The 2006 Wichita Wranglers boasted six players who were former first round selections, and they rode their talent to an appearance in the Texas League Championship series. They fell just short of the title, but the Wranglers' 2006 squad was perhaps the most talented team in Wichita history, and several of the Royals' top prospects had outstanding seasons.
A lineup full of offensive firepower would prove to be the greatest weapon for the 2006 Wichita Wranglers, as the Double-A team trotted out five starting position players who were former first-round draft picks. The group did not disappoint, scoring Texas League (TL) -high 785 runs, oddly doing so in spite of finishing in the middle of the pack in most offensive categories. Their team OPS of .771 was good for fourth in the eight-team TL, and they hit only 124 home runs, 34 behind league-leading Arkansas. Not a team built around speed (Wichita's 69 stolen bases were the fewest in the TL), much of the Wranglers' run-scoring output can be attributed to solid situational hitting: a league-high .284 batting average with runners in scoring position.
The Wichita pitching staff did not share the first-round pedigree with the offense, and it showed for much of the season. Despite improving upon their 2005 team ERA by roughly a third of a run, the rest of the TL improved its pitching as well, and the Wranglers finished next-to-last in the league with a 4.59 ERA. Even so, the pitchers showed marked improvement after a difficult April, as highly-regarded hurlers Zack Greinke, Tyler Lumsden, and Billy Buckner were added to the Double-A club in the middle-to-latter stages of the season. Wichita's pitchers held opposing batters to a sub-.800 OPS in every month except July. The defense aided its pitchers' causes by allowing only 64 unearned runs.
Much like their parent club in Kansas City, the Wranglers struggled coming out of the gate, losing eight of their first ten ballgames en route to a 7-16 April, immediately burying them far down in the Texas League's first-half standings. Most of the Wranglers' struggles in the season's first month can be attributed to the pitching staff, which, in 205 2/3 innings, surrendered 229 hits, 23 home runs, and allowed opposing batters to hit .284/.357/.467. The offense wasn't of much help either. Their cumulative April OPS of .749 was almost thirty points lower than the league's that month.
Having already put themselves out of contention, the Wranglers' winning months of May (16-14) and pre-All-Star break June (11-6) couldn't save them from a third-place finish in the first half. Still, individual performers stood out, and Wichita placed six players on the North Division All-Star team, including three starters: third baseman Alex Gordon, catcher Matt Tupman, and outfielder Billy Butler. Clearly, the talent was there. It was just a matter of putting it all together and winning ballgames.
The Wranglers roared out of the break, dominating Frisco in a four-game sweep, outscoring the Roughriders by a margin of 22-9. Butler led the charge, going 6-for-15 with four RBI and a run scored. A subsequent three-game sweep at the hands of the Midland Rockhounds temporarily dampened the spirits around Lawrence Dumont Stadium, but the Wranglers promptly got back on the horse at Springfield, Mo., taking four of five games from the Cardinals at Hammons Field in early July. Greinke delivered one of 2006's most dominating performances in minor league baseball, holding the Cards to one run and striking out 12 in a complete game victory on July 3.
Greinke would again dominate the Cardinals at home in a July 19 11-1 victory, a game that would start a stretch in which Wichita would win 26 of its next 38 games, creating distance between themselves and first-half champion Tulsa Drillers. The Wranglers clinched the North division title on August 27, soundly defeating Springfield by the score of 11-4.
Wichita opened the playoffs against the Drillers and earned a hard-fought 11-inning, 2-1 victory in the first game of the best-of-five series. The contest was essentially won by Greinke's shutout performance over six innings, but some unsung heroes played roles as well. Shortstop Angel Sanchez's groundout scored Dee Brown, who had singled to start the inning and was pushed to third by Kila Kaaihue's double to center field. The clutch play earned reliever Gabe DeHoyos the win, and Devon Lowery pitched a perfect 11th to pick up the save.
Splitting the next two games, the Wranglers turned to 2006 first-round pick Luke Hochevar to win the series. Making his Double-A debut after only four appearances for Single-A Burlington, the 22-year-old right-hander shut down Tulsa's bats in an impressive 5 1/3-inning performance. Hochevar allowed two hits, two runs, a walk, and struck out seven, and got plenty of support from his offensive stars. Texas League MVP Alex Gordon hit two home runs as part of his superb 1.016 OPS season, Butler added one of his own, and centerfielder Mitch Maier aided the cause with two hits, two runs scored, and a RBI. The 7-6 win vaulted the Wranglers to the TL Championship Series against the Corpus Christi Hooks.
The series opened with Greinke getting hit around in an 11-5 loss. After a 2-1 game two win behind the finest performance of Buckner's Double-A career to date, the Wranglers turned to Hochevar in game three. Unfortunately, it just wasn't his night, as the Hooks pounded him for six runs in just two innings. Relievers Junior Herndon and Jarrod Plummer did their best to keep Wichita in the game, but it wasn't enough as Corpus, behind starter Chance Douglass, gained a 2-1 series lead with a decisive 9-3 win.
