The 40-Man Decisions
The Royals head into this off-season with some decisions to make on who to protect and who to expose to the Rule 5 draft.
Staggering players is good in many ways. While it’s fun to bring up every single prospect you have high hopes for in season, the ones that work out tend to all hit free agency at the same time without any long-term deals. You might remember 2011 and 2017 for the Royals organization. The same is true of draft strategy. It can be really interesting when a team spends, oh, I don’t know, their first five picks on college pitchers in one draft, but it gets a little less interesting when all five of those pitchers need to be added to the 40-man in order to protect them from the Rule 5 draft.
Okay, so maybe that’s not the best example because four of the five college pitchers taken in that draft are already on the 40-man roster and the fifth is not likely to pitch until later next season after getting Tommy John. But that said, the Royals still do have a significant number of players who will need to be added to that 40-man roster and a handful who you can make an argument to be added. So I wanted to take this day after an off-day and take a look at those players.
As it turns out, the logjam cleared up, which it often does, but there are still some decisions the Royals are going to have to make, especially now with three and a half months of minor league data on some of these guys that they really wish they had an extra year. I’ll go through the players alphabetically, just to not show any favoritism. These are the players who I think there’s at least an argument to be made to add them to the roster, even if it’s not a great one.
Dairon Blanco - The Royals picked up Blanco from the A’s in the deal that sent Jake Diekman there a couple years ago. He was signed out of Cuba and didn’t make his minor league debut until he was 25 in 2018. But he played well. He was showing a little pop and some better plate discipline in 2019 when he was traded to the Royals and struggled the rest of the year. He started this year off slow as well, but has really been awesome of late and with no true center field prospect in the organization, his speed and ability to handle the position makes him interesting.
Jonathan Bowlan - I’ve long been a fan of Bowlan and thought that if he was in the organization even four or five years ago, he would be their best or at least a top three pitching prospect. But in this organization, he’s kind of forgotten. He has a heavy fastball and can actually control where it’s going. He only made four starts before he got hurt, but he struck out 25 and walked three in 17 innings. I think he’s at least a reliever and he might be a big innings eater in a rotation. He likely won’t be available until August or so in 2022.
Gabriel Cancel - I legitimately thought about not including Cancel, but teams like second basemen who can hit for power. The Royals don’t so much, but other teams do and Cancel does have some pop. His plate discipline isn’t what you’d call stellar, but he can handle the middle infield and he doesn’t turn 25 until December. This Royals team is pretty filled up with middle infield types, but I wanted to include him anyway.
Dylan Coleman - Coleman was the PTBNL in the Trevor Rosenthal trade last year and while he struggled on Wednesday night in Omaha, he’s shown the kind of stuff that can make him an impact reliever in the back of a big league bullpen. The fastball is upper-90s to low-100s and the slider is nasty. His control has wavered some in Omaha, but he generally throws strikes and gets a ton of strikeouts. If he’s eligible, he’s getting picked, maybe first overall.
Austin Cox - After the run on college pitchers to start the 2018 draft, the Royals kept going back and ended up taking Cox in the 5th round out of Mercer. He missed some time to start this season and didn’t look good early, but he’s been much better of late. He’s a big lefty with a pretty good feel for pitching. No, he’s not likely to be a top of the rotation guy, but I’d be surprised if a team like the Pirates wouldn’t want to take a chance on him. He has a 1.83 ERA in his last starts in AA with 37 strikeouts in 39.1 innings.
Josh Dye - Dye was selected in the 23rd round of the vaunted 2018 draft, so he’s on the list too, but he’s a very different type of pitcher. He’s tall and thin and will remind you a bit of Chris Sale on the mound (even down to the alma mater) until he actually throws the ball. He doesn’t throw hard, but he has good secondary stuff that keeps him getting strikeouts. My opinion is that he’s probably not good enough for the big leagues, but he keeps succeeding and the Royals almost always protect a surprise lefty.
Grant Gavin - Gavin has been eligible before and not taken, so maybe he doesn’t even belong here, but he’s getting a lot of strikeouts in AAA this season. I don’t think the stuff is big enough to play in the big leagues. Think Jake Newberry and how he always looks good in AAA and then gets hit around in the big leagues.
Zach Haake - Haake hasn’t pitched since the end of June, but he’s on this list purely for stuff. I feel like teams don’t take guys like Haake as much anymore in the draft, but if you want a project who you can find a way to stash, Haake is as good a project as any with the stuff he has. He’s actually limited the walks pretty well in Quad Cities this year, but still walks a lot. But he’s tough to square up and he gets a ton of strikeouts.
