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Kansas City Royals


Original Published Date: November 1, 2019

royalsI kept writing and writing and before I knew it, I had written 3,300 words about the Kansas City Royals.  It’s an interesting system with excellent pitching depth and plenty of athleticism with their positional players.  The biggest hole in their system is a lack of guys who can hit.  But, if you believe it begins with pitching, they’ve got several guys who, if they stay healthy, could start for a big-league club one day.

Bobby Witt is their best prospect and has all the tools to become one of the best shortstops in the game.  There were draft day concerns about his age, but if he hits, everyone will forget about it.  After that, there are several positional players who all share a common theme. They strike out too much.  I can’t remember a system with such a glaring weakness.

Pitching though, is the base for their system.  Daniel Lynch has the highest upside and could be a special talent.  It doesn’t end there as there are several pitchers, mostly college drafted pitchers who are one to two years away from competing for a job in Kansas City.  It’s impressive and a huge turnaround for a system that was one of the worst in the league two years ago.

Prospect Quick Shot

  • Top Prospect: Bobby Witt Jr.
  • Biggest Mover: Kris Bubic
  • Emerging Prospect: Erick Pena

Enjoy the list and please click on the baseball card to visit our partner amazon.com to explore additional information on each player.

1. Bobby Witt Jr. (SS)

  • Highest Level:  Rookie ETA: 2022-23 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 10 SS
  • Tools Summary: Big tools both offensively and defensively.  The only knock was his draft age.

The Royals selected Bobby Witt Jr. with the second overall pick in last June’s MLB Draft.  He’s been talked about for several years, partially because of his famous father but also the level of play he had as an amateur.  The only real knock I heard at the draft table was his age.  He was an older high school draftee, turning 19 two weeks after the Royals signed him.  Historically, younger high school draftees have been more successful than older players.  Why?  The player simply has more time to develop, both physically and baseball-wise under the watchful eye of a Major League team.  I’ve seen the study and it’s compelling and seems intuitive as well.

Witt has a ton of tools with a history of hitting as an amateur.  He’s a plus runner with very good bat speed that should eventually hit for power.  Defensively, he should be able to stay at short with a chance to be a gold-glover caliber performer.

In his first exposure to professional ball, he played well but didn’t blow people away.  Detractors were already sighing as he hit .262 in 37 games in the AZL.  But, he showed decent plate patience walking 7.2% of the time but did strike out too much (19.4%).  He should start 2019 in Low-A and hopefully will get out the blocks strong.

From a Dynasty League standpoint, he should be one of the first players off the board in the annual Rookie Draft.  Would he be the first high school player taken?  Probably not as CJ Abrams did really impress at the same level and although he was not a young draftee either, is still four months younger than Witt.  Still, the ceiling is still very high with a chance to be a Top 10 fantasy shortstop.

2. Daniel Lynch (LHP)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 30 SP
  • Tools Summary: Premium stuff from the left side with present control.  Assuming health, the upside is significant.

The Royals did a great job in the 2018 MLB Draft selecting four college pitchers in the first round.  Each one has excelled since draft day and each one has a chance to see the Big Leagues one day.  In my opinion, the pitcher with the highest upside is Daniel Lynch.

At 6-foot-6 and a premium arsenal from the left side, Lynch has a chance to pitch at the front of a big-league rotation.  While I’m not yet ready to predict ace upside, given his stuff, mechanics, and control, I think he could be a solid number two starter at the highest level.

He was very good in 2019 in High-A but did miss time due to a sore arm.  While that’s always difficult to hear, he passed all test and returned to action late in the season and once again, pitched well.  He also looked healthy in the Fall League where he spent time making up innings.

He should begin the 2020 season in Double-A with a chance to see Kansas City in 2021.

3. Jackson Kowar (RHP)

  • Highest Level:  Double-A ETA: 2020-21 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 45 SP
  • Tools Summary: Size and solid stuff across the board gives him a chance for a long Major League career as a mid-rotation starter.

Jackson Kowar was my top-ranked pitcher in the Royals organization entering the 2019 season.  While Daniel Lynch has moved ahead of him, I’m still a big believer in Kowar.  He split his time between High and Double-A in 2019 pitching to a 3.52 ERA, striking out 8.7 per nine while walking 2.6 per nine.

