I think I have said this every time I’ve written one of these, but Royals fans in Kansas City who want to check out the future of the franchise are very lucky. Both Class AAA Omaha and Class AA Northwest Arkansas are a short drive away from KC. Both are located in enjoyable and underrated metropolitan areas, with plenty to see and do when you’re not at the ballpark.
With these in mind, the wife and I spent our Memorial Day weekend in Omaha. I won’t bore you with tales of our trip or make you watch our vacation slides, but we did take in two Storm Chasers games and I will share my impressions of some of the players we saw.
Ironically, as I joked during our trip, if we wanted to see the Storm Chasers, we could have stayed in Kansas City. With all the injuries the Royals have suffered, the Omaha roster has been depleted somewhat. Just a couple days before our trip, the Royals signed a free agent infielder (Steve Tolleson) and promoted Ramon Torres and Orlando Calixte to Omaha from Northwest Arkansas mainly to fill out the roster.
Still, Omaha was hanging in there, with a 25-21 record going into games two and three of a four-game series against the El Paso Chihuahuas, the Class AAA affiliate of the San Diego Padres. This was a fun opponent to watch; the Chihuahuas are in first place in their division and feature four players in Baseball Prospectus’ top 10 Padres prospects.
Here are my (admittedly amateur) scouting impressions of selected Storm Chasers:
Christian Binford: The right-handed pitcher was making just his third start at this level after being promoted from the Naturals earlier this year. Binford has often been found on the periphery of Royals’ top prospect lists, especially after some nice seasons in the low minors. He’s struggled some at Northwest Arkansas, though; of course, that is not the greatest place to pitch. Anyway, Binford pitched reasonably well on this night before weakening in the eighth inning. He allowed just two runs on five hits in the first seven innings; two of the hits were solo home runs. However, he had just two strikeouts in those seven innings. I never saw him hit 90 on the stadium radar gun, and that could be a problem for him going forward. Still, there’s something to be said for throwing strikes, which Binford did well on this night. I can’t imagine a right-handed pitcher who doesn’t throw 90 having much of a major-league future unless he has great movement, though. There just weren’t a lot of swings and misses. Perhaps he can carve out a future as a long reliever/spot starter.
Balbino Fuenmayor: Last year’s minor-league sensation at Northwest Arkansas has been a lot quieter this year. He got off to a fast start but slumped badly, losing almost 140 points off his batting average from mid-April to mid-May. He’s recovered somewhat but still has only two home runs this year. In a hitters’ ballpark, that’s concerning. In his first at-bat, he rocketed one over the center fielder’s head for an RBI double. But he went 0-6 with a walk the rest of the time, although one out was a scorching line drive right at the shortstop. After missing the last six or seven weeks of 2015 with a knee injury, it could be that his timing is off. That’s the hope, but I’m not sure I buy it.
Ramon Torres: As I mentioned above, Torres was recently promoted from Northwest Arkansas, mainly because the Storm Chasers needed more players. A look at Torres’ .268/.339/.329 there isn’t encouraging, but watching him play defense is. Torres covered a lot of ground at shortstop in both games, and looked really good. As an aside, I saw Omaha shift a lot in these two games, which certainly helped the defenders look better, but also shows how analytics are permeating the game. Still, credit goes to Torres for making the plays and making them look easy. He probably won’t hit much, but the glove could certainly get Torres a utility infielder role at some point.
Hunter Dozier: A former top prospect who many of the minor league gurus had written off, Dozier started this year on fire at Northwest Arkansas. Skeptics like myself pointed to it being his third year at that level. But he apparently has reworked his swing, so there is some hope that this is actually what we can expect from Dozier. The third baseman got off to a good start when he was promoted but has been slumping a bit lately. The good news is he is still a patient hitter; the bad news is that he is still strikeout-prone. Dozier struck out four times in eight at-bats over the two games. I’m still a little skeptical, but keep in mind that Dozier is still just 24. He’ll need to adjust to Class AAA quickly, though.
Jorge Bonifacio: Given Brett Eibner’s injury last night, Bonifacio could be the next Storm Chaser suiting up for the Royals. It seems like Bonifacio has been in the system forever, but he’s still just 22 (he turns 23 on Saturday). The outfielder showed impressive speed and power on his first at-bat Sunday night, lacing a triple to left-center. The El Paso pitcher was Colin Rea, who has been in the majors and started the year as one of the Padres’ top prospects, so the competition was good. Bonifacio showed good bat speed and smarts on the play, taking advantage of a brief bobble to stretch a double into a triple. That was much better than Saturday night, when he struck out four times. Bonifacio is having a very nice year for Omaha (.308/.371/.557) but he has struck out 52 times in 185 at-bats. So if and when he makes the majors, expect a lot of swings and misses. But when he connects, he will hit the ball hard. Defensively, he handled himself well in left field. Nothing spectacular but also nothing to make me think he can’t play it in the majors right now.