RC Mailbag: Where is Justin Huber?

Today RC opens up the mailbag to answer a couple of questions that weigh heavily on the minds of Royals fans. Why wasn't Justin Huber recalled when the rosters expanded in September? Will there be any pitching around when super prospects Alex Gordon and Billy Butler arrive in KC for good? RC takes a shot, and our answers might surprise you.

The Royals clearly have some great hitting prospects like Alex Gordon and Billy Butler, but how are they ever going to compete without the pitching prospects to go with them? – Brad P., Gladstone, Mo.

It's no secret that for several years now, the Royals' pitching depth in the minors has been maligned by nearly every national baseball publication and pundit. The words of tirelessly-researched publications like Baseball America justifiably carry much weight in the minds of fans, and there's no shortage of copy detailing precisely how bad the Royals have been at developing pitchers, or of readers who view such material as gospel.

It's certainly been a problem that the Royals haven't graduated a consistently successful starting pitcher from their minor leagues system since Kevin Appier. That kind of dismal track record deserves ridicule and scorn, and it demands corrective action. However, it's our opinion that because the Royals' pitching depth and development has been so bad for so long, baseball writers and prospect mavens alike have difficultly overcoming the inertia of the Royals' past, resulting in flippant observations that disregard the stunning progress the Royals have actually made this season.

A year ago, the only starting pitching prospects of note in the organization were J.P. Howell, Billy Buckner, and Luis Cota. Among those three, Howell was the most advanced, but despite being recognized as the Royals' top pitching prospect, he was hardly a premier talent. Buckner was coming off a rough year (5.36 ERA) in High Desert, and Cota spent the entire season honing his mid-90s fastball in low-A ball. There were several interesting 2005 draftees, such as Chris Nicoll and Brent Fisher, but their success at the time was limited to rookie ball, which is a long way from Kansas City. Erik Cordier was also intriguing, but he was coming off a knee injury that cost him all but a few innings in 2005.

Luis Cota entered this season as one of the Royals' top pitching prospects

However, things have changed quickly. The pitching-heavy 2006 draft – highlighted by the selection of Luke Hochevar at #1 – strengthened the organization's pitching depth, as did Dayton Moore's flurry of deadline deals that brought in prospects such as Tyler Lumsden, Daniel Cortes, and Blake Johnson. Furthermore, several pitchers in the low minors had outstanding full season debuts, such as Nicoll and Matt Kniginyzky, and 21-year-old Carlos Rosa emerged as the Royals' Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Buckner kept his prospect status intact with a quality season between High Desert and Wichita, and Cordier was dominant in ten starts before being shut down with an elbow injury. Lefty Daniel Christensen had solid numbers (for the California League) in High Desert, and there were several young starters in rookie ball worth paying attention to, such as Fisher, Jason Godin, and Harold Mozingo.

Chris Nicoll was outstanding this season

In short, there are now more than 15 exciting young starting pitching prospects in the Royals' system, and several more who could be poised for breakout seasons in 2007. Wichita's playoff rotation included three pitchers – Hochevar, Lumsden, and Zack Greinke – who could vie for rotation spots in KC at some point next season, and Burlington's rotation was outstanding all year. For the first time in a long time, there appears to be actual pitching depth in the minors, which is of paramount importance because the laws of attrition dictate that many will fail before ever throwing a pitch in KC.

We're sure that Dayton Moore isn't yet satisfied with the pitching depth, and there's always room for improvement, but the simple fact is that by any measure, the Royals are in far better shape now than they were at this time last year. And that, Brad, is our roundabout way of answering that yes, we are very optimistic that the pitching will be significantly better when Gordon and Butler start knocking balls into the fountains.

RC, what's your take on why Justin Huber, Billy Butler, and Alex Gordon weren't added to the roster as September call-ups? Huber's exclusion seems baffling to me. – Ted G., Wichita, Ks.

We'll start with the easy ones. Although there are no shortage of baseball people who believe that both Alex Gordon and Billy Butler could contribute almost immediately at the Major League level, they were not called up to KC this September because neither is presently on the 40-man roster. Why is that significant? Because the Royals are going to need those roster spots this off-season, and placing either or both players on the roster now would unnecessarily limit their roster flexibility this winter, when the Royals will have to make several important decisions about who to protect from the Rule 5 draft.

Most notably, Billy Buckner, Chris Lubanski and Mitch Maier will all be eligible if left unprotected this year, and all three could land elsewhere if they aren't added to the 40-man roster. Maier was actually left unprotected last year, and RC breathed a big sigh of relief when he went unclaimed. After his excellent 2006 campaign, we doubt he'd make it through again, and we'd hate to see the Royals lose any of those prospects in exchange for a handful of September at bats for Gordon or Butler, particularly when both seem destined to start next season in Omaha.

We doubt Maier will be left unprotected again this year

As for Huber, it's a growing mystery as to why he wasn't added to the active roster. Rumors are running rampant, and we frankly have no solid idea about why Huber is spending his September in Australia, rather than KC. The most likely explanation is that the Royals simply want to see what Esteban German and Shane Costa can do with regular playing time, and they figured Huber's presence would diminish their opportunity to do so. Of course, that doesn't seem to compute if Huber will also have, as we've been led to believe, an opportunity to make the big league club out of spring training next season.

Perhaps the Royals still don't believe that Huber is ready defensively. As you know, he switched to the outfield after his mid-season recall, and although we've heard mostly positive reports, it's possible that the Royals want him to get more experience before subjecting him to the Major League spotlight.

Although he still keeps a first baseman's mitt in his locker, Huber probably doesn't need it anymore

Of course, it's hard to imagine that he'd be any worse in the outfield than German, but at the same time, we also doubt he'd be as effective at the plate right now either. Or maybe the Royals just aren't that confident in Huber's offense, and with the coming roster crunch at the corner infield and outfield positions, they've determined that Huber is the odd man out and will attempt to trade him this off-season.

Whatever the case, it's all just speculation until we hear a definitive answer from the Royals' brass. We certainly would have liked to see Huber this month, but it's also fun watching German and Costa play nearly every day. We hear that Huber is planning to play winter ball in Mexico, and it will be interesting to see what transpires in the coming months. And as always, we'll keep an ear out, and we'll update everyone if and when we hear an explanation.

We invite all readers to submit questions for future RC mailbag features. You can submit your question to RC by clicking here.

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