Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Third Base Prospect Rankings

Every week until the start of the season I will go through what I consider to be the top 5 prospects at each position in the Royals farm system. Catchers. 1st Base. 2nd Base. Shortstop.

#1 - Mike Moustakas
6’0 – 195 lbs.

After his junior year in high school, scouts began to take notice of the 5’11 – 175 lbs. shortstop after he hit fourteen home runs for Chatsworth HS (CA). A stronger Moustakas returned for his senior season and hit a state-record twenty four home runs which gained his first of many Baseball America accolades as the High School Player of the Year. He was also the QB for his high school team and clocked in with a 98 MPH fastball while on the mound. The Scott Boras client was said to have scared off many small market teams, but the Royals remained undeterred and used their 1st round pick (2nd overall) to sign Moustakas who many claimed to be the best hitter available in the 2007 draft. The Royals went right to the wire in signing Moustakas eventually inking him to a contract with a $4 million bonus.

The Royals sent Moustakas to the Pioneer League where he started his professional career with the Idaho Falls Chukars. There he played in just eleven games but had a .293 average to go along with ten RBI’s and five extra base hits. Scouts with Baseball America commented during the season that they loved his short, quick swing and his advanced approach at such a young age.

Moustakas spent the entire 2008 season in the Midwest League where he helped lead the Bees to a league championship. The cold Iowa weather did not treat Moustakas kindly as he hit just .190 in April with one home run and zero extra base hits. It didn’t take long after that for Moustakas to begin showing his power as he supplied twenty one home runs in the next four months, the most in the MWL. His OBP went up every month during the season and he also hit .321 after the all-star break. He ended the season on a torrid pace hitting .330 with seven home runs and twenty two RBI’s in the month of August. In the field, Moustakas started the year at shortstop and had a .942 FPCT in fifty nine games before finishing the season at third where he had a .956 FPCT.

The post-season accolades soon came pouring in as he was listed as top prospect in the Midwest League according to Baseball America. Baseball America also named him the 13th best player in the minor leagues while Baseball Prospectus listed him at twenty one . Moustakas will start the year in High A Wilmington but I hope that with a strong first half, he’ll see some time in AA before hopefully finishing the season in the Arizona Fall League. It’s yet to be seen where Moustakas will end up in the field, in the latest 2012 projected line-up by Baseball America they had him in right field…not a bad spot for the young prospect who has a cannon for an arm.

#2 – Fernando Cruz
6’4 -184 lbs.

Cruz was selected in the sixth round of the 2007 draft after being home schooled in Puerto Rico. He was allowed to enter the draft one year early, and many believe the Royals got a steal as he was projected to be a first or second round pick if he would have waited to the 2008 draft.

As a seventeen year old Cruz started in Surprise Arizona where he finished with the following line - .210 AVG / .254 OBP / .519 OPS. He also ended up with five doubles, one home run and fifteen RBI’s. A point of concern for many young players is their K/BB ratio and that came into play for Cruz as he walked just four percent of his at bats. Of the forty eight games he played in, forty six of them were at third base where he made twelve errors en route to a .875 FPCT.

After extended spring training in 2008, the Royals sent the switch hitting Cruz to the Appalachian League to ply his craft with the Burlington Royals. As an eighteen year old his numbers did not improve significantly as he finished with a .237 AVG and walked just one percent of his at bats. He didn’t fare much better in the field for the rookie level Royals where he had a .911 FPCT to go along with nine errors in one hundred and one total chances.

So why does this young player earn the second spot in the rankings? First, the depth at this position is very scarce. Second, Cruz has the potential that minor league scouts desire. His progress will largely depend on whether or not he can attain the strength that the Royals have projected that he will acquire. However, Cruz will turn just nineteen years old later this month so he will be young for whatever league the Royals send him to next. I expect to see him stay in extended spring training before another possible tour with the Burlington Royals or a slight promotion with the Idaho Falls Chukars.

