Wilmington Blue Rocks
Comment: Bonilla was once one of the top catching prospects in the organization, but he struggled mightily the last two seasons in Low-A, hitting just .227 with nine home runs in over 600 at bats. Behind the plate, he still possesses an excellent arm, and he has steadily improved as a receiver. Graterol, meanwhile, spent most of his limited playing time in 2010 at first base. The 22-year-old saw action at both Low-A Burlington and High-A Wilmington, hitting .277/.320/.311 over 119 at bats. Through five seasons, Graterol has a career line of .278/.349/.315, but he has yet to homer in 565 professional at bats.
Comment: The Royals acquired Whittleman this spring from the Texas Rangers. The 24-year-old corner infielder was one of the best players in the Midwest League in 2007, but he just hasn't been the same hitter ever since. Whittleman spent most of the last two seasons struggling in Double-A, so perhaps the return to High-A can lead to a bit of a resurgence. Sharing time with him at first base will be Lewis, who hit .243/.339/.380 with six home runs in 300 at bats for Low-A Burlington last season. Batista, McClure, and the slick-fielding Navarro should all see time at shortstop, while Batista and Frost (and perhaps Whittleman as well) will likely share third base duties. McClure's promotion to Wilmington is somewhat surprising, because the 21-year-old hasn't played much baseball in the last year. He wasn't eligible to play collegiately last spring after transferring from Vanderbilt, and he has played in just 27 games above rookie ball, when he hit .225/.275/.306 in 111 at bats for Burlington last season.
Comment: On an offense that will likely struggle to score runs – particularly in the pitching-friendly Carolina League – the Blue Rocks certainly must be happy to see Francis return to the club this spring. The 25-year-old right fielder was Wilmington's best outfielder last year, hitting .284/.328/.516 with a club-best 16 home runs. It will be interesting to see how Testa adjusts to the more advanced pitching in High-A. The 24-year-old was the Low-A Burlington Bees' lone offensive bright spot in 2010, hitting .275/.365/.466 with 12 home runs, 14 triples, 24 doubles, and 28 stolen bases. We envision Merrifield getting the most time in center field, although Ferguson, Ortiz, and Testa have all logged time at that position as well. Ortiz returns to the Blue Rocks for the fourth straight season. The 24-year-old speedster was the Royals' 5th round selection in the 2007 draft, and he hit .289/.322/.378 with a team-high 32 stolen bases in 2010.
Comment: The starting rotation of Melville, Odorizzi, Arguelles, Marks, Pimentel, and Sample should be by far the most talented unit in the league. Odorizzi – whom the Royals acquired this offseason in the Greinke trade – is the top right-handed pitching prospect in the organization. The 21-year-old was 7-3 with a 3.43 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 120.2 innings pitched last year in the Midwest League. Melville will repeat High-A after finishing 2010 with a 2-12 record and 4.97 ERA, but the Royals sound excited about his performance this spring. Meanwhile, Arguelles – whom the Royals signed for nearly $7 million as an undrafted free agent in 2009 – will make his professional debut, on a limited pitch count, after spending last year rehabbing from shoulder problems. Marks, Sample, and Pimentel are also all highly-regarded prospects with something to prove at the High-A level. The bullpen will be led by Chapman and Herrera. Chapman, a hard-throwing southpaw out of the University of Florida, struggled in his professional debut for the Blue Rocks last season, but he possesses dynamite stuff. Herrera brings his upper-90s fastball to the bullpen after a couple of injury-plagued seasons as a starter.
The Royals were affiliated with the Blue Rocks for their first 12 seasons in existence, regularly reaching the playoffs while capturing an incredible four league titles. Wilmington fans got used to winning. In 2005, however, the Blue Rocks ditched the Royals for the Boston Red Sox – forcing the Royals to sign a player development contract with the High Desert Mavericks – but that relationship was short-lived. In 2007, the Royals returned to their Wilmington affiliate, essentially promising Blue Rocks ownership that the organization would field competitive teams. From 2007-2009, the Royals delivered, as the Blue Rocks reached the postseason each year. In 2010, however, the Blue Rocks missed the playoffs, finishing the year a disappointing 68-70.
The offensive talent on this year's club is actually a step down from last season. Last year, the Blue Rocks got half-seasons from uber-prospects Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers, in addition to 60 games from 2010 top draft pick Christian Colon, and that still wasn't enough to deliver another postseason appearance. This year's collection of position players lacks that type of star power. Indeed, the 2011 Blue Rocks will likely struggle to score runs. Having Nick Francis back is a good start, but several players (like Carlo Testa, Whit Merrifield, and Adrian Ortiz) need to make some serious steps forward for the offense to be competitive.
Of course, the 2011 Blue Rocks might not need to score a lot of runs to be competitive. The story of this club revolves around its incredibly talented pitching staff, which figures to be one of the best Wilmington units in recent memory. If Odorizzi dominates, Melville rebounds, and Sample, Arguelles, Marks, and Pimentel all take steps forward, the Blue Rocks might still wind up as the class of the Carolina League in 2011. Either way, we predict a lot of 1-0 and 2-1 games.
2011 Wilmington Blue Rocks preview
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