RC Mailbag: Is Soria a legit prospect?

RC opens up the mailbag today to answer a few reader questions. Where would Soria and Bannister rank on an updated Top 50 list? Who's going to be the Royals starting catcher on opening day? We answer these questions and more inside.

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Where would the new guys Joakim Soria and Brian Bannister rank on RC's Top 50 list? – Paul, Olathe, KS

That's an interesting question, and it's something that we've been working on. Both pitchers stand an excellent chance of making the Royals' 25-man roster out of spring training, and both offer an interesting mix of tools and past performance.

Let's start with Bannister. The 6'-2" righty throws four pitches: a two-seam fastball that tops out in the low 90s, a curveball with good depth, a change-up, and a cutter. He developed a reputation in his four minor league seasons as a control pitcher with solid numbers, and he had a successful but injury-shortened debut with the Mets last season. Right now it appears that Bannister is a leading candidate for the fifth spot in the Royals' rotation to open the season, but that could all change quickly if the Royals are successful in adding another veteran arm, as rumored.

So how does he stack up against the other Royals pitching prospects on our Top 50 list? Pretty nicely. While Bannister's upside probably isn't quite on par with that of Billy Buckner, who ranked #9 on our Top 50 list released last month, the odds of him fulfilling his potential is considerably higher. Bannister's game at this point is more advanced, and although he doesn't present an out pitch that is equal to that of Buckner's devastating curveball, his control – aside from the 38 innings he pitched in New York last season – is better, and he has command of a wider repertoire. Even though Bannister is two years older than Buckner, right now we'd tentatively rank him ahead of Buckner at #9.

Soria, who was widely regarded as the best pitching talent available in the Rule 5 draft, unexpectedly fell to the Royals with the second overall pick when the Devil Rays selected Ryan Goleski. The information about Soria is pretty sketchy, as he's pitched the majority of his professional career in Mexico, and scouts haven't had the opportunity to see much of him. However, prior to the draft, Denis Savage of MadFriars.com on the Scout.com Network caught up with Fort Wayne Wizards pitching coach Tom Bradley, for whom Soria pitched in 2006.

"I very much like Joakim," said Bradley. "He has a very good arm and pitched very well for us. [Soria has] four pitches: a fastball, slider, change-up, and a real slow curveball."

In preparation for the draft, the Royals dispatched Luis Medina and Gene Watson to Mexico, and according to scouting director Deric Ladnier, they came away very impressed with his stuff.

"They saw a guy who had very good command of three above-average pitches: a fastball, slider, and changeup," said Ladnier when contacted by RC. "He's super competitive, athletic, and has a tremendous upside."

The Royals were ecstatic to have the opportunity to select Soria, and it sounds like he'll have a very good chance at making the ballclub out of spring training.

"Joakim we see as a guy who can compete in various roles on our Major League staff this year," said Royals GM Dayton Moore during a press conference held shortly after he returned from the Winter Meetings.

Soria is much more difficult to rank than Bannister, simply because there's considerably less information available about him. Barring a spring training collapse, Soria is virtually guaranteed a spot on the Royals' roster, and just a couple of days after the Royals selected him, Soria made news by tossing a 101-pitch perfect game in Mexico. We like what we hear about him, and although the 22-year-old doesn't have much of a track record in the American minor leagues, word is that his command and poise on the mound is very advanced.

From everything we've heard, we could probably justify placing Soria in our Top 10 as well, but we just don't have enough raw stats to be comfortable ranking him ahead of guys like Buckner, Ryan Braun, Erik Cordier, and Chris Nicoll. Right now, we have Soria penciled in at #16, one spot behind lefty Daniel Christensen, who the Royals protected from the Rule 5 draft by placing on the 40-man roster.

Both the Bannister and Soria rankings are still tentative, and they will not be final until the release of our abridged Top 20 list in the Scout Baseball Prospects '07 Guide, which will arrive in the mailboxes of full-year subscribers in early March. By the way, if you haven't yet taken advantage of our prospect guide promotion, be sure to do so. The January 15 deadline for subscribing or upgrading your existing monthly or three-month account to an annual pass is rapidly approaching, and you don't want to miss out on our inaugural issue of the prospect guide.