#3 - Jake Kuebler
6’4 -200 lbs.

After finishing his career at Southeast High School, the Royals selected the lanky infielder in the seventeenth round of the 2008 draft. Kuebler, who happens to be Alex Gordon’s cousin, was named to the All-Nebraska team after going 7-0 with a 0.17 ERA in his senior season. He also was one of the top hitters in the state, batting .545. Kuebler signed with the Royals even though he was highly sought after by the Nebraska Cornhuskers to help in their pitching rotation.

Mike Anderson, the head coach for the Nebraska Cornhuskers commented on Kuebler after he signed with them in December 2007, “Jake is probably one of the most intriguing guys in this class. He has a very high ceiling and the more you see him, the more you appreciate the things he does on the diamond. At 6-4, 195, he is starting to fill out a frame that could easily add 15-20 more pounds without losing any of the athleticism he possesses. He is a natural athlete who has a plus arm that reaches the low 90s. He projects as both a pitcher and a corner infielder who could hit with power.”

After he signed with the Royals, Kuebler played the remainder of the 2008 season in Surprise where he struggled posting a .187 AVG to go along with a .237 OBP. He had one home run to go along with four doubles and ten RBI’s in thirty five games. His performance in July was easily the best month of his short career as he posted a .276 AVG and also swiped three bags. August however was not as kind as he hit just .122 and struck out fourteen times in forty one at bats.

Deric Ladnier, former Royals senior director of scouting, had this to say about Kuebler “He’s got some mechanical things to work on with his stroke, but that’s true of almost anyone that age. The tools are there, and he keeps growing. It’s possible he might grow to be a Scott Rolen type, at least physically.”

Kuebler certainly has some work to do, and I expect him to also see time in extended spring training before moving up to the Appalachian League with the Burlington Royals. If third base doesn’t work out, the Royals can try him on the bump where they originally scouted him.

#4 - Josh Johnson
5’11 – 170 lbs.

The Royals picked the heralded high school product out of Tampa, Florida with their third round pick in the 2004 draft. He started his professional career with the Surprise Royals where he showed that his speed and patience were key attributes in his game. He stole twenty three bags in thirty six attempts and he also walked in nearly twenty percent of his at bats leading to a .413 OBP even though he carried a .213 AVG. The Royals gave Johnson a cup of coffee with the Low A Burlington club to finish the season as he played in just four games with the Bees posting a .167 AVG.

In 2005, Johnson started the year with the Surprise Royals where he posted the following line - .259 AVG / .387 OBP / .780 OPS. He also stole seven bases in eight attempts but showed no power getting one home run in twenty eight games. While in Arizona he played primarily at second and had a .959 FPCT while also playing six games at shortstop. Johnson received a promotion to finish the year with the Idaho Falls Chukars and played all thirty nine games at shortstop. While with the Chukars he hit .240 but his outstanding walk rate again led to a high OBP of .369. It was quite clear by this time that Johnson had little power as he hit just three home runs in one hundred and twenty two games up to this point.

Johnson spent the entire 2006 season with the Burlington Bees where he earned an all-star selection finishing second in the Midwest League with a .391 OBP and drew the most walks (ninety three) in one hundred and twelve games. Johnson split time between second and shortstop and showed some good leather on the field finishing with a .982 FPCT at second. He also stole eighteen bases in twenty seven attempts and had a .242 average to go along with eight doubles, three home runs and forty RBI’s.

In 2007, he made the jump to high A ball where he played in just eighty three games. While in Wilmington, he began to see more time at SS as he played thirty games there while also playing fifty games at second base. He finished with a .252 average to go along with a .354 OBP and his walk rate went down to 13%. It was obvious that Johnson was most comfortable hitting down in the lineup as he went .330 in the nine hole compared to .208 everywhere else in the lineup. He repeated the 2008 season in Wilmington where he continued to have a high OBP (.399) while also having a uninspiring average (.252) and lackluster slugging percentage (.337). The switch hitter was significantly better against lefties (.314) than against right handers (.234). Johnson went deep three times and had thirty eight RBI’s to go along fourteen steals in twenty six attempts. In this season he made the surprising transition to third base where he finished with a .956 FPCT.

