RC's Top 50 Prospects: The Top Ten

RC today concludes our Top 50 prospect list with reports on the top ten prospects in the Royals' organization. The Royals have several of the best prospects in baseball, highlighted by Alex Gordon, and several are very close to the Major Leagues. The top ten prospects offer Royals fans a good deal of hope for the near future, so be sure to take a look at how they rank.

1. Alex Gordon, 3B
Age: 22  B-T: L-R  HT: 6-1  WT: 220

After his first season in professional baseball, Alex Gordon emerged as the undisputed top prospect in baseball. Gordon, whose previous experience was limited to a month of action in the Arizona Fall League, made his full season debut in Double-A and took the Texas League by storm. After hitting .325/.427/.588 with 29 home runs in 486 at bats, Gordon walked away with the Texas League MVP, the Royals' Minor League Player of the Year award, and a number of other accolades from various baseball publications identifying his season as the top performance of 2006. Quite simply, Gordon's game is one without any holes. He rakes against both righties and lefties, and his power to all fields is outstanding. In fact, roughly half of Gordon's 29 dingers were hit to either left or center field, and one mammoth shot he hit to dead center field in Springfield was deemed by many of the folks in the press box at the time as the longest home run in the brief history of Hammons Field.

Gordon's defense at third base was also outstanding, far exceeding the billing it received when he was drafted. He's incredibly athletic, and his soft hands and strong arm leave little doubt that he'll be an above average third baseman at the Major League level. Gordon is a weapon on the basepaths as well, and he successfully stole 22 bases in 25 attempts in 2006. Of course, it's his ability at the plate that's going to make Gordon a household name, and even though he utilizes a remarkably simple "see the ball, hit the ball" approach, his plate discipline and knowledge of the strike zone is outstanding. If one must find anything about Gordon's game to criticize, he did strike out 113 times, but that's merely a small concern, largely negated by the excellence of the rest of his numbers.

It's become increasingly clear that Gordon has an excellent shot at winning the starting third base job out of spring training in 2007, and the Royals have already spoken with Mark Teahen about moving to the outfield. We fully expect to see Gordon running out of the Kauffman Stadium dugout to take his position at the hot corner when the Royals open against the Red Sox next April, and it will be the first game in what should become a long and successful Major League career. All aspects of Gordon's game appear Major League ready, and if he doesn't open in Kansas City, there's little doubt that he'll be there quickly.

WCH 486 111 158 39 1 29 101 72 113 22 3 .325 .427 .588
Total 486 111 158 39 1 29 101 72 113 22 3 .325 .427 .588

2. Billy Butler, OF
Age: 20  B-T: R-R  HT: 6-2   WT: 225

It was an eventful year for Billy Butler, and when the season was over, he added a Texas League batting title and a Gold medal to his growing trophy case. Butler returned to Wichita in 2006 and raked the Texas League to the tune of .331/.388/.499 with 15 home runs in 477 at bats. He was also remarkably consistent, never hitting below .291 in any one month. He did hit consistently better on the road, as all but one of his home runs were hit away from Lawrence-Dumont Stadium. Butler left the Wranglers in early August to join the Team USA squad that won the Olympic qualifying tournament in Cuba, and after hitting better than .300 in international competition, he returned to Wichita just in time for the Wranglers' playoff series against the Tulsa Drillers.

Even more encouraging, the 20-year-old Butler reportedly made good strides with his defense in the outfield, as he became much more comfortable tracking fly balls. Speed is his greatest limitation in the outfield, and it will probably keep him from ever being anything better than a below average defensive outfielder. However, he's improved enough that it seems likely he'll get a shot at playing the outfield in the Majors, and his strong throwing arm could become something of an asset in right field. Of course, Butler is most dangerous at the plate, where he's a calculating killer armed with tremendous power and an advanced knowledge of the strike zone. He's a tough strikeout, and while he didn't walk as often as he has in past seasons, he seldom swings at bad pitches, particularly early in the count.

