The most pleasant surprise for me has been the emergence of first baseman Kila Kaaihue, who is hitting .305/.448/.622 with 22 home runs for NW Arkansas this season. Kaaihue has always had a great eye, but this is really the first year that his impressive raw power has shown up consistently. The primary weakness of the Royals' system is the lack of potential impact bats, and Kaaihue's emergence is certainly a welcome development.
Another pleasant surprise has been the successful return of Chris Nicoll. Nicoll, as you may remember, was one of the Royals' best starting pitching prospects in the organization entering the 2007 season. He very unexpectedly lost all command last season, however, after developing what was described as a case of the "yips," and he was sent home late in the summer. The Royals weren't sure what to expect from Nicoll this year, and they decided to handle him very carefully, using him out of the bullpen for an inning at a time. Whatever they did seems to have worked, as Nicoll has turned into a quality reliever, posting excellent stats in 20 appearances for the Blue Rocks before his promotion to NW Arkansas, where he's also put up very strong numbers.
Some other pleasant surprises include Blue Rocks pitcher Everett Teaford (4-2, 3.24 ERA) and infielder Kurt Mertins (.304/.378/.437), along with Bees outfielder Adrian Ortiz (.318/.344/.399 with 26 SB) and O-Royals' pitcher Devon Lowery (1.51 ERA, 45 K in 47.2 IP between Double-A and Triple-A).
The most surprising disappointment? I'd say the biggest disappointment for me has been the continued ineffectiveness of Tyler Lumsden (3-9, 6.97 ERA), but I don't know if that's exactly the biggest surprise. Lumsden still has good stuff, but he lacks any consistency with it whatsoever.
Some other guys I was hoping for better production out of this year were the Naturals' infielder Mario Lisson (.220/.268/.365 for NW Arkansas) and pitcher Julio Pimentel (4-9, 5.85), although it's far too early to write either player off.
I'll interpret this to mean that you'd like to know who is the most likely at each level to reach (or return to) the major leagues. I'm including players from the four full season affiliates, but it's simply too soon to include the rookie ball clubs:
Omaha: Pitcher – Carlos Rosa, Player – Ryan Shealy
Rosa got a brief look in KC last month, and he's a lock to return at some point, either later this year or next season. Actually, about three-fourths of the pitching roster at Omaha could feasibly see time in KC at some future point, but Rosa figures to be the pitcher with the best chance of a significant contribution.
As for position players, Shealy probably has the best shot at another extended look in KC at some point. With the Royals' shortstop woes, you have to figure Angel Sanchez will get back eventually, and hopefully Mitch Maier and Shane Costa – both of whom are having good seasons – will get another shot as well.
NW Arkansas: Pitcher – Dan Cortes, Player – Kila Kaaihue
Cortes is, simply put, the Royals' best pitching prospect. With his size, his fastball, and his devastating curve, he'll likely get to KC before anyone else on the Naturals' roster.
The pickings on the position player side are a bit thin, but Kaaihue figures to have the best path to the big leagues. First base is a weak position throughout the organization, and Kaaihue this season has elevated himself to the top of that list (at least until Eric Hosmer signs).
Wilmington: Pitcher – indeterminable, Player – Derrick Robinson
Wilmington is the toughest team to project. On the mound, Ed Cegarra is probably the club's best pitching prospect, but he's still just 18-years old and seems likely to spend a full season in the Carolina League before moving up to Double-A. The fastest movers on the staff are likely to be the relievers, such as Tyler Chambliss, Greg Holland (who has also started some games this season), Russ Haltiwanger, and Ben Swaggerty, any one of whom could feasibly get a shot someday. Of that group, Haltiwanger has the best fastball, Chambliss has the best breaking ball, and Swaggerty is a southpaw with good stuff and solid stats, which is always a good combination for advancement. Starting pitcher Mario Santiago, who has a good fastball, also has a shot.
With the position players, it came down to Derrick Robinson and Joe Dickerson. Dickerson is having something of a breakout season (.302 BA, .833 OPS), and he's bound to rise on prospect lists this offseason. I went with Robinson, however, because he has the tools to play a legitimate big league centerfield, and therefore seems to have a clearer path to the majors. Robinson has unfortunately fallen off a bit at the plate of late (he's now down to .237/.294/.307), but his plus-plus speed still makes him at least slightly more likely than Dickerson to one day roam the outfield at Kauffman Stadium. The gap, however, has narrowed considerably.
Burlington: Pitcher – Daniel Gutierrez, Player – Johnny Giavotella
On the mound, Daniel Gutierrez has the makings of a very fast riser. He has excellent command of a quality repertoire, and he definitely has the Royals excited about his considerable upside. Southpaw Danny Duffy, last year's third rounder, also deserves a mention, but Gutierrez is a bit more advanced at this point.
Position-wise, there is no question that Mike Moustakas is the club's best prospect. However, he's a high school draftee in his first full professional season, and after getting bumped off of shortstop in favor of third base, there's still a question of where he'll ultimately wind up. Second baseman Johnny Giavotella, meanwhile, was drafted in the second round this year after spending three years in college. His game is more advanced, and his position isn't likely to change. That figures to give him a clearer path to the big leagues than Moustakas, although that says nothing about their respective ceilings.
Duffy's ceiling is tremendous, but he's still got some things to work on before we can talk about him as a truly great pitching prospect, even though his statistics for the Bees this year are outstanding (4-4, 3.17, 63/10 K/BB ratio in 48.1 IP, .219 Opp.BA). Duffy's fastball command is his primary concern, and he's been getting by in the Midwest League by being what his pitching coach refers to as "effectively wild." Midwest League hitters are having fits dealing with Duffy's excellent breaking ball, but Duffy is still a little too reliant on the pitch, which is sometimes the only one that he can consistently get over the plate.
