Sunday, June 20, 2010

First Half Champs!

Last night the Northwest Arkansas Naturals clinched the first half North division title of the Texas League for 2010. This earns them a trip to the postseason and means that every year that the franchise has been located in Springdale the team has made the playoffs. But there is something different about this year. Maybe it is the fact that from what I have heard this is just the second first half crown for the franchise. Maybe it is the fact that I have attended around 20 Naturals games. Or maybe it is the fact that this team represents the future of Royals baseball. The 2010 Naturals represent a new approach to the organization, a new commitment to long term success, and the first wave of homegrown talent that is expected to resurrect a once proud franchise. If you want to see the Royal Revival first hand just take a trip down to Springdale, turn off on to exit 72, take a left at 56th then take the two lane highway thru the farmland until Arvest Ballpark pops up and smacks you in the face. Once you are there just relax and watch the boys that are supposed to bring the pride back to Kansas City.

In 2008, I attended a few Naturals games. It was a fun time but other than Kila Ka'aihue and a few pitchers there weren't many prospects to speak of, not to mention the Northwest Arkansas crowd seemed to approach minor league baseball with a theatre like attitude. It was more like watch a Silver Dollar City show then taking part in the enthusiasm of a sport event. The crowd would get excited when cued by the scoreboard and would naturally overreact to flyballs that caused an outfielder to take one step back. But just a couple of years later things have changed.

The 2010 Naturals are a team of prospects and Kansas City drafted players. This group has been winning together for several seasons now and they don't expect anything less. Watching close it is apparent that this group has everything from the talent, chemisty, and the intangibles needed to win at the double-A level. Obviously many of the prospects may not cut it as time progresses, but don't tell them that.

As for the Northwest Arkansas faithful, the crowd last night was fantastic. It obviously helps to have a winner but the Northwest Arkansas community seems to be quickly falling in love with this franchise. Last night the San Diego chicken attended the game, but for the vast majority of the fans this was not the primary reason to attend. The crowd knew the division title was within grasp and they let there voices be heard all throughout the contest.

Before the players take the field be sure to watch the Naturals dugout and you will see something that you don't typically see at the professional baseball level. You'll see a group of guys that are approaching the game like a game. You'll see Mike Moustakas going thru a different handshake with every player on the team including some that are less appropriate with others.

Leading off for the Naturals is Derrick Robinson who comes to the plate with "All I do is Win" blaring on the speakers. Everyone in the stadium puts there hands up in sync then shakes them when the music requests it, this includes the pitcher's in the pen. Robinson didn't win in Burlington with Moustakas and Johnny Giavotella, instead he was in Wilmington struggling with the bat but swiping bases left and right. The next year he found himself in the playoffs as a table setter for them and even though he struggled with the bat again he put together a dominate August which was enough to earn him a promotion to Springdale in 2010. This season the bat has finally started to come around. He has a lot of work to do but his line this year is up to .294/.369/.380, respectable numbers for a 22 year old in his first stint in double-A.

Batting second is the scrappy Johnny Giavotella. I expected Giavotella to break out in a big way with the stick in Springdale and while he has improved he hasn't had the pop that I was hoping for. Nonetheless the guy has the intangibles and has a knack for getting on base and allowing the middle of the order to drive him in. Johnny's range was a concern coming into the season and I continue to have concerns about his defense. Occasionally he will make a brilliant play, but he also tends to not get to some balls that he should have and try to do to much on some balls that he does.

Hitting third is Mike Moustakas. Moustakas currently has 62 rbi's in 50 games played. While I would love to see him stay in Springdale all season and earn a ring, I'm afraid that at some point the organization is going to decide that because of the poor level of talent in Springfield, Tulsa and Little Rock Moustakas isn't going to be challenged enough. The Naturals are a good team without Moustakas, but with Moustakas they may be the top team in double A. Moustakas should be fighting for a major league job in March of next year.

In the clean up spot is the unsung hero of the group, Clint Robinson. All Clint has done since being drafted is hit and be an exemplory citizen. He's a great guy and he truly is one of those players that feels as though without the fans he wouldnt be there. He's a little to old to be considered a great prospect but if he continues to hit everywhere he goes he'll get a shot into Kansas City. Robinson may be the most critical member of the team due to the fact that he hits behind Moustakas. He has to protect him and force pitchers to give him pitchs to hit. If the pitcher doesnt then Robinson must punish them. Thus far this season he has obliged.

After Robinson is Nick Van Stratten who without a doubt has the best walk up song on the team. "Josie's on vacation far away, come around and talk it over." I'd like to see a little more pop, but he has displayed solid contact and a strong arm in the outfield. In the ninth innning of last night's game he gunned out a runner at home on a ball that I thought for sure would score the runner. The organization has taken their time with Van Stratten even though he has hit at every level so he is a little on the old side for a player in his first stop in double-A. Nonetheless if he continues to hit he could make it to Kansas City as a fourth outfielder.

Tim Smith hits sixth on this night the Naturals clinched their title. He has the third highest OPS on the team and he will be one of the nine Naturals at the Texas League all star game. Smith is a guy that probably will be in Omaha at some point this season, considering this is his second stop in the Texas League and he continues to hit well.

Anthony Seratelli hit seventh. Seratelli has served as the Willie Bloomquist for the Naturals this seaason and while I don't view him as a prospect he has managed to hit .287 with a .380 on base and fill in wherever he has been needed this season. Seratelli was starting for Paulo Orlando who may have resurrected his prospect status this season. Orlando is attempted to be the first Brazilian to reach the Major Leagues.

Batting eighth and catching is Jeff Howell. Howell has been a servicable back up since Manny Pina hit the dl. Pina should be back soon though and probably offers the upside as a quality defensive first back up. If he can reach this ceiling he'll have a long major league career.

Batting ninth is Chris McConnell. While he may not look the part of a professional ballplayer, McConnell is great with the glove and if he could figure out a way to get on base at a decent clip he could someday have a shot as a big league player.

The Naturals rotation currently features three players with sub 3 eras: crafty lefty Edgar Osuna (2.76), groundball machine Mario Santiago (2.77), and lefty phenom Mike Montgomery (2.79). The rotation also boasts last years first round pick Aaron Crow, who I expect to rebound to have a strong second half and Eduardo Paulino. The bullpen also has it's share of major league prospects from Louis Coleman, Brandon Sisk, Ben Swaggerty, to Chris Chavez and Patrick Keating. The pen has already graduated Blaine Hardy to triple A. There are also several arms in Wilmington that could at some point this summer join the party like Alex Calderra, Chris Dwyer, John Lamb to name a few.

This post turned out being much longer than I intended, but there is a lot to be excited about in Springdale. I just hope that someday soon there is an equal level of excitement in Kansas City.