Simply put, Butler is an outstanding offensive prospect, and he's among the best young hitters in the minor leagues. He'll receive an invitation to the Major League camp at spring training, and he'll have a chance to break camp with the Royals, depending on the health of Mike Sweeney and whatever moves the Royals make this offseason. The only thing holding Butler back right now is his defense, and the question facing the Royals is whether or not they believe he'll benefit from further defensive instruction in the minor leagues. He's ready to hit at the Major League level right now, and even though we anticipate he'll likely start the season in Omaha, he could be up in Kansas City pretty quickly in 2007.

WCH 477 82 158 33 1 15 96 41 67 1 0 .331 .388 .499
Total 477 82 158 33 1 15 96 41 67 1 0 .331 .388 .499

3. Luke Hochevar, SP
Age: 23   B-T: R-R   HT: 6-5  WT: 205

The Royals selected Hochevar with the first overall pick in the 2006 draft, and after holding out for a couple of months, he signed a Major League contract in August and headed to Burlington. Once in Burlington, Hochevar overwhelmed Midwest League hitters with his impressive repertoire and command. He made four starts for the Bees, pitching 15.1 innings while striking out 16 batters and allowing just two earned runs (1.17 ERA) on eight hits and two walks. He was impressive enough to earn a promotion to Wichita for the Wranglers' playoff run, where he took a no-hitter into the sixth inning of his Double-A debut in Wichita's division series-clinching win. After the season, Hochevar headed to the AFL, where he didn't fare quite as well (8.64 ERA in three starts), but he was shut down prematurely with some shoulder tightness.

Nevertheless, the Royals selected Hochevar because they felt he clearly had the most advanced stuff available in the draft. Hochevar throws two fastballs – a four-seamer at 93-95 and a sinker at 91-93 – along with a change, curve, and slider. All pitches project to be potentially above average Major League pitches, and he's comfortable throwing them on any count. Although he considers his slider his true "out pitch," the Royals didn't let him throw any after he signed. In college, Hochevar could always go to his plus slider as "an easy way out," but the Royals wanted him to focus this summer on commanding his fastball, curve, and change, so they took his slider away to force him to work on those three pitches. Hochevar welcomed the move, and he feels it made him a better pitcher.

There's really no telling how fast Hochevar could move through the system. The decision to remove him from the AFL was deemed strictly precautionary, and there doesn't seem to be any concern that his shoulder will give him further troubles. He'll enter spring training in the Major League camp, and although it doesn't seem likely that he'll break camp with the big club, he could get there pretty quickly in 2007 if he continues to dominate minor league hitters. We look for him to return to Wichita to begin next season, but he might not be there too long.

BUR 4 4 0 1 0 1.17 15.1 8 3 2 2 2 16 .148
Total 4 4 0 1 0 1.17 15.1 8 3 2 2 2 16 .148

4. Chris Lubanski, OF
Age: 21  B-T: L-L  HT: 6-3  WT: 206

Lubanski entered 2006 looking to prove wrong the skeptics who argued his breakout 2005 campaign was a product of the hitter friendly California League, and he responded with a very solid season in his first exposure to Double-A. Lubanski had a history of struggling in the first half before catching fire after the All-Star break, but he actually got off to a good start in 2006, hitting .279/.370/.430 in April. His batting average even climbed to over .300 in early May, and despite going into a month long slump shortly thereafter, he entered the All-Star break with respectable first half numbers. He then came out of the break on fire, hitting .327/.414/.618 with 16 extra base hits (including six home runs and four triples) in 110 at bats in July. He stayed hot throughout the remainder of the season, and he finished the year with a line of .282/.369/.475 with 15 home runs in 524 at bats.

