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Depth of arms keys Royals' future

Yordano Ventura breezes through Minors en route to bigs
November 7, 2013

This offseason, is honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League Baseball. Select a team from the dropdown below.

Though the Royals as an organization finished with fourth-worst record in the Minor Leagues, there were quite a few positive steps forward for the club.

Idaho Falls, one of two affiliates to make it to the playoffs, battled their way to a Pioneer League title, beating Helena in a decisive Game 3 of the Finals. Their other affiliate to make the playoffs, Triple-A Omaha, did them one better.

After going 6-1 to cap an unlikely title run, the Storm Chasers narrowly defeated Durham to clinch the Triple-A National Championship.

One of the keys to success was the pitching, as three of the Royals' affiliates ranked in the Top 3 of their league's ERA. Hurlers such as Yordano Ventura, Kyle Zimmer, Sam Selman and Miguel Almonte -- all among the Royals' Top 20 prospects -- played a large part in that. Even after trading top prospects Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi to Tampa Bay last winter, Kansas City still has a bright future ahead of it.

Catcher -- Zane Evans, Idaho Falls (41 games): A fourth-rounder in June out of Georgia Tech, Evans showed a college bat with the Chukars, batting .352 in 41 games while driving in 31 runs. While working as both a pitcher and catcher at Georgia Tech, Evans worked exclusively behind the plate after being drafted.

"Really impressive start to his career," said Scott Sharp, the club's director of player development. "Power bat, he's got a lot of strength in his swing. He was a two-way player in college -- he pitched and caught ... so I think the development on the catching side is starting to catch up. Overall an impressive debut."

First baseman -- Matt Fields, Nothwest Arkansas (131 games): Putting aside the .222 average, Fields had a very successful 2013 campaign. The Washington native set a Naturals record by slugging 31 homers, while driving in 87 runs and drawing 60 walks for the Naturals.

What makes the season even more remarkable is the fact that three years ago Fields retired from baseball. The 28-year-old slugger joined the Royals organization in 2012 and made the jump to Double-A this season.

"We were really happy," Sharp said. "We got him halfway through the year before and we know what he did at Wilmington, which was step in the middle of that lineup and continue to hit. ... He's got a track record at Double-A. Started off slow but did really well once he got the groove going. "

The veteran first baseman even contributed on the mound, earning the win with three innings of one-run ball in the club's 20-inning marathon on May 11.

Second baseman -- Humberto Arteaga, Idaho Falls (69 games), Lexington (61 games): Though the 19-year-old struggled in the beginning of the season with the Legends, a return to the Pioneer League put him right back on track. Arteaga drove in 58 runs in 69 games with the Chukars and finished second overall in the Royals system with 71 RBIs, collecting 30 extra-base hits in the process.

"Really skilled infielder, tremendous hands both at second and at short," Sharp said. "Started the season at Lexington, didn't have the offensive of a year as we would have liked, so we went and sent him back to Idaho Falls, which we've done with guys before. He did a great job, had 58 RBIs and he was hitting one-two in the lineup. I think he walked away such a more confident player."

Shortstop -- Orlando Calixte, Northwest Arkansas (123 games): Making the jump to Double-A at the age of 20, Calixte showed a promising bat, smacking 37 extra-base hits for the Naturals. He batted .250 while drawing a career-high 42 walks. Though Sharp was pleased with his offense, he came away more pleased with the strides he made defensively.

"I was really happy," he said. "One of the bigger areas we looked at for him in terms of improvement was errors -- he had 46 errors last year and he cut it to 18. You're going from Low-A and High-A to Double-A, where the ball is hit a little more firmly, for me going from 46 errors to 18 was a significant jump.

"Offensively I look at what he did in the second-half of the year -- his splits weren't significantly, better but I felt like his approach was much better. He started to use the right-center gap more, didn't chase as many breaking balls, didn't chase the ball up as he did previously."

Third baseman -- Hunter Dozier, Idaho Falls (54 games), Lexington (15): Selected eighth overall in June, Dozier debuted in style, batting .303 with seven homers and 43 RBIs for the Chukars before making the jump to the South Atlantic League in mid-August. The 22-year-old showed no signs of slowing down upon reaching the Legends, batting .327 with a .809 OPS in his stint in Lexington before returning to help Idaho Falls clinch a league title.

"Thrilled may be an understatement," Sharp said of his season. "More walks than strikeouts in a Minor League debut -- that alone is an impressive feat. If you count fall stats, he was second in the organization with 38 doubles. Really tremendous debut for Hunter. I can't say enough good things about what he did on the field -- tremendous makeup off-the-field, tremendous clubhouse leader."


Brian Fletcher, Northwest Arkansas (52 games), Omaha (26 games): Despite missing two months of the season with a broken hamate bone, Fletcher tied for third in the organization with 17 homers. The son of former Major League infielder Scott Fletcher, Brian drove in 54 runs, batted .292 and smacked 32 extra-base hits in 78 Minor League games. He was also a big presence in the Storm Chasers' Pacific Coast League title chase, batting .385 with four RBIs for the club.

"I think Fletch had a really good year, he really did. It's his first year in Double-A and [to] end up at Triple-A, there was no hiccup -- he goes right up to Omaha and fits right in and hits in the middle of the lineup.

"I think it was a really good year -- he battled some nagging injuries. When you miss a six-week stretch of the season and you're trying to get your feet underneath when the rest of the league is in midseason form, it's not an easy thing to do."

