2022/2023 Kansas City Royals Top 15 Prospects
Here are my top 15. Just know that I spent way too long splitting hairs about where this player or that player should go and I'm probably still not satisfied.
The Royals came into the 2022 season with one of the best farm systems in baseball. They were led by Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez, Nick Pratto, Asa Lacy, Kyle Isbel and others. They weren’t ranked as the top system by anyone, but they were in the top-10 of all rankings, if not top-five. But they almost all graduated. Of the 30 players on the MLB Pipeline top 30 before the season, nine lost their prospect eligibility. Two in the top 10, Lacy and Erick Peña, can’t be considered top prospects right now. So the top six are just gone.
I don’t think the system is in as horrible shape as it might seem from some rankings because I do think there are some talented players in the system, but the star power is certainly gone. That made these rankings a little more difficult than last year. Similar to what we saw in 2021, this upcoming season is going to be a massive one for the future of the franchise. While we saw Melendez and Pratto reclaim top prospect status two seasons ago, we’ll need to see some guys take that jump this year. I haven’t dug in enough to the other farm systems, but I think it’s safe to say this Royals system is bottom-12 right now and maybe bottom-eight. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some talented players.
In the past, I think I’ve gone back and forth between ranking guys with big league experience and not ranking them. I’ve decided to rank them this year because I honestly don’t remember what I decided last year. Let’s just get to it.
Gavin Cross, OF - The Royals first round pick from this past season probably should have been a level higher, but even so, hitting .293/.423/.596 in A-ball against his first taste of professional pitching was pretty great to see. He also hit .500/.583/1.000 in rookie ball gearing up for his placement, but I’m ignoring that. A 17.9 percent walk rate made the 25.2 percent strikeout rate a little more palatable. His swinging strike rate was 14 percent, which is high, but not insane. He’ll need to improve on that, though. He showed power, some speed and I talked to a scout who doesn’t think he’s a long-term center fielder, but could stay there for at least a few years. My guess is he becomes a very good right fielder, but time will tell on that. My ETA is maybe even a little conservative given that he might start in AA in 2023, but I think unless he can’t be stopped, they’ll keep him down through at least this upcoming season.
ETA: Sometime 2024
Ben Kudrna, RHP - The Royals made a decision to spend less on their first pick in 2021 so they could spend more on their second pick. And that second pick was Kudrna, who finally debuted on May 21. And he generally looked the part. He gave up just three runs (one earned) over his first 18 innings with 22 strikeouts and nine walks. He found some trouble throughout the rest of the way, mixing in some excellent starts with a few less excellent starts. In the end, you want to see more strikeouts and fewer walks, but a scout who saw him late in the year told me it looked like he was a tired pitcher trying to figure out how to get it done. And in that start, Kudrna went six innings and gave up two runs with no walks, so that’s a good start. A lot of development is figuring out how to pitch when you can’t just dominate your opponent like these guys have done so much before reaching the pros. He has a big 2023 coming up because his prospect status can change quite a bit.
Tyler Gentry, OF - I love Gentry, probably more than most (though maybe not more than my friends over at Royals Farm Report). His profile isn’t that of star, though, which with him ranking third shows the deficits in the Royals system right now. There’s no question he can hit. He hit .336/.434/.516 in high-A and then .321/.417/.555 in AA in 331 plate appearances and he only swung and missed 9.5 percent of the time. He also had a 12.1 percent walk rate. The power did show out at Northwest Arkansas, but I think he’s more of a doubles guy, which can work at Kauffman Stadium. He’s a solid defender in right with a phenomenal arm, but with Cross (if it all works out), he’d likely move to left field. I was really looking for Gentry to show out in the Arizona Fall League and he had a tough time, which might have soured some a bit on him, but I still think he’s a solid big leaguer. Still, he’s likely a guy who where he hits shows how good your team is. If he’s hitting third, you might not be so good. If he’s hitting sixth or seventh, you’re probably pretty good.
