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J.P., Matt, and Billy

The Royals invited ten players to the team’s 2005 Spring Training camp on Tuesday, although the only names that are even somewhat recognizable are those of Aaron Guiel and Alberto Castillo. Adrian Brown, an outfielder who saw action in five games with the Royals last year, was also invited, but he’s probably slated to be an outfielder for Triple-A Omaha next season.

Of the remaining seven, three – pitchers Santiago Ramirez, Roberto Giron, and Byron Embry – probably won’t ever see any success in the major leagues. Pitcher Justin Huisman will have a chance to win a bullpen job out of camp, and pitchers Matt Campbell, Billy Buckner, and J.P. Howell were 2004 draftees who the Royals want to give some major league experience to.

The Royals invested three high-round draft choices in Campbell, Buckner, and Howell, and thus far they’ve gotten mixed returns. All three of them pitched at low-A Idaho Falls; Buckner (3.30 ERA in 30 innings) and Howell (2.77 ERA in 26 innings) were effective, but Campbell (8.44 ERA in 10 2/3 innings) was downright horrific. But no matter how effective or ineffective the trio of college hurlers was, the Royals’ decision to draft them is an example of the positive direction Allard Baird’s taking the Royals in, even with the Disaster that was 2004.

For years, KC’s scouting department, led by Deric Ladnier, made incredibly risky selections with the team’s first and second round picks (see Griffin, Colt) that not surprisingly haven’t exactly worked out. However, it’s pretty clear that those days are gone, and Howell, Campbell, and Buckner exemplify why. By every scouting report I’ve read, none of the three exactly "wow" anybody with his assortment of pitches. Because they all only pitch consistently in the high-80s with their fastballs, it’s clear that the Royals chose them based on performance rather than raw ability, and perform they did. Courtesy of a wonderful file of college baseball statistics from The Hardball Times (RSAA = Runs Saved Above Average):

IPHBBKERARSAA
Howell111.269411342.0159.7
Campbell99.278251183.0737.6
Buckner746520913.0430.8


These selections were Moneyball picks to the very core of the philosophy. None of ‘em may have outstanding stuff, but to post lines like they did with outstanding ratios across the board, obviously all three of them do something right. And when you consider Buckner and Campbell were teammates at South Carolina, well, I guess playing the Gamecocks wasn’t a very pleasant experience for most teams.

As I mentioned earlier, Howell’s and Buckner’s solid NCAA lines immediately transferred over to the pro game, and Campbell probably just had a bad ten-inning stretch. The only area of concern with him is his complete loss of command; Campbell walked 10 guys in those 10 2/3 frames. And while it wouldn’t be a complete surprise to hear that he has a torn labrum or needs Tommy John surgery, I’m going to hold out hope that isn’t the case and that he just needs a winter to rest.

Of the three, I think Howell has the highest upside if only because he was the fifth-most effective pitcher in NCAA Division I baseball a year ago by Runs Saved Above Average. He also has a deceptive delivery to home plate and a good, hard slider. Howell, if he stays healthy, might be another Jarrod Washburn.
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