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Background: Beltran spent his first three years in the Royals organization watching the term "tools player" grow steadily in size and strength by his name. The term served as an apology for Beltran's lack of performance, as it does for many young but raw outfielders. Everything changed last winter in the Puerto Rican League. Beltran's physical maturity and knowledge of the game began to catch up with his tools and he won a spot in the league's all-star game. The 1998 season was Beltran's coming out party, as he shot through the Class A Carolina and Double-A Texas leagues and finished the year playing center field in Kansas City, only 12 months removed from a .229-11-46 season in Class A. Strengths: The Royals have never had any questions about Beltran's defensive abilities and speed. He has outstanding range in center field and above-average arm strength, and the Royals will move incumbent Johnny Damon ro right field in 1999 to accomodate Beltran's abilities. Two things stood out in Beltran's offensive growth in 1998. His walk-to-strikeout ratio improved dramatically, and he picked up 57 extra-base hits compared with 30 the year before. Both are signs that Beltran has started recognizing pitches he ccan handle and drive. Weaknesses: Beltran was impressive in his major league debut in September but will still go into 1999 with just 240 at-bats above Class A. He will have to show that the improvements he made in 1998 carry over. The one skill area that Beltran could use dramatic improvement in is his baserunning. Despite well above average speed, Beltran is not an aggressive baserunner, either on steal attempts or on balls he hits into the gaps. The Future: Beltran was among the Puerto Rican League's leading hitters early this winter, further confirming the Royals commitment to him in center field in 1999. He will enter the season at about the same age and development level as Damon did in 1996. The Royals hope that Beltran's learning curve is higher than Damon's and his ceiling higher.
Background: After struggling to hit .237 in Class A in 1997, the Royals bumped Febles to Double-A Wichita in 1998 based on his athletic maturity and defensive skills. The young Dominican responded with one of the best overall offensive seasons in the minor leagues. He showed no fear of big league pitching in a late trial. Strengths: Febles is both quick and fast and has the baserunning instincts offensively and the actions and balance defensively to take advantage of his speed. The biggest surprise in his game in 1998 was slamming 51 extra-base hits. Defensively, Febles is very quick turning the double play and has excellent instincts. Weaknesses: The only thing keeping Febles from becoming a complete package is his arm strength, which is average for second base but insufficient for shortstop. The Future: With his speed, hitting ability and batting eye, Febles has a chance to be a dynamic leadoff hitter and could have that role in Kansas City as early as next spring. He will be challenged by Jed Hansen but Febles' superior skills should enable him to win out.
Background: After almost winning the short-season Northwest League triple crown in 1997, Brown was named the Royals top prospect last winter. With other Royals prospects excelling in 1998, Brown's year was relatively overlooked. He recovered from a slow start, hitting over .300 in the final two months, to finish with respectable numbers. Strengths: With excellent strength and above-average speed, Brown could become a multidimensional offensive force in the middle of a lineup. Brown's defense, especially his throwing arm, continue to improve. Weaknesses: Brown still often looks like a great athlete attempting to play baseball rather than a baseball player with great athletic ability. He needs to develop more consistency with the bat and avoid the prolonged struggles he endured at both Wilmington and in the Maryland Fall League in 1998. The Future: The first half of 1998 was a reminder to the Royals that Brown, an All-American football player from upstate New York, had a limited baseball background prior to signing with the Royals and needs plenty of repetitions. He should start at Wichita in 1999.
Background: Giambi, the younger brother of A's first baseman Jason, led all full-season minor league hitters with a .372 average this year. His season was hampered by a nagging hamstring injury which cost him about 150 at-bats and much of his mobility the entire summer. Strengths: Giambi has a short, powerful stroke, honed through countless repetitions in the batting cage, and is adept at keeping his hands back and driving the ball to left-center field. Giambi's increased strength since signing has given him plus power potential. Weaknesses: By struggling all season with his hamstring injury, Giambi did not help his just fair defensive skills. When healthy he has enough physical ability to play the corners and shouldn't have to be moved to first base as his brother did. The Royals would like to see Giambi dedicate himself more to defense and his conditioning. The Future: There seems to be little question that Giambi is going to be a solid hitter in the major leagues. His plate discipline, power and ability to use the entire field are all above average. His future worth will be determined by his ability and desire to become a solid outfielder in addition to a force at the plate.
