RC Mailbag: What's wrong with Alex Gordon?

RC opens up the mailbag today to answer some reader questions. What's the problem with Alex Gordon, and might he be sent down to Omaha if his struggles continue? Which minor leaguers could have breakout performances this year? What changes have the Royals implemented in their minor league system under Dayton Moore? RC takes on these questions and more inside.

RC, what minor leaguers do you think can make big strides this year and become elite prospects? -- Rodney, Lenexa, KS

That's an interesting question, Rodney. In order to be a truly elite prospect, a player must have a combination of youth, high upside, and some track record or promise of dominance in the minor leagues. Obviously, heading into this season, the Royals had three prospects -- Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, and Luke Hochevar -- who consistently ranked among the Top 40 prospects in baseball according to most baseball publications. However, there is definitely a handful of players who could rise to similar levels this year with impressive 2007 campaigns.

Indeed, some names come to mind quickly. Shortstop Jeff Bianchi has been a highly regarded prospect since he was drafted in 2005, but injuries have limited him to just 40 professional games thus far. However, the Royals believe that he could be a truly elite talent, and if he mounts a strong campaign in full season ball this year (most likely at Burlington), he could climb rapidly to become one of baseball's best middle infield prospects. Last we heard, Bianchi was on schedule to arrive in Burlington around May 1, and if all goes as planned, he might not have much trouble against Midwest League pitching.

Bianchi has excellent upside, so hopefully he'll stay healthy this year

On the mound, there are a couple of underrated talents that could make big leaps this season. Despite winning the Royals' 2006 Minor League Pitcher of the Year Award, Carlos Rosa still hasn't received the attention he probably deserves. With a fastball that reaches the mid-90s complemented by a devastating slider, Rosa has the tools to become a truly elite pitcher. He's honing his craft this season at Wilmington, and if he continues to dominate, it won't take long for him to get the prospect attention he deserves.

Rosa sports a 0.53 ERA through his first three starts in Wilmington

Rosa and Bianchi are probably the most obvious candidates, but there are certainly others who could rise to elite status this year as well. For instance, Brent Fisher is a guy who intrigued many with his dominant performances the last two seasons in the Arizona Rookie League. RC wasn't as high on him as many others were this past offseason, but after watching him in spring training last month, we came away convinced that Fisher has the type of stuff that could vault him considerably in national prospect rankings this year. Featuring a deceptive fastball and a hammer curve, Fisher clearly has enough talent to continue his dominance this year in the Midwest League.

There are also some other minor leaguers who could become very solid prospects this season - even if they don't yet rise to the elite level - that we recommend keeping a close watch on. For instance, Daniel Cortes is the type of pitcher who could explode on the scene at any moment, provided he refines his mechanics and puts up solid numbers once he‘s assigned to a full season club. Also keep an eye out for outfielders Nick Van Stratten and Derrick Robinson, both 2006 draftees who could shine at full season clubs before the year is out. Additionally, with solid seasons this year, both Kurt Mertins and Marc Maddox could garner more attention from prospect watchers.

Maddox, who moved back to third base this spring, is off to an excellent start in Burlington

We've all heard that Dayton Moore has reformed the minor league system, but I was wondering if you could outline some of the changes he's made? Is there really any hope for change? -- Paul, Olathe, KS

During spring training, we asked Royals Farm Director J.J. Picollo about what some of the specific philosophical changes the Royals have made since the new administration took over. Picollo pointed out that most of what they're doing is really pretty simple. For instance, there are four basic keys to pitching that the Royals have universally implemented throughout their system. The first change has to do with positioning on the rubber -- righties pitch from the right side, and lefties from the left, in order to take full advantage of the angles. Second, pitchers, especially in the low minors, are told to focus on the four-seam fastball over the two-seamer, which the Royals feel will help develop both arm speed and command.

