On this edition of Royals Insider, we explore the life and times of Joey Renard Gathright.
Born in Hattiesburg, Mississipi, Gathright attended Bonnabel High School in Kenner, Louisiana. There, he excelled as a high school hitter, combining a fleet foot with an exceptional contact bat.^ Noticing such tremendous tools, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays selected him in the 32nd round of the 2001 amateur entry draft. Upon signing in August, Gathright waited one year before entering Class-A Charleston, where he hit .264/.360/.269 in 208 at-bats. The following season, he combined a .324/.406/.359 and .376/.419/.388 at Class A+ Bakersfield and Class AA Orlando. In Bakersfield, Gathright solidified himself as one of the best runners in the Minor Leagues, stealing 57 bases in 70 attempts. Although he had never hit one career home run, he batted for tremendous contact, hitting .326 and .341 for two levels in 2004. He was revered as one of the hottest prospects in the low minors, and won the Baseball America 2nd team Minor League All-Star award, California League Rookie of the Year award, and the California League All Star award. The following season, he was promoted to the parent club - Tampa Bay.
(Editor's Note: A hat-tip to neroyalsfan11 over at Royals Nation for pointing out that Gathright was originally a track runner, and only played baseball his senior year in high school.)
By 2004, Gathright had begun to solidify himself as a precursor to the 1970's and 1980's era leadoff men extraordinaires, from Otis Nixon to Brett Butler. Joey split the 2005 season between Class AAA Durham and Tampa Bay. Throughout the Minor Leagues, Gathright had worked the count often and got on base at an excellent clip. However, initially, his high-OBP game did not translate to the big league level, with merely a +40 and +66 BA/OBP split the first two short seasons in St. Petersburg.
On a summer evening in 2002, the fleetfooted Joey Gathright decided to jump over two vehicles in a parking lot.
After a lowly 2006 campaign with Durham and Tampa Bay, Gathright, along with infielder Fernando Cortez, was sent to our Boys in Blue for 22-year old left handed pitcher J.P. Howell, always considered long on potential but, at the time, severely short on outcome. It was a controversial trade at the time on behalf of Dayton Moore, as it received mixed - and emotional - results on both the Devil Rays blogosphere and the Royals blogosphere. Dayton Moore defended the move, citing defensive need in a spacious ballpark:
"We've got to make sure that we've got outstanding defense in this ballpark," Moore said of the decision to trade a pitching prospect for speed and defense. "With DeJesus (David, who moved from center to left) and Gathright we certainly have some guys who can track the ball. We've got to be athletic in this ballpark."
That season, Gathright spent 229 at-bats playing mostly center field in Kansas City, forcing DeJesus over to an unfamiliar left field. Gathright delivered almost instantly in Kansas City with the potential he demonstrated in the Minor Leagues, connecting for a .262/.332/.328 line in 79 games. However, in 2007, after an epic Spring Training battle with fellow on-the-cusp outfielders Shane Costa and Justin Huber, Gathright was confined to the AAA level for at least a small part of one more season. Gathright performed brilliantly in Omaha early in the season, earning a permanent callup after outfielder Reggie Sanders was sidelined for the second time. Gathright performed promising in Kansas City, drilling 70 hits in 74 games.
However, the analysis of Joey Gathright must delve deeper than simply the numbers at first glance. Consider these numbers, referenced by the always informative mtroyals over on RoyalBoard.com.
- 6 SB, 1 CS = 85%
- 20 SB, 5 CS = 80%
- 12 SB, 3 CS = 80%
- 10 SB, 6 CS = 62%
- 9 SB, 8 CS = 52%
Gathright has not exactly performed well on the basepaths in Kansas City. Could the difference merely be coincidence, sending him on the incorrect counts, the natural grass at Kauffman Stadium, or simply having the cannon-armed Ivan Rodriguez in the same division? That is a question that remains to be seen. One thing is for sure: In order to maintain a position somewhere in the Royals lineup, Gathright must begin to translate his exceptional raw speed into baseball speed. This would not only include stealing bases more often and more effectively, but covering ground and getting better reads and reactions on fly balls.
According to the Topeka Capital-Journal, Gathright's Tampa Bay biography stated that he runs from home plate to first base in 3.3 seconds on a bunt. Also, he has been timed at an amazing 6.1 seconds in a 60-yard dash.
Because the corner outfield positions demand such power, Gathright would ideally be better suited as strictly a center fielder. Unfortunately, in our situation, the talented - yet not exactly power-talented - David DeJesus will occupy that role for the forseeable future (barring, of course, a trade). Gathright's singles-hitting isn't sufficient for a left fielder, and given the team's lack of doubles and home run power (they finished dead last in total bases and slugging percentage), his presence in the lineup takes away from something a player like Justin Huber or Chris Lubanski could possibly grant us. Power.
Tremendous dropoff from 2007: 10%
Slight dropoff from 2007: 35%
Repeats 2007 form: 40%
True breakthrough season (.300/.400/.350): 15%
Injured for 15 days or more: 5%
Chances traded/released before Opening Day: 20%
Chances traded at 2008 Trade Deadline: 15%
Starting outfielder: 15%
Platoon role: 5%
Bench/reserve role: 55%
Season split between K.C. and Omaha: 25%
To be honest, I think Gathright's maximum potential is still that of a capable vintage-style leadoff man. However, with David DeJesus present, that team is currently not the Royals. The Royals could best implement him as a fourth outfielder. What is most vital to his 2008 campaign is whether he can translate his running abilities into stolen bases. Then, Gathright could be used as a pinch runner. In fact, I predict that Gathright will translate his skills slightly more effectively this season, improving his instincts and range in left field (and occasionally center) and stealing a few bases in close and late pinch-running roles. Offensively, he could still forseeably become a true leadoff man. His OBP and contact skills rival that of DeJesus and Mark Teahen, although those two are slightly more proven commodities.
From a fans' perspective, Gathright is an energetic presence and a fun player to watch. Every team could use a sparkplug such as Joey, in some role, somewhere.