Three Royals pitching sleepers to pay attention to in 2021

There is no question that pitching depth is a strength of this Royals farm system. According to MLB Pipeline, three of their top-five prospects are pitchers (Asa Lacy, Daniel Lynch, and Jackson Kowar) and they have an additional two beyond those three in the top 10 as well (Jonathan Bowlan and Carlos Hernandez). Thus, it is easy to see why the Royals feel good about their pitching at the Major League level in 2021 and beyond, even though longtime Royal Danny Duffy will be a free agent after next season.

However, while there are plenty of pitching prospects in the Royals system who are garnering attention, and for good reason (Austin Cox, Ben Hernandez, Ronald Bolanos, Zach Haake, and Alec Marsh are other names who rank in the Top-30), there are some pitchers in the Royals system that may be overlooked. This includes three recently-acquired arms who were drafted by other teams, but could be “sleeper” arms in the Royals system who could contribute in Kansas City at some point in 2021, should the right opportunity arise. They may not carry the kind of prospect pedigree that other pitchers in the Royals system have, but they could be closer than most other prospects when it comes to debuting or appearing with the Royals next year.

Let’s take a look at the three arms and what kind of impact they could have in 2021.

Photo Credit: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Stephen Woods, Jr., RHP

Woods was drafted by the Royals in the 2019 Rule 5 Draft, having spent some time previously in the Tampa Bay and San Francisco organizations. Drafted in the 8th round of the 2016 Draft by the Giants, Woods is a polished college arm who displays good stuff, but has struggled with control and command over the course of his professional career thus far.

Even though he posted a 5.43 ERA in his final season at the University of Albany, Woods impressed MLB scouts with impressive stuff, as he posted a K/9 rate of 12.2 in 2016. In his first professional season, split between Salem-Keizer and the Arizona Rookie League Giants, Woods posted a K/9 rate of 9.5 in 35 innings, but he posted a walk rate of 5.7 and a K/BB ratio of 1.68, which contributed to his 6.43 ERA in his short professional debut campaign. However, he was able to clean things up slightly in his first full season in the SALLY, as he posted a 2.95 ERA and a 9.2 K/9 in 23 starts and 110 IP with the Augusta Green Jackets (though walks did continue to be an issue, as his BB/9 was 5.2 and he posted a sub-2 K/BB ratio once again).

After the season, the Giants traded Woods to the Rays in a package for Evan Longoria. However, Woods injured his arm, had to receive surgery, and thus missed the whole 2018 season due to the surgery and recovery. Thankfully, when Woods returned from surgery in 2019, he ended up being a solid force in High-A Charlotte, as he posted a 1.88 ERA and 2.39 K/BB ratio in 18 appearances and 86.1 IP.

The Royals, impressed by his stuff and improvement in command and control while in the Rays organization, swooped him up in the Rule 5 Draft in December of 2019, thinking they could find success with him much like Brad Keller in 2018.

Unfortunately, Woods continued to struggle with control and did not make the Royals roster in 2020. However, Dayton Moore made a deal with the Rays to acquire him back from Tampa Bay, even though he wouldn’t stick with the Royals in 2020. The move was a promising sign: it showed that the Royals believed that with some development and time, Woods could be a contributor at the MLB level in the next year or two.

It is hard to see what Woods could be with the Royals in 2021. However, it is not out of the question to think that Woods could perhaps be a “Brad Keller-like” arms that could start out in the pen and perhaps move into the back of the rotation if he performs well enough as a reliever. Woods struggled in Spring Training with walking batters, and it’s likely to think that he will start the year in Triple-A Omaha in 2021. But if he shows some improvement in his control in the Pacific Coast League, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Woods become a long-relief option in the Royals pen in 2021.

Photo Credit: Portal De Noticias (Venezuela)

Carlos Sanabria, RHP

The Royals’ first big acquisition this off-season was claiming the Venezuelan reliever off of waivers from the Houston Astros. The move was a particularly interesting one considering the Royals bullpen was a strength of the club in 2020, and acquiring Sanabria seems a bit superfluous. However, Sanabria is a high-upside arm who is not only still young (he’s only 23 years old), but he could be a dependable arm out of the Royals bullpen should he get his control issues solved.