About a month into the season, the Royals decided to reshuffle Wichita's outfield, moving Mitch Maier to center and Lubanski to left. Lubanski struggled at first with the switch, as it took a few weeks for him to get used to the tailing action on fly balls hit by left-handed batters. However, he got more comfortable as the season wore on, and it seems likely that he'll remain at the position. At the plate, Lubanski worked hard on staying relaxed at the plate, and he made a lot of progress hitting change-ups, which had given him fits when he was in the low minors. His plate discipline also improved dramatically, and his 72 walks on the season led the Wranglers (along with Alex Gordon).

All told, it was a very successful season for Lubanski, and the 21-year-old outfielder showed the type of steady improvement that the Royals were hoping to see. Look for Lubanski to head to Omaha to begin the 2007 season, and if he does well, he could see some time in Kansas City before the season is over.

WCH 524 93 148 34 11 15 70 72 112 11 7 .282 .369 .475
Total 524 93 148 34 11 15 70 72 112 11 7 .282 .369 .475

5. Justin Huber, OF
Age: 24  B-T: R-R  HT: 6-2  WT: 195

It was a trying year for Huber, who was looking to build upon his success at the plate in 2005. Huber actually got off to a good start for the O-Royals, hitting .278/.402/.542 with six home runs in April, and he was promoted to Kansas City on May 3 when Mike Sweeney went on the DL. However, Huber was relegated to bench duty for the Royals, and he had just 10 at bats in two weeks before being sent back to Omaha. Upon his return, Huber began playing left field every day, and he went into a prolonged slump at the plate. After hitting .250 in May, Huber hit just .240/.291/.375 in June. He picked it back up in July, however, but just as he was heating up, he landed on the DL with a hamstring strain. He bounced back with a solid August, and on the season, Huber finished with a respectable line of .278/.358/.480 with 15 home runs in 352 at bats.

Huber hasn't taken to the outfield quite as quickly as the Royals had hoped, but he does move pretty well in left, and he's more comfortable in the outfield than he was at first base. His arm is well-suited to the position, and while he'll probably never be anything more than an average outfielder, he is athletic enough to make it work. At the plate, the Royals are concerned about Huber's streakiness, and his swing is still a little unconventional. Huber worked hard with Omaha hitting coach Terry Bradshaw this season to improve his swing path, but he still has some work to do.

It was a bit surprising that Huber wasn't added to the active roster in September, but the Royals were trying to get a better look at some of the other young outfielders on their roster, and they simply didn't feel there were enough at bats for him. Huber will get a shot to make the team out of spring training, and depending on which outfielders are still with the club come spring, he could possibly platoon with Shane Costa in left field.

OMA 352 47 98 22 2 15 44 40 94 2 2 .278 .358 .480
KCR 10 1 2 1 0 0 1 1 4 1 0 .200 .273 .300
Total 352 47 98 22 2 15 44 40 94 2 2 .278 .358 .480

6. Tyler Lumsden, SP
Age: 23  B-T: L-L  HT: 6-4  WT: 215

Acquired along with Dan Cortes in the Mike MacDougal trade, Lumsden came to the Royals organization and immediately became the top left-handed pitching prospect in the system. The White Sox selected Lumsden out of Clemson in the supplemental first round of the 2004 draft, and he was advanced enough that they sent him directly to high Class-A after he signed, where he did well. However, Lumsden's career came to a halt the following season, when he missed the entire 2005 campaign due to arthroscopic surgery on his elbow to remove a bone spur. Fortunately, Lumsden made a full recovery, and he was 9-4 with a 2.69 ERA in the Southern League when the Royals acquired him in July. He continued pitching well for the Wranglers in six regular season starts, and he finished the season with a cumulative record of 11-5 and a 2.77 ERA. In 159.0 IP between the two teams, Lumsden struck out 96 batters and walked 60 while holding opponents to a .257 BA.

Lumsden throws a fastball, curveball, change-up, and a cutter/slider. His fastball sits in the low 90s and can occasionally touch 94-95, and his curveball is outstanding when he has command of it. Lumsden didn't throw his cutter much this season, instead focusing on his other three pitches, and he's working hard on commanding his three main pitches to the point that he's comfortable throwing them on any count. His walk totals were a bit high this season, which is some cause for concern, but he knows he needs to work on getting ahead of hitters.