I don’t think that third base is the final destination for Johnson as his bat does not match what the position requires offensively, second or short is more in line with his capabilities. He has his highest fielding percentage at second (.971) and would seem to fit better there than at any other position on the diamond. At 23, and with two seasons of high A ball under his belt I look for Johnson to move up to Northwest Arkansas to start the 2009 season. His patience is obviously what keeps him in the organization but it would be nice to see the doubles type power that he possessed in high school to come to fruition in the minors, if it hasn’t arrived by this time it may never appear.

#5 – Corey Smith
6’1 – 200 lbs.

Due to an utter lack of other third base prospects to choose from this former top prospect that signed as a minor league free agent with the Royals this past winter makes the list. As you may have noticed Mr. Smith has received a fair amount of at-bats with the Royals during spring training, more on that later.

Smith was a first round pick out of Piscataway High School in New Jersey by the Cleveland Indians in 2000. The Indians sent Smith to what was then their Appalachian League affiliate in Burlington where he had a decent start to his career parking four balls in fifty two games to go along with thirty nine RBI’s, eight steals and a .256 AVG. The Indians promoted him to Low A ball in 2001, where he started to show his potential hitting eighteen home runs and eighty five RBI’s, this performance led to Baseball America naming him the third best prospect in the Indians system. Like many power hitters, the strikeout became Smith’s nemesis as he got K’ed one hundred and forty nine times in five hundred at bats.

In 2002, Smith received a promotion to play in high A ball with Kinston where he hit .255, thirteen home runs and sixty seven RBI’s. After the season concluded, Baseball America deemed him the best prospect in the Indians system and the seventy third best prospect in minor league baseball even though he again showed a penchant for striking out (28% of his at bats) finishing third in the league in the dubious category. Smith moved up to double A in 2003 where he saw a drop in his power numbers (only nine home runs) but did raise his average to .271 and also had sixty four RBI’s. He got back on track in 2004 as he repeated the year in AA hitting nineteen home runs and sixty six RBI’s, these numbers led to a late season promotion to AAA where he played in just five games with a .111 average.

In 2005, the Indians traded Smith to the San Diego Padres and he once again repeated the season in AA, this time with Mobile. While in the Southern League, he led his team in home runs (18) and RBI’s (73) but was at the top of the strikeout leader-board in the entire league with one hundred and forty four K’s. At the end of the season the Padres put Smith on their Arizona Fall League squad where he hit .330 to go along with seven home runs and twenty one RBI’s. Smith spent his fourth season in AA in 2006, this time he was in the Chicago White Sox organization. Not much changed for Smith as he played with the Barons finishing with twelve home runs to go along with one hundred and twelve strikeouts.

Smith was released by the White Sox at the end of the season and joined the Newark Bears of the Independent League. In 2007, his eighteen home runs and seventy two RBI’s helped lead the Bears to a league title and Smith showed some progress at the plate hitting .274 and struck out just eighty nine times (against obviously lesser opponents). The LAA Angels bit on this strong season and sent him to, you guessed it, their Double A club to start the 2008 season. While in his fourth AA tour of duty he hit twenty six home runs and finished with eighty RBI’s. Of course, the strikeout curse followed him as he got K’ed ninety six times in one hundred twenty eight games. Smith finished the season with their AAA club and saw action in just seven games.

The soon to be 27 year old is hitting .316 in spring training thus far and has not hit a home run but has struck out five times in nineteen at-bats. At this point in his career, Smith has played just twelve games at the AAA level and in the best case scenario he could have his ticket punched for Omaha at the end of spring training if he wants to stay in the Royals organization.

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