There are many factors that make up a contending team and lots of different ways to build that team as well.   Last week, I reviewed how the Texas Rangers built one of the more formidable lineups in the American League.    In doing so, I was reminded that Ian Kinsler was a 17th round draft pick.

Certainly, Kinsler in the 17th round certainly qualifies as a hidden gem as did Mike Piazza, drafted as a favor to Tommy Lasorda and, of course,  the biggest jewel of them all, Albert Pujols.    Being the inexact science that the amateur baseball draft is, the game is full of middle to late round players who made it big.   It is really not all that uncommon.

What is uncommon, however, is for a contending team to not have at least one ‘hidden gem’ in it’s lineup.   Take at look at the American League contenders:

  • New York – Jorge Posada, 24th round
  • Tampa Bay – John Jaso, 12th round (116 OPS+)
  • Boston – Kevin Youkilis, 8th round
  • Minnesota – Jason Kubel, 12th round
  • Texas – Ian Kinsler, 17th round

The White Sox are the only team that does not have a player in its everyday lineup that doesn’t qualify for this admittedly vague category.   Given that Oakland is a game under .500, I didn’t feel they truly could be called a contender, by the way.

So, among the many things the Royals likely need on their way to contention, it appears that having that ‘hidden gem’ (i.e. lucky pick) is one of them.   If you are willing to call the 2003 Royals contenders and not just a fluke, they had that guy in Mike Sweeney, a 10th round pick in the 1991 draft.   That however, seems like a long time ago.

Back in 2008, it appeared the Royals had found their guy in Mike Aviles.   A 7th round pick in 2003 (which the way the Royals were spending back then was probably the equivalent to about a 20th rounder for most teams), Aviles threatened rookie of the year honors and had appeared to solve one of the organization’s biggest holes.   Now, after arm surgery, Aviles is back as .289  hitting second baseman with very little power.  

The other immediate candidate, of course, is former 15th round pick Kila Ka’aihue.   Currently plodding along at .190/.267/.305, Kila has some work to do before he becomes the team’s hidden gem.

Keeping in mind that a ‘hidden gem’, at least for today, is a player drafted lower than the 5th round, not acquired via trade nor signed via free agency (which eliminates Paulo Orlando, Salvador Perez and the like) and is not a pitcher, who do the Royals have in the system that might become an everyday player at least as good as Jason Kubel or John Jaso and maybe even better than that?

  • David Lough.    Drafted in the 11th round of the 2007 draft, many of us thought we might see Lough in the big leagues this summer after he vaulted into the organization’s Top 10 prospect list last winter.    David got off to a tough start in AAA, walking only 10 times from April through June, but rebounded to hit .380/.453/.522 in August and walk 30 times in July and August.   Lough sports modest power (15 doubles, 12 triples, 11 homers this year) and the ability to play all three outfield spots.  
  • Jarrod Dyson.  If Dyson makes it in the majors, there is an archaeologist somewhere that deserves the credit for digging him up.   Buried deep in 2006 draft’s final round, Dyson has made it to the majors on blazing speed and defense.  His minor league career line is .278/.344/.343 with 131 steals in 305 games and that pretty much sums up who Jarrod Dyson is.   It is conceivable that Dyson may cover so much ground in centerfield that he could be an everyday above average player if he can duplicate those minor league numbers in the majors.   Somebody has to be the next Otis Nixon and Otis was a good player on some good teams.
  • Nick Francis.  After losing 50 games this year for violating the drug policy, the former 15th round pick came back to hit 24 doubles and 16 home runs in just 84 games in Wilmington (no small feat considering the park).   A whole bunch of swings and misses are part of Francis’ game and at 24, he was plenty old for A ball, but he is a guy that one can easily see putting up big numbers next year in Northwest Arkansas.
  • Alex Llanos.  I joined a bunch of others on the Hilton Richardson bandwagon a couple of years ago and have been driving the Paulo Orlando bus forever (but he does not qualify for this column), but I am now back on the Alex Llanos train.   He posted pedestrian numbers for the rookie Burlington club this summer (.259/.308/.362 with 17 steals), which probably do not excite anyone given that 2010 was Alex’s third season in rookie ball.      However, Llanos was drafted as a 17 year old in the 6th round and will play the entire 2011 season as a twenty year old.   He is all tools and all projection right now.
  • Whit Merrifield.  The College World Series hero and 9th round pick just this past June, Merrifield was tossed immediately into Low A ball and responded with a solid .253/.317/.409 line after starting out just 8 for 46.  
  • Clint Robinson.  How long have you been yelling his name at this column?  You can believe me or not, but I actually included Robinson in a column of ‘lower round guys to watch’ after the 2007 draft.   Picked in the 25th round out of Troy, Clint has proceeded to hit 74 home runs in four minor league seasons – marching up the chain one level per year.   This season, he won the Texas League Triple Crown with a line of .335/.410/.625 with 29 home runs and 41 doubles.    We have all heard how Northwest Arkansas plays in a hitter friendly park, but Robinson was good on the road, too (.285/.348/.532, 14 HR, 19 2B).   There was a one game dalliance in the outfield late in the season, but at 6’4″, 225 lbs, you wonder if Robinson can make that transition.

There are just a handful of possible gems from the Royals’ system.  You might have five or six other names, or none at all if you woke up in a pessimistic mood.   Having just one of these guys (and that includes Aviles and Ka’aihue), turn into an impact everyday player would be a huge boost towards moving the team to contention.

As Royals fans, we can look at Moustakas, Hosmer and Myers with great anticipation and remain hopeful about Butler and Gordon (not to mention the young arms), but slide the next Kevin Youkilis into the mix as well and the Royals suddenly get some unexpected and much needed help.   

That statement sounds a little crazy, but it happens more often than one might think.   The Royals certainly need it to.