Saturday, January 5, 2008

Royals Insider: Justin Huber

Royals Insider delves into the past, present, and future of everyone's favorite Australian Royal, Mr. Justin Patrick Huber, born and raised in Melbourne, Victoria, on the southern coast of the continent. Perhaps no player has incited such a cult-like following than Mr. Huber. In many fans' minds, that following is possibly because of this organization's undying determination to force their farmhand to the fiery lava pits of Minor League-dom for an eternity, and bench him once they actually do promote the young righty to the parent club. Overall, Justin has earned a number of awards at the professional level, including being voted a South Atlantic League All-Star (2002), Florida State League All-Star (2003), Double-A All-Star (2005), Texas League All-Star (2005), and Futures Game All-Star MVP (2005). It seems every frustrated, "snakebitten" prospect comes packaged with a story, and Justin Huber is no different in regard.

Love me, Buddy Bell.

In 2000, The New York Mets drafted the young catcher as a free agent. Signed that summer, Huber waited nearly one full year to play, but he contributed instantly thereafter, posting a .314/.415/.528 line for the Applachian League Kingsport Mets. Huber would gain notoriety for his ability to hit well above average for a position where offense is often considered a bonus. The following year, Huber posted a .286/.368/.453 line for A Columbia and A+ St. Lucie. Wisely, then-Mets General Manager and current ESPN Baseball Tonight analyst Steve Phillips promoted his young prospect rather slowly throughout their organization. The first two seasons, Huber had performed awful at best defense, committing 11 errors in his first two years in the organization as catcher. The following year, Huber would hit a respectable .275/.384/.475 line for two affiliates, and improved his defense considerably (4 errors in 75 games). By then, it became apparent that Huber was in the organization's plans to possibly replace Mike Piazza as catcher. However, in 2004, the Mets made a bold move, trading their Top 10 prospect to the Royals for infielder Jose Bautista in a package that sent them Kris Benson. Bautista would later become a serviceable, if unspectacular, everyday player for the Pittsburgh Pirates, while the Royals would be left with confining Huber to Minor League obscurity.

Although the organization - as well as numerous independent sources - has consistently hyped Huber as one of its best prospects, G.M. Dayton Moore and previous G.M. Allard Baird have seemed absolutely determined to make life incredibly inconvenient for the one-time Minor League star. In the middle of the 2004 season, Allard Baird haphazardly announced that Huber would switch positions from catcher to first base. In 2005, he saw some playing time at first base with Kansas City in the early summer, hitting an underwhelming .218/.271/.256 line in 25 games. In 2006, new G.M. Dayton Moore announced that Huber would alter positions again, this time going to the corner outfield. Since then, Huber has played primarily corner outfield, but then in 2007, he played another 31 Omaha games at first base.

In 2006, when posed with the question of whether to start Justin Huber, manager Buddy Bell retorted with one-liners circulated like wildfire throughout the Royals blogosphere. The lines "it wouldn't be fair to Dougie" and "Dougie doesn't deserve that" would become overnight classics. At the time, those quotes alone only helped ignite the frustration among the fanbase, discontent with the club's apparent direction, or lack thereof. After several youth movements, the organization had reverted back to square one - exactly where a perennial last-place club shouldn't stand - benching a top prospect making league-minimum over a mediocre (at best) veteran.

The following year and one half, Huber would spend much time honing his defensive skills in AAA Omaha. He posted a respectable .278/.358/.480 overall in Omaha in 2006. In 2007, he missed much of the season with a strained hamstring, but finished August and early September strong in Omaha, posting a .276/.336/.853 line overall, splitting time evenly between the corner outfield, first base, and designated hitter. Last year, once again, the Royals recalled Huber from Omaha as rosters expanded to 40 men, only to use him as a reserve. Huber received a paltry 10 at-bats that season, entering 5 games as a substitute and starting 3 more.

Huber's minor league statistics indicate that, given with his still ripe age, he should receive playing time at the big-league level in some form. Perhaps Dayton Moore feels that his defense is so terrible and warrants nothing more than consistent bench duty, and perhaps he feels that Huber's power is still subpar for his position, but nonetheless, playing time at the big-league level for him seems few and far between. The organization has almost entirely ignored the fact that Huber is a legitimate prospect.

Throughout '07, Huber demonstrated power and plate discipline in AAA, and fielded an otherwise subpar outfield. His lack of ability to hit lefties hurts his game, but the sheer power in righties indicates that he could be a worthy platoon player in the Major Leagues, maybe along the lines of an early-career Kevin Mench or a present-day Jeff Conine or Kevin Millar.

Here are my predictions for the 2008 version of Justin Huber:

GS/G: 34/44
AVG: .260
OBP: .327
SLG: .435
HR: 5
RBI: 22
SB: 2
CS: 0

GS/G: 84/87
AVG: .287
OBP: .360
SLG: .462
HR: 11
RBI: 49
SB: 4
CS: 1

- Well Above average plate discipline (career +80 BA/OBP split in Minors)
- Solid contact hitter, possesses power potential (career .289/.369/.495 in Minors)

- Inability to hit left-handed pitching (career .158/.226/.175 in 62 PA's)
- Not enough power possessed for a power-necessary position (6.07 and 5.81 RC/G the last two seasons above average at Minor League level)
- Range factor makes him a well below average COF, and his first base fielding is mediocre at best

On-field performance:
Repeats 2007 form: 45%
Improves slightly from 2007: 30%
Experiences significant dropoff from '07: 10%
Improves significant from '07 (breakout season): 15%

Injury contingency:
Injured for 15 days or more: 30%

Chances traded before Opening Day: 25%
Chances traded or released mid-season: 15%

Job allocation:
Starts in Omaha entire 2008 season: 40%
Splits starting time between Omaha and K.C.: 25%
Starts in Omaha part of 2008, bench/reserve in K.C. part of 2008: 25%
Starter in K.C. most of 2008 season: 10%
(Your guess is as good as mine. How will Shealy contribute? Will a trade occur? Too many variables exist for numbers to be interpreted as anything other than a grain of salt).

It's difficult to determine how and where Justin Huber will get his playing time in 2008. Virtually every suggestion is open for possibility. The organization could recall him as the once-and-for-all solution following Shealy's tanking, leave him in Omaha to 'develop' in the corner outfield, or package him in a trade. In my honest opinion, the organization would benefit from giving him, instead of the known veteran commodity Ross Gload, steady everyday playing time should Shealy 'flop' again. However, for still vague reasons, that probably will not happen. Huber will likely toil much of the season in AAA Omaha, and then get called up late in the season for spot bench duty here and there.

In the Royals organization, it's been a frustrating three years for Justin Huber. The organization appears content not to give their top 20 prospect meaningful playing time. Given that they are actively seeking alternatives in Jose Guillen and countless more Free Agent pursuits, there's no reason to believe Huber will receive P.T. for any significant period of time in Kansas City. I do believe that he will eventually platoon with Ross Gload, albeit for probably less than a month.

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