As of now, the start of the Major League and Minor League seasons seem to be severely in question. With the COVID-19 pandemic getting worse almost every day in the United States, it’s totally plausible that there won’t be baseball in 2020 at either the Major or Minor League level.
And it seems like a lot of America is in agreement with me, as evidenced by this Tweet below from Bill James:
While we know what it would mean to the current Royals on the 40-man roster, and those who are non-roster invites to Spring Training who are hoping for a spot on the team (Greg Holland and Matt Reynolds being the prime examples), the players in the Royals’ farm system are also affected as well. First off, we know that they are affected financially, as not only do Minor League players make peanuts as it is, but the suspended season has also frozen their income, not exactly ideal for players who struggle enough as it is. In fact, the dire situation of most minor league players has inspired Major League players, such as Shin Soo Choo, to do the following:
In addition to the financial hardships many players in the Royals’ system are facing, these players are also losing development with each day of the season that is lost. For many young players who have Major League dreams, a lost season of development is almost a death knell to their Big League hopes, as they not only lose a year of at-bats, innings and valuable experience, but they also gain a year older with nothing to show for it. In this game, age and level is so important, and to lose a year due to this only hurts prospects who are trying to accomplish their Major League dreams and have a career in Kansas City as a Royal.
Two prospects who may be the most affected by a “lost” season are ones who are coming off dreadful seasons at the plate in Wilmington: first baseman Nick Pratto and outfielder Seuly Matias. While catcher MJ Melendez also struggled with the Blue Rocks as well, he did get an invite to Major League Spring Training and got some work in the Cactus League, while Pratto and Matias did not get the invite this time around. And hence, with a lessened stock as prospects, and the inability to play in games due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one has to wonder what kind of effect this will have on Pratto and Matias, and whether or not they could recover their status as potential Major League players in 2021 if they don’t play any games in 2020.
Let’s take a look at each prospect and what a “baseball-less” season in 2020 could do to their development in the Royals system.
No prospect has fallen faster than Pratto, who was seen as the next “Eric Hosmer” when he was drafted 14th overall by the Royals in the 2017 draft. Much like Hosmer, Pratto was a first-base prospect drafted out of high school, an extreme risk for any club to take, let alone the Royals. However, the Royals felt that Pratto’s natural athleticism and maturity for his age would bode well for the club, and that with the right coaching and development, Pratto could follow the precedent that Hosmer set before him in Kansas City. Yes, Pratto was not a big bopper, and did not have natural “home run” power, but neither did Hosmer, when he first started, and he ended up producing 20-plus home run seasons during his last few seasons with the Royals.
Here is what Baseball America said about him in his profile in the 2018 Prospect Handbook, which rated him as the Royals’ No. 1 prospect for that year:
“Pratto profiles as a middle-of-the-order hitter thanks to a low-maintenance swing, above-average bat speed, and the ability to use the whole field…He’s still learning how to get to his power, but he drives balls to all fields and will add strength to an already powerful frame. Pratto is already a plus defender at first with good footwork and instincts. He’s not flashy but he knows how to play…”Nick Pratto, No.1 Royals Prospect “Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2018”
In the Arizona Rookie League in 2017, Pratto posted a .247/.330/.414 slash with a wRC+ of 103, according to Fangraphs, in 230 plate appearances. Much like his report, when Royals fans look at his swing during his rookie year in the video below, it is easy to see his athleticism and potential, though he looks more like a middle infielder or outfielder size wise than a first baseman:
In his first full season in Lexington, Pratto showed a bit more power, as he hit 14 home runs in 485 plate appearances and improved his HR/FB rate from 6.6 percent in the Arizona Rookie League to 12.8 percent with the Lexington Legends in the Sally League. Pratto also improved his batting average (.247 to .280) and OPS (.745 to .786). While as a 20-year-old he didn’t turn too many heads around as a first-base prospect, he did show that he was improving as he made his way up the ladder in the Royals system.
