RC Mailbag: Will Rowdy get rocked in 2008?

RC is back to answer several readers' questions in the latest edition of RC Mailbag. How is next year's Double-A rotation stacking up, and will Rowdy Hardy's success continue in the Texas League? Will Billy Butler get a legitmate shot at first base in 2008, or will he settle in as the permanent DH? RC answers these and several other questions inside.

How serious are the Royals about using Butler at 1B in '08? And if they are serious, why didn't he get more looks there at the end of the season (was it just Buddy being Buddy, or was there something else going on)? -- Dave, Denver CO

I think the Royals are serious about giving him a shot, but that‘s no guarantee that he‘ll become the regular first baseman. The Royals certainly want Butler to improve enough to win the job, but his position in 2008 depends on several factors, most of which are out of Butler's hands. First, it is clearly imperative for him to continue to improve at first base this winter in the Dominican League. Early reports are good, but it doesn't sound like anyone expects Butler to ever be any kind of asset with the glove. If he can get the footwork down and become more comfortable digging out errant throws, he's got a shot at being competent.

But will he get a chance? That remains to be seen, with perhaps the most important factor being the arrival of Trey Hillman as the new manager. Will Hillman be comfortable with a less-than-stellar defensive first baseman, or will he fit more in the Buddy Bell mold? If it's the latter, then I wouldn't expect Butler to get much of a look, just as he didn't in September despite Bell's promises to the contrary. The truth is, I don't think anybody really knows how Hillman is going to manage the team once he gets his hands on it.

The only thing we do know: Butler can hit

Since even a devout optimist might have trouble projecting the 2008 Royals' offense to score a lot of runs, perhaps Hillman will place added emphasis on defense and keep writing Butler in as the DH. Or perhaps Hillman will take a somewhat sabermetric approach and determine the Royals can live with a slugging, defensively challenged first baseman. It's far too early to tell.

And of course, the final factor at play is the fact that we still have no idea what the offseason will bring. Who will the Royals sign? Will it change the dynamic of the club? We may not have heard the last of Ryan Shealy, and between Ross Gload, Mark Teahen, and Alex Gordon, the Royals are stocked with players who can play first base if needed. It's possible the club could acquire a hitter this offseason with that in mind, and move someone like Teahen or Gordon to accommodate his arrival. Both Gordon and Teahen look like plus defenders at their present positions, but I doubt either would serve as a major roadblock if an opportunity to improve the offense arises.

I was pleased to read that Jeff Bianchi is off to a good start this fall, what are the Royals plans for him next season and how good of a prospect do you think Bianchi is? -- Stephen, Overland Park, KS

After a scorching start in the Hawaiian Winter League, Bianchi has cooled off a bit over the last couple of weeks, but he's still hitting .290/.347/.362 for the West Oahu CaneFires. Bianchi, as you know, struggled quite a bit this past season for the Burlington Bees, where he hit just .247 with little power in his first exposure to full season ball. It was certainly a disappointing season for the young shortstop, but I understand the Royals still remain high on him.

The good news is that Bianchi's surgically repaired shoulder held up fine this season, and he stayed healthy once he joined the club out of extended spring training in early May. However, his struggles seem to be something of a mystery, because he clearly has the tools to be a much better player. He just never quite found the right adjustments at the plate to cope with the Midwest League's more advanced pitching, and he had a pretty rough season because of it.

Thankfully, Bianchi stayed healthy in 2007

Bianchi entered this season with the opportunity to prove that he is a truly elite prospect after two amazing but injury-shortened campaigns in the AZL. That obviously didn't happen, but he just turned 21-years old this month, so he's got plenty of time to figure it out. He's still a plus runner with excellent athleticism, and his power should continue to develop. All told, he's still a very good prospect, and I expect that he'll probably open next season with the Blue Rocks in the Carolina League.

How good will our AA rotation be? Is this rotation a really good group of prospects that we can look forward to seeing at ‘the K' in a few years, or will they fizzle like so many Royals pitching prospects? Will Rosa go to Omaha? Will Rowdy get rocked in the Texas League? -- Jason, Ohio

Clearly, one of next year's most interesting stories will be the new affiliate in Northwest Arkansas, and the pitchers who are assigned to the club. The Wilmington Blue Rocks had by far the best rotation in the Carolina League this year, and several of their starting pitchers figure to graduate to Double-A next spring. Blake Johnson and Julio Pimentel, both of whom came over from the Dodgers in the Elmer Dessens trade, repeated High-A this year, so they seem like locks for the Naturals' 2008 rotation. Both pitchers entered the season with question marks, but both made impressive strides and became bona fide prospects this year.

Pimentel was excellent this year for Wilmington

Rowdy Hardy, who was the Carolina League's Pitcher of the Year, also appears to be a lock for the NW Arkansas rotation. As for whether or not he'll get "rocked" in the Texas League, I'm not sure anyone knows the answer to that. In fact, I probably would have told you before this season that he was going to get rocked in the Carolina League, so I'm probably not the best fortune teller when it comes to Mr. Hardy. The Texas League will certainly be a challenge for him, but I would no longer put anything past a pitcher with his stellar control, even if his fastball does top out in the low-80s.

