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Royals boast strong group of Minor League prospects

Royals boast strong group of Minor League prospects

In 2011, the Royals' stacked farm system spurred features from Sports Illustrated and ESPN the Magazine, and praise from every angle of the scouting world, all agreeing that the current crop of prospects could finally make Kansas City relevant again.

Three years later, those consensus top prospects in the vaunted Royals' farm system no longer remain; Major League promotions have been earned, trades have been completed, and former top prospects have been left to toil in the Minors.

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But despite the dissolution of what was deemed possibly the best farm system in team history, Kansas City remains stacked with young talent waiting in the wings.

"We're still really happy with what we have," assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said.

The Royals competing for a playoff spot this season means that general manager Dayton Moore's outlook on the Trade Deadline will likely differ. With Kansas City already out of contention by July in years past, Moore turned his attention to beefing up the farm system. This season, he may use it as a trade chip to bolster the big league club.

"Just having worked with Dayton for a number of years, he's going to listen to anything," Picollo said. "It's hard to say that anybody's untouchable. It all depends on who's on the other end of the trade." 

If anyone fell into the untouchable category, that distinction would likely fall to Kyle Zimmer, Kansas City's No. 1 prospect entering this season, according to MLB.com.

The Royals grabbed Zimmer, a right-handed pitcher from the University of San Francisco, in the first round, and fifth overall, in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft.

Zimmer struck out 140 batters in 108 1/3 innings in his second year as a pro between High-A Wilmington and Double-A Arkansas. This showing propelled him to the top of Kansas City's list of prospects, and led to the expectation that Zimmer could reach the big leagues as soon as 2014.

But a lat injury derailed any hope of that, as Zimmer is yet to throw an inning this year.

"We've had some tough setbacks like with Zimmer -- that's a tough one," Picollo said. "We believe so much in his ability, and had the hopes that he would help our Major League team this year."

With a rash of Tommy John surgeries appearing throughout the Majors, particularly within young power arms, Picollo and the Royals feel fortunate with Zimmer's much less serious diagnosis.

"When you go through something like that, you try to look at the positives," Picollo said. "The positive is that it's a lat strain -- not a rotator or an elbow -- it's something that's manageable, it just needs time."

Zimmer probably won't help the Royals in 2014 as originally planned, but that does not mean he won't pitch again this season.

"Our plan is to get him prepared for the Arizona Fall League," Picollo said, who added that Zimmer will begin a throwing program in July. "If he's ready to pitch innings any sooner than that we may even look to send him to the short season, or a team that's in the playoff race, just to get him on the mound and get him some innings before he gets to the fall league."

Recently, Kansas City's success in the Draft has been uneven. The same can not be said for international free agency, however, where the team has displayed a keen eye for young talent.

The Royals signed current big leaguers, and stars in the making Salvador Perez and Yordano Ventura, as well as key bullpen piece Kelvin Herrera as international free agents when they were teenagers. Additionally, the farm system draws its strength from international talent, as five of the top 10 prospects, according to MLB.com, come from the international-free-agent pool.

At the top of that list sits 18-year-old Raul Mondesi Jr., the son of former Major Leaguer Raul Mondesi, who currently ranks as the Royals' No. 2 prospect, according to MLB.com. Mondesi Jr. also checked in at No. 47 in Baseball America's Pre-2014 list of Top 100 Prospects.

Mondesi, who has already logged parts of three seasons of pro ball, profiles as a true shortstop, with an emphasis on his defense and exceptional speed.

"He's gone from a plus runner, to a top-of-the-scale runner. He's an 80 runner," Picollo said, referring to the 20-to-80 scale scouts use to grade prospect's tools, 80 being the highest grade possible. "That's something we didn't necessarily anticipate."

Questions remain about Mondesi's bat, as he's hit just .243 with next to no power at Class A Advanced Wilmington this year.

But the most important number for Picollo is his age.

"He's younger than most of the seniors in high school that we watched this year," Picollo said.

Picollo also expects big things from fellow international signees Jorge Bonifacio (outfielder), Miguel Almonte (right-handed pitcher), Orlando Calixte (shortstop) and Elier Hernandez (outfielder).

Bonifacio ranks third in MLB.com's 2014 Top 20 prospects list, but like Mondesi, the 21 year old began this season slowly with a .228 average at Double-A Arkansas.

"The first half of the season hasn't been what our expectations are or what his expectation are, but again, he's a young player," Picollo said. "We've got to put more into the second half, and how he responds to adversity in the first half, and that will tell us how close he is to the Major Leagues."

Kansas City's first round pick in the 2013 Draft, third baseman Hunter Dozier, just earned a promotion to Double-A Arkansas after he tore up High-A Wilmington, a level notoriously hard on hitters for its cavernous ballparks.

Dozier produced a .295/.397/.429 triple-slash line at Wilmington this year.

"Hunter Dozier is a guy that will be knocking on the door [of the Majors] at some point next year," Picollo said. "I don't know if it will be early, middle, late, but I think it's a realistic expectation on our part."

Fellow 2013 first-rounder Sean Manaea has also flashed some signs of excellence, but lacks the consistency Dozier displayed in his first two months as a pro.

Manaea collected 67 strikeouts in his first 48 1/3 innings, but his 4.7 walk per nine ratio has helped to muddle his ERA (4.84).

"His strikeout numbers on certain nights are outstanding. His pitch efficiency is something that needs to be better," Picollo said. "The walk numbers are a little bit higher than we expected, he traditionally doesn't walk hitters."

No pitcher in the organization has produced on a more consistent basis than Christian Binford. The Royals snagged Binford out of high school in the first round of the 2011 Draft, and have reaped the benefits thus far. In 245 career innings, Binford, currently at High-A Wilmington, has posted a 2.45 ERA with 240 strikeouts and a 1.094 WHIP.

"He's developing as well as anyone we have at this point," Picollo said. "His strikeout numbers are going up, his walks have always been low, the velocity is increasing and his curveball is becoming more of a strikeout pitch."

While bright spots in the farm system are plentiful, questions remain. No question larger than Bubba Starling, perhaps the most confounding player in the organization.

The fifth overall pick in the 2011 Draft, who was handed a record $7.5 million signing bonus, remains in Wilmington three seasons into his pro career. For comparison's sake, George Springer, a comparable developmental outfielder drafted six picks later in 2011 has spent a good bit of time in the Majors and is one of the most promising young players in baseball.

Starling, on the other hand, currently sports a .184 batting average at High-A.

"The numbers aren't good and I'm not going to try to sell it to you in a certain way," Picollo said.

There have been some positive signs this year, though, highlighted by a 15-game hitting streak in May, and some positive swing adjustments in the eyes of Picollo.

"His swings have been better, and he went through that one stretch where I think he started to see that some of the work that he was doing prior to the game -- the early work, working on his swing, trying to develop a better sense of timing -- it was translating to the game, and he had a stretch there that was really good," Picollo said.

With three first round picks in 2014 -- Brandon Finnegan (left-handed pitcher), Foster Griffin (left-handed pitcher) and Chase Vallot (catcher) -- added to the mix, and likely none of the consensus top prospects making the Royals in 2015, the farm system will be as strong as ever next year.

Jackson Alexander is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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