Inside the Crown Postseason Top 15 Royals Prospects
The Royals' farm system is MUCH better than it was just a couple years ago, even with a good chunk of graduations.
Photo by Minda Haas Kuhlmann
When the Royals had the best farm system in the history of whatever back before the 2011 season, it was hard to imagine a world in which the Royals didn’t have a pipeline of guys ready to make it to the big leagues every season. And then once that group graduated, one-by-one, it just sort of dried up. It’s not that they were completely without top prospects as we saw guys like Yordano Ventura, Adalberto Mondesi and Sean Manaea rise through the system, but they were too few and far between.
After the 2019 season, the Royals decided something had to change. They overhauled their offensive development and made changes to their pitching development. We didn’t get to see those results in 2020, but we saw the hitting development come around in a huge way last season. Now the next step for that group is to transition to the big leagues, hopefully a bit quicker than most of that last group. Yes, the Royals got multiple every day contributors, but no offensive stars, though Salvador Perez tapping into his power has been fun to see.
I think 2022 is huge for the pitching development team. The organization has already seen the dividends on the hitting side and if there isn’t big progress in 2022, I would imagine changes are headed their way. I do think one thing we’ve learned is that in the question of drafting vs. development being the problem, development was the biggest issue since so much of the system’s gains have come from previously drafted players finding their footing. Anyway, that’s a long intro to get into my postseason top prospects list, but what’s done is done, so let’s get to the list.
Bobby Witt Jr. - Duh. Witt put together just a ridiculously impressive minor league campaign in 2021, showing off every single tool. He can stick at shortstop, though he might end up at third base with the way Nicky Lopez developed in 2021. And if he does, he’ll immediately be one of the best defenders in the league there. Of course, nobody comes to talk about Witt for his defense. He handled AA with no problem and then was basically the same hitter against better competition in AAA. A rainout took away his 30th steal, so he didn’t get to be a 30/30 player, but that’s his big league potential. If there’s one area of slight concern, it would be his swing and miss, but that actually got a touch better in AAA with his swinging strike rate dropping from 15.7 percent to 13 percent. The guy is a star and will likely be the best player on the team within about two weeks of his promotion.
ETA: Opening Day 2022
MJ Melendez - Melendez is the biggest beneficiary of the development overhaul as he went from the type of season that was going to turn him into a backup catcher prospect to being one of the most feared hitters in all of the minors. His 41 home runs led all of minor league baseball this season and he actually seemed to get better when he was promoted to AAA. Given Perez’s spot in the big leagues, I was thinking Melendez would be the guy to get traded to bring in talent to supplement the roster, but you can’t trade a guy who had a 17.2 percent walk rate in AAA with a 21.2 percent strikeout rate. The swing is a bit unorthodox, but it works. And he’s also a very good defensive catcher. This is the type of player you figure out how to get in your lineup.
ETA: Early 2022, maybe Opening Day
Nick Pratto - Rounding out the big three is Pratto, who had a similar bounceback to Melendez. The difference between the two is there would have been a spot as a defensive backup catcher in the big leagues for Melendez, but a first baseman who doesn’t hit doesn’t exist to teams. So it was big for him to figure things out. Pratto had a bit of a slump in AAA that kind of tanked the numbers a little, but he actually swung and missed less at the higher level and struck out a bit less. His walk rate dropped, but his power increased by a good amount. He is, unfortunately, blocked by a contract right now, but that should ease up pretty quickly into 2022, so he might have to start the season in Omaha, but as long as he continues where he left off, the Royals will have an absolute stud defender who has the ability to hit 30+ homers in a season at the big league level.
ETA: Earlyish 2022
Asa Lacy - It was a trying season for the Royals first pick in the 2020 draft. The stuff was absolutely there as he struck out one-third of all hitters he faced. But the command and control were pretty much a disaster. It’s just so hard to evaluate guys like him. He pitched early in 2020 before the pandemic shut down the season and then he didn’t really have a chance to pitch after he was drafted, so his first competitive professional innings were this spring, more than a year after his most recent competitive innings. It would seemingly be difficult for anyone to come out of the gates looking sharp, and Lacy didn’t. But the fastball showed as did the slider. He’s currently pitching in the Arizona Fall League and has a chance to reestablish himself as a big-time prospect this fall, but I’m not too worried about things just yet. Reports out of the instructional league before the AFL were sparkling as well.
Alec Marsh - I think Clint Scoles and I are higher on Marsh than most, but I just love what he brings to the table. He just looks like the guy you’d put on the mound to start a playoff series. His fastball jumping a few ticks had me very excited heading into 2021, but he left a game in June and then didn’t pitch again, so that’s a bit concerning. But his fastball can be a dominant pitch and so can his slider. I’ve seen very good things from his changeup, though reports are a little more mixed on that, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in 10 years, we’re talking about him as the best of the bunch. Of course, you can probably say that about seven or eight different guys, which is pretty nice. Overall, he needs to get back on the mound, but I think he’s on the fast track once he does.
