SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Royals posted their first winning record in a decade in 2013, and their 86 victories represented the most since 1989. Their success was a tribute to their scouting and player-development departments.
While Kansas City had the highest player payroll in franchise history at $86.6 million, it ranked 22nd among the 30 teams in that regard. The Royals made up for their lack of financial might by originally signing six of their lineup regulars as well as four of their top five relievers, the driving force behind their American League-best 3.45 ERA.
To take the next step and advance to the postseason for the first time since winning the 1985 World Series, Kansas City will need to develop starting pitching. It got just eight starts from homegrown pitchers in 2013, and its inability to come up with arms precipitated the inclusion of promising youngsters Wil Myers and Jake Odorizzi in a trade with the Rays for James Shields.
Fortunately for the Royals, the strength of their system is high-ceiling arms. Yordano Ventura displayed his upper-90s fastball in three big league starts last September, and 2012 first-rounder Kyle Zimmer should arrive in the Majors in the near future. Sean Manaea, signed for $3.55 million as a supplemental first-rounder last June, and Miguel Almonte will begin the season in an all-prospect rotation at high Class A Wilmington, but both are on the verge of racing through the system.
"For the way we're set up with our finances and our payroll, starting pitching costs a lot of money to maintain, so that's why it's important to develop it," Kansas City assistant general manager for scouting and player development J.J. Picollo said. "The group of starting pitchers we have from high A to Triple-A is very encouraging. We have some depth, and we're very happy with that."
The Royals also have some talented position players in their pipeline, and many of them will start the season with Manaea and Almonte in Wilmington. That group includes precocious 18-year-old shortstop Raul Adalberto Mondesi and two of their last three first-round picks, outfielder Bubba Starling and third baseman Hunter Dozier.
"Mondesi is in a different category from all of them with his instincts and tools," Picollo said. "He recognizes game situations years beyond his age. He has power from both sides of the plate. He could be the rare leadoff hitter who hits home runs and steals bases and stays at shortstop. Every time you watch him in Spring Training, something catches your eye."
Three questions with Manaea
Manaea entered 2013 as a potential No. 1 overall pick, but his stuff regressed because of a hip injury, leading to concerns about his health and signability. The Royals grabbed him with the No. 34 overall pick and signed him for $3.55 million, a record for a supplemental first-round pick. After hip surgery, Manaea is set to make his pro debut in April at high Class A Wilmington.
MLBPipeline.com: Your hip started to bother you in mid-March, but you didn't miss a start until your shoulder felt stiff during the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in late May. A lot of guys in your position might have shut themselves down. Did you ever consider that?
Manaea: The coaches and the athletic trainers always asked me if I need a week off, but I wanted to keep going out and pitching. I wasn't really worrying about where I'd go in the Draft. I was worrying about going out and winning. It was definitely a learning experience. I wanted to go out and have a great year, and I felt like it was a good year. I helped the team, but definitely felt like I could have done more.
MLBPipeline.com: You're known for a fastball that can be unhittable thanks to its combination of velocity, movement and deception. How is the rest of your repertoire developing?
Manaea: I feel like it's coming along great, especially my changeup. I went away from the Vulcan changeup I had in college and went with a circle changeup. There still are command issues at times, but it's getting better. My slider is coming along, too. I've made my arm angle higher, and that has helped a lot.
MLBPipeline.com: What are you hoping to work on in your first pro season?
Manaea: I definitely want to watch hitters and what they do. All the tendencies, what pitches they hit in what count, learn what hitters do. I never really paid attention to that in college or high school, but pro ball is a lot different. I want to use scouting reports to my advantage.
Camp standout: Dozier
In a surprise move, the Royals drafted Dozier at No. 8 overall last June. Though that selection was part of a strategy to create enough money to sign Manaea without exceeding their assigned pool, Dozier was a legitimate late first-round talent.
The first player ever taken out of Stephen F. Austin State in the top five rounds, Dozier signed for $2.2 million. He hit .308/.397/.495 in his pro debut, while making the transition from third base to shortstop. Dozier also pitched in college, showing off a 91-93 mph fastball as a reliever.
Dozier already has established himself the best pure hitter in the system. He has solid power and should be an asset with his glove at the hot corner.
"He has such good feel for hitting," Picollo said. "He stays in the middle of the field and doesn't try to hit home runs. He's looking to make hard contact. He's got an advanced approach, even in batting practice. He was very good at third base in the fall and carried it through to the spring. He's a good worker with a great head on his shoulders."
Breakout candidate: Almonte
He's overshadowed in the system by Zimmer, Ventura and Manaea, but Almonte gives Kansas City another potential front-line starter. Signed for $25,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2010, he showed enough polish to make the jump to full-season ball at age 20 last year.
Almonte had no problem handling older hitters in low Class A, recording a 3.10 ERA and 132 strikeouts in 130 2/3 innings. He earned a trip to the Futures Game, where he pitched a perfect seventh inning that included a whiff of Twins outfielder Byron Buxton, the consensus top prospect in baseball.
"He gets compared a lot to Ventura because their backgrounds and body types are similar, but they're different guys," Picollo said. "Almonte has better feel for pitching than Ventura had at the same time, and he has better feel for his curveball and changeup at a similar age. He doesn't have the same fastball, but he has plenty of fastball at 91-96 mph.
"He also has good instincts on how to attack hitters. If they're late on his fastball, he stays with his fastball. If they're out in front on their swing, he goes with the changeup."