At 6-foot-5 and 180 pounds, Kowar has the size and stuff to be a number three starter at the highest level.  He has an above-average fastball that sits 92 to 94 that he can throw for strikes with some command.  His money pitch is his change-up that A-Ball hitters had no chance against.  While his curveball has improved, it still is lacking in depth and movement.

If it all comes together, Kowar has a ceiling of a number three pitcher on your fantasy team.  There is a risk given his lack of an above-average breaking pitch, but there are a lot of other building blocks in which to dream.

4. Khalil Lee (OF)

  • Highest Level:  Double-A ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 40 OF
  • Tools Summary: He stole 53 bases in 2019 which might be an outlier, but 20-20 is possible.  He needs to make better contact, but there is a lot to like from a fantasy standpoint.

I did a double-take when I looked at Khalil Lee’s final stat line in 2019.  53 stolen bases!  Wow, seriously?  He stole 20 in 2017 with a terrible 52% success rate, 16 in 2018 and then 53 in 2019.  I saw him in the Fall League last year and he looked terrible.  Perhaps he was just tired, but the at-bats were not good and more importantly, I got a timing of 4.14 to first which puts him at above-average speed – far from a burner.

I honestly don’t know what to make of the 53 stolen bases and for the moment, I’m going to park it as an outlier until proven otherwise.  That said, he’s a good runner with solid pop and an idea of what he is doing at the plate.  His problem is poor contact.  In 124 games, he struck out 155 times or 28% percent of the time.  If it weren’t for a .374 BABIP, he would have hit .220.

Nonetheless, I believe there is fantasy goodness with Lee.  The upside is 20-20 with the current Major League baseball and with some luck, he could hit .260 with a solid OBP.  That’s a very nice fantasy player and one in which I’m continuing to invest.

5. Brady Singer (RHP)

  • Highest Level:  Double-A ETA: 2020 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 50 SP or closer
  • Tools Summary: Good stuff but a delivery that points to a bullpen role

The Royals 2018 first-round pick (pick 18) is moving quickly through the minors.  He split his time between High and Double-A posting a 2.85 ERA striking out over eight per nine while walking less than three per nine.

Singer is primarily a two-pitch pitcher with a solid-average fastball that he pairs with plus slider with tight rotation.  He still doesn’t yet have a good feel for his change-up.

My biggest concern with Singer continues to be his delivery.  It’s far from smooth but more concerning: he drops his arm down and doesn’t get great extension on his delivery.  Translation…he short arms the ball from a lower delivery slot.  While that delivery will likely give right-handed batters fits, he’ll be more prone for injuries and you just don’t see a ton of starting pitchers with that delivery.

If Singer can remain a starter, I see him as a three/four.  However, I do think he eventually finds his way to the bullpen where he could excel into a high-leveraged reliever.

6. Kris Bubic (LHP)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 50 SP
  • Tools Summary: Pitched extremely well in 2019.  He has good stuff from the left side and throws strikes.

In an organization with surprisingly deep pitching, Kris Bubic continues to shine.  He started the year in the Sally League where he had no trouble.  In nine starts, he pitched to a 2.08 ERA striking out 14 per nine while walking less than three per nine.  It was more of the same with his promotion to the Carolina League where in 17 starts, he’s pitched to a 2.30 ERA striking out 9.7 per nine while walking 2.4 per nine.

He has good stuff with a fastball that sits in the low-90s with a lot of downward action.  His best secondary pitch is his change-up and has proven too much for young A-ball hitters.  His third pitch is his curveball that grades out as at least average as well.  If you add it all up, he profiles as a high-end number four, perhaps a number three starter in the big leagues.  That should be plenty good enough to give him a long career and help fantasy owners alike.  Plus, with such a good change-up, he could have some early success as has been the pattern of other recent similar pitchers.

7. Kyle Isbel (OF)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2022 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 50 OF
  • Tools Summary: Plus runner with some pop.  Started the year strong but an unfortunate injury cost him six weeks and when he returned, he could just not get it going.

Kyle Isbel got off to a great start to the 2019 season in High-A where he hit .348 with five stolen bases and two home runs over the first two weeks of the season. Unfortunately, he took a ball off his face in an April 17th game and missed six weeks of action.  Once he returned, he just didn’t hit and wound up with a disappointing slash line of .216/.282/.361 over 52 games in High-A.

