July 13, 2014

Royals prospect Christian Binford breezes through Futures Game appearance

Christian Binford, the Class AA Northwest Arkansas pitcher, works a quick third inning of the Futures Game without much trouble for the U.S. team. He threw eight pitches, six of which were strikes.

A radar gun cannot register indifference, but the screen high above center field at Target Field displayed the closest equivalent. The numbers flashing as Christian Binford breezed through the third inning looked alien at a showcase event like this: 89 mph, 90 mph, 89 mph, 88 mph.

The Futures Game is a spectacle of salivation, a time for grown-ups to gasp at prospects taking batting practice and to gawk at velocity readings. A pitcher like Binford, a 6-6, 21-year-old right-hander who just graduated to Class AA Northwest Arkansas, can only intrigue observers with his efficiency.

"I don’t have any standout pitches," Binford said before the game, which his U.S. Team won, 3-2, "I throw everything for strikes, though."

He displayed that quality in an eight-pitch, six-strike outing on Sunday. His first 89-mph fastball turned into a lineout. His third pitch, a 78-mph curveball, lofted for an infield pop-up. The third at-bat was a relative marathon, a five-pitch duel that ended when Toronto farmhand Dalton Pompey swung over a slider.

Binford represented the Royals’ farm system at Sunday’s game, the only selection from an organization stocked with intriguing talent at the lower levels. The experience delighted him. Upon his arrival in the home clubhouse, he snapped a photograph of his locker. The scope of the afternoon stunned him.

"It was unreal," Binford said. "It was 37,000 people! I didn’t look up, because I knew I would freak out if I looked up."

His presence here was unlikely. In the summer of 2011, he was a 30th-round draft pick, a lanky kid with middling velocity and a Tommy John surgery already on his resume. In the spring, the organization dispatched him to Class A Wilmington.

He rounded out a rotation featuring highly touted teammates like Sean Manaea and Miguel Almonte. For Binford to emerge from that group is "a welcome surprise," assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said.

In addition to a 2.40 ERA, Binford struck out 92 batters in 82 2/3 innings with Wilmington this season. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was 8.36. In 266 2/3 professional innings, he has issued only 42 walks.

"He doesn’t fear contact," director of player development Scott Sharp said. "He doesn’t panic when an inning’s going bad. He knows how to cut innings off."

Despite the gaudy statistics, rival evaluators remain wary of his ability to dominate for the Royals. One talent evaluator projected a big-league future for Binford, but described him as a "pretty pedestrian" prospect. A National League scout predicted Binford would reach the majors as a reliever.

The Royals hope Binford can blend his command, intellect and physique to survive as a back-end starter. He stood 6-4 as a freshman at Mercersburg Academy, a Pennsylvania boarding school near the Maryland border.

"When he was in Little League, when he took that step to home plate, he was standing on top of the batter," said Blue Storm baseball coach Karl Reisner. "Kids were scared of him."

Even then, Reisner recalled, command was Binford’s calling card. But he utilized a funky delivery with a three-quarter arm angle. "He threw in such a way that is put too much pressure on his elbow," Reisner said.

Reisner tore his ulnar collateral ligament as a sophomore. The injury devastated his draft status. The Royals remained intrigued. They offered him a $575,000 bonus to deter him from attending the University of Virginia.

As he recovered from surgery, Binford corrected his mechanics. He now pitches from over the top, combating stiffness in his front leg as he flails his limbs.

"It’s not the most beautiful thing ever," Binford said. "But I can repeat it."

Binford is not much for aesthetics. He did little to astound on Sunday afternoon. He mowed down his three batters and headed back to his dugout.

From there, he allowed himself a few moments to reflect on the day and his presence here.

"At first, honestly, when I was told I made the team, I remember looking at the list and going ‘I’m with them?’" Binford said. "And then once you’re here, it’s like ‘They chose me to be here.’ So obviously they see something that I see, too."

To reach Andy McCullough, call 816-234-4370 or send email to Follow him on Twitter: @McCulloughStar.

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