Unfortunately, that promising improvement from his time in Lexington hit a wall in 2019 with the Wilmington Blue Rocks in the High-A Carolina League. Pratto posted a horrendous .191/.278/.310 slash over 419 plate appearances with the Blue Rocks, which also included 164 strikeouts, a 34.7 percent strikeout rate. Furthermore, the slight uptick in power he saw in the Sally in 2018 also regressed in 2019, as he only hit 9 home runs, his HR/FB rate fell to 8.4 percent, and his ISO (isolated slugging) also regressed to .119 from .163 the previous year. Granted, Wilmington and the Carolina League is known for being a tough place for hitters, but these numbers went beyond the normal “ballpark environment suppression.”
Even though he went through an especially rough patch in Wilmington, Pratto’s work ethic has been long noted from Royals scouting experts, such as Royals Farm Report. Despite his setbacks last season and not being invited to Major League camp in Surprise, it seemed like Pratto put in the work this off-season in order to rebound in 2020, as profiled in Alec Lewis of the Athletic’s Q&A with assistant GM JJ Picollo. Here is what Picollo said about the work Pratto did this off-season with the Royals player development staff:
“Nick is still working out some things in his swing. We try to do what’s right for each guy. We weren’t in as much of a rush with him to face pitching because he was working on ironing out his swing path and being consistent with it…He and (Royals hitting instructor) Drew Saylor have developed a real bond. They’re connecting really well, speaking the same language. And they’ve done a lot of one-on-one work with Nick pre-workout and post-workout to get him to repeat and re-establish that feel for how his bat path needs to work.”“Q&A with Royals assistant GM JJ Picollo” -Alec Lewis, The Athletic
While it seems the club has been working primarily with hitting mechanics with Pratto, it seems like transitioning those mechanics to live pitching hasn’t happened yet, and most likely won’t for a while with the COVID crisis going on. And thus, if Pratto take a whole year off not facing live minor league pitching, what will happen to his mechanics, and will they adjust from the work he has done this off-season, or will they revert back to before, in situations where he was actually at the plate?
Pratto would be an older 22 years old and most likely repeating High-A in 2021 if baseball doesn’t happen in 2020. At that point, Pratto would feel the pressure to produce (especially at that age and level), which could prevent him from making the adjustments required to succeed as a professional hitter.
Matias has long been one of the most dynamic position prospects in the Royals system for the last few seasons. In 2019, Fangraphs writer Eric Longenhagen rated Matias as the Royals best prospect in the system over 2018 first round pick Brady Singer and other top prospects such as Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Khalil Lee. And it’s understandable that Matias was rated highly: his power tool is truly legitimate. Here’s what Longenhagen said about Matias in his writeup:
“With few exceptions (Joey Gallo is one) even the most whiff-prone big leaguers struck out less than Matias (34% career K%) when they were in the minors. But Matias’ physicality and bat speed are so supreme, the gap between his talent and that of most players so obvious, that there’s a chance he can be one of those exceptions, even if it’s in a streaky, inconsistent manner like Domingo Santana or Carlos Gomez. As a teen, Seuly was already posting exit velocities on par with burly, Quad-A type hitters.No.1 Seuly Matias -Eric Longenhagen, Fangraphs
2018 was perhaps the high point for Matias as a prospect: he absolutely obliterated Sally pitching, even if it came at the expense of him striking out a decent amount. .231/.303/.550 slash is certainly flawed at first glance, his 34.1 percent HR/FB rate and .320 ISO are impressive nonetheless, and show what can happen when Matias gets a hold of the ball. Yes, there’s a lot of swing and misses as Longenhagen alluded too, but average prospects don’t put up power numbers like Matias did in Lexington, and visually, his home runs also impress, as seen below:
In addition to Matias’ impressive campaign in the Sally, the Dominican born-prospect also made a name for himself in the Futures game during All-Star weekend in 2018, as he hit an opposite field home run off then-Yankees, now Mariners, pitching prospect Justus Sheffield.
However, if 2018 was heaven for Matias, then 2019 was hell and then some. While Matias struck out a lot in Lexington, it looked tame compared to his strikeout issues in Wilmington last year. He struck out 98 times in 189 plate appearances with the Blue Rocks, a 44.3 percent rate. And the sterling power he once showed in 2018? Nowhere to be found, as his HR/FB rate dipped to 10 percent, and his ISO also regressed to .159. All of a sudden, Matias, once a prized prospect in the Royals system, was seen as a declining asset who may not even get past Double-A, let alone make it to the Majors.
