Burlington Bees Season Preview

The 2008 Midwest League champion Burlington Bees open their 2009 season on Thursday, when they host the Clinton LumberKings. Today RC takes an in-depth look at the 2009 squad's roster, evaluating the club's strengths and weaknesses. Are the Bees well-positioned to defend their title? Read inside to find out.

Projected Lineup

1. Patrick Norris CF
2. Antonio Jimenez 3B
3. Nick Van Stratten RF/LF
4. Eric Hosmer 1B
5. Kyle Martin DH/IF
6. Nick Francis/Wilson Tucker LF/RF
7. Jose Bonilla/Sean McCauley/Salvador Perez C/DH
8. J.D. Alfaro SS
9. Alwin Perez/Juan Rivera 2B/MI

RC Comment: The Bees' lineup is tough to project. The only certainties seem to be that Patrick Norris will lead off and play center, and Eric Hosmer will bat third or fourth and play first base. J.D. Alfaro should play most days at shortstop, and he could bat higher in the lineup – it wasn't unusual for him to bat second in the order last season in Idaho Falls. Juan Rivera returns after spending the 2008 second half as the Bees' starting shortstop, but the presence of Alfaro means he could feasibly see more time at second base this season. Antonio Jimenez could bat anywhere in the lineup (while playing almost any position), but having two speedy switch hitters at the top of the lineup could give manager Jim Gabella some interesting options.

The Royals want Kyle Martin to get around 300 at bats this season, so he figures to move around quite a bit, most likely between third base, second base, and DH. David Wood's presence (when he returns from the DL) could set up an interesting platoon with Martin at the DH spot, but the most likely scenario at DH involves a rotation of the three catchers on the roster. Royals' Director of Minor League Operations Scott Sharp told us that the goal is to get each of the three catchers on the field four out of every six days, so expect all three to see significant time at DH when they aren't catching. In the outfield, the Bees will likely opt for two days on, one day off rotation between Nick Van Stratten, Wilson Tucker, and Nick Francis at the corners. When Norris needs a day off, Van Stratten figures to be the most likely to take over in center.

Offense

Despite the presence of masher Eric Hosmer, the Bees' offense might be easy to underestimate. The attack begins with Norris setting the table, and the 23-year-old speedster carries into Burlington a career minor league on-base percentage of .375, along with 63 stolen bases in 74 attempts (85 percent). Jimenez hit just .184 in 49 games for the Bees last year, but he made good progress after being sent to Idaho Falls in the summer, particularly from the left side of the plate. Injuries have limited Van Stratten to just 237 at bats over the past two seasons, but the 23-year-old KC native has a career line of .312/.395/.463, including a .889 OPS in 40 games with the Bees last season. Sharp told us that he expects a big year from Van Stratten, identifying him as one of the organization's 2009 sleepers.

Sharp also pointed out that Tucker had an outstanding spring training. The 33rd rounder out of Belmont left the Bees early last season to deal with some personal issues, but he has a quick bat that slammed nine homers in his 2007 short season debut. It was somewhat surprising to see Martin returned to Burlington, after he hit .316/.373/.537 for the Bees last season. The Bees, however, will be happy to have the versatile 24-year-old infielder back, who should provide some additional thump to the middle of the order.

The three catchers on the roster should all see significant at bats. Of the group, Jose Bonilla seems to have the best present bat, and he hit .357/.405/.625 for the Arizona Royals last season. Salvador Perez has excellent upside and a big league body, and he too had excellent numbers in rookie ball last season, although his playing time was limited by injuries. Sean McCauley was originally drafted for his defense, but the 19-year-old Virginian has put up solid numbers at the plate thus far in his career. Last season, McCauley hit .278/.347/.385 in 45 games for the Chukars.

Of course, everyone is eager to see what Hosmer does in his full season debut, and if his spring training performance is any indicator, the Bees could wind up with back-to-back Midwest League home run champions. Hosmer's impressive raw power has been well publicized, but he also has a very advanced approach at the plate that belies his age.

All told, the Bees have a solid mix of hitters that should field a very capable offense. With Van Stratten, Martin, and Francis, the Bees have three players who have already shown they can hit Midwest League pitching. Alwin Perez, Jimenez and Tucker should show considerable improvement after seeing significant time with the Bees last year, and the new additions of Hosmer, Norris, Alfaro, and the three highly-touted catchers means there will be no shortage of interesting prospects on the field at any given time.

Defense

There is certainly a lot of athleticism on the Bees' roster, and that could bode well for the club. Up the middle Alfaro is a sure-handed shortstop with a good arm. During his time with the Bees last season, Perez kicked the ball around a bit at second base, but he handled the position much better once he was sent to Idaho Falls. Rivera also has a tendency to make some errors, but his range allows him to get to a lot of balls. Rivera (SS, 2B), Martin (3B, 2B, SS), and Jimenez (3B, SS) figure to split time at various infield positions, and that could cause some problems defensively, particularly on double plays. At first base, Hosmer will obviously get the vast majority of playing time, and he should field the position well. Both Martin and Jimenez could occasionally spell Hosmer at first base.

