round. If his debut is any indication, he could be one of the big steals of the Draft. The southpaw finished sixth in the AZL with 63 strikeouts in only 37 innings. Had he pitched enough to qualify, his 1.45 ERA easily would have won the league title. The AZL hit just .178 against Duffy, making him a very interesting arm to follow in 2008. ... 14th-rounder Matt Mitchell, a right-hander, led the AZL with a 1.80 ERA while his 72 K's were good for fourth in the league. ... 1B Clint Robinson (25th round), came out of Troy University and hit .336 with 15 homers and a league-leading 66 RBIs for Idaho Falls in the Pioneer League. ... OF Adrian Ortiz (fifth round) also did well for the Chukars, hitting .326 and stealing 17 bases. ... RHP Greg Holland (10th round) had six saves, six wins and a 3.48 ERA coming out of Idaho Falls' bullpen, with 37 K's in 33 2/3 innings. ... OF David Lough (11th round) hit .337 in 86 at-bats for Burlington in the Rookie-level Appalachian League. ... OF Patrick Norris (16) played with Lough in Burlington and finished second in the Appy League with 30 steals while hitting .294.
Audio: Robinson rips a pair
Audio: Ortiz ties it up
Audio: Holland gets a K and a save
Audio: Norris doubles in a run


Organizational Player of the Year: Matt Mitchell
Regardless of where he begins the season, Mitchell looks like he's going to be fun to watch develop over the next few years.

Organizational Pitcher of the Year: Daniel Cortes
We like strikeout pitchers and Cortes showed that ability last year. This season, he'll make the jump up to the Double-A Texas League, but we think he'll do just fine.

Worth Watching: Edward Cegarra
Last year, Cegarra pitched in the Midwest League as an 18-year-old. Sure, he was 1-6 with a 5.12 ERA, but he had a 3.72 ERA over 36 1/3 innings before blowing up in August.

Exciting in Omaha: Dusty Hughes
Don't be surprised if Hughes wins 10 games for Omaha. He went 6-2 with a 3.08 ERA in 25 games (16 starts) for Wichita last season, his first after returning from Tommy John surgery.


"What helped us were a couple of the trades, getting guys like Blake Johnson and Cortes. That gives us value in the Minor League system. Those are kids that were drafted in years we weren't financially aggressive. Now we're over that hump."

-- Royals director of player development J.J. Picollo

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.