Of course, a lot worked against Matias in 2019. While he did struggle, reports surfaced that Matias was playing through a broken hand, which ultimately ended his season prematurely. Thus, it is likely that his lingering injury issues contributed to his lackluster numbers at the plate in 2019, and that those metrics would have been better had Matias been fully recovered and healthy. That being said, one of the issues Matias will need to work on in 2020 is the mental aspect of his game, as it seems he lets frustration and over-eagerness get the best of him in his at-bats. Saylor and Fangraphs writer David Laurila talked about this in an interview Saylor did with Fangraphs back in February:
Laurila: Is plate discipline one of his core issues? Saylor: “What we’ve seen from Seuly is that because of the power… you see that natural reaction when he hits a ball 500 feet. He’s a young player, so he wants to do that every single at-bat. Our job is to help him manage some of those natural thoughts and emotions. We need to gain his trust and get him to understand that you don’t need to hit a ball 500 feet. A hard-contact ball in the middle of the field is valuable. If you’re trying to put a ball over the fence and end up fouling that pitch off and getting into a [bad] count, the pitcher can nibble a little more. With Seuly’s presence in the box, guys are going to shy away from throwing the ball in a bigger part of the zone where he can do damage.Kansas City’s Drew Saylor Talks Hitting -David Laurila, Fangraphs
While certain mechanics probably do need to be tweaked in Matias’ swing to prevent so many whiffs, it does seem that Saylor and the Royals made it a focus to work on approach and controlling of emotions this off-season. Unfortunately, this is something that can’t be really worked on with a tee and net, but only through live pitching and dealing with failure and making the proper adjustments on the next at-bat. Without a season, that development would be lost, and whole year of missed at-bats would only put Matias behind even further.
As a Royals fan, I do not want to throw in the towel on Pratto or Matias just yet. Pratto probably will never live up to those Hosmer comparisons, but he’s an athletic, mature player for his age who’s solid defensively. If he can cut down the K’s, it’s possible that he could be a utility player at the next level. As for Matias, the Jorge Soler-similarities are uncanny: he has the power, arm strength and swagger to be a Soler 2.0 in Kansas City. But even Soler didn’t have these strikeout issues at the Minor League level, and Matias will have to control his emotions and plate discipline if he wants a shot to prove that he could fill into Soler’s shoes at the next level.
That being said, a lost minor league season would be damaging to both of them as prospects. Pratto and Matias are both 21 now, but would be 22 next year if the season is lost. Being a 21-year-old and repeating High-A? That’s not the worst thing in the world. But as 22-year-olds? That is a little tougher to stomach, and it makes one wonder if the Royals would perhaps rush Pratto and Matias to Double-A in 2021 if they lose that season of at-bats in 2020. It doesn’t make sense, I know. But the Royals have invested a lot in Pratto and Matias, and they need them to progress as hitters according to their age. And thus, the two may get throw into the fire quickly at Double-A, especially if a lost year also affects the Major League team in Kansas City.
If baseball does happen in 2020, it will be a shortened season and most likely Pratto and Matias will spend the whole year developing in Wilmington to rebound and improve after such lackluster campaigns in the Carolina League the previous season. And that will be a make or break shortened stint for both of them: if Pratto and Matias show progress and improve, the could start in 2021 in Northwest Arkansas, where the hitting environment is much more favorable. If they struggle again, it could mean that they are mere organizational players, there to just fill roster spots in Double and Triple-A.
I hope Pratto and Matias get their shot to show their improvement at the plate in 2020. While the Royals pitching prospects certainly are generating hope for the Royals’ future in terms of pitching, the hitting is a bit more questionable.
Pratto and Matias mashing and turning it around would go a long way in terms of helping Royals fans feel better about the Royals in 2022 or 2023, which would be the year(s) when Pratto and Matias would debut if they turn it around this year at the plate.
If they turn it around of course. And if they are able to get to the dish.
Let’s hope for both their sake baseball happens in 2020. They deserve the opportunity.