ETA: Late 2022/Early 2023
Nick Loftin - I hated the Loftin pick in 2020. I think I was wrong. His season started slow. He was dealing with a nagging injury, and like Lacy, was playing his first competitive games in over a year. He was hitting .237/.316/.377 through his first 233 plate appearances and I felt like I was pretty vindicated. But then he just started looking better. From that point forward, he hit .353/.434/.565 over his final 199 plate appearances and showed exactly what the Royals thought of him. I’m not completely sold that he’s more than a super utility guy, but I think he can be a plus defender at second or third and more than serviceable at shortstop. Plus, he makes consistent contact and understands the strike zone as well. I’m curious to see if he adds some power in 2022 to get him to a more surefire starter profile, but even if he doesn’t, he has a chance to be a valuable contributor to a big league team.
Frank Mozzicato - Speaking of picks I really didn’t like, Mozzicato checks in here. It’s not that I don’t like the pitcher. I actually quite like his stuff and ability, but I just didn’t like him in the top 10. A lot of his future depends on if he can add those precious ticks to his fastball. If he can sit 92-94 with the plus curve that he already has, I think he’ll be fine. If he can’t, well, I’m guessing it’s a waste of a pick. I’ve talked to enough people who believe in his ability to develop, so I’m putting him a little higher than I expected, and I could see him in the top three or completely off the list next year, depending on how things go for him.
Kyle Isbel - He’s still prospect-eligible, so I’m ranking him here. I’ve been a fan of Isbel’s since his draft year, so his 2019 disappointed me. It wasn’t all his fault, but he needed to have a bounceback. He had a great spring and debuted with the big club, but got sent back down and struggled for a bit. Some small changes unlocked a little more in him and he was driving the ball well in Omaha and then posted a .286/.362/.524 line in 47 plate appearances after getting called back up. He’s not likely to be the guy you count on in the middle of the order, but as a 1-2 guy or 6-7 guy in a lineup, I think you can do a lot worse than Isbel.
ETA: Debuted in 2021
Jonathan Bowlan - I’ve long loved Bowlan, noting that if he was in the system four or five years ago, he’d have been the top pitching prospect, but with all the other more decorated starters, he was considered sixth or seventh best by many. What he has is a plus fastball, a slider that tunnels incredibly well with the fastball and a changeup that has gotten to the point that it’s not a plus pitch, but it’s at least average. And he does it all with very good control. Well, he did anyway. He had to have Tommy John this year and while he’ll likely be good to go around late July or early August, we obviously can’t know for sure what he’ll be. It’s too bad because with all the attrition, he’d have definitely gotten a shot at the big league level this year.
ETA: Late 2022/Early 2023
Dylan Coleman - I’ve told this before, but a scout friend saw Northwest Arkansas back in May and while he was excited to see Witt, Pratto and Melendez and some of Marsh and Bowlan as well, Coleman was the guy who he was super excited to see. Coleman spent the season pumping upper-90s fastballs with unhittable sliders and good enough control to be a force at the back of a big league bullpen. And we all had a chance to see him against big league hitters, and he looked every bit the part. This is where things get tough in rankings. Coleman has a chance to be a shutdown, late-inning reliever. There’s huge value in that, but do you rank that as high as maybe his importance would be in the big leagues? If so, you could make an argument that he should be top five. I struggle with that, but again, the number next to the guy’s name isn’t that big of a deal, given that I truly think there’s some interchangeable nature within the rankings once you get past the elite.
ETA: Debuted in 2021
Vinnie Pasquantino - I’ve said this before, but I’ve spent Pasquantino’s professional career waiting for him to get eaten up by the level. The big lefty was picked in the 11th round in 2019 and was a beast in the rookie league that year. Then he started in High-A this year and was still a beast. And then he went to AA and remained, yes, a beast. At some point, you have to believe in a guy who has the hit tool and seems like the power is translating. I imagine we’ll see him get the bump to AAA when Pratto gets the big league bump, though maybe they continue playing Pratto some in right field and they’re both in Omaha to start the season. Either way, a guy with Pasquantino’s power and plate discipline (64 walks and 64 strikeouts across the two levels this year) is someone who should draw attention. I think there’s an argument to be made to put him as high as sixth actually.
