SURPRISE, Ariz. — Looking for a sleeper prospect this season in the Royals’ system? How about outfielder Brett Eibner, a second-round pick in 2010 who is now little more than an afterthought in the various rankings.
“He’s been very good here,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said before a recent minor-league workout. “I believe in his tools. I believe in his aptitude. His numbers, other than his batting average, are pretty good.
“He got RBIs, and he hit some home runs in that ballpark. He’s going to the Texas League, so I expect him to put up some numbers. But, yeah, this is a year where he can put himself in position to be talked about next year.”
Eibner, 24, was honored Tuesday for his defense last season at Class A Wilmington as the recipient of the Frank White Defensive Player of the Year award.
While Eibner drew raves from scouts as a pitcher at Arkansas, he wanted to play every day, which is what the Royals promised him. So far, it’s hard not to be disappointed.
Injuries limited Eibner in 2011, but he played 120 games last year at Wilmington — and struck out 165 times in 423 at-bats while batting .196. He did collect 46 extra-base hits and, as his award suggests, played strong defense.
The Royals are hoping a switch this season to Double-A Northwest Arkansas, and the more hitter-friendly Texas League, might unlock Eibener’s potential.
“He’s got all of the tools to play the game and be a good player,” Picollo insisted. “His swing is good. It’s just confidence. He’s got to wipe away the bad stuff and not let it affect the next at-bat.
“The mental side is the part he has to get under control, but I believe in the tools, and I believe in the kid. That’s a guy who could jump up for us. Once he gets that confidence, he could maybe take off from there.”
In short, Eibner could be just what the Royals need — a bridge between Jeff Francoeur, who becomes a free agent after this season, and Jorge Bonifacio, who is slotted to open this year at Wilmington.
Here’s a nice problem: The Royals have so many high-quality young shortstops that somebody — maybe a few guys — will be forced to shift to other infield positions.
Baseball America cites five shortstops among the organization’s top 22 prospects — and that doesn’t count Christian Colon, whom it chooses to classify as a second baseman, or Alex McClure, who might be the best defensive player in the group.
The jewel is Adalberto Mondesi, a 17-year-old who turned heads last season while batting .290 at short-season Idaho Falls while displaying what Baseball America described as “hands so quick that his transfers seem like a blur.”
Picollo said Mondesi is likely headed to Class A Lexington, which is the Royals’ lowest full-season affiliate — and he will be a full-time shortstop.
“We’ve got to be careful with Mondesi just because he’s younger,” Picollo said. “We don’t want to put more on his plate by having him play more positions. More than likely, he’ll play more shortstop than anything.”
Current plans call for Colon to split time, probably with Irving Falu, at second and shortstop at Triple-A Omaha.
The Royals face a dilemma with Colon; they believe he could be ready next spring to challenge for a starting job at second base, but they also see him as the top in-house replacement if an injury sidelines shortstop Alcides Escobar.
Orlando Calixte is a 21-year-old who draws comparisons to Alfonso Soriano for his power potential. Like Eibner, his production figures to shoot up as he moves from Wilmington to Northwest Arkansas.
McClure seems likely to return to Northwest Arkansas, where he batted .212 last season in 61 games.
“We’re trying to figure out how to mix Calixte and McClure,” Picollo admitted. “McClure can play second, and Calixte can play third. So we may move them a little bit just to get them both on the field all of the time.”
That leaves Jack Lopez, and Humberto Arteaga and Ramon Torres, whom Baseball America rank as the organization’s 19th, 20th and 22nd prospects.
Current plans show Lopez going to Wilmington, while Arteaga will probably play a lot of second base at Lexington alongside Mondesi. Torres will likely play for a short-season affiliate.
No player draws more interest in minor-league camp than outfielder Bubba Starling, who combines mega-tools with still-raw skills. Starling, 20, showed both last season in his pro debut at short-season Burlington.
The primary issue is a swing that tends to get long and flat on occasion.
“He’s making progress,” Picollo said. “It’s just being consistent with it. He may go a week, and everything looks right, and then he gets a little jumpy. It’s just being consistent with it.
“It’s really a matter of him recognizing when he’s getting jumpy. We can tell him but, hopefully, he starts feeling it himself when he gets a little quick. He hooks a foul ball, and the brain fires to tell him, ‘Stay back.’ ”
Starling is ticketed to join Mondesi at Lexington, which means the Legends will be able to showcase the Royals’ two highest-ceiling non-pitching prospects.
Look for right-hander Kyle Zimmer, the organization’s top pick in the 2012 draft, to open the year at Wilmington. But he’s on a fast track. Zimmer could be at Northwest Arkansas before too long.
“The things our staff are saying,” Picollo said, “not just about his ability but his make-up and the way he goes about his business, you can tell … he carries himself like a top-of-the-rotation guy should.”
Some other pitchers worth tracking:
Right-hander Jason Adam, who should start at Northwest Arkansas. A power pitcher from Blue Valley Northwest who appears ready to blossom after compiling a 1.16 WHIP (walks and hits per inning) over his first two pro seasons.
Lefty Sam Selman, last year’s second-round pick, is likely to start at either Lexington or Wilmington. Exceeded expectations last year by showing surprising command. He can throw 95 mph, and if he masters a change-up — this year’s goal — could quickly zoom up the system.
Right-hander Miguel Almonte is slotted for Lexington after an amazing breakthrough a year ago in which he overmatched hitters in the Dominican Summer League and the Arizona Rookie League. Scouts say he already shows “feel” for the strike zone with a three-pitch repertoire.