ETA: Midseason 2023
Drew Waters, OF - Getting Waters for a compensation pick in the draft might go down to be one of the better trades JJ Picollo ever makes and that’s even if he has a run of success. I loved the power he flashed with 12 extra base hits in 109 plate appearances. I love that he walked 12 times too. He showed off that he can be an excellent defender in center field. But the whiffs. The swinging strike rate isn’t off the charts. I wrote back at the end of the season that hitters with his whiff rate have succeeded. It just makes it a little tougher. I think he’s probably a bit too passive at the plate, which gets him into deep counts where one swing and miss ends it, similar to Nick Pratto’s issue. But it’s hard to deny the talent. He’s only worked with the Royals hitting crew since mid-July. An offseason and spring training with them might unlock something even bigger in him. But even if he’s a .230/.315/.430 hitter with his defense, that’s extremely valuable.
Maikel Garcia, SS - You undoubtedly have heard this before, but Garcia is Alcides Escobar’s cousin, which means he’s also Ronald Acuña Jr.’s cousin. We saw him briefly this past year in both the Toronto series and when Witt was hurt for a few games right after the break and he looked solid enough. He makes a lot of contact. We saw it in the brief showing in the big leagues and he showed it in the minors, though his whiff rate did just from 5.3 percent in AA to 8.9 percent in AAA (but it was 5.4 percent in the big leagues). What he did show more of in AAA was some power, but I still don’t think that’s his game. Instead, he’s a guy who will work a walk, won’t strike out a ton and will use his speed for some hits. I’m not completely convinced he’s a regular, but he should be a solid utility infielder and plays a good enough shortstop that if you want to move Witt to third for him defensively, I don’t think you’d get too many arguments.
Cayden Wallace, 3B - He was one of the best pure power prospects in the 2022 draft and the Royals nabbed him with heir second pick. He has a pretty easy swing that doesn’t seem to be a big problem, but he has been known to struggle with some stuff that upper-level pitchers will use to get him out like off-speed stuff away. The question is if he’s a third baseman or an outfielder. If he’s a third baseman, there’s a quicker path to the big leagues for him probably, maybe to his development detriment. But I’ve seen some reports that he’s good enough at third base. He wasn’t quite as good in Columbia as Cross, hitting .294/.369/.468, but with a solid walk rate, good enough strikeout rate and some pop with 12 extra base hits, including seven doubles. He only played third in the Royals organization, so that seems to be the idea with him for the timebeing. He has a cannon for an arm, so that’s something he can take with him wherever he goes on the field.
ETA: Late 2024/Early 2025
Frank Mozzicato, LHP - The Royals picking Mozzicato seventh was a surprise in 2021 and his debut season this past year had its ups and downs. As a positive, he allowed 55 hits in 69 innings. He also struck out 89. He got a lot of grounders. But he walked 51 hitters and hit three more. He also gave up 10 unearned runs, so his 4.30 ERA doesn’t tell the whole story. The question now is if the Royals can do something they haven’t done much of developmentally. Can they harness his control? I think the stuff is legitimate. He’s probably not an ace, but he can certainly be a quality three starter if he can cut his walks in half. That’s easier said than done, of course, but that curve is a monster weapon for him that he actually knows how to use and I think the changeup is coming along from what I’ve both seen and heard from scouts. I think there’s a chance that he could move very fast once everything clicks, if everything clicks. But it might be a bit for him. Keep in mind he doesn’t even turn 20 until June.
Carter Jensen, C - Jensen maybe didn’t put up the prettiest numbers in his full-season debut, hitting .227/.363/.382, but a couple things stand out with him. One, you can see that OBP. It comes from an insane 17.1 percent walk rate. But he also didn’t strike out nearly as much as you’d have expected at 21.2 percent. He also hit .272/.417/.424 from June 12th to the end of the year with a 20.1 percent walk rate and an 18.4 percent strikeout rate, so he definitely figured some things out as the year went on. He didn’t really tap into his impressive power just yet in the system, but he does have that thunder in his bat. And this tweet thread shows a lot of impressive numbers for the young catcher who will be in his age-19 season still next year at likely high-A. He’s not a great receiver, but he does have a good arm. If he moved out from behind the plate, it wouldn’t be too much of a surprise and that would likely get him to the big leagues even quicker because of his mature approach.
