Crown Jewels: Two Pitchers to Watch, Some Playoff Meaning and a Royals AFL Update
The Royals may be done while the other teams get to have fun, but there's always something to talk about.
As Royals fans, we have plenty of experience in dealing with watching a postseason without our favorite team. Of course, it doesn’t make it any easier, but at least we know how to handle it. Last year, we had the fun of a managerial search to pay attention to, but with very little player movement happening during the playoffs, we’re just sort of in a waiting game. It hasn’t helped that the postseason hasn’t been terribly exciting yet. We saw four sweeps in the Wild Card round and only two of the eight games were decided by fewer than three runs and both those were two-run games.
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Then in the LDS so far, we’ve seen two sweeps with at least a couple of close games and then an ALDS with only one one-run game and an NLDS with one great game and that was it. At least there was some drama last night in Philadelphia before the Phillies ended the Braves season. Maybe the LCS will be more exciting. I think the Astros and Rangers should at least be fun in terms of competitiveness. They both won 90 games and the Rangers lost the division on the last day of the season. Of course, the Astros did win nine of 13 against them in the regular season, so maybe I’m way off here.
So yeah, it’s a waiting game for the Royals. I would anticipate getting some information on some new hires over the next two or three weeks, both on the coaching staff and in the front office. I’ve heard some rumors of a few names that I’m not at liberty to say right now, but they could be pretty interesting in a number of different ways. I also haven’t heard any names here, but the rumors are out there that some development hires are coming on both sides of the ball. Some of these things may fly under the radar, but they’re very important, so hopefully we’ll get some clarity on these moves soon.
Pitchers to Watch
I had actually already written this when Anne Rogers sent out her great newsletter from MLB.com, so we’re clearly on the same page. There are two pitchers who I don’t think will or should get a real chance to crack the Opening Day big league rotation, but we need to be on the lookout for them at some point in the middle of 2024 and they’re Chandler Champlain and Mason Barnett. I know I’ve written a fair amount about Champlain this season because he had a nice year, but Barnett is someone who I sort of slept on.
But I was texting with a scout who sees a lot of the Texas League and was just asking about some Royals guys he’s seen and he sort of paused after he had talked some about Javier Vaz and Diego Hernandez and Eric Cerantola (I’ll get to him in a bit) and then I see the little dots appear and I get, “Holy crap, I forgot about Barnett!” Scouts, if you know them, aren’t that emotive a lot of the time, even in texts, so I thought that was pretty fun. If you don’t know much about Barnett, that’s fine, but you should. He was a third round pick in 2022 out of Auburn. He was fine at Auburn, but the Royals thought they could do something with him.
He only threw eight innings in the minors last year and they were great innings, but who cares? Then this year, he started in Quad Cities, posted a 3.18 ERA with 59 hits allowed in 82 innings. The walks were a bit high, but he struck out 94 batters. He was promoted to AA toward the end of the year and made seven starts spanning 32.2 innings with 27 hits allowed and struck out 43 while walking 12. He has four pitches and they’re all average or better. The fastball sits mid-90s, but the scout I talked to saw a few 98s and a couple 99s over two starts he saw him. It needs a little bit of a wrinkle, but it’s not Jackson Kowar straight. He also has a good slider, an average curve and a changeup that the scout told me was a lot better than what he’d expected to see. He might start 2024 in AA, but I’d expect him to be knocking on the big league door by June.
We also talked about Champlain who I think we probably know a bit more about because I wrote about him a few times and so did some others who are far smarter than me. He had the same path as Barnett in 2023, but spent less time in Quad Cities and more in Northwest Arkansas. I think Champlain wore down a bit at the end and the scout didn’t see much more than a fourth starter, but those are also valuable and he did say that he thinks he’ll reach that fourth starter level in the big leagues.
Champlain has a good fastball that he held velocity on much better in 2023 throughout games and has a curve and a slider as well. He also has thrown changeups, but I sort of wonder if he might be better off with something like a cutter moving forward. He’s a big boy who might end up in the bullpen, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if he’s starting games in the second half at the big league level next season. Even if they sign two starters, we all know what kind of attrition there is at the big league level.
So I’m intrigued by these two in particular and am excited to see how they fare in spring training because I’m assuming they’ll get non-roster invites.
I think it’s important to remember how freaking random the postseason is and especially the first two rounds. If you believe a best-of-three or a best-of-five series is going to end with the best team winning often enough to be statistically relevant, you’re just simply wrong. And when you put two actually good teams in those situations, the differences are so slim that literally anything can happen over the course of a week.
You don’t have to look any further than our beloved Royals. One of those teams in the ALCS is a team the Royals swept on the road when that team was legitimately fighting for their playoff lives. If the Royals can do that on a random weekend, can’t an actually good team?
Looking at what’s happened in the postseason, and while I’m not loving seeing the Astros in the ALCS for the seventh straight year (yes, I recognize the irony of a Chiefs fan saying that), I kind of like the matchups. Houston and Texas seems like it could be competitive, especially if Max Scherzer gets back on the roster. And I do think the Phillies and Diamondbacks has a chance to be interesting, though I can’t help but think the Phillies are the far superior team. Maybe that’s not giving enough credit to the Diamondbacks having much better relief work in the second half. They still weren’t good, mind you, though. I don’t know. A Phillies offense with Bryce Harper in postseason mode should scare any team.
