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. -- Dayton Moore and his staff spent his first eight years as the Royals' general manager rebuilding a franchise that went 29 years between playoff appearances before winning the 2014 American League pennant and the '15 World Series. While remaining in contention won't be as difficult as it was getting there, it still will be a challenge.
Gone are the days when Kansas City annually picked near the top of the Draft and could spend what it wanted without penalty. After forfeiting their first-round choice to sign free agent Ian Kennedy, the Royals have a $3,225,300 bonus pool for the first 10 rounds of the 2016 Draft, less than they spent to sign Eric Hosmer ($6 million), Alex Gordon ($4 million) or Mike Moustakas ($4 million). They can't afford to spend $2 million on a third-rounder like they did with Wil Myers before dealing him for James Shields and Wade Davis.
The Royals also won't get much immediate help from their farm system. Kansas City traded three of its best and most advanced pitching prospects last summer, sending Brandon Finnegan and Cody Reed to the Reds as part of a package for Johnny Cueto and Sean Manaea to the Athletics as the headliner in a deal for Ben Zobrist. The Royals don't regret those moves at all, but they left oft-injured Kyle Zimmer and Miguel Almonte as the only potential front-half-of-the-rotation candidates in the upper levels of the Minors.
"I'd categorize our system as not what we expect right now, but we understand why it is, because of trades," said assistant GM J.J. Picollo, who came to Kansas City with Moore in 2006. "We're more at that stage where we have depth at the lower levels.
"We have some guys at the upper levels we have to hit on: Kyle Zimmer, Miguel Almonte, [outfielder] Bubba Starling, [shortstop] Raul Mondesi, [outfielder] Jorge Bonifacio. We need to get something out of those players. It doesn't have to be franchise-changing stuff because we have a nice core, but they have to contribute."
Despite their recent success, the Royals haven't had much luck signing and developing starting pitching beyond Yordano Ventura and Danny Duffy. To help rectify that situation, they've spent five of their six first-rounders in the past four Drafts on pitchers: Zimmer, Finnegan, Foster Griffin, Ashe Russell and Nolan Watson. During that time, they've also used five of their six choices in the supplemental first and second rounds on arms, including Manaea, Reed and Scott Blewett.
"We want to be a pitching factory," Picollo said. "When we were picking up as high as we were, it was hard to pass on Hosmer or Moustakas. We looked at how we dispersed our money, and the dollars were really weighted toward hitting. We realized if we're going to get deep with pitching, we've got to really commit to pitching. It's been a pitching mindset."
The Royals aren't asking Zimmer and Almonte to make their Opening Day rotation, just needing them to be ready as reinforcements later in the year. They've looked up to the task in big league camp.
Zimmer immediately sat at 93-95 mph with his fastball and showed his trademark curveball when he drew the start in the club's Cactus League opener. He has allowed just one run in six innings while striking out five, adding to the hope that four years of elbow, biceps, lat and shoulder issues are behind him. Almonte has permitted just one run while fanning seven in five innings.
"Zimmer's stuff has been the same as it always has," Picollo said. "It's not a matter of if Zimmer can do it, it's a matter of when and if he stays healthy.
"Almonte's timing has been better and his curveball has been better. He's been 95-96 [mph] with sink and been throwing his four-seamer away. He looks more comfortable after looking a little wide-eyed when he came up in September."
After Zimmer and Almonte, left-hander Matt Strahm is Kansas City's next-best advanced starting pitching prospect. He missed most of his first two full seasons as a pro because of Tommy John surgery, but he bounced back strong and reached high Class A in 2015. Strahm didn't allow an earned run while striking out five in his first 4 2/3 spring innings.
"Strahm has been the talk of camp pitching-wise," Picollo said. "He's been 92-94 [mph], facing good lineups and getting those guys out. He throws enough strikes to start and has the breaking ball, but his changeup's got to get better."
It may seem odd to label a player who ranks No. 37 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list and owns a World Series ring as a "breakout candidate." But Mondesi has batted a combined .225/.266/.361 the past two seasons while being the youngest regular in his leagues. His offensive potential could start translating into results when he returns to Double-A this year at age 20.
"It just comes down to consistent quality at-bats for Raul," Picollo said. "The defense, baserunning, bunting -- it's all good. It's pitch selection early in the count for him. If he can start getting through the one pitch that turns every at-bat, he could have a big year. You see the tools and what he can do, but he still needs improvements."
Watson pitched his way into the first round last spring when his fastball jumped to 92-95 mph and his breaking ball also took a leap forward. Among the prep arms the Royals have taken in the top two rounds of the past two Drafts, he was better equipped to enter pro ball than Griffin, Blewett or Russell. Watson has continued to look advanced for a teenager during his first Spring Training and is ready for low Class A.
"His fastball has looked very good, with finish to it and a lot of late swings," Picollo said. "We've asked him to focus on his curveball, though he'll still use his slider some. He has a changeup we didn't realize he had. It's very good."
Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.