When you're a small market club, you're constantly looking to your minor league system to produce your stars of tomorrow. Today, we celebrate some of the best hitting minor league seasons in Royals history. One name you might be surprised not to find on here is George Brett. The floppy-haired infielder from Southern California never hit .300 in a minor league season, and topped out with ten home runs in a single season. Instead, this list is full of superstars, almost-stars, and never-weres. Let's take a look at the best hitting minor league seasons in Royals history. Next week we'll take a look at the best pitching minor league seasons.
Charles "Pickles" Smith 1972 - I know very little of Smith other than I have a picture of him and Frank White labeled "Future Royals Stars". He hit .321/.399/.574 with 19 HR and 36 steals in Waterloo, Iowa, but mysteriously never hit much after that and never made the big leagues - which is a shame with that nickname.
Joe Gates 1975 - Not much of a prospect at 5'7'', but his .270/.443/.348 line in 1975 is one of the most anti-Royals I have ever seen.
Ken Phelps 1980 - Ken drew 128 walks for the AAA Omaha Royals, which was the most walks I could find any Royals minor leaguer ever drawing. We could have ripped of Steinbrener. All his people said "Ken Phelps! Ken Phelps!"
Tuffy Rhodes 1993 - Karl "Tuffy" Rhodes had played in eight minor league seasons with the Astros with 14 home runs combined in those seasons before he slammed 23 in 88 games for Omaha and another 7 for the Iowa Cubs after he was dealt for reliever John Habyan. NOT SUSPICIOUS AT ALL. Rhodes had his moment in the sun in 1994 for the Chicago Cubs when he slammed three home runs on Opening Day, but soon washed out of Major League Baseball. He instead enjoyed a long career in Japan, hitting 464 career home runs.
Dwayne Hosey 1994 - Dwayne was a 27 year old minor league free agent on his fifth organization who had a ridiculous 1994 season at .333/.424/.628 with 27 HR and 27 steals, but we never got to see what he could do in the big leagues because of the work stoppage.
Johnny Damon 1995 - This list is heavy in big boppers, but Johnny had a sensational 1995 for AA Wichita, hitting .343/.434/.534 with 16 HR and 26 steals and spawning a spate of Royals ads that had him compared to George Brett.
Chris Hatcher 1998 - He blasted 46 home runs for Omaha in 1998, which I believe is a Royals minor league record. He is not related to the Marlins pitcher of the same name.
Mark Quinn 1999 - Before he was a punchline, Quinn was a standout minor leaguer. He hit .360/.409/.598 with 25 home runs for AAA Omaha, the second straight year he had led his league in batting average.
Billy Butler 2005 - Billy had a terrific age 19 season, hitting .340/.404/.611, but some of that enthusiasm should be tempered since most of that damage was done in a ridiculous hitting environment in High Desert, California.
Other old big boppers - Joe Vitiello (28 HR in 1999) Sean McNally (36 in 1999), Brandon Berger (40 in 2001), Craig Brazell (39 in 2007), Clint Robinson (29 HR in 2010)
10. Frank Ortenzio - 1971
.303/.397/.574 32 HR 103 RBI in High A San Jose (Age 20 season)
In a different era, maybe Frank is a sabermetric darling, a future Matt Stairs or some Billy Beane project. Back in 1971 he was just a guy that hit home runs but perhaps didn't look the part of a prospect. Ortenzio was a 47th round pick by the Royals in 1969 and struggled mightily his first season in the pros. But by 1971 he was a prodigous power hitter in a dead ball era, leading the California League in round-trippers. Ortenzio did strike out 108 times in 547 plate appearances, which was probably a shocking amount at the time. Frank would work his way up the system, earning 25 at-bats in the big leagues in 1973, but after six plus seasons at AAA, he finally decided to pursue a career in Japan.
9. Mike Moustakas - 2010
.322/.369/.630 36 HR 124 RBI in AA Northwest Arkansas/AAA Omaha (Age 21 season)
Remember this Moose? The one that got us all giddy and feeling like a school girl? Not the one that causes us to boo after pop-outs? Moustakas was selected as the second overall pick in the 2007 draft with a reputation for light-tower power after setting the California prep record for home runs. Moustakas had shown promising power in his first two full minor league seasons, but had struggled to hit for average. He put it all together in 2010 hitting .347 with 21 home runs in his first 66 games in AA before being promoted to Omaha. His terrific season got him named the #9 prospect in baseball by Baseball America and by June of the next season he was in the Show. But for how much longer?
8. Cecil Fielder - 1982
.322/.417/.645 20 HR 68 RBI in Rookie Ball Butte (Age 18 season)
Big Cecil was drafted by the Royals in the fourth round in 1982 after he dropped out of UNLV after one semester due to poor work habits and a gambling problem. Fielder gave a preview of things to come by destroying the Pioneer League, hitting 20 home runs in 69 games. The Royals did not see the potential however, and shipped Fielder to Toronto after just one season, in exchange for veteran outfielder Leon Roberts.