Third, the organization emphasizes the curveball over the slider. Many pitchers, such as Chris Nicoll, have been told to drop the slider from their repertoire in order to focus primarily on curveball command. The Royals feel that curveballs are easier on the arm, and the key goal is to develop healthy pitchers. Picollo mentioned that some guys might not be able to spin off a good curveball, and when that is the case, they can always be taught how to throw a slider. Additionally, some pitchers who already throw good sliders, such as Carlos Rosa, have been allowed to continue throwing it.

Case in point: since last summer, Nicoll has moved to the right side of the rubber and dropped his slider from his repertoire

The final key is that pitchers land in a balanced position. Again, this is geared toward the health of the pitchers, as a balanced landing tends to indicate consistent mechanics. Of particular importance is that pitchers are taught to land on their toe, rather than their heel, which puts less pressure on the arm and allows pitchers to finish their pitches.

The Royals are also trying to keep things simple at the plate. A proper grip on the bat is the first key, and hitters are encouraged to keep both hands on the bat throughout the swing. A balanced approach is also important, and the Royals are trying to teach hitters to make their swing paths short to the ball. And finally, in addition to raw stats, the Royals are now also tracking the quality of at bats.

Of course, there are also some other changes geared toward building a sense of pride in the organization. The Royals have implemented a new uniform policy, in which all players in the minor leagues must wear their socks high -- gone are the days of all 24 players on the roster wearing different-looking uniforms and pants down over the shoes. The players also aren't allowed to wear hats or other apparel of other Major League clubs, and they're educated about the history of the organization. We've spoken with several players about these changes, and the response thus far has been very positive.

Irving Falu, rocking the high socks for Wichita

What do you think the problem is with Alex Gordon? Will the Royals send him back down to the minors if he continues to struggle? -- Jeremy, Gladstone, MO

Gordon's struggles seem to have taken everyone by surprise. Indeed, we would have never imagined that he'd get off to such a slow start, and in a young season that's already produced so much disappointment, Gordon's struggles are probably the most depressing. However, it's certainly too soon to panic. Gordon began his Major League career against a gauntlet of the game's best pitchers, such as Shilling, Matsusaka, Beckett, and Verlander, and he looked pretty overwhelmed. He's been hitting the ball hard more consistently over the past week, and it's probably just a matter of time before everything clicks for him. We think there are two primary reasons for his struggles thus far.

Gordon just hasn't looked comfortable yet...but he will

First, the vast majority of Gordon's at bats have had him falling behind in the count. Even the best hitters in the game struggle when they're behind in the count 0-2 or 1-2, and Gordon's been forced to swing at the pitcher's pitch in those situations. A patient hitter by nature, Gordon might actually be well served being a little more aggressive at the plate right now, and indeed he seems to be swinging earlier in the count lately. Of course, the game is one of constant adjustments, so it won't take long for pitchers to modify their plans of attack once it‘s clear they can‘t groove pitches against him early in the count. Gordon will just have to adjust to those changes when they come.

The other thing that has surprised us is that Gordon has been swinging through an awful lot of fat fastballs. It almost seems as though he's always looking for the pitcher's offspeed stuff, and that's causing him to be late on those fastballs. Pitchers in the Majors have better command of better breaking pitches, so it wouldn't surprise us to learn that Gordon has indeed been cheating a bit on the offspeed stuff, especially after being fooled by it so many times during the season‘s first week. As he adjusts to the speed of the game at the Major League level, however, this should become much less of a problem - there is no question that Gordon has the talent to succeed at this level.

As for whether or not he'll return to the minors, we don't think that option will be in the cards anytime soon. In fact, Gordon has looked much better at the plate over the last week, and he's even hit safely in five out of his last six games. We're sure the Royals don't expect Gordon to continue struggling as he has through the season's first three weeks, and if he can continue to show steady improvement, it might not be long before he's producing at a level more in line with what the club expects. Of course, the Royals aren't going to leave him in the Majors if he continues being so overmatched, but that's a decision that we're sure is still well down the road. Hopefully it soon becomes a moot issue.

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