But like I said, Duffy's ceiling is huge. He is still just 19-years old, and he should fill out a bit as he matures. Right now, he's working his fastball in the upper-80s, but he tops out around 92-93, usually when he's ahead in the count. When he fills out and refines his command, Duffy should add a few ticks to his fastball, which could elevate him to elite prospect status.
Right now, Duffy is still a long way from Kansas City. He could be a factor after two or three more years of development, although that timetable figures to accelerate if Duffy makes quick gains with his fastball command.
Aside from insisting that young pitchers like Runion work with a fastball, breaking ball, and changeup, he had no restrictions. The biggest problem for Runion during his stint with the Bees was the inconsistency of his breaking ball, which also explains his low strikeout numbers. Right now, it doesn't have the type of movement the Royals want, nor is Runion very adept at commanding it yet. He was sent back down to rookie ball, where he will continue working on that pitch in particular.
The good news about Runion is that he has the ideal pitcher's frame, and he made great strides with his delivery over the past year. The demotion was probably something of a bitter pill for him to swallow, but he'll be back.
Kila Kaaihue is having a stellar season in NW Arkansas, and he could be a candidate for promotion to Omaha at some point, given that he has already had well over 200 games at Double-A.
Chris McConnell is repeating Wilmington this year, and he's made good progress with his bat. He could get bumped up to Double-A pretty soon, although that also depends a bit on how well Mario Lisson progresses at shortstop.
Daniel Gutierrez could be headed to Wilmington any day, and he'd already be there had he not been shut down for several weeks earlier this season.
In Omaha, there are a couple of pitching prospects who could see some time in KC this year. I'd be surprised, for instance, if Carlos Rosa didn't return to the Royals' bullpen at some point. And Devon Lowery has seemingly resurrected his career, and he could be a candidate for a promotion if the need arises in the bullpen and if the Royals can comfortably clear a spot for him on the 40-man roster.
As I mentioned above, Teaford has turned in one of the most pleasantly surprising seasons in the organization this year. He was knocked around a bit in the pitching friendly Midwest League last season (6-8, 4.68 ERA, 147 H in 134.2 IP), but he's rebounded nicely this year in Wilmington and has been one of the Blue Rocks' most consistent pitchers.
I haven't seen Teaford yet this season, but when I saw him last year, he was working his fastball at 85-88 mph. He also threw a curveball at 76-79 mph, and a changeup around 78-79 mph. He threw some nice curveballs, particularly after the first couple of innings, but it looked like an inconsistent pitch for him. He primarily worked off his fastball and changeup.
Teaford's upside isn't tremendous, but you probably could have also said the same about one of the Georgian southpaw's idols growing up – Tom Glavine. He doesn't have a large frame (6-foot-0, 155 lbs.) and he doesn't throw particularly hard, so he'll have to continue putting up good numbers to keep the organization's attention.
Power, or the lack thereof, is very clearly the organization's biggest weakness. Signing first round pick Eric Hosmer would help considerably, but there are a few other guys worth keeping an eye on.
The most impressive power in the organization probably belongs to last year's first rounder, Mike Moustakas. Moose got off to a very slow start this season and had just one extra-base hit in April, but he came on strong over the following two months and now leads the Bees with 12 home runs. He is definitely a legitimate power bat, but after him, the list is short.
Naturals 1B Kila Kaaihue, whom I wrote about above, also has plus raw power, and the 24-year old leads the Texas League in home runs.
Idaho Falls outfielder Nick Francis is someone who is particularly interesting. He's a great athlete, and the ball jumps off his bat very well. He missed last season after violating team rules, but he's raking in the Pioneer League this summer, hitting .321/.396/.642 with four home runs and 13 extra-base hits (including five triples) in 20 games thus far. It's no stretch to imagine that he could develop into a legitimate power bat.
Bees first baseman Clint Robinson has legitimate plus power, but he's having a rough time right now in the Midwest League after a strong start. Not many guys put on more impressive displays in batting practice.
Speaking of batting practice displays, Naturals outfielder Brian McFall is as impressive as anyone. Contact rate has always been a problem for him, although his strikeouts have come down the last two seasons, and he appears to be a lock to set a career high in walks this year. He's probably still something of a long shot, but his impressive raw power makes him interesting.
Beyond those guys, there are several players in rookie ball who the Royals hope will, in time, develop good raw power. For instance, the Royals expect last year's sixth rounder, Fernando Cruz, to eventually start hitting with power, even though the 18-year old has shown little pop thus far.
That's a pretty tough call. The funny thing is, Aviles himself was never considered the organization's best middle infield prospect (perhaps he should have been), but he's certainly made the most of his opportunity.
Right now, a few guys stand out. Now that Mario Lisson has shifted to shortstop (and Moustakas has moved off the position), he may get the nod by default, even though he's struggled mightily in his first season at Double-A. That being said, he's got a very athletic, powerful frame, and he remains one of the organization's best infield prospects, middle or otherwise.
Johnny Giavotella, the second baseman the Royals selected in the second round this year, already has a strong claim to the title as well. Giavotella has begun his professional career by hitting .340/.394/.415 in his first 23 games with the Bees, and his performance and draft pedigree make him a strong choice.
Another former second rounder, Wilmington second baseman Jeff Bianchi, is starting to make a case as well. After a dreadful April, Bianchi put up strong back-to-back months in May and June, and he started hitting with more power, slugging over .500 during that stretch. It would be great news for the Royals if Bianchi can start to realize the expectations the organization had for him after his first two dominant but injury-shortened seasons in rookie ball.
Any three of those guys could feasibly become starters at the big league level eventually, whereas some of the middle infielders behind them, such as Chris McConnell, Kurt Mertins, and Marc Maddox, probably profile better right now as utility men.