NW Arkansas Season Preview

The 2009 Northwest Arkansas Naturals figure to be a seasoned club. Despite the lack of any top offensive prospects, the Royals' Double-A club shouldn't have any trouble scoring runs. The pitching staff, meanwhile, should be very stingy. Indeed, this could be an exciting season for Naturals fans, and RC breaks down the 2009 roster inside.

The tentative 2009 NW Arkansas Naturals roster can be viewed by clicking here.

Anticipated lineup

1. Jose Duarte CF
2. Kurt Mertins 2B/3B
3. Joe Dickerson LF
4. Brian McFall 1B
5. Mario Lisson SS/3B
6. Cody Strait/Ed Lucas DH
7. Jordan Parraz RF
8. Jeff Howell/John Suomi C
9. Chris McConnell SS/2B

RC Comment: Jose Duarte led off most of last season, so it's a good bet that he'll remain in that role in '09. Kurt Mertins and Joe Dickerson are both new additions to the Naturals' lineup and are both highly thought of in the organization, so it's a good bet they'll bat near the top of the order to maximize their at bats. The most interesting lineup decision will be the distribution of at bats/playing time between Mario Lisson, Chris McConnell, Mertins, and Josh Johnson. The organization views Mertins as a second baseman – his best position – but with both McConnell and Lisson on the roster, it's a good bet that Mertins will see considerable time at third base. Johnson could be the odd man out with regard to playing time. The outfield appears relatively set with Duarte in center, Dickerson in left, and Jordan Parraz in right. Brian McFall is listed as an infielder, and it seems likely that he will get the majority of time at first base.

Offense

The roster doesn't include any high profile offensive prospects, but the Naturals shouldn't have any problems scoring runs. Duarte, Lisson, McFall, and Ed Lucas are all repeating the level, and all are capable of putting up good numbers in the Texas League. Lucas hit .304 for the Naturals last season in 270 at bats, and McFall pounded 18 home runs. Both Mertins and Dickerson handled the jump to High-A very well last year, and they should do well against Texas League pitching. Cody Strait hit .296/.362/.571 with 13 homers in Wilmington last year after being acquired in July, and after nearly 450 at bats at the Double-A level in the Reds' system, he could be set for a big year In the Texas League. Parraz is something of a wild card, but his combination of speed and on-base ability should serve the Naturals well.

Defense

The Naturals should be the best defensive team in the Royals' system. In the outfield, Duarte covers a ton of ground in center, and he's flanked by Dickerson in left and Parraz in right, who both have very good range for corner outfielders. On the infield, both Lisson and McConnell are plus defenders, and both Mertins and Johnson are solid at both third and second. There are really no holes in the defense.

Starting Pitching

Anticipated Rotation

1. Dan Cortes
2. Blake Wood
3. Anthony Lerew
4. Blake Johnson
5. Matt Kniginyzky

RC Comment: Lots of experience. Cortes, Wood, and Johnson all return to the Naturals. Of that group, only Cortes had what could be described as a solid season at the Double-A level last year, but both Wood and Johnson should take big steps forward this year. Anthony Lerew has over 400 innings at or above the Double-A level (including 21.2 innings in the Major Leagues for the Braves), so it's not hard to envision him doing quite well in the Texas League, as long as he's healthy. The only projected starter making the jump to Double-A this year is Matt Kniginyzky, who had a fine season last year in Wilmington, despite coming back from labrum surgery. Armed with a good fastball and solid secondary stuff, the 26-year-old Canadian has the tools necessary to succeed in the Texas League.

Bullpen

Dan Cevette
Kyle Crist
Gilbert de la Vara
Chris Hayes
Greg Holland
Victor Marte
Chris Nicoll
Carlos Sencion

RC Comment: Again, this is an experienced bullpen. Nicoll and Hayes were probably the two best relievers in the entire system last season, and both return to the Naturals' bullpen. De la Vara returns from Houston's Major League camp and should continue shutting down left-handed batters, and Victor Marte is a power arm who spent last season in Japan. Greg Holland is the only player making the jump from High-A, and he brings his plus fastball to what should be the best bullpen in the Royals' system.

Final Analysis The 2009 Naturals' greatest strength is definitely its pitching staff, which boasts several of the organization's top prospects (Cortes, Wood, Nicoll), many of whom are repeating Double-A this season. Both the rotation and the bullpen should be among the best in the Texas League, at least until injuries and promotions prompt roster turnover. The offense, meanwhile, shouldn't be underestimated. We could see big years from McFall, Duarte, and Lisson, all of whom are repeating the level. This is a seasoned Double-A roster, and the Naturals appear well-positioned for a successful season.

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