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 camp, 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. -- In the past two decades, the Royals have enjoyed just three winning seasons and signed and developed just three pitchers who could manage 10 victories in a single year for Kansas City. Those two developments aren't unrelated, though the future looks brighter in both regards for the defending American League champions.
Behind shortstop Raul Mondesi, the system's best prospects are potential front-line starters who could join the Royals' rotation by the end of the 2016 season: Sean Manaea, Kyle Zimmer, Brandon Finnegan and Miguel Almonte. J.J. Picollo, Kansas City's assistant GM for player personnel, says the organization has more starting pitching depth in the Minor Leagues than at any time since he came aboard in mid-2006.
"There's a balance of upper-level starting pitching that we feel very good about and some high-ceiling young guys like Foster Griffin, Scott Blewett, Yunior Marte and Julio Pinto," Picollo said. "I don't think we've had as many as we do now. We've added to our mix with some Latin and high school pitchers who have given us depth. We even have a lot of guys who get overlooked, like Christian Binford, Glenn Sparkman, Aaron Brooks and Jonathan Dziedzic."
Two outfielders who have been slow to develop offensively made a positive impression in big league camp. Brett Eibner led the Royals in batting (.520), extra-base hits (eight) and homers (three) before getting reassigned to Minor League camp on Sunday. He has some of the best raw power in the system but must prove he can make consistent contact.
Bubba Starling's $7.5 million bonus as the No. 5 overall pick in 2011 remains the most ever given to a high schooler or a position player in Draft history. He has batted .237/.326/.388 as a pro and whiffed in his first five at-bats in big league camp this spring before finishing on a 4-for-9 run. The Royals believe that Starling has made improvements to his swing and pitch recognition that will allow him to be more productive.
"This was his first real big league camp, and the thing that stood out was his pitch selection," Picollo said. "He laid off breaking balls and got better from a mechanical standpoint. There was a lot of consistency in his at-bats. [Manager] Ned [Yost] and the coaches got to see him for the first time, and they all raved about his defense."
Because he usually works around 90 mph with his fastball, Binford doesn't get as much acclaim as Manaea, Zimmer and Co. But Binford pitched his way from Class A Advanced to Triple-A at age 21 last year, and he made the most of the brief look he got as a non-roster invitee this spring. He struck out six batters in five scoreless innings, finding the strike zone with 29 of his 34 pitches.
"Nothing really fazes him," assistant GM of baseball operations Scott Sharp said. "He has no fear for a touch-and-feel guy, and he also throws harder than people think. He was up to 95 the other day."
Outfielder Dominique Taylor has hit .307/.360/.461 in his first two years after signing as a 15th-rounder in 2013. A groin strain cost him a month last summer, and Kansas City is looking forward to seeing what he can do with a full, healthy season.
"He can run and hit, he has power and he plays good defense," Sharp said. "He had a funky swing with an arm bar and a leg kick when he signed, and he's tweaked it a bit and it translates. He has good pitch recognition. His tools play really well."
Signed for $700,000 as a third-round pick in 2012, left-hander Colin Rodgers finally is ready for his first full season. He had Tommy John surgery in '13 and pitched just 14 innings in Rookie ball last summer while showing flashes of three solid pitches and command.
"He has as much pitchability as anyone in the system," Sharp said. "He has a clean arm stroke and I think he'll sit at 90-92 mph."
Three questions with Zimmer
The fifth overall pick in the 2012 Draft, Zimmer shows a well above-average fastball and curveball, a solid slider and changeup and plus command when he's healthy. The caveat is that elbow, biceps, lat and shoulder issues have limited him to 152 2/3 innings in three pro seasons, including just 4 2/3 last year. He had minor surgery last October to clean up his shoulder and should return to Minor League action in May.
MLBPipeline.com: How are you feeling after the surgery?
Zimmer: It's unbelievable. It's so refreshing to go out every day and play baseball. It was just a little cleanup, but it's night and day. I haven't felt this good in a long time. It feels awesome to come to the ballpark excited again, instead of waking up and wondering if it's going to hurt again.
MLBPipeline.com: The Royals' original plan last year was to save you some innings for later in the season so you could contribute to a potential playoff drive. Was it bittersweet watching their postseason run, knowing that you might have been part of it?
Zimmer: Bittersweet is a good word. It was unbelievable watching them. I have buddies on the big league team, and it was magical for them. At the same time, I'd obviously like to be out there dogpiling with them. But it wasn't my time.
MLBPipeline.com: When you're going good, all four of your pitches can be at least plus offerings. What's your best pitch?
Zimmer: I feel like I can throw all four pitches for strikes in any count. I work off my fastball, and my curveball is my go-to strikeout pitch. In the Arizona Fall League, [pitching coach] Larry Carter made me throw my changeup and it was really an eye-opener. It was a great pitch, and I'd even throw it against right-handers.
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com and writes a blog, Callis' Corner. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.