Lumsden is a great athlete, and interestingly enough, he's also ambidextrous – he speaks as though he might give it a shot as a righty if this southpaw thing doesn't work out. Fortunately, we don't think he'll have to burn that option anytime soon. Lumsden will come to spring training with a shot at winning a spot in the KC rotation, but he'll likely head to Omaha, where he'll continue to work on refining his command.

BIR 20 20 9 4 0 2.69 123.2 114 47 37 9 40 72 .252
WCH 7 6 2 1 0 3.06 35.1 35 12 12 3 20 24 .276
Total 27 26 11 5 0 2.77 159.0 149 59 49 12 60 96 .257

7. Mitch Maier, OF
Age: 24  B-T: L-R  HT: 6-2  WT: 210

Maier came into the 2006 season looking to shed the "tweener" label that had been attached to him for the previous couple of seasons, and he may have done just that. He returned to Wichita and put up solid numbers, finishing the year with a line of .306/.357/.473 and 14 home runs in 543 at bats. Maier struggled with the adjustment to Double-A in 2005 after two excellent months in High Desert, but he improved so much this season that the Royals placed him on the 40-man roster and gave him a September cup of coffee in Kansas City. He followed that up with an outstanding showing in the Arizona Fall League, where he led the Grand Canyon Rafters with a .350 BA.

Originally drafted as a catcher, it's amazing how well the athletic Maier has taken to the outfield. He gets excellent reads, and he's now widely regarded as the Royals' best defensive outfielder in the system. His arm is good enough to play at either corner, and it's even better in center. At the plate, Maier has steadily improved each year, and both his power and plate discipline both improved in 2006. He's got a smooth swing, and he worked hard this season on keeping his weight back and not getting out in front of offspeed pitches.

Maier will enter spring training with an outside chance at winning a spot in the KC outfield, but it seems nearly certain that he'll begin the season playing center in Omaha. With the Royals' crowded outfield mix, Maier could also attract some interest from other clubs. Either way, if he continues to improve at his current pace, Maier could one day become a quality everyday Major League outfielder.

WCH 543 95 166 35 7 14 92 41 96 13 12 .306 .357 .473
KCR 13 3 2 0 0 0 0 2 4 0 0 .154 .267 .154
Total 543 95 166 35 7 14 92 41 96 13 12 .306 .357 .473

8. Jeff Bianchi, SS
Age: 20  B-T: R-R  HT: 6-0  WT: 175

Most observers expected Bianchi to make the jump to either Idaho Falls or Burlington this season after dominating the Arizona League in his injury-shortened 2005 campaign, but the Royals wanted to be sure that he was 100 percent healthy before sending him away from their Surprise complex, so he returned to the AZL in 2006. Unfortunately, Bianchi played in just 12 games before being shut down with a torn labrum, and his season was lost. While he was healthy, the 20-year-old shortstop continued to rake AZL pitching, hitting .429/.537/.667 in 42 at bats, and in 40 career professional games, Bianchi now sports a ridiculous .500 OBP and 1.221 OPS.

Bianchi's tools are outstanding, and he's one of the organization's truly elite talents. He possesses plus-plus speed, and he shows an advanced polish that is rare for a player his age. Offensively, he uses a short, quick stroke to spray line drives to all fields, and he has good power that should continue to develop as he matures. Bianchi's agility and speed lends itself well to shortstop, although the concerns that he might not have enough arm for the position at higher levels will only be amplified by his shoulder injury. A move to second base in the future is a definite possibility, although right now it seems the Royals will give him every chance to stay at shortstop.

Bianchi is spending this offseason rehabbing in Arizona, and he's reportedly making good strides in his throwing program. Latest word was that he's throwing at 60 feet without any pain, and the Royals fully expect him to be ready by spring training. As long as Bianchi's recovery continues to proceed smoothly, we expect him to start the 2007 season in Burlington, where the Royals will finally be able to see what he can do against more advanced pitching.