And while this may be sort of controversial, I’m happy to see the Orioles lose. I know what I’m about to say might contradict a lot of things that many would think I’d feel, but I kind of hate what they put their fans through with their complete roster upheaval. Yes, it worked, and that’s great for them, but the only thing stopping them from four straight 108+ loss seasons is a 2020 season that only went 60 games. And they did it on purpose. They put their fans through hell without any guarantee they’d come out of it. They did, and again, that’s good for them, but I sort of like that two teams who lost 100 games two years ago went about fixing it in different ways and I appreciate the way the Rangers fixed it.
No, the way they did it doesn’t help the Royals. They’re not spending $500 million on middle infielders or spending $100 million on a starting rotation. But from a baseball standpoint, I like that the team that spent some money won because the reality is that tanking was such an issue that the latest CBA implemented a draft lottery to try to dissuade it. And yeah, I know that the Royals have put their fans through a similar hell in the hopes of coming out of it and if and when the Royals get back to the postseason, I’ll be a hypocrite. But when the Royals aren’t involved, I’m rooting for the game and I just prefer the way the Rangers did it.
I am, of course, all about building a team the proper way and all that good stuff, and I will likely root for the Orioles in every postseason moving forward unless the Royals are there because they’re a fun team. But there’s something satisfying to me about the Rangers beating them is all. Hopefully the LCS is more exciting than the vast majority of what we’ve seen so far.
I feel like there isn’t much ink spilled about the Arizona Fall League outside of prospect nerds, but the Royals AFL roster is kind of different than any I remember. They’ve sent both Nick Loftin and Angel Zerpa. You don’t often see guys from the big league roster there. It happens, but not often. With Loftin, I guess his wife is pregnant and they wanted him to get extra at bats, but didn’t want him to have to go to winter ball in a different country, so that’s why he’s there. I haven’t heard anything to confirm this on Zerpa, but I wonder if they see him as part of the big league staff, so they’d prefer he gets the work in now and then gets a chance to go through an offseason without competitive pitching. I might be wrong there, but that’s my guess anyway.
The other Royals on the Surprise Saguaros roster include Peyton Wilson and Gavin Cross on the position player side and Jacob Wallace, Eric Cerantola, Rylan Kaufman and Beck Way. Here are all the stats through yesterday’s action:
Cerantola: 6 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 8 K, 1 BB
Kaufman: 2 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 3 K, 1 BB
Wallace: 3.1 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 7 K, 0 BB
Way: 1 IP, 0 H, 0 R, 3 K, 1 BB
Zerpa: 4 IP, 4 H, 1 ER, 3 K, 2 BBB
Cross: 11 PA, .273/.385/.273, 3 K, 2 BB, 4 SB, 0 CS
Loftin: 11 PA, .273/.273/.455, 1 K, 0 BB, 2 2B
Wilson: 28 PA, .357/.472/.679, 5 K, 6 BB, 3 2B, 2 HR
I wanted to mention Cerantola because he’s such an interesting arm in the system. He was drafted in the fifth round in 2021 as a guy with a high octane fastball, nasty curve and a total inability to find the zone. Okay, maybe not total inability. But he made it to AA and threw 14 innings there late in the year and struck out 19 and walked five, which is interesting. Reports have been very good on him in Arizona too and the numbers are quite solid. I’m intrigued.
Wallace is also sort of interesting. The Royals got him from the Red Sox for Wyatt Mills, so anything he does is a bonus. He has a big arm but, stop me if you’ve heard this before, doesn’t throw strikes. He walked 40 in 49.1 innings in Northwest Arkansas. This is after he walked 49 in 56.2 innings in AA Portland in 2022. But if he can throw strikes, he might be a guy sho can be a part of that bullpen mix. And he has so far.
Two others of note here are Wilson and Cross. Wilson had a monster game the other day and has looked absolutely amazing down there so far in general. The numbers are fantastic and while I still don’t think he’s necessarily a big league regular, more performances like this one will make me fully buy that he’s a big leaguer. Maybe I’m being unfair. He did put up a .286/.366/.411 line in AA. He’s versatile, can run and can take a pitch or two.
I’m working to hear why Cross hasn’t played in a few days, if it’s a matter of something with whatever illness he had that kept him out for the last few weeks of the season or that they’re working on something with him. But he could really use a good AFL. It’s not that he can’t rebound next year without or that he can’t go play winter ball too, but the shine is off his prospect pedigree in a way that it came off MJ Melendez and Nick Pratto after their abysmal 2019 seasons.
As for the rest, Way needs more innings, Loftin and Zerpa are just getting work in and Kaufman just really needs innings after throwing only 29 all season long. He’ll be 25, though, in 2024 and while he’s struck hitters out, I don’t think has done much of anything to differentiate himself. But it’s always nice to check in on some Royals prospects as they’re still playing organized games and getting a shot to hone their skills.