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Surprise Report: Spring Training Update #1ark_naturals
Minor league prospects take advantage of extra playing time
By Jon Ekstrom / Northwest Arkansas Naturals

Surprise, AZ -- Competition typically brings out the best in every athlete, and Major League Baseball is no exception. Each spring, younger players in every organization set out to prove that they are worthy of one of the coveted 25-man active roster spots on a Major League club. For proven players with the Kansas City Royals such as Alex Gordon or Zach Greinke, or a veteran such as Gil Meche, getting through spring training is mostly about stretching out the arm, or seeing live pitching for the first time all winter. However, for some players such as prospect Derrick Robinson, the goal of spring training is moreover to make a lasting impression on the organization that holds the key to their baseball futures.

Robinson, participating in his first major league camp, is one prospect thought to be making the most of that impression. Robinson's 2009 ticket is probably punched for the Advanced-A Carolina League, but the impressions made on Royals' brass may help him make a quick jump to Northwest Arkansas.

For several weeks minor leaguers like Robinson and Naturals' starting pitcher Dan Cortes are mixed with All-Stars and Major Leaguers players that command seven figure salaries. These less-experienced prospects use these few precious weeks to soak up all the knowledge that is being passed their way, and utilize the resources of the big league coaching staff to aid in their development. Soon enough most will be on their way to the minor league camp to join their respective clubs in Omaha, Wilmington, and Northwest Arkansas. Here is a quick look at some current, former, and future Naturals players and how there 2009 spring training is shaping up.

Naturals fans won't soon forget slugging first baseman Kila Kaaihue. Kaaihue, who this season was ranked as the Royals' ninth-best prospect according to Baseball America, exploded onto the scene last season with the Naturals before being promoted to Triple-A Omaha and eventually the Major Leagues with the Royals. Kila, who is a member of the Royals' 40-man roster, is one horse in a crowded competition for a spot on the 25-man active roster. Through five games this spring Kaaihue has produced in limited action (3 hits, 1 run, 1 RBI). Due to the log jam at first base and designated hitter, Kaaihue is expected to start the 2009 campaign with Omaha.

Mario Lisson, who started 2008 as the Naturals' everyday third baseman and ended it playing regularly at shortstop, is in camp and has yet to hit safely in five trips to the plate. It's likely that Lisson will draw re-assignment to Northwest Arkansas, but the organization has not finalized what position he will play.

Pitching prospects Julio Pimentel, Cortes, and Henry Barrera are all getting a look with the parent club this spring down in Surprise. Cortes and Pimentel, who combined for 20 wins last season, are sharpening their skills before their expected return to the Naturals. Pimentel has made two appearances, allowing one run while striking out three in three innings pitched. Cortes, the Royals' third-best prospect according to Baseball America, threw one scoreless inning before allowing three runs in his most recent appearance Wednesday afternoon. Barrera excelled with Adv. Class-A Wilmington last season, posting an impressive 2.81 ERA to go along with 78 strikeouts to only 24 walks. Barrera is expected to begin the season with the Naturals and so far his spring training is off to a solid start with only giving up one hit over two innings. These three live arms paired with returning pitcher Blake Wood look to give the Naturals one of the more dominant and experienced pitching staffs in the Texas League.

Carlos Rosa, Roman Colon, Tim Hamulack and Devon Lowery are other former Naturals hurlers who are in the big league camp. Rosa, Lowery, and Colon have all been unscored upon in 6 2/3 combined innings of work, while the southpaw Hamulack has allowed two runs in two appearances. All are likely to begin the 2009 season with Omaha.

Expected to be receiving those pitchers are Fayetteville-native Cody Clark and Kiel Thibault, who both were non-roster invitees to spring training. Thibault was reassigned to minor league camp on Tuesday. Both played with the Naturals in 2008.

One of the more intriguing players in the Royals organization has to be Robinson, the ultra-athletic outfielder thought to be one of the faster players in minor league baseball. Robinson, the Royals' 16th ranked prospect, joined the organization in 2006 after deciding not to attend the University of Florida on a football scholarship. The switch hitting center fielder was paid an incredible compliment by long time Royals scout Art Stewart recently in the Kansas City Star. "Take a look at that young guy because he is the future center fielder of the Kansas City Royals," Art says. "Oh, he's going to be something special. He can do it all. He can run. He can throw. He can play you one hell of a center field. Oh yeah, he's really got something. It's exciting to see a player like that."

Robinson, who has yet to play above Class-A ball, has excelled in his limited at bats with the big league camp. With only six at bats Robinson has managed to record three hits, two runs, three RBI, two walks, and one stolen base. If Robinson continues to progress he has a good chance to end up with the Naturals before the 2009 season wraps.

Naturals' incumbent center fielder Jose Duarte is coming off of his best power season to date. In 2008 with the Naturals, Duarte recorded a career high in home runs (10), and RBI (47), and walks (50). Duarte, who is in his sixth season with Royals' organization, is ranked as the organizations best defensive outfielder and has the best outfield arm according to Baseball America. So far this spring Duarte has totaled four runs in seven at bats to go along with two hits. While Jose's hitting needs to improve his defense has not gone unnoticed, according to the Kansas City Star. "I don't know if Duarte can hit well enough," one scout says. "But he's the best defensive outfielder the Royals have."

Only time will tell if some of these players will soon make there way to Kauffman Stadium. However, many of the organizations' top prospects have had a successful beginning to their 2009 campaign and all are hoping they can translate that into a monster year in the Royals' system.

The Northwest Arkansas Naturals are the Double-A Texas League affiliate of the Kansas City Royals. You can purchase season tickets, partial ticket packages, and group outings with the Naturals by calling (479) 927-4900.

 
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