Top Ten Prospects: Kansas City Royals
Complete Index of Top 10s
By Will Kimmey
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
Royals manager Tony Pena coined the phrase in spring training, passing out “We Believe” t-shirts to his players. That must have been a hard sell after general manager Allard Baird had been forced to trim $10 million from the payroll of a 2002 team that registered a franchise-record 100 losses. Kansas City looked sure to extend its string of losing seasons to nine.
However, the upbeat clubhouse environment Pena fostered allowed the Royals to streak to a 9-0 start and collect 16 wins in their first 19 games. It jump-started a fan base that was further stoked as the “Believe” mantra emerged as a marketing campaign.
The Royals were the feel-good story of the first half as they sat in first place in the American League Central, buoyed by eventual AL rookie of the year Angel Berroa and a young and largely homegrown pitching staff. Pitching injuries and inexperience caught up with Kansas City after the all-star break, though Baird did his best to plug major league holes in a cost-effective manner. He added Brian Anderson, Curtis Leskanic, Al Levine, Graeme Lloyd and Rondell White for five middling minor leaguers and a small amount of cash.
Ultimately, it wasn’t enough to hold off the hard-charging Twins, who posted the best record in the majors over the second half, or the White Sox. Still, the Royals led the division for more days than any other team and finished 83-79, a 21-game improvement that ranked as the sixth-best turnaround in the majors since 1900.
The success spread to the farm system as well. Precocious righthander Zack Greinke earned a Futures Game berth by going 11-1, 1.14 in high Class A. The Royals went after similarly polished players in the 2003 draft, going away from high-risk, high-reward high schoolers like 2001 picks Colt Griffin and Roscoe Crosby.
Scouting director Deric Ladnier made savvy use of one of the game’s lowest signing-bonus budgets. Kansas City added plenty of talent to its system by landing outfielders Chris Lubanski, Mitch Maier and Shane Costa for bonuses below what their draft slots dictated. The Royals also got production from a succession of college players drafted in rounds 5-16 who each signed for $1,000 or less.
The bottom line also received a boost as the extra wins helped increase attendance by more than 400,000 fans to 1.7 million. That allowed Baird to hold on to the team’s best player, Carlos Beltran, though he likely will be too costly to re-sign when he becomes a free agent after the 2004 season. The team’s performance also satisfied a clause in Mike Sweeney’s contract that would have allowed him to become a free agent if the team didn’t post a winning season by 2004.
Baird made more smart and thrifty moves over the offseason, eschewing big-ticket free agents to add solid performers at reasonable prices. Anderson, Leskanic and Joe Randa were re-signed, while Juan Gonzalez, Matt Stairs and Scott Sullivan were brought in. If the young arms bounce back this year and the farm system can produce two or three contributors, the Royals are in a good position to chase the pennant in a weak AL Central.
Top Prospect: Zack Greinke, rhp
Age: 20 Ht.: 6-2 Wt.: 190 Bats: R Throws: R
Background: The Royals wanted to draft an advanced college pitcher in the first round in 2002 because they used their first two picks the previous year on a pair of risky raw talents, Colt Griffin and Roscoe Crosby. But Kansas City’s scouts said Greinke was the most polished pitcher available, even though he spent most of his time as a shortstop before his senior year at Apopka (Fla.) High. He got in just 12 innings in his pro debut after signing for $2.475 million, but the Royals were convinced he was mature enough to handle a trip to the Puerto Rican League, and he did. Another bold move by the Royals put Greinke in high Class A Wilmington to begin the 2003 season. He dominated the competition, winning his first nine decisions. He ranked as the Carolina League’s best prospect, earning a berth in the Futures Game and a promotion to Double-A Wichita, where he finished the year with a 1.93 composite ERA, the third-best in the minors. He missed one start with a strained back, but it was more to give the competitive Greinke a mental and physical break.
Strengths: Greinke loves the game and has great makeup. He spent time during spring training evaluating players with scouting director Deric Ladnier. He also took to watching opponents take batting practice, learning where hitters liked the ball. Greinke is a constant tinkerer and thinker with impeccable control of an array of plus pitches. He likes developing new pitches and variations of others by adding and subtracting velocity and changing grips. He throws his fastball in the high 80s most of the time, but can rev it up to the mid-90s when he wants. A new grip on his two-seamer makes it dive toward the ground. His slider ranks as a put-away pitch with depth and a hard, late bite. His changeup is his third-best pitch, but still rates above-average. Greinke now throws his curveball with a spike grip for more action.
Weaknesses: Greinke doesn’t strike out as many hitters as most of the game’s other top pitching prospects, but the Royals say that’s because he revels in breaking bats and inducing weak contact to create better pitch economy. They say he could rack up more whiffs if he just threw his slider more in two-strike counts. Consistency on his secondary pitches is about the only area Greinke needs to improve. He’d be even more lethal if he located all the different variations in his repertoire on one occasion.
The Future: Greinke secured an invite to major league spring training, but the Royals have no delusions of Greinke making the season-opening rotation. He’ll probably begin the year back in Double-A to build confidence, receiving a quick bump to Triple-A Omaha as soon as he dominates. He still has a chance to make his major league debut late in the year.