The Kansas City Royals roster has been hashed and re-hashed ad nauseam during this interminable off-season, so it’s officially time to look a level lower.
From my perch here in Kansas City I want to gaze north to Omaha, where the Storm Chasers will once again be jam-packed with top flight prospects this season. Even with a horde of elite players making their way to the big leagues last season, Omaha will be looking to improve upon their stellar 2011 campaign (79-63 record, first place).
Before I begin the predictions, allow me a couple of ground rules. First, I will only include two set-up men and a closer for the bullpen. The rest is just too much of a crapshoot, and may include players not currently in the system. I’m also going to cheat a little bit and include six rotation candidates. One of the six will likely earn the role of the long reliever, and I’m not going to try to decipher that race. Also, only the starters on offense will be included. I’m not diving into the bench. There are too many options, too many variables, and, well, ultimately this is my list so I get to do what I want.
Hypothetically, I’d like to come back to this post as the season begins and judge these predictions. Surely, some (if not all) of my projected starters will not pan out, and it’s always fun to look back under the lenses hindsight and deride yourself for going all in on fool’s gold. There is also the (ever so slight) possibility that I nail the predictions and get the opportunity to write a self-congratulatory column about it while being showered in the confetti I bought for the occasion. Either way is a win in my book.
Without further ado…
First Base – Clint Robinson: Robinson has mashed in each of the past two seasons, putting up a 1.035 OPS while in Northwest Arkansas in 2010 and a .932 OPS in 2011 with Omaha. Robinson probably deserves a shot at the big show, but he’s not getting it with the Royals. Eric Hosmer is one of the best young players in the game at first base and Billy Butler is fully entrenched as the primary DH. For the first time in his career, Robinson will have to repeat a level. As long as he doesn’t let that get to him, he should be among the best hitters in the Pacific League once again.
Second Base – Chris Getz: Maybe this is wishful thinking here. To me, Getz simply isn’t a major league caliber regular. Saying that, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to have him stashed at Omaha in case of a Johnny Giavotella injury or slower than expected start. His speed and defense could help Getz make the KC bench, but the team would be better served to keep him with the Storm Chasers.
Shortstop – Christian Colon: This is where it gets really tough. Colon only played 28 games at shortstop last year, and may not be a long-term answer there. He could have just as easily been pegged at second base, and may be even more likely to begin the season at Double-A Northwest Arkansas. But I have a hunch that general manager Dayton Moore will want to challenge Colon. He commanded a sizeable $2.75 million bonus as the fourth pick in the 2010 draft and was thought at the time to be one of the most MLB-ready players of the class. It hasn’t worked out that way yet, but Colon will be 23 in May and just might thrive with the pressure of being a step away from the majors.
I almost put Irving Falu (who I’ve always liked) in this spot before realizing that he was 28 years old and preparing himself for his fourth year in Omaha. Plus, he couldn’t pry the position away from the immortal Lance Zawadzki last season. What does Dayton Moore have to lose by giving Colon a shot?
Third Base – – Mario Lisson: I’m not even going to try to make an impassioned argument here. Third base at Omaha was manned last season by three players – Mike Moustakas, Mike Aviles, and Yamaico Navarro – who are (for various reasons) no longer with the team. So when you look to the 2011 Northwest Arkansas roster and see that Lisson put up a .898 OPS and 15 home runs, it seems as good a reason as any to pencil him back at Omaha. Alas, Lisson will be 28 at the end of May and may not have a ton of upside. But top prospect Cheslor Cuthbert is still at least a year from the high minors, so it’s looking like Lisson is the guy unless Moore decides to bring in an out of house option.
Catcher – Manny Pina: Pina played in both Omaha and Kansas City last season, and his solid defensive reputation will likely make him a candidate to break with the big league club in 2012. But the Royals won’t carry three catchers, and I have a hunch they’ll peg the more experienced Brayan Pena to back up wunderkind Salvador Perez. It might not be fair to Pina, who could someday become a solid backup major-league catcher, but it would be a good play in the name of depth. Former Rangers prospect Max Ramirez should also see time at the position, as well as at…
Designated Hitter - Max Ramirez: This position likely won’t be manned by Ramirez alone. Jamie Romak could also be an option, and it might just become a DH by committee. But the 27 year old Ramirez put up a .823 OPS in Triple-A last season, for what it’s worth, and has always had a strong bat for a catcher. He’s a nice guy to have stashed in the minors and can be a contributor for the Storm Chasers.
Right Field – Wil Myers: The common narrative is that Myers struggled in Northwest Arkansas last season, but that didn’t stop the 20 year old from putting up a respectable .745 OPS while playing through a tough knee injury. I personally think Myers will eventually see Kansas City by the end of the year, even if it is only as a late-season cup of coffee call-up. When 2011 is considered a down year for him, I can only imagine what a bounce-back year in 2012 might look like. If Myers’ performance in the Arizona Fall League is any indication, it could be pretty gaudy. Myers put up an obscene 1.155 OPS in Arizona, which is not a typo. Sure, the Fall League is notoriously slanted towards hitters, but Myers stood out from the pack. Now 21, Myers will be looking to get back some of his elite prospect shine in 2012. That quest should begin in Omaha, where Myers will once again be one of the youngest players in his league.
Center Field – Mitch Maier or go with five outfielders, and I don’t see either of those scenarios happening. Like in 2011, Dyson will eventually see some time with the big league club as a super sub. The speed demon stole 38 bases for Omaha last year and was only caught twice, so he has real value. However, his bat will likely never be potent enough to earn regular playing time.