Daniel Cortes, who doesn't turn 21-years old until March, could also make the leap after an outstanding season with Wilmington. Cortes worked hard on his mechanics this season, and he seemed to put everything together this year, particularly down the stretch. In fact, Cortes' size, age, and repertoire make him one of the best pitching prospects in the organization, so it will be particularly interesting to see if he can follow up his excellent 2007 season with another solid campaign. If he does, he could climb into the ranks of the truly elite pitching prospects in the game.

Cortes is climbing rapidly after a great 2007 campaign

As for Carlos Rosa, I wouldn't be shocked to see him return to Double-A next year. He began the 2007 season with the Blue Rocks, but after a few dominant starts, the Royals sent him to Wichita, where he pitched the majority of the year. Rosa put up respectable numbers (6-6, 4.36 ERA, 70 K's and 43 BB's in 97.0 IP) in his first shot at the Texas League, but the Royals might want to see him throw a few more innings at the Double-A level before promoting him to Triple-A. Of course, Rosa's performance in spring training this year was so impressive, there were some early rumblings that he might have a shot at the 25-man roster out of camp. A similarly impressive showing in spring training next year could vault him to Triple-A, but that is also largely dependent upon where other pitchers like Billy Buckner and Luke Hochevar begin the season. Regardless, there is little doubt that Rosa will see Omaha at some point during the 2008 season.

With 2 short season teams, where will all the players go next season? If the Idaho Falls players head out to Iowa, will the Burlington NC players and the AZ rookie team both be in extended spring training? --Peg, Wilmington, DE

With the extra affiliate, it will definitely be interesting to see where everyone goes. Last year, nearly every player who ended the season with the Arizona Royals in 2006 began the 2007 campaign in extended spring training, so jumping from the AZL to a full season club will likely become even less frequent with the extra affiliate.

Speedster Jarrod Dyson was one of the few players to make the jump directly from the AZL to Low-A in 2007

As for the players who ended the year in Burlington (NC) and Idaho Falls, I think we'll see something of a mix from the two clubs start the season in Low-A. I'd expect the majority of the Burlington (IA) roster to consist of the 2007 Chukars, but it will likely include several of the older and more advanced players from the B-Royals as well.

I am curious to see how the Royals manage all the extra players in camp next spring. Do the Royals plan on retaining the majority of the undrafted free agents they signed this past year, or are they planning to cut a bunch of them loose when they need to make room for the 2008 draftees? And if so, when will those decisions be made? Your question sparks a number of other interesting questions, and extended spring training could turn into quite a battle next year.

How is Luis Cota doing? Is he still a prospect? --Darren in the Great Northwest

Cota, as you know, missed the entire 2007 season following shoulder surgery this spring to repair some fraying, and he wasn‘t on the instructional league roster this fall, so I‘m not sure if he‘s even throwing yet. Whether or not he's still a prospect depends on whether or not he gain regain his mid-90s velocity upon his return. Of course, even before his surgery, his poor 2006 performance in High Desert raised doubts, and he had a lot of work to do even before his latest setback. Control and consistency have always been issues with Cota, and the year away from the mound certainly doesn't help, particularly for a pitcher who came to the organization with so little pitching experience.

Cota missed the entire 2007 season following shoulder surgery

Of course, on the plus side, he's still young, and his great arm still has very little mileage on it. Anyone with that combination has a shot, and I wouldn't write him off just yet. He's no longer among even the top ten pitching prospects in the organization, but he still has time to turn it around. Hopefully he'll bounce back strong this season.

Will we see any of the 2007 draftees in High-A or Double-A ball in 2008? --Greg, Sellersburg, IN

Only two 2006 draftees began the 2007 campaign in High-A or Double-A -- Luke Hochevar and Brett Bigler -- so I wouldn't bet money on any 2007 draftee starting the season in NW Arkansas or Wilmington. Among the possibilities, first rounder Mike Moustakas could feasibly go to Wilmington, although Burlington seems like a much better bet, particularly since his deadline signing afforded him only a handful of at bats in Idaho Falls. Adrian Ortiz, who had a solid debut for the Chukars after being selected in the fifth round out of Pepperdine, is also a possibility, but he‘d have to leap past several intriguing outfield prospects who played for the Burlington Bees in 2007 to do so. On that note, the Bees did have a big weakness at first base in 2007, so 25th rounder and Chukars MVP Clint Robinson could feasibly get a shot in Wilmington by default.

Clint Robinson could feasibly jump to Wilmington

On the mound, 10th rounder Greg Holland (who turns 22 next month) and 24th rounder Ben Norton (who turned 23 two weeks ago) could possibly make the jump to Wilmington, if the Royals feel they're advanced enough and want to accelerate their development a bit. Again, I wouldn't count on it at the beginning of the season, but a strong spring showing could change things a bit.

Once the season gets underway, of course, anything can happen. Injuries can force the club's hand, so any player who's playing well in Burlington is just a phone call away from the Carolina League. As for the Double-A club in NW Arkansas, I don't expect to see any 2007 draftee suit up for the Naturals in 2008, unless Moustakas proves to be even more advanced than first thought and forces the Royals' hand by putting up video game numbers in the lower minors.

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