Background: After dropping from 165 to 141 pounds this summer, Reichert was diagnosed with diabetes. After two months out of baseball getting his diet and medication under control, he made an incredible recovery and finished the year strongly at Triple-A Omaha. His weight is now up to 180. Strengths: Reichert's fastball at the end of the season was 92-95 mph with heavy, darting sink. His best pitch has always been a hard mid-80s slider that can paralyze righthanded hitters. His lanky frame adds deception to his delivery. Weaknesses: Diabetes is a life-long disease that can often be especially difficult on athletes because of the life style on the road. Reichert missed a lot of innings in 1998, though he made up some of them in the Arizona Fall League. The Future: Reichert probably has the ability and the polish to start 1999 in the Royals starting rotation, but the club would like to give him more time to adjust to his health situation and to refine his control and changeup.
Background: Phillips played primarily center field at Alabama last spring but the Royals shifted him back to catcher, where he played in high school and junior college. He was the named the top prospect in the short-season Northwest League in 1998. Strengths: Phillips is an excellent athlete with above-average speed and arm strength. He showed excellent quickness and anticipation behind the plate and the Royals say he handled pitchers with above-average raw stuff with ease. Offensively, Phillips is a line drive hitter with surprising gap power for his size. Scouts liken him to a young Craig Biggio on the basis of his size and tools. Weaknesses: The Royals had Phillips in instructional league specifically to work on a strength program to put muscle on his slender frame. The Future: The organization thought enough of Phillips to move him up to Wilmington for the Carolina League playoffs, and Phillips helped lead the Blue Rocks to the league championship. He was named the playoff MVP. He has quickly become the Royals' top catching prospect, but will have to prove that he is durable enough to catch every day.
Background: LeBron was picked one round ahead of Beltran, a fellow Puerto Rican, in the 1995 draft but has been slower to develop. He made dramatic improvement in his strike zone judgement in 1998, drawing 57 walks compared to 17 in 1997, and enjoyed easily his best professional season. LeBron has continued his strong play in the Puerto Rican League this offseason. Strengths: LeBron is a physical specimen with plus power potential and arm strength. He also has surprisingly good speed for his size that he uses well both on the bases and in right field. He has always been compared to Juan Gonzalez because of a common heritage and physique. Weaknesses: LeBron will never hit for a high average but his improved plate discipline should help his primary weakness: making consistent enough contact to use his prodigious power. Ideally, he needs to cut down his strikeouts but the Royals can live with that if they are accompanied by high extra-base hit totals. The Future: The Royals have always known they need to be more patient with LeBron than their other top prospects. They won't move him too quickly.
Background: The 31st overall selection in the 1998 draft, George was the Royals' compensation for losing free agent Jay Bell to the Diamondbacks last winter. The Texas high schooler overmatched hitters in the Gulf Coast League and instructional league, allowing runs in only one GCL outing and being unscored on in instructional league. Strengths: George's stuff, physique and delivery are similar to Tom Glavine's. He pitches in the high 80s but can pop 91 inside when he needs it. His best pitch is a deceptive straight changeup, and he also can throw both an average slider and average curveball. A smooth, balanced delivery gives George good command. Weaknesses: Pitchers with average fastballs are usually not considered high draft choices and many scouting directors were shocked that George was selected that high. Neither of George's breaking balls shows the potential to be a plus pitch in the future, either. The Future: The Royals were thrilled by George's debut and may give him the opportunity to start 1999 at Wilmington, skipping two levels. He already has an advanced understanding of how to change speeds, mix his pitches and work inside.
Background: Durbin was an obscure third-round pick in 1996 out of a Louisiana high school but has moved quickly through the Royals system. Projectable out of high school, Durbin has grown into a solid pitcher and has not missed a start in three years. Strengths: Durbin's fastball is solid average and peaks around 93 mph. He throws a hard curveball as his primary strikeout pitch and also improved his changeup in 1998. The Royals like the maturity and rhythm that he shows on the mound for a young pitcher. Weaknesses: Durbin just has to keep working on his pitches and continuing to learn the art of pitching. He doesn't have the above-average out pitch that top prospects have, but the Royals believe he still has some projection left in him. The Future: The Royals will start Durbin at Wichita in 1999. With his solid pitches across the board and the lack of established starting prospects ahead of him, Durbin should get a chance to break into the Royals rotation sometime during the 2000 season.