AZR 42 13 18 4 0 2 6 9 3 1 1 .429 .537 .667
Total 42 13 18 4 0 2 6 9 3 1 1 .429 .537 .667

9. Billy Buckner, SP
Age: 23  B-T: R-R  HT: 6-2  WT: 210

Drafted in the second round out of the University of South Carolina in 2004, Buckner has steadily risen to become one of the Royals' top pitching prospects. The 6'-2" righty in 2005 struggled with the high altitude of the California League after a midseason promotion from Burlington, but he returned to High Desert to begin 2006 and pitched well. After appearing in the California-Carolina League All-Star game in June, Buckner was promoted to Wichita, where he held his own in 13 starts. Between the two teams, Buckner compiled a 12-4 record and 4.24 ERA in 165.2 IP while striking out 148 batters and holding opponents to a .268 BAA.

Buckner primarily works with three pitches: a fastball that sits in the low 90s, a plus-plus 12-to-6 knuckle curve, and a streaky-but-improving change-up. Like many collegiate pitchers, Buckner during his amateur career relied heavily on his curveball, and the Royals have made him work hard on improving his fastball and change-up command as a professional. Buckner has only been throwing his change for a couple of years now, and while he's becoming more confident with it, it still needs some work.

Buckner must continue to work on becoming more consistent with his stuff – he was very streaky in 2006 – and his high walk totals remain a primary concern. However, his curve is perhaps the best breaking ball in the organization, and if he can continue to improve his command of his other pitches, Buckner will likely see Kansas City within the next couple of seasons. Right now, he projects as a potential middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher, and he'll likely return to Wichita to begin the 2007 season.

HDM 16 16 7 1 0 3.90 90.0 92 44 39 6 47 85 .271
WCH 13 13 5 3 0 4.64 75.2 78 40 39 7 39 63 .265
Total 29 29 12 4 0 4.24 165.2 170 84 78 13 86 148 .268

10. Ryan Braun, RP
Age: 26  B-T: R-R  HT: 6-1  WT: 215

Ryan Braun was one of five college seniors the Royals selected in the first 10 rounds of the 2003 draft, and they signed him for a bargain-basement bonus of $1000 after taking him in the 6th round. He had an excellent debut in the Arizona rookie league, and he moved to Wilmington in 2004, where he dominated as the closer on a Blue Rocks squad that fell one game short of the Carolina League championship. Braun looked to be on the fast track to the big leagues, but it became clear in 2005 that he had a shoulder problem that was causing him abnormal pain, and his arm was taking longer to recover between outings than it should have. He made just eight appearances in 2005 before undergoing surgery on his shoulder to correct the problem, and his future looked in doubt.

However, the surgery was a complete success, and Braun this season came back stronger than ever. In 65.2 IP between Wichita and Omaha, Braun saved 13 games while compiling an ERA of 2.19. He struck out 80 batters while walking just 29, and he held opponents to a batting average of just .221. For his efforts, he was rewarded with a September call-up to Kansas City.

Braun's fastball, which sits in the upper 90s and occasionally reaches 100 mph, is his best pitch, but he complements it with both a quality curveball and a slider. His curve is usually his best offspeed pitch, but both it and his slider show signs of becoming above average Major League pitches. His arm held up very well this year, and there appear to be no lingering effects from his previous injuries, so he could figure prominently in the Kansas City bullpen out of spring training in 2007.

WCH 26 0 1 6 10 2.21 40.2 30 11 10 2 16 58 .204
OMA 17 0 0 2 3 2.16 25.0 23 9 6 0 13 22 .247
KCR 9 0 0 1 0 6.75 10.2 13 8 8 2 3 6 .317
Total 43 0 1 8 13 2.19 65.2 53 20 16 2 29 80 .221

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