Kansas City Royals

The fundamental flow: Royals try to build a winner

SURPRISE, Ariz. —One end of the clubhouse, closest to the bathroom, and Billy Butler is talking hitting. This is his primary skill, the reason he likely will make tens of millions of dollars.

"I know what a pitcher's trying to do to me," he says.

The other end of the clubhouse, closest to the trainer's room, and Derrick Robinson is talking speed. This is his primary skill, the reason Florida offered a football scholarship and the Royals paid him $850,000 to try baseball.

"I work on a lot of bunting, base stealing, stuff like that," he says.

From Butler's end of the clubhouse, he sees baseball through the eyes of a rising star. It's all there for him. He can be rich and famous, and likely have his choice of teams if he becomes a free agent. He can hit, so it doesn't matter that he can't do much else.

From Robinson's end of the clubhouse, he sees baseball through the eyes of a stalled prospect. Nobody's sure what will happen here. He will be mostly anonymous this summer, playing in Double-A ballparks with teammates who are certain to make the big leagues. He hasn't hit yet, so it doesn't matter that he has world-class speed.

The Royals have many deficiencies, and fundamentals are at the top of the list. But here is another truth:

Fundamentals can take you only so far.

Nobody makes the big leagues just by hitting the cutoff man.

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The Royals drafted Butler because of what he can do with his bat. That's it. The scout who signed him raved that Butler always seemed to be headed to the batting cage.

Some criticized the Royals for taking Butler, who was projected to last past the 14th pick in 2004. The Royals were seen as going for the cheaper option, and that may have been part of it, but the team was dead convinced the kid would hit.

"A hitting genius," former hitting coach Mike Barnett once called him.

J.D. Butler likes to joke that his son looks like a big-leaguer only when standing in the batter's box. There's some truth behind those words.

Butler is slow and sometimes makes bad decisions on the bases. He moved from third base to left field to first, where he's worked hard, but most evaluations still have him below league average defensively.

But, boy, can he hit. In three full minor-league seasons, he won two batting titles and hit .340 between two teams the other year. In his second full major-league season, he became just the fifth big-leaguer since 1901 to hit .300 with 20 homers and 50 doubles before age 24.

So, sure. Maybe he's limited in where he can play on the field, and unable to help much without his bat. He's a two-tool player.

But it's the right two tools.

"I've always said you should count hitting five times and the others just once," Angels scouting director Eddie Bane says of the famous "five tools" players possess. "Because when it comes down to it, it's all about hitting."

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The Royals drafted Robinson because of what he does with his legs. That's it. They padded their offer by a few hundred grand to get him to turn down Urban Meyer and Florida football.

Robinson ran the 60-yard dash in 6.19 seconds at the Perfect Game showcase, the fastest time in the event's history. Scouts saw the next Kenny Lofton, the Royals saw their center fielder of the future, but the problem is he hasn't hit.

"I just need more experience," he says.

He is a .243 hitter in four minor-league seasons. Last year, playing in a bad hitters' park at Class-A Wilmington (Del.), he managed .239 with a .290 on-base percentage and 69 steals in 92 attempts.

The Royals are still hopeful that Robinson will hit enough to use his speed in Kansas City. One scout for a rival organization is skeptical, but said the Royals are doing the right thing by letting him take it slow — last season was his second straight in Wilmington.

"It wasn't always like that," the scout says. "Back in the day, it seemed like a guy would have two good weeks and they'd be wanting to move him up."

The Royals' scouts keep an especially close eye on Robinson's bat speed and strikeout numbers. When a guy has a quick bat, optimism sticks. When he swings through fastballs and can't keep up, optimism shrinks. Robinson has cut his strikeout rate each season. He needs to cut it more.

Right now, Robinson is 22 and entering the part of his career where it will either get going or stall. He'll be a prospect as long as the speed's there, but he'll also be treated skeptically until the bat comes around.

"All of it is on the players," he says. "They're going out and playing. A coach can't play for them. A coach can help in certain areas, if they see something wrong, but at the end, it's on the player."

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These are the margins where baseball's second-guessers get their material. It's easy to see what goes wrong, but much harder to figure out why.

Butler's bat has him on the brink of big-league stardom, while Chris Lubanski's never caught on. Juan Pierre's speed came with enough hitting that he's made $40 million in his career, while Robinson's legs stretch in the bus leagues.

Professional baseball is more than 100 years old, but the mysteries remain as to why some guys emerge while others fail. Statistical analysis isn't any better in these regards.

"It's a tough question," Bane says. "It's what we're all trying to figure out."

The Butler model is the surer thing, or at least as close to it as baseball offers. That's tough for teams to turn down. One argument for the Robinson model is that his speed means he can help his team even when he's not hitting. Butler, for all his doubles, is essentially useless when he's not hitting.

Royals general manager Dayton Moore and his scouts lean toward the high-ceiling guys with lots of tools — Butler was drafted under the previous leadership — while maintaining balance by drafting some skill-centric players.

This is more art than science, even now, and what makes it so maddening is that the Royals absolutely have to get it right.

Their high-ceiling, big-talent guys like Robinson have to hit. Or else they're just wasting more time.

"You have to stay aggressive with guys like that," Moore says. "Because if you hit on him, you've got an offensively oriented center fielder. And that's how you win."