Left Field – David Lough: In the line of Aaron Guiel (had a legitimately great season in 2003!), Justin Huber, and Kila Ka’aihue, Lough is my choice to be the next great hope that never quite makes it. Like the aforementioned players, Lough has shown himself to be nearly dominant at Omaha. In 2011 Lough put up a .850 OPS in 114 games, along with nine home runs, 11 triples, and 26 doubles. But there is simply no place in Kansas City for the (soon to be) 26 year old. If Lough does get a chance, it will be because of an injury to stalwarts Alex Gordon or Jeff Francouer, and that won’t bode well for the Royals. Lough is a valuable guy for Omaha, though, and should put up some more impressive numbers this season. I’m going all-in on Lough as the “guy who the Royals online community call to be promoted” after Francouer’s inevitable early season post-contract extension swoon. Bank on it.
Mike Montgomery: I actually think Montgomery will get a fair chance to make the Royals out of Spring Training. The smart money, however, would be on Montgomery anchoring the Storm Chaser rotation for a month or two before migrating to Kansas City once injury or ineffectiveness stricken the big league team. He should see improvement and become the ace of the staff in his second trip through Omaha.
Aaron Crow: Crow was occasionally lights out last year out of the bullpen, but the club announced after the season that he would be given a crack at the rotation. Crow never started in Triple-A, so it wouldn’t be an unreasonable starting point for a guy who compiled a 5.73 ERA during his only minor league season as a starter. Crow could also always shift back to the bullpen, although if the Royals are committed to using Crow as a starter long-term, it would be prudent to give him time against Pacific Coast league batters first.
Everett Teaford: Yet another pitcher who yet might be good enough for Kansas City’s rotation, but will start the season in Omaha. I liked Teaford’s game last year, as he was serviceable in 44 major league innings in both the bullpen and the rotation. But at 27 years old, Teaford needs to make an impression fast to earn another long look in the big show. Expect Teaford to get off to a strong start next season and force himself into some role with the big league squad by the all-star break. Even if not, Teaford is exactly the type of depth that good teams have waiting in the wings. He’s a solid pitcher.
Luis Mendoza: There is no middle ground on Mendoza. Either people see his 12-5 record and 2.18 ERA at Omaha last season and want him in the mix for the Kansas City rotation, or they see that he is a 28 year old journeyman pitcher who struck out only 81 batters in 144.1 innings and want him relegated to Omaha as organizational filler. I tend to side with the group that can’t overlook the low strikeout rate, but as I like to say, to each their own. This is one debate I’d be thrilled to be wrong about. If Mendoza exceeds expectations and earns his way up the majors, that would be great. If he plies his craft in Omaha all season, that’s fine too. Every organization needs filler.
Sean O’Sullivan: O’Sullivan appears to be the classic AAAA player. Which is to say that he will likely never make a real impact at the major league level. O’Sullivan holds a career 6.13 ERA in the big leagues, and although he is still only 24, does not seem to have the secondary pitches (aside from his quality change-up) to be a success. Still, he is a live body, and was able to go 8-2 with a 4.22 ERA for Omaha last year. He’s a perfectly acceptable 4th or 5th starter in the minor leagues.
Will Smith: The 22 year old Smith (the other piece in the Alberto Callaspo for O’Sullivan trade) had a pretty nice year at Northwest Arkansas last year, and is more deserving of a promotion to Omaha than fellow Naturals Chris Dwyer and Jake Odorizzi. Don’t get me wrong, I love Dwyer and Odorizzi long-term, but they were simply not as consistent at NWA as Smith. Smith pitched 161.1 innings with a 3.85 ERA in 2011, and although his 108 total strikeouts aren’t eye-opening, his 8-2 record and 3.16 ERA after the All-Star break are. He’s big, young, and left-handed; so he’s got the makeup to be a successful starter in the big leagues. If he can do that, the Callaspo trade will suddenly start looking pretty darn good.
Closer – Kelvin Herrera: The 22 year old fireballer probably deserves to start the season in the big leagues as well, but with the signings of Jose Mijares and Jonathan Broxton, it looks like (barring injury) he’ll be pegged to close games at Omaha. Herrera dominated that level in 17 innings last season, putting up a 2.12 ERA and six saves to go with his 18 strikeouts. After beginning last season at High-A Wilmington, Herrera shot like a meteor through the system, ultimately ending in Kansas City. It won’t hurt his development to throw another 20-30 innings in Omaha before getting the call-up to the majors.
Set-up Man (1) – Brandon Sisk: The steady 26 year old had a dominant second half for Omaha in 2011, sporting a 1.41 ERA in 32 innings after being promoted from Northwest Arkansas. Sisk also struck out nearly a batter an inning, showing that the performance wasn’t just smoke and mirrors. He is another lefty, which makes him a valuable commodity and a potential replacement for Tim Collins or Jose Mijares if things don’t go according to plan at the big league level. He should make his big-league debut in 2012.
Set-up Man (2) –Kevin Chapman: Is it especially likely that both top set-up men at Omaha will be left-handed? No. But one of these guys will almost certainly man a prominent set-up role, so why not hedge my bets and include them both here? Chapman’s 4.99 ERA at Northwest Arkansas in 2011 is nothing to brag about, but the 50 strikeouts he recorded in 39.2 innings are impressive. Chapman will be 24 when the season starts and won’t have a lot to learn in Double-A. If the Royals see him as a long-term fit, he’ll get his chances in Omaha in 2012.
So there are my official predictions for the Omaha Storm Chasers roster in 2012. If it plays out anything like I suggest, the Storm Chasers should be again be a force. Who did I miss? How many egregious errors did I make? We’ll find out when the roster is settled at the end of Spring Training.