Unless you’re a Yankee fan, I know you love an underdog. The World Champion ’69 Mets, the US Olympic Hockey Team victory over the Russians, Truman defeating Dewey, and the last 20 years of the Kansas City Royals – all examples of historic underdogs. It’s exhilarating to watch an unheralded team or player with low expectations overcome insurmountable odds to find success.
Bret Saberhagen was drafted in the 19th round, but performed so well in the minors that it only took him one year to get to the big league. Albert Pujols was drafted in the 13th round. Dan Quisenberry wasn’t drafted at all and ended up leading the majors in saves five times. (Can you believe that?) All of these great players have something in common – they overcame relatively low expectations to become strong contributors in the major leagues. You certainly know how much Sabes and Quiz have contributed to Royals history, and Pujols is already considered to be shoe-in for the Hall of Fame.
Have you considered the possibility the Royals could have a few low expectation players who may breakout and surprise all of us by forcing their way to Kansas City? It doesn’t happen very often, and you never know when it will occur, but when it does it’s one of the most exciting things about baseball.
Consider Greg Billo. Greg was selected in the 28th round of the 2008 draft as a 170 pound high school kid. He toiled through a couple of short and rather undistinguished seasons as a pitcher on three different rookie league teams. Then, in 2011 on the Kane County Cougers (A Team), he blossomed with an absurd 1.93 ERA, 119 strikeouts to 25 walks, and HR/9 of 0.4. His SO/9 rate dropped a bit from 2010, but all his other metrics look strong for the pitcher many consider to have the best control in the Royals organization.
Billo has been a professional for 4 years now and he’s still learning and growing and adapting and making himself a better pitcher each season. “I learned to keep the ball down (last year) and that was a big help for me,” said Billo, “and being able to throw my off-speed pitches for strikes made it so much easier to pitch.” Billo also credits his improvement in 2011 to “a few mechanical changes and a lot of little tweaks,” made under the watchful eye and guidance of Cougars pitching coach Jim Brower.
Do you know who else pitched for the Kane County Cougars last year? Yordano Ventura, considered to be about the 10th best prospect in the Royals organization also started for Kane County. Who do you think was the # 1 pitcher for the Cougars last year? Well, it wasn’t Yordano. Now I’m not saying Billo is going to end up as a better pitcher than Ventura and his 100 mph fastball or that he has more upside, or anything of the sort. Yordano is a year younger with tons of potential and we all have very high hopes for him. But, I am saying we shouldn’t count Billo out. His improvement has been so great over the past year that I’m not sure any of us can possibly know for certain what his future holds.
Greg doesn’t have blazing stuff like many other Royals pitchers, but what he does possess is intelligence, and saavy, and a willingness to listen to the guidance of his coaches and commit to doing what is necessary to be successful. Billo identifies Greg Maddux as a pitcher he’d like to emulate (not a bad choice) and if everything goes as planned, he expects to be pitching for the Naturals by mid-season of 2012.
MLB.com ran an article after the 2011 season and listed the minor league players for each club who had the best season by position. They recognized Greg Billo as the right handed starting pitcher who had the best season of all Royals minor leaguers. This includes a few names you might recognize in addition to Yordana Ventura. Have you heard of Jake Odorizzi? How about Luis Mendoza? Billo impressed MLB last year, and if he impressed them, well… the rest of us should probably be impressed too.
The Royals minor league system is full of outstanding talent that we may or may not eventually see in Kansas City. Some of these guys will flame out, some will ultimately have a great future in the majors, and some could end up as trade bait for the Royals to attain some missing pieces. As you know, one of the pieces the Royals are missing right now is a strong right handed starting pitcher. Billo isn’t ready for this responsibility right now, but I think it’s safe to assume the Royals will have a similar need in the coming seasons. I suggest we root for Greg Billo to continue to improve and force the Royals brass to consider him as a future candidate for this job. Just ask Dan Quisenberry, you never know where impressive talent will come from.