Daniel Rockett, Idaho Falls (58 games): The Royals' ninth-round pick took off like name would suggest, batting .310, good for fourth in the organization, and he tied for fifth in the Pioneer League with 11 long balls while also driving in 53 runs. The Texas native did most of his damage in the second half of the season, posting a .968 OPS and averaging more than an RBI per game after the All-Star Break for the Chukars. 

"Just a really good baseball player," Sharp said. "In the sense that he's got power in his bat, he's got some bat speed -- he's not the best runner but tremendous jumps in the outfield. He can really play center field, and you may not expect that if you just grade out his running tool. He's a highlight reel in the center field. The offense -- it's on paper, it's easy to see. He's not an 80 runner, but he can play defense. It's astounding when you go watch him because I don't think you're expecting that out of him."

Brett Eibner, Northwest Arkansas (114 games): A second-round pick in 2010, Eibner rebounded from a disappointing 2012 campaign by batting .243 for the Naturals, a 46-point improvement from the mark he posted in Wilmington. He finished second in the organization with 19 homers, drew 53 walks and scored 74 runs for Northwest Arkansas, earning Texas League Player of the Week honors twice.

"I think you have to expect, as guys move up, there's going to be some hiccups, and Brett did a really nice job. A guy that brings a lot to the table, in terms of his defensive attributes -- he's got power, he's got swing-and-miss in there but at the same time he does have some patience. When you start to push guys to the higher levels and they're performing, you're always happy with what they do."

Utility -- Lane Adams, Wilmington (87 games), Northwest Arkansas (44 games): Adams continued showing a strong blend of speed and power, finishing second in the organization with 38 stolen bases while smacking 45 extra-base hits, including 12 long balls. The 23 year-old outfielder also drew 61 walks to go with a .265 average.

"I think he's kind of a dynamic athlete -- he's got size, he's got speed," Sharp said. "He was more of a basketball player that was playing baseball when he was young. He's gotten physically stronger, he's gotten faster -- the power is starting to develop with him. Plays the game tremendously hard, the way that it should be played, as soon as the ball hits the bat it's all out. A lot of fun to watch play."

Right-handed Starting Pitcher -- Yordano Ventura, Northwest Arkansas (11 games), Omaha (15 games), Kansas City (three games): After putting himself on the map in 2012, Ventura took the Minors by storm in 2013, racking up 155 strikeouts in 134 2/3 innings while making the jump to Triple-A and eventually the Majors. The 22-year-old right-hander finished with an 8-6 record and ranked fourth in the organization with a 3.14 ERA. Ventura was also selected to the Futures Game, where he retired the only batter he faced for the World team.

"Two years ago he's in the Midwest League; now he's in the Major Leagues," he said. "Really happy for Yordano, he's a tremendous worker, very competitive. He's very young for his level and he's moving up, met every challenge -- he likes that. He doesn't expect to fail, he doesn't expect to get hit. You do have to tell him at times 'Hey, you're facing good hitters -- you may give up some hits.' I think if you look at his batting average against with guys on, it's amazing. Guys may get a hit, but when they get on, he shuts it down real quick."

Though Ventura is known for his big-time velocity, it's his ability to utilize his other pitches that sets him apart.

"It's not just velocity with him -- people who've seen him pitch can understand that. The fastball is a well-above average Major League pitch in terms of velocity, but he can command it, which is important. He's got a curve and a change that are above-average -- well above-average -- pitches."

Honorable mention: Christian Binford, Lexington (23 games): In a lot of organizations, the 6-foot-6 Binford would have been the top choice. Still, he cemented his place as an honorable mention thanks to a sparkling 2.67 ERA, tops in the Royals organization. The Maryland native finished fourth with 130 strikeouts while walking just 25 batters in 135 innings for the Legends.

"He doesn't walk guys, he knows how to pitch, he's very aggressive in the strike zone, doesn't make mistakes in terms of giving away bases," Sharp said. "When you're only walking 25 guys in 23 starts -- when you're doing that, and you're not giving up hits as well, you're going to minimize the damage the other team can do."

Left-handed Starting Pitcher -- Sam Selman, Wilmington (27 games): A second-round pick in the 2012 Draft, Selman was dominant while pitching for the Class A Advanced Blue Rocks, limiting Carolina League batters to a .197 average while leading the organization with 11 wins. Price was quick to point out the second-half numbers for Selman, who made the jump to the Carolina League after debuting in Idaho Falls in 2012.

"I think whenever you challenge a guy and you start jumping levels I look at second half versus first half -- 4.79 ERA first half, 2.22 ERA second half," he said. "That second half of the season was tremendous for Sam.

"He's a funky left-hander that gets a lot of swing-and-misses -- three pitches, fastball that's got a lot of life, a good hard curve/slurve -- however you want to classify it -- and a changeup. You want a guy to do well when you jump a level, but 11-9 with a 3.38 with a good second half -- you can't necessarily expect that. It's not fair to expect that out of a guy, but he did it."

Relief Pitcher -- Zach Jackson, Northwest Arkansas (33 games), Omaha (two games): Dominant. That's the only word to describe Jackson's season. Converted to the bullpen after starting for most of his pro career, the 2004 first-round pick led the organization with 18 saves, posted a stellar 1.32 ERA and limited Minor League hitters to a .221 batting average against.

"He had a little bit of a hiccup in Spring Training and he was in extended just to get healthy," Sharp said. "He went out and I don't think it was a coincidence that, when he got to Double-A, [the Naturals] turned it around. Very professional guy, kind of a funky sidearm lefty -- did a really nice job there."

Robert Emrich is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @RobertEmrich.