Checking In On The Northwest Arkansas Naturals
With a small-market organization like the Kansas City Royals, a strong pipeline of minor league talent is always going to be of the utmost importance. The Royals will always need a core of cost-controlled but star-level players if they want to succeed. Royals fans in the Kansas City area are fortunate that the organizationâ€™s top two farm teams are roughly a three-hour drive away. This makes it very easy to go check out the guys who might be wearing Royal blue in the future.
I had an opportunity to do just that this past weekend, as I attended the Northwest Arkansas Naturals games on Saturday and Sunday night (big thanks to my awesome in-laws!). Since the heart of this blog is the minor leagues*, I thought Iâ€™d share some of my (VERY) amateur scouting impressions on some of the Naturals.
*On that note, Iâ€™d like to give a public â€œAttaboyâ€ to our own Shawn Rebman, who tirelessly compiles the minor league box scores every freaking day for us in the â€œDiamonds In The Roughâ€ category. You should probably check it first thing every morning.
The Naturals play in a little gem of a stadium, Arvest Ballpark, in Springdale. Itâ€™s just off the highway, so getting there is a snap. But, in a fitting tribute to baseballâ€™s beginnings as a pastoral game, the ballpark is actually surrounded by farmland (for now, anyway; I hope there wonâ€™t be a building boom nearby that would rob the surroundings of their charm). While at Kauffman Stadium you can watch semis zoom by on I-70 beyond the stadium walls, in Springdale you can see cattle grazing.
Parking is a snap (and $3!). The hot dogs are tasty and inexpensive. And the ballpark entertainment doesnâ€™t feel the need to blast music or sound effects over the PA after every pitch, so you can have a conversation with your neighbor (yes, get off my lawn).
So the ballpark is beautiful. Unfortunately, this year, the Naturals are not. Despite winning the Texas League in 2010, the Naturals have fallen on hard times lately, sporting an 18-31 record entering Tuesdayâ€™s game after going 59-81 last year and 58-81 in 2012. Of course, that has more to do with the Royalsâ€™ organization. The core of that 2010 team is in Kansas City (or, um, Omaha) and the next wave of talent hasnâ€™t reached Springdale yet.
As a Royals fan, thatâ€™s a little concerning to me. The Omaha roster is mostly filled with insurance players in case of an injury in the majors; thatâ€™s not atypical. But it doesnâ€™t look like thereâ€™s a lot of help in the near future for the Royals. Itâ€™s not that Northwest Arkansas is devoid of talent; itâ€™s just that there doesnâ€™t seem to be a lot of impact talent.
Anyway, here are my notes on some of the prospects the Naturals do have. Unfortunately, I didnâ€™t get to see Jason Adam or Sam Selman pitch. Just my luck, Adam pitched the night before I got there and Selman pitched the day after I left.
Orlando Calixte: The shortstop missed the first 34 games of the season with a visa issue, but has hit the ground running, batting .302/.356/.604 entering Tuesday nightâ€™s game. This is his second stint at Class AA after he didnâ€™t really impress in 123 games last year. If he keeps this up, though, heâ€™ll be moving up soon. Calixte went just 2-7 with a walk in the two games I saw, but he showed his power with a long home run on Saturday night (Arvest can be a launching pad, but this was late in the game, so the sun had gone down and there was no wind to help out). He also showed his speed with a stolen base and a little of both on a triple on a shot into the right-center field gap. On defense, he made a terrific backhanded stop going to his right and a very strong throw to nail the runner. On the other hand, he also had an â€œOle!â€ play on a hard-hit grounder just a couple of steps to his left. It wasnâ€™t a question of range but more of getting the glove down. Still, he might have had the most impressive showing of any Natural I saw.
Jorge Bonifacio: The player I was most excited to see only played on Saturday night, unfortunately. He went 0-2 but walked twice. I donâ€™t know if he realized the umpire had a very small strike zone or if this was improved plate discipline, but either way itâ€™s a good sign. He fielded his position well, including a really nice catch on a sinking line drive near the right-field line. Bonifacio has had a disappointing year so far (.239/.315/.356 after hitting .301/.371/.441 in 25 Class AA games last year). But he is also coming back from a hamate injury; that can affect a guyâ€™s power. He hit well in Wilmington; I expect he will recover and hit well in Arkansas soon.
Cheslor Cuthbert: Went 2-8 in the two games with an impressive home runâ€”an opposite-field drive down the right-field line that cut through a pretty strong crosswind to land in the Naturalsâ€™ bullpen. Unfortunately, he also got doubled off first on a pretty routine fly ball; I really donâ€™t know what he was thinking.
Tim Melville: Sigh. At one time he was a second-tier prospect in the system; now he seems to be an afterthought. He lasted only four innings (78 pitches) in his start Saturday night. His fastball started out in the low 90s but he tired pretty quickly and really struggled with his control in his last inning (although, as mentioned, the strike zone was pretty small). At no point did he seem to be fooling anyone, even when he worked a perfect inning. There werenâ€™t a lot of swings and misses.
J.C. Sulbaran: One of two prospects the Royals received in the Jonathan Broxton trade, Sulbaran has somehow kept his ERA at 3.63 this season despite an ugly 1.63 WHIP. Yet he pitched really well on Sunday night, limiting a pretty good Corpus Christi lineup to three hits in five innings, two of them on broken bats. I wasnâ€™t really sure how he was doing that, since his fastball was only hitting 90 once in a while. He did a good job of mixing up his pitches, and his curveball was moving pretty well. Sulbaran tired a bit in the sixth, and it was the Hooksâ€™ third time seeing him, so itâ€™s not surprising he got roughed up a bit.
Others: Lane Adams only played in one of the games but went 2-3 with a double and a stolen base (heâ€™s got 19 now, plus a .350 OBP despite a .233 average)â€¦Juan Graterol had a double and a home run in Sundayâ€™s game after an 0-4 the day beforeâ€¦Micah Gibbsâ€™ reputation as an excellent defensive catcher is well-deserved and he may have been a big part of Sulbaranâ€™s good outing; Gibbs also drilled his first home run of the seasonâ€¦Malcom Culver picked up the save in Sundayâ€™s win; he throws in the mid-90s but Iâ€™m not convinced he always knew where the ball was going.
Photo by Michelle Watson
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