Jon Heasley - This might surprise you, but Heasley was a college pick in the 2018 draft. I feel like we’ve been waiting for awhile for him to really break through and he still hasn’t this season. He’s been a little too susceptible to the home run ball, but he’s getting strikeouts and he’s not walking too many batters. He turns 25 before Opening Day next season, so I don’t know what the upside really is here, but some team could easily think he could be a Brad Keller type pick.
Brewer Hicklen - He’s not getting picked, but I really love Hicklen. He’s so athletic and has some legitimate raw power that he does get to in games sometimes. I just want him to be good. To his credit, he was about the only guy who succeeded in Wilmington in 2019. He has a lot of swing and miss to his game, but he’s a very good base runner and can handle himself well in the outfield.
Rudy Martin - I’m sure you’ve heard the story of when I randomly picked a prospect back in 2015 to love and it was Martin. He’s not more than a fourth outfielder in all likelihood, but you might recall the Royals had a fourth outfielder who helped them win a championship in Jarrod Dyson. These guys are important. What I love about Martin is that he has a very good approach at the plate. He walks a ton and he has just enough pop to keep you honest. He’s fast, but he is better in a corner which doesn’t make him an ideal fourth outfielder, but I think he’ll get some big league time at some point somewhere.
Seuly Matias - It feels like we’ve been talking about Matias forever. If it’s not an injury, it’s the swing and miss. If it’s not the swing and miss, it’s another injury. But when he gets ahold of one, woo boy. He has some of the best power in the minors, even with all the injuries. And he still doesn’t turn 23 until next month. Since coming back from his latest injury, he’s been good. He’s still striking out way too much, but the power is all the way back.
MJ Melendez - 2019 was a disaster for Melendez, but between him and all the others who struggled, they might have turned the organization for the better because I think that’s what led to the overhaul in the development system for the hitters. And it’s really worked for Melendez, who destroyed AA pitching and then homered in his first AAA game on Wednesday. There are legitimate questions about where he plays in the big leagues, if he’s with the Royals, but there are no longer questions of if he’ll play in the big leagues.
Nick Pratto - Like Melendez, Pratto helped to bring the Royals offensive development to the top of the minors. He was so bad in 2019 that he had fallen out of some top-30s on prospect lists. But this year, he’s been so good. The strikeouts are still there, but much better, and his great eye at the plate remains while he’s found a way to access his power. Always a great defender at first, the question for Pratto isn’t so much if the Royals add him to the 40-man after the season but if they do it during the season and get him some big league at bats.
That’s 14 players who have at least a flimsy case to be added to the 40-man this winter, so let’s get down to some daunting roster math.
The Royals currently have 39 players taking up space on the 40-man roster and two more on the 60-day IL. Those players will need to be activated from the 60-day IL to take up space on the 40-man after the season concludes. Of course one of them is Jesse Hahn, who is a pending free agent and if he comes back will likely be on a minor league deal, but he may just be done entirely given his injury history and the fact that he re-injured himself on a rehab assignment earlier this year. The other is Ronald Bolaños, so he’ll be re-added once he’s healthy (and he’s on a rehab assignment now).
Not including Hahn, they have five members of the 40-man roster who will be free agents, so that puts them at 35, giving them room, theoretically, to protect five players. But they also like to go into the Rule 5 draft with room to add someone themselves, so they really only have room for four players to leave one spot open.
But they can look at some DFA/non-tender possibilities throughout the roster, and there are plenty. In my opinion, they could cut bait with any of the following and not really feel it - Hanser Alberto, Lucius Fox, Jakob Junis and Ryan O’Hearn. I also think with what they have on the roster and what they have on the horizon that Ryan McBroom can probably go too and Joel Payamps and Domingo Tapia were interesting pickups, but at some point, filler like that has to go. Not all of them will be let go, but that’s seven more players.
There is a wrinkle that could be thrown in if the Royals decide to promote Bobby Witt Jr. prior to the end of this season. If they do, and it’s a full two years before they need to (and no, I’m not suggesting they wait that long, just noting it), that’s another spot filled. Let’s assume for the moment that he is called up at some point, just because it’s better to have a little more room than a little less.
So if the Royals move on from the four obvious and one more, that puts them at 31 with the addition of Witt. Let’s say they make one free agent addition before the draft, which puts them at 32 and gives them a chance to protect seven players. If I had to choose the seven, I would go with Blanco, Bowlan, Coleman, Cox, Martin, Melendez and Pratto. In my mind, I still think Matias is too far away and guys like Heasley and Dye just don’t have enough upside to compare with some of the other pitchers in the organization.
These things do have a way of working themselves out, but even with the logjam lessened some from what we were expecting last winter, there are still decisions that will have to be made on both long-time Royals like Junis and O’Hearn and on prospects who the team has grown attached to over the years. With the edict clearly to win in 2022, this will be a very interesting off-season in general, but the 40-man adds are specifically intriguing to me.
Photo Credits: Minda Haas Kuhlmann