In the outfield, Norris covers massive ground in center, and Francis, Tucker, and Van Stratten are all solid defensive players. Van Stratten's all-out style of play has won him many fans, although it has also occasionally landed him on the disabled list. Tucker probably has the best arm in that group, although all are capable of throwing out baserunners, and all can cover good ground. With those three complementing Norris in center, the Bees could have an above average defensive outfield.

Behind the plate, Perez is the best catch-and-throw catcher, while McCauley is the best receiver. Bonilla is the least advanced defensively, but he has a cannon arm, and all three catchers have been very successful throwing out baserunners thus far in the careers. The Bees definitely have well above average catching depth, perhaps the best in the Midwest League this season.

Starting Pitching

Projected Rotation (in no particular order)

1. Bryan Casey
2. Ivor Hodgson
3. Luis Cota
4. Brent Fisher
5. Sam Runion

RC Comment: Bryan Casey appears slated to start the Bees' opener on Thursday, and the 22-year-old right hander is coming off a stellar 2008 campaign. Casey last season was named the Idaho Falls Chukars Pitcher of the Year after posting a 3.36 ERA with 66 strikeouts in 72.1 innings pitched after missing the entire 2007 season following Tommy John surgery. Casey's Idaho Falls teammate, Ivor Hodgson, also turned in a fine 2008 season, logging a 3.14 ERA with 67 strikeouts in 71.2 innings pitched. The southpaw was a 17th round selection in the 2007 draft, and he features a solid three-pitch mix.

Luis Cota and Brent Fisher were both once highly touted prospects in the Royals' system, but injuries delayed their progression. Cota's was most serious, and the right-handed spent 14 months rehabbing after he tore his labrum and a bicep tendon in 2007. The 23-year old made his return to the mound last summer with the Chukars, and he finished the year by making eight starts with the Bees. Fisher, meanwhile, missed most of the last two seasons after experiencing pain in his shoulder. He had it cleaned out, and he got back on the mound in time to pitch in 10 games between three levels last season, including four appearances with the Bees at the end of the year. Reports are that Fisher's velocity has come back nicely, and he could finally build upon his sensational 2005 and 2006 seasons in rookie ball that at one time made him one of the top lefties in the system.

Sam Runion joined the Bees last May out of extended spring training, but the 2007 second rounder got hit around in nine outings before being sent to the Appalachian League. There he fared much better, and reports this spring were that his breaking ball – which he's struggled with mightily – showed much improvement. If it develops into an out pitch, Runion could have a great season.

Bullpen

Manauris Baez
Barry Bowden
Justin Garcia
Blaine Hardy
Riquy Pena
Zach Peterson
Derrick Saito
James Thompson

RC Comment: The Bees bullpen boasts several pitchers who had excellent 2008 seasons in rookie ball. Barry Bowden could serve as the club's closer after logging seven saves and a miniscule 1.86 ERA with the Burlington Royals last year. James Thompson, a 2008 38th rounder out of Columbus State, has an excellent fastball and struck out 39 batters in 29.1 innings for the Chukars last season. Justin Garcia also pitched well in Idaho Falls last year, showing excellent control and a nice curveball while logging a 3.00 ERA and walking just five batters in 42.0 innings pitched.

The bullpen also includes a pair of interesting lefties drafted last June. Blaine Hardy, last year's 22nd rounder, throws three pitches for strikes, including a fastball that tops out around 90 mph and a good changeup. Derrick Saito is just 5-foot-9, but last year's 16th rounder has a very deceptive delivery and quality secondary stuff.

The workhorse of the bullpen once again figures to be Zach Peterson, who returns to the Bees after posting outstanding numbers with the club last season. Peterson doesn't overwhelm hitters with his fastball, but he has excellent command of all his pitches. Last year, he pitched 77.2 innings for the Bees and logged a 3.13 ERA with 82 strikeouts and just 20 walks.

Final Analysis

The Bees last season had a lot of young players making their full season debuts, and the club struggled in the first half before hitting its stride in the summer. This year, the roster seems to have a little more experience to start, and that could pay dividends in the season's first couple of months. If the new guys like Norris and Hosmer get off to good starts, the club could take off very quickly, especially if the returning Bees like Van Stratten, Francis, and Martin build upon what they did last season. Likewise, if Fisher and Cota pitch well, the starting rotation has the potential to be very good. Runion should be much more effective this time around, and both Casey and Hodgson have enough stuff to be effective in the Midwest League. The rotation might get a boost later this spring, when young prospects like Kelvin Herrera, Tim Melville, and Mike Montgomery could join the club. Although the bullpen doesn't have much experience in A-ball (aside from Peterson), some of the key pitchers like Baez, Bowden, and Garcia are a little old for the league (23- and 24-years old), and they have shown the ability to dominate younger hitters. All told, RC sees no reason why the 2009 Burlington Bees wouldn't have a solid chance at returning to the postseason and defending their title.


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