With the Royals' acquisition of Jason LaRue this offseason, who's going to be the starting catcher? – Peter, Lincoln, NE

Our reflexive answer to this question when we first heard about the LaRue trade was to predict that John Buck, who is six years younger than LaRue, would likely retain his starting role. However, now we're not so sure.

The Royals, and specifically Buddy Bell, have said publicly that the two catchers will compete for the starting job in spring training. Rarely are such declarations entirely genuine, because the club normally has a good idea about who the favorite is long before players begin to arrive in Surprise, even if it won't state so publicly. And truthfully, after listening to some of Buddy Bell's interviews over the past couple of weeks, it really sounds like Buck might have a hard time retaining his starting job this spring.


Buck's starting job could be in greater jeopardy than the Royals are letting on

It's no secret that Bell loves to play veterans, nor is it a big secret that Bell and Buck were frequently at odds last season, particularly about Buck's defense and game-calling. Meanwhile, LaRue's reputation as a game-caller is outstanding, as is his defense behind the plate. Buck declined a chance to play winter ball this year when asked by the Royals, and the chances are that his refusal won't help his cause with Bell. It also doesn't seem very likely that Buck and LaRue will evenly split time behind the plate. Bell has been rather adamant in his interviews that he prefers to have one regular starting catcher.

Essentially, this leaves us with the impression that the starting catching job could very well be LaRue's to lose. We're sure that Buck's younger age and better upside will remain a factor in the decision, but the Royals' moves this offseason seem to indicate more of a "win now" attitude in the organization than they've had in years past. As such, we feel that there is a better-than-even chance that LaRue, not Buck, will be the starting catcher on opening day. Call it a gut feeling.

How does Ross Gload fit on the ballclub? Don't we have enough OF/1B/DH types? - George, Gladstone, MO

Nobody can say that Dayton Moore doesn't make bold moves. In the span of six months, he's dealt away the entire young core of the bullpen that in 2005 looked poised to emerge as one of the best in the American League. Of course, we all know what unfolded in 2006, and Moore entered this offseason determined to reform the bullpen into a competent unit. In acquiring Ross Gload for Andy Sisco, Dayton Moore invited even more controversy into an offseason filled with interesting moves.

In 494 at bats for the Chicago White Sox spanning parts of five seasons, Gload hit .298/.343/.437 with 12 home runs and 74 RBIs. He has a reputation as an excellent defensive first baseman and outfielder, along with a blue-collar approach that won many fans among the Southside faithful. Gload is probably better defensively at first base than the outfield, but he found himself stuck behind Paul Konerko in Chicago, and that severely limited his playing time.

So where does he fit with the Royals? Truth is, at present it's difficult to anticipate exactly what role Gload will fill. He'll certainly spell Ryan Shealy at first base on occasion, but the bigger question is how much outfield will he actually get to play? We don't expect the Royals to retain both Emil Brown and Reggie Sanders this spring, and if one is traded, Gload could conceivably platoon with the other in left field. That's not good news for Shane Costa, who will attempt to win a role on the club this spring, but Gload's defensive acumen and versatility clearly makes him an upgrade in the fourth outfielder role.

As it stands, assuming everyone stays healthy (please!) and the only other position player-related move the Royals make prior to spring training is the trade of Sanders or Brown, we think Gload will fit nicely on a four-man bench that includes a backup catcher, Esteban German, and Joey Gathright. Over the past three years, Gload has hit .340 as a pinch hitter, and he gives the Royals a solid left-handed bat off the bench. Indeed, with Gathright's speed and German's general awesomeness, the Royals' bench now looks very solid, and it will give Buddy Bell several tools to work with late in games.

In short, while it's true that the Royals have plenty of outfielders, first basemen, and designated hitter candidates on the roster and in the upper minors, they didn't have a single player who could adequately fill all three roles. Justin Huber is obviously the closest match, but his defense simply isn't Major League ready at either first base or outfield, nor are the Royals confident that his bat is yet consistent enough for regular Major League duty. Since the Royals are once again planning to carry 12 pitchers on their staff and Mike Sweeney's days of carrying a glove to work appear over, Gload offers the club the versatility it needs off of the bench. Only time will tell if that's worth a pitcher with an upside like Sisco's, but we like the move.

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