Despite the poor showing, I still like Isbel and believe there is solid fantasy upside.  He has good bat speed to project at least average future power and is a plus runner.  Plus, I think he hits.  As mentioned last year, I think there is a fourth outfielder risk, but I think he gets a chance to play with Andrew Benintendi type of fantasy upside.

8. Brewer Hicklen (OF)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 60 OF
  • Tools Summary: Plus runner with some good pop.  Needs to cut down on strikeouts or his upside is a fourth outfielder at the highest level.

While pitching continues to dominate their system, the Royals do have a few intriguing hitters with Brewer Hicklen near the top of the list.   He was a seventh-round pick in 2017 that spent the entire 2018 season in Low-A as a 22-year-old where he posted a .930 OPS.  When I asked about him, I got a lot of fourth outfielder ceiling reports and ultimately that might be what he is, but he’s a plus runner with some pop and could be more than that.  Plus, he should get a chance to play as again, the Royals are very light in the upper minor leagues with bats.

Hicklen’s calling card is his double-plus speed.  In 2019 he stole 39 bases in 53 attempts.  He also hit 14 home runs.  What he also did was strikeout too much.  In 125 games, he struck out 28% of the time.  While he did walk 11% of the time, he needs to get shorter to the ball, or the fourth outfielder ceiling I heard will indeed turn into a reality.

I’m going to be adding Hicklen to my Dynasty League teams where I have room.  The power-speed upside is very real and if he can cut down on his strikeouts, there could be a full-time regular at the highest level.

9. Nick Pratto (1B)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 20 1B
  • Tools Summary: Striking out too much and only showing average power for a first baseman.

If you wanted to see guys strike out, you should have gone to a Wilmington Blue Rocks game.  Particularly in April with Seuly Matias, M.J. Melendez, and Nick Pratto were all paying and striking out 35% plus percent of the time.  To show you the modern game, the Blue Rocks won the Carolina League Championship.  It’s a reminder of what can happen when you have great pitching.

Out of the three Big Ker’s, Pratto has the best chance to have a Major League career.  First, his strikeout rate is the lowest of the three.  He also has the best approach of three and the best swing.  He needs to cut down on expanding the strike zone.  Assuming he can, the next question will be how much power he will have.  While Wilmington is a pitcher’s park, he still only hit nine home runs.  However, there’s enough strength and natural backspin to project 20 to 25 home run pop.  The other thing he’ll do is run.  While he only has average speed, he’s stolen double-digit bases every year including 17 in 2019.

10. Erick Pena (SS)

  • Highest Level:  DNP ETA: 2024+ Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 45 OF with extreme risk
  • Tools Summary: One of the premier 2019 International signees. Power and hit potential with a little speed early in his career.

Erick Pena was one of the premier International signees in 2019 signing a $3.8 million-dollar bonus in July.  He’s an athletic outfielder with good speed but is already 6-foot-3 and as he fills out, he’ll likely lose some of that speed. He has excellent bat speed and projects to develop plus in-game power as he matures.  The most encouraging aspect is it appears he can hit.  Something that isn’t in high supply in the Royals system.

He’s only 16 years old, but the profile is indeed exciting.  I like Jasson Dominquez and Robert Pauson more from the 2019 International class, but after those two, Pena is one of the more intriguing fantasy talents.

11. Jonathan Bowlan (RHP)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 60 SP or late-inning reliever
  • Tools Summary: Huge physical presence with solid stuff.  A move to the bullpen might allow his stuff to play up a grade.

A lot has been written about the Big Four pitchers drafted in the first round of the 2018 MLB Draft, but Jonathan Bowlan is saying…” hey, what about me?”.  Bowlan was drafted in the second round that year out of Florida and had an equally impressive season in 2019.  Across Low and High-A, he pitched to a 3.14 ERA in 146 innings striking out a batter an inning and walking less than two per nine (1.5 BB/9).

Bowlan’s a big kid at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds and obviously lacks any physical projection.  It might not matter as he can run his fastball up to the 94 to 95 MPH, sitting 91 to 93.  The pitch has good sinking action and with his downward plane, the pitch is hard to lift.  His slider has improved since his Florida days but his change-up is still not there.  What makes his stuff really play is his ability to throw strikes.