Facing possible elimination, manager Frank White gave the ball to Lumsden, acquired at the trade deadline for Mike MacDougal. Spotted a three-run first inning lead, Lumsden wasn't much better than Hochevar was the previous night, and surrendered four runs before he could get out of the first inning. Relievers Lowery, Cody Smith, Neal Musser, and DeHoyos held the Hooks in check in the middle innings. Tied 6-6 in the 10th inning, outfielder Chris Lubanski singled home Butler with the go-ahead run, only to see Corpus tie things up again in the bottom half against Seung Song. Neither team scored until the 14th frame when the Hooks' Jorge Cortes scored the game-winning run on Wade Robinson's line-drive single to right field. Heartbreakingly, the Wranglers' season came to close two victories shy of a title.
Still, the 2006 Wranglers were an indisputable – if inconsistent – success. They opened the season ice-cold, but bonded and were playing together and for each other by year's end. Questions about Gordon and Butler's ability to handle advanced pitching were soundly dismissed, as Gordon was arguably the best offensive player in the minors, and Butler earned the TL's batting title. Greinke returned from his hiatus with a strong performance, and other Wichita first-timers Buckner, DeHoyos, Lumsden, and Hochevar showed plenty of promise. Maier and Sanchez made their Major League debuts in Kansas City, and they most definitely will not be the last from this talented group to do so.
Top Prospect Performances
Billy Butler: By about any measure, Billy Butler's first full season against advanced pitching would have to be considered a smashing success. One of the youngest players in the Texas League at age 20, Butler hit .331/.388/.499 with 15 home runs, leading the league in batting and finishing among the league's top ten in runs scored (82), hits (158), and RBI (96). Oddly, Butler hit much better on the road (.357/.413/.576) than he did at home (.298/.355/.399). He could also improve some areas of his offensive game, including rediscovering the outstanding plate discipline he showed in Single-A and hitting the ball in the air with greater frequency. However, Butler's greatest accomplishment may be how well and quickly he took to learning the outfield. Despite occasionally misreading the ball off the bat, Butler showed an outstanding work ethic and marked improvement in right field by year's end, flashing improved instincts and a strong arm.
Butler won the Texas League batting title at the age of 20
Alex Gordon: Alex Gordon dispelled any doubts of his ability to handle professional pitching in April, as the third baseman torched Texas League pitchers to the tune of a .997 OPS in 92 at-bats. Only an injury-induced slow month of June (.247/.389/.370) could slow the 22-year-old star, who finished at .325/.427/.588 with 29 home runs and a league-high 1.016 OPS, besting Frisco's Nate Gold by 48 points in the category. Gordon hit well against right-handed pitchers (1.038 OPS) and lefties (.921 OPS). With runners in scoring position, he batted .302/.416/.595. He swiped 22 bases in 25 attempts and played a superb third base, which, combined with his offensive skills, made him arguably the best player on the field in each and every game Wichita played in 2006. The Texas League Player of the Year? Indeed.
Gordon ran away with the Texas League MVP in his first professional season
Chris Lubanski: Despite coming off a career season in which he hit .301/.349/.554 for the Single-A High Desert Mavericks, there were plenty of questions surrounding Chris Lubanski's abilities against higher-level pitching. After all, the launching pad at High Desert can make any hitter look better than he really is, and Lubanski struck out 131 times against only 38 walks in 531 at-bats. In 2006, Lubanski started off reasonably well, batting .279/.370/.430 in April with an encouraging 16-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio. After slumping somewhat in May and June, Lubanski, a notorious second-half player, caught fire in July, blasting six home runs in only 110 at-bats and posting an on-base percentage of .414 and an OPS well over 1.000. The results weren't just superficial, either. Over his last 345 at-bats, Lubanski drew 37 walks and struck out only 47 times, showing the kind of strike zone discipline the Royals were seeking from their 2003 first-round draft pick. Finishing the year at .287/.369/.475 with 34 doubles, 11 triples, and 15 home runs, the 21-year old Lubanski has turned into a legitimate offensive prospect.
Lubanski had a solid 2006 season at the plate, dispelling any notion that his stellar 2005 campaign in the Cal League was a fluke
Mitch Maier: Mitch Maier staked his claim as the best defensive outfielder that the Royals have in their entire organization. While not a possessor of great speed, Maier's incredible instincts and reads off the bat aid him in catching virtually everything hit in his general direction. At the plate, Maier showed a great deal of improvement over his first exposure to Double-A in 2005, in which he hit only .255 with seven home runs in 322 at-bats. In his second go-around, he batted .306/.357/.473 with 35 doubles, seven triples, and 14 home runs for the Wranglers, including a .959 OPS with men on base. The 24-year-old's season earned him a surprise September call-up and a spot on the 40-man roster.