Jonathan Bowlan, RHP - Heading into 2021, I thought people were really sleeping in Bowlan. He was pitching great in four AA starts with 25 strikeouts and three walks in 17 innings, but ended up having to go under the knife for Tommy John and having to miss the rest of the season and a huge chunk of 2022. When he came back, his command was shaky, which is no surprise, but it was still disappointing to see a guy who threw so many strikes and was so tough to square up walking guys and giving up a ton of hits. Now that he’s fully recovered, 2023 is a big season for him. His fastball is a legitimate weapon and he tunnels his slider well. I heard mixed results on his changeup after he came back this year, so that’ll really be the deciding factor of if he can be a mid-rotation starter or more someone in the back or in the bullpen.
Nick Loftin, INF/OF - I had a feeling Loftin would turn himself into a top-100 prospect in 2022. I was wrong. It’s not that he had a bad season, though he did struggle once he was promoted to Omaha. He just wasn’t great. Overall, he hit .254/.333/.403 and spent quite a bit of time in center field in AA. He moved around at AAA playing mostly third, but also center and left, which I thought was interesting given where the Royals have needs and what they have covered. I don’t think big power is ever going to come, but I’d think there’s a little more in his bat than he showed and we’ve seen it at times. He does make a lot of contact and was able to work a walk prior to his AAA promotion. Ultimately, he probably fits more in a super utility role that also probably fits Nate Eaton, so there’s some roster redundancy there as well. If you told me Loftin is a solid piece of a winning roster in three years, I would completely believe you. If you told me he’s on his third team in three years, I would also completely believe you. Not to sound like a broken record, but what he does this upcoming season is big for him.
Alec Marsh, RHP - Marsh is a mystery because if you watch him pitch, it’s easy to see a top prospect. His fastball can hit upper-90s. His curve has great shape and is his best secondary pitch. His slider is okay too and so is his changeup. But he went 1-15 with a 7.32 ERA in 25 starts in AA. How? He struck out 147 in 114.1 innings, but he gave up 137 hits and walked 54 while he gave up 27 home runs. Sometimes it can get mental and he did pitch a little better in AAA in two starts to end the year, so at least he has a 1.80 ERA on the back of his baseball card to look at, but he’s just one of those guys who it’s hard to judge until we see some changes in the way the organization handles pitching. He looks like he should be an elite pitching prospect, but instead he pitches like the ghost of Chris Fussel. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but 2023 is huge for him. I wouldn't be too surprised to see him shifted to a relief role pretty quickly if he doesn’t start out back on track.
Beck Way, RHP - The Royals got Way in the deal that sent Andrew Benintendi to the Yankees. Way has a four-seamer and a two-seamer and both are effective fastballs that have touched the upper-90s. His slider shows some signs of being the sweeper that we’ve seen…sweep the nation this year. He also has a changeup that can look great at times and look unusable at times. Is he a starter? Is he a reliever? It’s hard to say right now. He has a reliever profile if the changeup doesn’t develop, but 47 strikeouts and 24 hits allowed in 35.2 innings in seven starts with the Royals is hard to ignore. He needs to throw more strikes, but I’d expect to see him in AA to start 2023 and could move quickly.
ETA: Late 2023/Early 2024
TJ Sikkema, LHP - The one-time Missouri Tiger also came to the Royals by way of the Benintendi deal. At the time, there was kind of a mixed reaction as to who was better between him and Way. Sikkema was immediately promoted to AA and was not ready for it. He gave up 34 runs on 42 his in 32.2 innings with 29 strikeouts and 15 walks. Yeesh. This was after giving up 12 runs on 21 hits with 54 strikeouts and nine walks in 36.1 innings in high-A in the Yankees system. So it was a rough AA debut, but he has pitched well in the Arizona Fall League, so that’s encouraging. He definitely has a feel for pitching, which is good because the stuff isn’t elite. He has a solid fastball and a very good slider with theoretically good enough control. What he does is manipulate his pitches with arm angle and sometimes delivery that allows him to change shape on his pitches that should hopefully keep him a step ahead of hitters. His stuff, as I said, isn’t great, but his pitching aptitude should help it play up a bit. If you’re looking for an ace, keep looking, but Sikkema fits the profile of a lefty who can stick around for awhile.
