New Royals prospects full of potential

New Royals prospects full of potential

New Royals prospects full of potential
They are, for now, merely names on a page, and we know little about how the four prospects acquired in last month's Zack Greinke trade will fare in Royal blue.

But for what it's worth, Brewers farm director Reid Nichols, who helped oversee the development of Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi in the Minors, believes the future looks bright for all four players.

"We're happy for them," Nichols said, "because they're going to get the opportunity."

The Brewers used their deep farm system to take advantage of the opportunity to land a proven ace and Cy Young Award winner in Greinke. For the Royals, what was perhaps the most blockbuster deal in club history was all about getting upside back. With plans to build a young core of talent that can seriously contend in the not-too-distant future, the Royals netted two players at premium positions up the middle and two highly touted arms.

Escobar, of course, is the furthest along of the four, because he now has a full Major League season under his belt. It was, however, a season of mixed results for the 24-year-old Escobar, who has a lot of work ahead of him on the offensive end. He batted just .235 with a .288 on-base percentage in 145 games for the Brew Crew, swiping 10 bases in 14 attempts and striking out (70) about twice as often as he walked (36).

It was, however, merely the first full-time go-round for Escobar, a Venezuelan native whose defensive skills and speed are his top attributes. Nichols, like the Royals, sees the possibility of bigger and better things for Escobar, because of the defense he provides.

"I've said all along that you won't find a much better shortstop than Escobar," Nichols said. "Watching him come up through the Minor Leagues, he'd make so many plays where you'd just say, 'Wow.' He's going to have to find himself at the plate and learn to be more selective, but I think he's making progress."

Escobar will get that chance to progress as the Royals' starting shortstop at the outset of 2011. For Cain, the role is less clear, as the Royals have signed Melky Cabrera to man center.

Cain is 25 but younger in baseball years, because he didn't even begin playing the sport until his sophomore year of high school. The Brewers took him in the 17th round of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft out of Tallahassee Community College.

"When we got him, he was very green," Nichols said. "He was almost surprisingly green, to where he didn't really know what was going on. But he really worked hard."

The work included a move from right to center, where the Brewers felt Cain's speed would apply. They were rewarded with above-average defense that is considered Major League ready. At the plate, he has shown the ability to get on base (.402 OBP at Double-A Huntsville and Triple-A Nashville last season) and then use his speed to advance (26 stolen bases in 29 tries, after a knee injury cost him much of 2009).

In his first taste of the big leagues last year, Cain held his own with a .306 average (45-for-147), and he hit his first homer on the season's final day. Cain hasn't shown much power for his size (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) but his athleticism is considered a big plus.

"We saw him as a top-of-the-lineup guy," Nichols said.

Odorizzi might be the most intriguing of all the Royals' additions, because some scouts feel he has the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation guy, like Greinke.

Alas, it will be quite some time before anybody knows for sure, for Odorizzi is merely 20 years old and spent last year in Class A ball in the Midwest League. He went 7-3 with a 3.43 ERA and 135 strikeouts in 120 2/3 innings.

"He's solid-average across the board," Nichols said. "He's starting to understand and read hitters. His command is approaching solid-average. He's going to be a big league starter."

But not for quite some time. In the meantime, the Royals added an eye-catching arm in Jeffress, and he could find himself in the 2011 bullpen at some point. Jeffress, 23, is eye-catching because of a fastball that can reach 100 mph. It helped him strike out 43 batters in 32 1/3 innings across the Class A and Double-A levels last year.

"In his first professional outing [after getting selected by the Brewers with the 16th overall pick in 2006], he threw four pitches at 103 mph," Nichols recalled. "He was consistently in the high-90s."

But Jeffress' Minor League career, to date, has been sullied by three positive tests for a "drug of abuse," which he admitted to being marijuana. He was suspended twice -- once for 50 games and another time for 100. The Brewers felt he showed more maturity when he returned in 2010, thanks in part to some guidance from legendary closer Trevor Hoffman. He won the Royals over with a strong performance in the Arizona Fall League.

"With a guy like JJ, the challenge was to get him coming to the park every day knowing he'd have to work to stay focused on his job," Nichols said. "I think that helped us getting to a point where he's back on the field. I think he could have helped us [in the big leagues] this year."

Instead, he'll have a chance to help the Royals, who will be counting on this blockbuster deal to net positive big league results.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.