Maier had an outstanding 2006 season in Wichita, earning a September call-up
Angel Sanchez: Like Maier, Angel Sanchez earned a cup-of-coffee with the Royals in the season's final month, a reward earned with a solid reputation as a defender and a decent season at the plate. Getting his first exposure to Double-A this year, Sanchez hit .282/.339/.352 with a solid 63-to-44 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 542 at-bats as Frank White's starting shortstop. Generously listed at 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, Sanchez obviously needs to get stronger and hit for more power if he is ever to become an everyday shortstop. However, just 23 and already capable of putting on an impressive show of power in batting practice, Sanchez has emerged as an interesting prospect who could possibly displace Angel Berroa someday.
Sanchez built upon his excellent 2005 season with a solid effort in 2006
Zack Greinke: After leaving spring training due to emotional issues, most observers wondered if they'd ever see Greinke pitch again. Thankfully, the 23-year old righty eventually returned to the club, and in June, he joined the Wranglers' rotation. Greinke ultimately made 17 starts for Wichita, logging an 8-3 record with a 4.34 ERA. In 105.2 IP, Greinke fanned 94 batters while walking 27 and allowing 96 hits (1.16 WHIP), and opponents hit just .240/.296/.398 against him on the season. Greinke struggled a bit at first as he attempted to get back up to speed, but he was particularly good in both July and August, when opponents managed to hit just .226 and .233, respectively. Greinke appears to be back on track now, and he was rewarded for his excellent season with a September promotion to Kansas City.
Greinke remains a key part of the Royals' future after a solid 2006 season in Wichita
Matt Tupman: After hitting .263/.355/.334 in Wichita in 2005, Tupman returned to the Wranglers to begin 2006. The 26-year-old catcher has always had a reputation for solid plate discipline, but he took it to another level this season. Prior to his July promotion to Omaha, Tupman, hit .305/.425/.364 in 73 games and 220 at bats. He had just 10 extra base hits, including only one home run, but his 48 walks versus only 27 strikeouts displayed an advanced knowledge of the strike zone. Tupman was also solid defensively, and despite throwing out just an average 27 percent of attempted basestealers, he also picked off seven baserunners, which is an abnormally high total for a catcher.
Tupman had a thoroughly solid season for the Wranglers prior to his promotion to Omaha
Donnie Murphy: Once in a competition with former Royal Ruben Gotay as Kansas City's second baseman of the future, injuries combined with disappointing play have Murphy on the outside looking in, trying to reclaim his spot as one of the Royals' best middle infield prospects. Coming off a 2005 season in which he hit .313/.362/.523 for the Wranglers, there was plenty of reason to believe Murphy would have a solid repeat performance during a full season in Wichita. However, injuries precluded him from appearing in all but 94 games, and he finished the season playing through a badly injured wrist. His production dropped to .249/.300/.437 with 25 doubles and 14 home runs. He did post a 1.000 OPS in 53 August at bats, and he flashed solid defense at second, mixing in an occasional highlight reel play.
Murphy was playing hurt for much of the 2006 season
Ryan Braun: After missing nearly the entire 2005 season following shoulder surgery, the 26-year-old Ryan Braun reemerged as Wichita's closer in 2006 and had an outstanding year. Allowing opposing batters only a .204 batting average, Braun succeeded by creating his own outs with 58 strikeouts in 40 2/3 innings of work and by picking up two groundball outs for every flyball out, en route to a stellar ERA of 2.21. Despite being promoted to Triple-A Omaha on July 12, Braun still led the Wranglers in saves (10), WHIP (1.13), and strikeouts per nine innings pitched (12.99). All of that success led to his eventual promotion to Kansas City in September, where he struggled somewhat in 10.2 innings of work.
Braun bounced back from shoulder surgery to mount an excellent 2006 campaign that ended in Kansas City
Gabe DeHoyos: DeHoyos was promoted from High Desert in late June to take Braun's spot in the bullpen when Braun landed on the seven-day DL following a car accident, and he did so well that the Royals decided to keep him there. DeHoyos made 22 appearances for the Wranglers, pitching 33.0 innings while compiling a miniscule ERA of 1.64 and logging seven saves. He struck out 28 batters while allowing 20 hits and just one home run, which, including his time in High Desert, was the only home run he surrendered all season
DeHoyos served notice in 2006 that he's a serious candidate for the KC bullpen
Tyler Lumsden: Acquired from the White Sox with Daniel Cortes in the July 29 Mike MacDougal trade, Tyler Lumsden had a solid seven-appearance stint for the Wranglers. In 35 1/3 innings of work, Lumsden did a good job of keeping the ball on the ground and in the park, as evidenced by allowing only three home runs. He did however struggle with his control, as the 23-year-old lefty walked 5.13 batters per nine innings pitched, a sharp contrast from his improved control with the Double-A Birmingham Barons. Still, his 3.06 ERA can't be ignored, and a return to Wichita to start 2007 is likely.
Lumsden's control wasn't great with the Wranglers, but everything else was pretty solid