Minor League Hardware is Fun and Deserved
The future sure does look bright.
The big league Royals found themselves looking great at times and awful at times. But in the minors, they were enjoying the fruit of their development staff’s labor. I don’t know how many times I’ve lamented the loss of the minor league season in 2020 because we didn’t get the chance to see what kind of changes would come from the new development plan, but you can add this as another time. Once the season got started in May this year, we finally had a chance to see the results, and, friends, the results were good.
The main focal points for prospect hounds and casual fans alike were Bobby Witt Jr., Nick Pratto, Seuly Matias and MJ Melendez. All but Matias started their season in AA with Northwest Arkansas. I don’t remember if I wrote this or said it on a radio show, but I was preaching patience with all of them early. They hadn’t played a competitive game since 2019 and were likely trying to do a little too much with each swing. Plus, they had just been at the alternate site since spring training ended. That was definitely true of Witt, who hit .178/.275/.244 through the first two series of the year. I don’t know if anyone was worried, but they shouldn’t have been. But starting with a trip to Springfield, Witt hit .322/.390/.643 over his next 50 games and earned himself a promotion to AAA.
Pratto homered in his first game, but was just 2 for 19 to start his season. It wasn’t quite as long of a stretch as Witt had to start the year, but it was long enough for some to think that nothing had changed. But then he got a couple hits and before he knew it, he hit .287/.411/.599 in his last 55 games in AA before he got the promotion to AAA himself. And that line is with him going hitless in his final four AA games.
And then there was Melendez, who probably fell as far as anyone. The reason I say that is it seemed he was even passed in the Royals organizational mind by Sebastian Rivero as a catching prospect. He started off the year with two homers in his first game in AA and then didn’t get another hit until his eighth game. In his next 72 games, he hit .300/.386/.646 with 26 home runs. And yes, you know that he got promoted to AAA after that.
The one negative of that group of four above was Matias. He didn’t hit in his first 10 games in High-A with Quad Cities and had yet another injury that kept him out for over a month. He rejoined Quad Cities on July 10 and while he was hitless in his first few games, he did hit .240/.309/.610 with 10 homers in his next 25 games before he got promoted to AA. After starting in AA with a Pratto-like 2 for 19, he actually hit pretty well the rest of the season, though the average remained low. The line was .230/.329/.541. So the power was there, but there’s still work to be done.
Even with that bit of a hiccup with Matias, the big three have skyrocketed up prospect lists and with it have earned quite a few minor league accolades. The beginning came when Baseball America and MLB Pipeline re-ranked the systems and the Royals came up third and fifth respectively, but the real fun for the big three started at the end of September with the MLB Pipeline 2021 Prospect Team of the Year.
There on the first team were our three protagonists. There was another hero on the second team in Vinnie Pasquantino, but this isn’t about him, so calm down Vinnie. No other team had more than one player on that 12-player first team. Only three other teams had multiple players across both teams. In the history of announcing the prospect team (since 2015), only one other organization has had three on the first team. Only 10 have had multiples on the first team other than the Royals. It’s only six years of them putting that team together, but still impressive.
Yesterday, Baseball America put together their Minor League All-Star Team, and shockingly, the same three were on the list! Only the Dodgers and Mariners had multiples on that team, but the Royals were tops with three.
And before that was announced, the Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year was announced. I won’t leave you hanging any longer.
I know. I was surprised too. The funny thing is that as amazing a season as Witt has had, I think you can make an argument that Melendez’s year was even better. They had similar averages, but Melendez had the edge on OBP and SLG and while shortstop is a demanding defensive position, Melendez spent 81 games behind the plate, so even his positional difficulty might have exceeded Witt’s. I think BA likes to go with the guys who are a little more likely to succeed if it’s between two good ones (and there were other possibilities too, other than those two). There’s no shame in Melendez not winning; I just think it’s crazy that they had two worthy candidates.
The list of winners is pretty prestigious, going all the way back to Mike Marshall in 1981. Of the now 38 winners (with two players repeating), four have been Royals - Tom Gordon (1988), Alex Gordon (2006) and Wil Myers (2012). 24 have been named to All-Star teams in their careers. Two are Hall of Famers. The pitchers on the list have won two Cy Youngs. The batters have won a combined eight MVP awards. And there are a total of 10 Rookies of the Year. This is a list with a lot of panache and history behind big-time contributors on big league clubs. And those numbers could easily get added to by some of the recent winners like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr. and I’m sure Mike Trout has another MVP or two in him.
And the final award isn’t really an award as much as an accomplishment. Melendez led all of the minors in home runs with 41, so he got the Joe Bauman Award, becoming the third Royal to win it after Craig Brazell and Mike Moustakas.
That is an awful lot of hardware for Royals prospects, and is a big reason why with all the young pitching in the organization that people are very excited about this team’s future. And, of course, it isn’t just these three. Pasquantino really emerged this year. Nick Loftin was outstanding after a slow start. Michael Massey looks like a part of the future. Kyle Isbel showed good things in both the minors and majors. The list goes on - Rudy Martin, Dairon Blanco, Tyler Gentry, John Rave, Tucker Bradley, Kale Emshoff and probably a few more I’m forgetting. They have the bats and we know about the arms. It may not work out, but it won’t be for lack of trying or options.
As we’ve discussed so often, it’s going to be an interesting puzzle they put together to fit all these guys on the roster, but seasons like this hardly ever come around for a group of prospects, and that should absolutely be celebrated given how special it is.