Jon Heasley - This is the part where it gets really tough to pick a ranking. Heasley was a beneficiary of guys like Bowlan and Marsh having injuries and he got a chance to make a couple big league starts at the end of the season. He showed he would be around the zone and I liked his curve enough to see how it can be a big league plus pitch soon enough. I think I mentioned in a Weekend in Review that I’d like to see him work with a tighter one at some point or a slider to give the hitters a different look, but if he can live in the mid-90s with that curve, he’s a big league pitcher, if not a starter. I don’t see a top of the rotation guy, but a 3/4/5 starter in pre-arbitration years is extremely valuable.
ETA: Debuted in 2021
Michael Massey - While he fell off a bit after his crazy start to the season, Massey showed that he could be the Royals second baseman of the future. They have a few of those, huh? Those in the front office have compared him to Chase Utley, which is kind of crazy but also a great guy to be comped to. With Massey, I see a solid swing that should produce some power. I’m thinking maybe 18-22 home runs, but there might be some more in there with a slight tweak or two. He plays second well enough, and my only concern is the lack of walks, but he’s also not swinging and missing a ton either, so I’m interested to see how he does at a higher level to start the 2022 season.
Ben Kudrna - I didn’t love this pick either, but a lot of it is based on the Royals history with high school arms. Kudrna is a ridiculously high upside pick with a local tie. He’s a big arm who saw velocity come up in his senior year of high school and his slider tightened up to the point that it might be a big league pitch very soon. Scouts have said he shows an advanced feel for his changeup, which will be a test for him as he gets into some lower level games in 2022 (I’d assume he’ll be at low-A). It’s not all projection right now, but there’s a lot of it still. I bumped him after some very good reports on him from instructs, so hopefully that carries over.
Angel Zerpa - I had like nine names here I was thinking about. Only one of them threw five big league innings with no earned runs allowed and just one walk. Is that a fair way to determine who goes here? I have no idea. But it seemed as good as any. Zerpa throws strikes and his fastball has gained velocity, which was what led the Royals to protect him and add him to the 40-man roster last season. He got hit around a bit after he moved up to AA and AAA for one start, but I think there’s a floor of a solid reliever, which is why I have him here. It may look stupid in two years, but I’m okay with that.
ETA: Debuted in 2021
Let’s do these alphabetically because, again, I don’t have a better way to do it.
Darryl Collins - I really like the hit tool, but there’s not a ton of athleticism there. I’m not sure if I’ve seen a Michael Brantley comp for his ceiling, but if he makes it, that’s likely the type of hitter he is.
Zach Haake - The stuff is great, but the control is a question. He’s in the AFL now and could answer a lot of that. It’s been better than I expected, but can he corral it? That’s the question and if he can, he’s a solid reliever at worst, I think.
Ben Hernandez - I still love the changeup on a high school arm. He could be a big riser as well in 2022, but he’s not likely to drop much because there’s good upside there.
Carter Jensen - The local catcher has gotten some serious instructs buzz and could be the next big bat behind the plate for the Royals. That’s a pick I really, really liked.
Will Klein - He struck out 40.9 percent of the hitters he faced this year and the walks, while still very high, weren’t as bad as I expected. In his last 19.2 innings, he struck out 37 and walked seven. If he maintains that, he’s a big leaguer before the break.
Shane Panzini - I wasn’t in love with Panzini (shocker, based on my reaction to the rest of the 2021 draft), but there have been some good reports on him out of instructs. He was an older high schooler as a draftee, which isn’t usually a good sign, but his stuff has looked sharp and if they can find a putaway pitch out of either his slider or curve, he could have a future.
Drew Parrish - Based on talking to Clint Scoles, I almost had him in the top 15 and maybe even the top 10. With his velocity sitting higher, he’s set himself up to be one of the next guys up when the Royals need a starter, which could easily happen often in 2022.
Erick Pena - It hasn’t been a graceful fall for Pena. He’s still only 18, but he was struggling in the complex league pretty massively. He’s a guy who could easily be a top-two prospect if the Royals development crew gets him straightened out because the upside is still impressive, but after a terrible year, he’s out of my top-10 and maybe out of my top-20 right now.
Daniel Vasquez - This is really because we don’t know much about him. Scouts like him quite a bit, so he’s a guy who has a chance to jump once we see him in action.
Peyton Wilson - He is a Royals prospect if I’ve ever seen one. The hit tool lacks a little bit, as does the power. But boy can he run. And he plays a very good second base. It’s not that he can’t hit and doesn’t have power, but the speed is absolutely his carrying tool. I wonder if he doesn’t get some outfield looks early in the season.
The thing about this system that is sort of weird is that I have very little conviction past the Marsh spot. I know I shouldn’t admit that to you, but there are so many different combinations of players that you can put in just about any order and have a reasonable argument for it. That’s both good and bad. A good chunk of the star power of the system graduated last season with Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar no longer qualifying for prospect status, so while it lacks that power after probably Lacy, I think it’s one of the deeper systems out there, which is a good thing.