7. Sal Fasano - 1994
.290/.375/.568 32 HR 113 RBI in Low A Rockford/High A Wilmington (Age 21 season)
Sal was a 37th round pick out of the University of Evansville, so I'm sure the expectations were low for him when he drilled 32 home runs in 1994. Fasano was a rather portly, mustached catcher who didn't really look like he belonged in the big leagues, but he could mash the ball when he ran into one, and he must have run into a lot of pitches in the Midwest League where he hit 25 home runs in 97 games. The Royals then promoted him to the Carolina League, a pitcher's league, where he actually improved his performance with a 1.041 OPS over his last 23 games.
6. Jim Eisenreich - 1987
.382/.469/.705 11 HR 57 RBI in AA Memphis (Age 28 season)
Jim Eisenreich was a Twins farmhand who rocketed through the system and was given a chance to play at the big leagues at a young age. He was also a young man afflicted with Tourette's Syndrome, a neuropsychiatric disorder that causes uncontrollable tics and grimaces that began to affect Eisenreich so much he retired from the game at age 24. Eisenreich spent the next few years on a semi-pro team, and worked as a painter when his college teammate Bob Hegman, now a Royals front office staffer, convinced the Royals to invite Eisenreich to camp. Jim was now correctly diagnosed and was better able to control his tics. He responded with an amazing season for AA Memphis, hitting .382 with 11 home runs and 47 walks in just 70 games, and it wasn't too long after that he was in Kansas City as a fan favorite for several years.
5. Alex Gordon - 2006
.325/.427/.588 29 HR 101 RBI 72 BB 22 SB in AA Wichita (Age 22 season)
The Royals made Alex the #2 overall pick in the 2005 and he looked like a superstar in the making after his first full season in the minor leagues. The then-third baseman showed all five tools, hitting for power and average. He was named Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year, and was the #2 prospect in the game following the season. The Royals were so impressed they had him bypass AAA Omaha (to the ire of his native Cornhusker faithful) and sent him directly to Kansas City for Opening Day 2007 where he began a four year odyssey that would take him from being labeled "bust" to All-Star.
4. Wil Myers - 2012
.314/.387/.600 37 HR 109 RBI in AA Northwest Arkansas/AAA Omaha (Age 21 season)
Too soon? Wil was a first round talent that slid to the third round for signability reasons, that Dayton Moore took a gamble on in the 2009 draft. Wil hit for average with great gap power in 2010, but had a disappointing and injury-plagued 2011. He responded to adversity with a monster 2011 campaign. Wil was hitting .343 with 13 home runs in 35 games in AA before the Royals finally promoted him to Omaha to finish off a season that would get him named Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year.
3. Calvin Pickering - 2004
.314/.451/.712 35 HR 79 RBI 70 BB in AAA Omaha (Age 27 season)
Calvin was well past prospect status by 2004. He had one time been a Top 100 prospect with the Orioles, but by age 27 he was on his third organization, signing with the Royals as a minor league free agent. If you notice a trend here, its that big ol' fat guys hits lots of home runs in the minors. Pickering was a mountain of a man, at 6'5'' and easily topping 300 pounds. He put his weight into the ball in 2004, slamming 35 home runs in just 89 games for AAA Omaha. He would get promoted to the Royals where he would hit effectively, hitting seven more home runs to give him 42 for the year in just 521 plate appearances.
2. Dee Brown - 1999
.331/.436/.570 25 HR 102 RBI 79 BB 30 SB in High A Wilmington/AA Wichita (Age 21 season)
Dee was a former first round pick who had shown flashes of brilliance but had yet to put it all together. In 1999 he blossomed, hitting .308 with 13 home runs in 61 games in Wilmington, a notoriously difficult place for hitters to develop. The Royals promoted him mid-season to Wichita, where he hit even better - .353 with 12 home runs in 65 games. Dee was the entire package - hitting for average, power, speed, plate discipline. His 1999 season left him as the #11 prospect in all of baseball according to Baseball America, ahead of names like Josh Hamilton, Alfonso Soriano, and Lance Berkman. Unfortunately, the young man would peak at age 21.
1. Kila Ka'aihue - 2008
.314/.456/.628 37 HR 100 RBI 104 BB in AA Northwest Arkansas/AAA Omaha (Age 24 season)
Kila had been a middling prospect - a bit of a disappointment really. In 2008, he was entering his third go-around in AA, and at age 24, he was really past the point of being considered a prospect anymore. That's when things just seemed to click for him. He destroyed the Texas League that summer, slamming 26 home runs in just 91 games, while drawing 80 walks. The Royals decided that the Barry Bonds of the Texas League could help out in AAA, so they promoted him to Omaha where he would continue the pace with 11 home runs in 33 games. The Royals were so impressed they gave him 21 September plate appearances in the big leagues, then kept him in Omaha all of 2009.