Every Spring Training, prospects get a chance to show what they can do as they prepare for the season ahead. Some are competing for jobs in big league camps, others are prepping for the season as they vie for spots at Minor League affiliates up and down a team's system. MLBPipeline.com will be visiting all 30 camps this spring. Today, we check in on the Kansas City Royals.
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Once upon a time, the Royals were given the label of having "the best farm team in baseball." Back then, around 2011, the Royals would accept the praise, but also quickly point out that such an accolade was nice on paper, but meant little if it didn't translate to success in Kansas City.
Clearly, it worked. But the run to winning it all in 2015 took its toll, as the Royals went all-in and used that farm system to bring in the pieces they felt necessary. As a result, the group of Minor Leaguers in Surprise now for Spring Training isn't quite as deep as it once was.
"We're definitely in a transition," Royals vice president and assistant general manager of player personnel J.J. Picollo said. "In order to win that World Series, we had to give up quite a bit toward the end of the 2015 season, and it paid off. Now the reality is we're not as deep as you'd like to be at the upper levels."
One thing Picollo and the Royals take comfort in when he surveys his farm system's landscape this spring is that even if it isn't flush with "big name" prospects, that doesn't mean there isn't talent ready to help out. They only have to look back to that 2011 season for proof. Then, while the elite-level prospects were getting most of the buzz, there were other homegrown players who weren't thought to be top guys when they were on their way up but became invaluable later on.
"We had so many guys in that Top 100," Picollo recalled. "But some of our best guys weren't in that top 100, guys like Greg Holland, Salvador Perez, Kelvin Herrera. Then there were some guys who were in that top 100 who didn't quite pan out. It's just a constant reminder of the attrition rate, but you always have to have the depth. We're working to build that depth again."
One of the ways they're doing that, like they did back then, is by going after high-ceiling talent. Much of that has come in the way of high school pitching. Back then, it was names like Danny Duffy, John Lamb and Mike Montgomery. Now it's young arms like Scott Blewett, Foster Griffin and Nolan Watson.
"If you go back and look at our Drafts in '07, '08, '09, we took a lot of high school pitching," Picollo said. "You have to be patient in projecting these guys four or five years out. I was reminded of that watching Mike Montgomery close out the World Series. You think back, he was the '08 Draft."
That experience helps inform the player development staff's decision-making. There's no hand-wringing if a young pitching prospect struggles initially. They know first-hand this is a long process.
"Blewett, Griffin, Watson, those guys are going to take a little bit of time," Picollo said. "But our experience has been that if you go slow and you're patient with them, you build a foundation as strong as you can, they'll move through the upper levels a little more quickly.
"That's where the experience comes in. Ten years ago, I couldn't tell you I'd be sleeping as well as I am now, but you just kind of know they're going to go through those things."
Hunter Dozier hasn't followed a straight and direct path to the big leagues, but after making his Major League debut last year, he's ready to knock down the door full-time. The 2013 first-rounder was able to put a subpar 2015 season behind him and turn in his best professional season, one that carried him to Kansas City.
"I thought the most impressive thing about him last season, he obviously bounced back from a tough 2015, but he did it while he was playing three different positions, two that he had never played before," Picollo said. "Whatever corner you're playing, you have to hit. Last year, he got back on track. Hunter is an extremely hard worker. At times, we've had to ask him to back off a little bit because he can over-analyze and beat himself up a little bit. That's what got the best of him in 2015."
If the path seems similar, going from third base to a corner outfield spot, you're not alone. It's what Alex Gordon did, and the parallels are not lost on the front office
"There are a lot of similarities between he and Alex Gordon, starting with the move to the outfield," Picollo said. "Hunter is taller, but the body types are similar, the way they moved in the infield was similar and now the way they move in the outfield is similar. It's really kind of eerie.
"We think he's poised to have another good year and now it's just a matter of opportunity in the big leagues for him."
At the start of the 2016 season, infielder Corey Toups was a 23-year-old about to begin his second full season in A ball. He was performing capably, though not excelling, in the Class A Advanced Carolina League when the idea was broached to move him up a level.
"Our analytics department came to me and said he had some characteristics where we think he can go to Double-A and perform," Picollo said. "The opportunity opened up, we got him to Double-A and he hit 25 doubles and he had 15 home runs in about two months counting the playoffs. His approach really played at the upper level."
Toups, No. 25 on the Royals Top 30, finished things off in the Arizona Fall League and is ready to continue opening eyes in 2017. "He's a guy who's definitely under the radar," Picollo said. "He sort of caught us by surprise, especially when he went up a level and did it well there."