If you add it all up, the upside is a number four starter or a reliever.  I might prefer the reliever role as I think he could add a mile or two to his stuff and with his sinking fastball, he might be a candidate for a late-inning option for the Royals down the road.

12. Austin Cox (LHP)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2021 Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 60 SP or middle reliever
  • Tools Summary: While he doesn’t have a true plus pitch, it’s solid-average stuff from the left side with control.

The Royals Wilmington Blue Rocks had arguably the best young pitching staff in the minor leagues.  But when they were facing elimination in the championship, they turned to their less-heralded lefty, Austin Cox to keep them from going home.  He responded with six scoreless innings striking out eight.  The performance shouldn’t have been a surprise and he pitched extremely well all season long.  In 24 starts across Low and High-A, he pitched to a 2.76 ERA striking out nearly a batter an inning while walking just a bit over 2.5 per nine.

Cox doesn’t have a true plus pitch but instead, all his pitches are average to above average.  What he does have is plus control of his arsenal with some fastball command. That is allowing him to get batters out with a reduced ERA and WHIP.  Since it’s all from the left side, he could have a long career as a back of the rotation arm or a swing guy out of the bullpen.

13. Brady McConnell (SS)

  • Highest Level:  Low-A ETA: 2023+ Fantasy Ceiling:  Middle Infielder
  • Tools Summary: Athleticism with speed and power but with a poor approach and lots of strikeouts. 

The Royals like to draft a type.  They look for athleticism over the ability to hit and hope they can turn the athlete into a ballplayer.  Khalil Lee, M.J. Melendez and Seuly Matias (International signee) are three examples.  You can even argue Bobby Witt Jr.  While I think he’ll hit, Witt is still athleticism over hit.  In the second round on the 2019 MLB Draft, they drafted a similar player in the second round – Brady McConnell.

McConnell has excellent bat speed; is a solid runner and it appears he has a good chance to stay at short.  What we are not sure on in his ability to hit.  He was so overmatched in his freshman year at Florida that he only got 22 at-bats.  In his sophomore year, he got full-time at-bats and hit .344 with 15 home runs, but he posted a 23% K/9 and rarely walked.  If it were not for a .400 BABIP, would he have been drafted in the second round?  It was more of the same in his first taste of professional ball.  In 38 games in Low-A, he struck out 39% of the time while walking 8.3% of the time.  Sure, it was a small sample size, but also in-line with what he did in college.

14. M.J. Melendez (C)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2022+ Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 15 Catcher
  • Tools Summary: It’s power over hit but when the strikeout rate is nearly 40%, there it is worrisome.

When we wrote about M.J. Melendez last year, we commented: “…the power and defensive chops give him a base on which to work…if he can improve his strikeout rate, he has a chance to be an all-star.”  In hindsight, mentioning an all-star ceiling might have been aggressive, but he performed well in last season showing good defensive skills, power with a chance to be a full-time regular.  Unfortunately, his strikeout rate went from bad to worse and now.

Melendez really struggled in 2019.  In 110 games in High-A, he hit .163 with a 39.4% strikeout rate.  Sure, he hit nine home runs and even stole seven bases, but players who strikeout over 30% of the time in the lower minors do not have a good track record of being successful in the big leagues.  In reviewing his swing, he needs to get more compact as his current length is exposing major holes and the results will only get worse as he moves to the upper minors.  He’s a good defender with power and even some speed, so it’s about the hit-tool.  If he can make better contact, I’m interested, if not…

15. Seuly Matias (OF)

  • Highest Level:  High-A ETA: 2022+ Fantasy Ceiling:  Top 60 OF, but he might not make it.
  • Tools Summary: 80-grade raw power but the strikeout rate is so severe, there are questions as to whether he will make it.

It was a brutal year for Seuly Matias.  After hitting 31 home runs in 2018 and many of them tape measured, Matias only hit four home runs upon his promotion to High-A while batting .144 in an injury shortened year.  Sure, Wilmington suppresses home runs, and yes, it was cold in April and May, but he struck out 44% of the time and when you do that, you’re not going to have success.

It’s double-plus, maybe 80-grade raw and Matias physicality and bat speed are things to clearly dream on.  However, the contact rate is so far from acceptable, it’s going to be an uphill battle for him to make it. Plus, he’s coming back from a fractured hand which doesn’t help.  The Royals will likely start him back in Wilmington and hope he has better success.h

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