ETA: Late 2023/Early 2024
Luca Tresh, C - I’m still a little surprised that Tresh ended up signing with the Royals after going in the 17th round of the 2021 draft. I figured he’d give it a go back for another year at NC State, but after a rough junior year, he decided to take the money and start his professional career. I think it was a wise choice. He played most of his season in high-A and hit .273/.360/.470, showing good power, a decent approach and an ability to drive the ball. He carried that to AA in a smaller sample with a lower average but basically identical OBP and SLG. He’s obviously a strong guy and has a great arm, so that fits behind the plate, but he doesn’t have a ton of experience as a catcher. That means that where there are deficiencies, there’s also room for growth, but it’s a tough task to develop a hitter while he’s trying to learn the nuances of the catching position. I think there’s a world where he’s a Mike Napoli type or maybe an Evan Gattis type (just in production and catching ability, not size on Gattis) and I think there’s a world where he’s more of a weak side platoon who won’t kill you behind the plate and can hit you some home runs. I’m interested to see how he comes out of the gates. If he can start strong in AA, my ETA here might be a little low, but I could see some struggles.
ETA: Mid-to-Late 2024
Angel Zerpa, LHP - Zerpa has thrown 16 big league innings over the last two seasons and it feels like so many more for some reason. He’s certainly endeared himself to fans by only walking four in those 16 innings, but he’s also only struck out seven. His fastball has looked like it can be a potential good big league pitch, sitting around 94 MPH. This is going to seem like an insane comparison, but watching Cristian Javier’s fastball in the World Series made me think of Zerpa a little bit. The rest of the repertoire isn’t the same at all, but I think there’s potential with a little refinement for that fastball to be a big-time weapon for him. He got his first extended taste of AAA this year when he was coming back from his injury and made six starts but only threw 7.2 innings. I’d expect him to get some time there to start the 2023 season before they determine what’s next for him. He could be a nice weapon as a hard-throwing lefty in the bullpen, but if he can be a consistent starter, that’s the road they should and will choose for him.
ETA: Now, but really mid-season 2023
Next 10: Asa Lacy, Diego Hernandez, Austin Charles, Ben Hernandez, Peyton Wilson, Tucker Bradley, Noah Cameron, Samad Taylor, Mason Barnett, David Sandlin
This group is a big area where you could see some jumps in the system in 2023. If Lacy can figure it out, he’s a top-50 prospect in the game. If Diego Hernandez can marry some contact ability with a little more pop, he could shoot up prospect rankings. Charles is as toolsy as it gets and could look very good if he has a solid year. Ben Hernandez still has the changeup, but just needs a reset. You never know, though, with that pitch. Wilson, Bradley, Cameron, Taylor, Barnett and Sandlin could all end up being in the top-15 a year from now. I think Bradley and Taylor are probably the least likely as they seem more like role players, but still, there is potential for improving talent in this group.
But overall the system is thin. It’s not the worst thing in the world. Being a thin system with guys like Witt, Pasquantino and Melendez at the big league level, all under team control through at least 2027 gives the system a little time to get back on track. But if they wait too long and if things don’t pan out for a few guys, eventually they could be in another situation where they have all this high-end talent at the big league level but face them leaving in two or three years. I have a lot more faith today than I did a few years ago, so I’m somewhat confident that won’t happen, but the system needs to take a big step overall this year.
If I had to guess, I’d say they’re back to a top-10ish system before the 2024 season, but a lot can go wrong to make that not happen. It’s going to be mostly on the developmental staff and the scouting team at the draft as there really aren’t too many veterans they could deal from the big league roster to replenish the system with other team’s prospects. Scott Barlow could bring back a decent return and that kind of is it. So they’re going to have to develop. It hasn’t been their strong suit, but I have optimism that things will look a great deal better soon.
Nice article David. You know, I don’t think having a lower system would be an issue except that we’ve seen what happens just a few years ago if it doesn’t get better by the time the guys who graduated are heading to FA. The only reason people are concerned about it is because of recent history. Which is fair I guess, but it’s not concerning right now. If you are writing about the system still being bottom 10 in two years….Houston, we’ve got a problem.
Hey David - be glad that you still have hairs left to split!
Rapidly balding old dude