The Royals’ shortcomings this season are no secret.
The promising young Kansas City team that won 85 games last year currently sits three games under .500 and 6.5 games back in the AL Central. Their offense ranks dead last in the American League in runs and on base percentage, and last in all of major league baseball in slugging percentage, OPS, and home runs. They recently fired their hitting coach, leading to speculation that the manager, Ned Yost, would be next. And GM Dayton Moore looks no better off. One fan blog even satirically wrote that like flagging third baseman Mike Moustakas, Moore too would be demoted to Triple-A.
But the Royals, and Moore, are no strangers to losing. This is the team that went nine straight years without a winning season, 28 without clinching a playoff berth. Just from 2009 to 2012, Kansas City averaged 93 losses per season. What makes this year different is what’s happening underneath; the scores and scouting reports coming out of Omaha, Arksansas, Wilmington, and Lexington.
For the last five years of losing, KC fans were able to cling to a budding collection of minor league stars who could one day turn the Royals into contenders. In 2014, though, not only are the Royals’ major leaguers failing, but their minor league prospects are crumbling as well.
Right hander Kyle Zimmer, the Royals’ top prospect coming into the season according to Baseball America and MLB.com, has already missed the first two months of the season with shoulder soreness and will lose at least another two months after being diagnosed with a strained latimmis dorsi muscle. The 22 year old was ranked by ESPN’s Keith Law as the ten best prospect in baseball prior to the season. When Law released an updated top 25 ranking earlier today, Zimmer’s name was conspicuously absent.
Injury, though, may be better than ineffectiveness, the malady that has affected most of the organization’s top youngsters.
Dominican Righthander Miguel Almonte has been blasted to a 4.72 ERA at High-A Wilmington this year. It’s a far cry from last year’s 3.10 mark that earned him the 81st spot on Law’s preseason list, with home runs being one of the primary culprits.
Outfielder Jorge Bonifacio, the Royals’ 4th best prospect according to Baseball America, is hitting .241 with just three home runs in Double-A. A spot higher on BA’s ranking of Royals prospects is Raul Mondesi, who’s OBP currently sits at .296, his home run total at one. Both these prospects, Mondesi in particular, are admittedly toolsy players and young for their level, but that does not excuse all their struggles.
And then there’s Bubba Starling. The enourmously-talented-five-tool-sky-high-potential-two-sport centerfielder who the Royals gave 7.5 million dollars out of high school in 2011 has been a disaster. He has disappointed at the plate and left scouts dejectedly scratching their heads since he became a professional, but this season appears to be the final straw. Now 21 and still lacking any pitch recognition, Starling has an abysmal .197/.299./.301 line in Wilmington. His swing, as Keith Law put it, is a “disaster.”
If Starling, the team’s first pick from 2011, is a disaster, Hunter Dozier, the first pick from 2013, may be described as just slightly disappointing. The 220 pound third baseman has gotten on base at a high rate (.388 OBP), but his power has disappeared (.376 SLG, two home runs in 169 at bats).
Finally, Jason Adam, the ninth best Royals prospect according to BA, is making his best case for a move to the bullpen. As a starter in Double-A, he currently sits at 0-5 with a 5.75 ERA.
This is not to say that the Royals farm system has been a categorical failure. Sean Manaea, who the Royals gave a 3.5 million dollar bonus – over twice slot value – at the end of last year’s first round, has looked incredible. His 4.91 ERA in Wilmington is deceiving as he has struck out 13.0 batters per nine inning while maintaining a BB/9 of 3.4. His FIP is a stellar 3.01 and he could move quickly if his arm troubles are truly behind him.
BA’s 10th overall Royals prospect, Christian Binford has improved his stock as much as anyone this season. The 21 year old control artist has been exceptional at High-A, pitching to a 2.68 ERA thanks to a 1.7 BB/9 and 10.7 K/9. Shortstop Orlando Calixte, who narrowly missed BA’s preseason ranking, has gone on a tear since missing most of the year due to issues with his visa. Only 22, he is hitting .303/.347/.536 with four home runs in 75 Double-A plate appearances. Look for his name on top prospect lists come offseason.
And of course, stats do not tell the whole story when it comes to prospects, particularly this early in the Royals season. Despite all his missteps, Mondesi still ranked as the 18th best prospect in baseball on Law’s most recent evaluation. But performance does still matter. If the Royals are going to contend in the near future, they will need to rely on their farm system not only for infusions of young talent, but for resources to be traded. In this respect, the struggles of Kansas City’s prospects could become particularly important if they look to make a deal for a veteran at the deadline, although it shouldn’t fully prevent them from acquiring anyone. On the flip-side, should the Royals fall out of contention, the windfall from a trade of free-agent-to-be James Shields could be just the boon this system needs.