In his Minor League career, Sanabria has pitched 354 innings and has posted a K/9 rate of 8.9 and ERA of 3.81. His K/BB ratio isn’t great at 2.15, but he’s been pretty decent at limiting hits while on the mound, as his H/9 rate as a Minor League pitcher is 7.9. The Astros gave Sanabria a shot in 2020, but it was a small sample, as he only pitched two innings. In the short Major League debut, he allowed three hits, three walks, had two strikeouts and two wild pitches in the small sample.

Fangraphs rated him as the Astros’ 22nd best prospect going into 2020, and rated his fastball as a 60 grade on the 20-80 scale. While Sanabria started off as a starting pitcher as a professional, as he been predominantly used out of the bullpen the past couple of seasons, and it seems like most prospect experts believe the bullpen is where he will end up, especially considering his command issues (Fangraphs rated his command as a 30).

When one watches him pitch on video, as seen below, Royals fans can see that his stuff could be a valuable commodity in a bullpen that already has a lot of fireball throwers:

Sanabria most likely will be in Triple-A to begin the year, according to Roster Resource’s Royals Depth Chart projection, unless he really impresses in Spring Training, or if the bullpen is beset by injury this Spring. While Kyle Zimmer is coming off a breakthrough season, his health is a major question mark, especially since elbow issues cut his 2020 short, and Zimmer has had a history of injury issues that have stunted his development and progress in the Royals system. If Zimmer is not back fully healthy by the start of Spring Training, Sanabria could be the one to fill his spot, though Sanabria will have to show better command in 2021 if he wants to stick in the Royals bullpen long-term.

Photo Credit: MSU Office of Visual Media

Dylan Coleman, RHP

Coleman was acquired this off-season as the “Player to be Named Later” in the Trevor Rosenthal trade (which also brought outfielder Edward Olivares to Kansas City). A Missouri native who went to Missouri State for college, Coleman is a big, projectable arm (he’s 6’5 and 230 pounds) who could provide some fanfare as a “local” guy for the Royals.

A former 4th round pick by the Padres in the 2018 Draft, Coleman had an up and down early career in the Padres system. He did well in his debut season in 2018 in the Northwest League and Midwest League, as he posted a 3.18 ERA and 2.64 K/BB ratio in 22.2 IP between the two low-level leagues. However, in 2019, while his overall metrics were okay between Fort Wayne and the Arizona Rookie League (he posted ERA numbers of 2.13 and 2.37 with those teams, respectively), his performance in High-A Lake Elsinore was shaky. He allowed four hits, three walks, and six runs in two innings with the Padres’ California League affiliate, and there were reports of concerning drops in velocity, which could belie arm issues, as suggested by “Friar Faithful Chronicle,” a blog that covers San Diego Padres prospects. Here’s what FFC said in their scouting report going into 2020:

Coleman’s biggest downfall, from a prospect standpoint, was the discrepancies in his fastball velocity from 2018 to 2019. When he was initially drafted in 2018, Coleman’s fastball was consistently sitting in the upper-90s and striking out 29 professional hitters over 22 innings with the Fort Wayne TinCaps. This past season, Coleman saw a massive dip in velocity to the point where he was typically sitting 90-93 mph and not generating nearly as much life on the pitch. Nobody is entirely sure why this is the case, but the most likely cause would be injury. If he comes out in 2020 throwing like he during his draft year, Coleman is going to ascend through the professional ranks fairly quickly.

“Prospect Profile: Dylan Coleman” by Diego Solares; Friars Faithful Chronicle

It’s difficult to say how Coleman’s velocity fared, as he wasn’t on the Padres’ 60-man roster and there was no Minor League season in 2020. Thus, the Royals are probably banking that Coleman has alleviated his velocity issues, otherwise, they would not have picked him up as an addition in the Rosenthal trade.

When healthy, Coleman is impressive, and he casts an intimidating presence on the mound, as evidenced from this scouting video from Baseball America, which was recorded during his final season with Missouri State:

Coleman may be a long shot to make the Royals active roster in 2021, but his story seems to parallel Tyler Zuber’s, who ended up pitching the whole season in Kansas City in 2020. Much like Zuber, Coleman seems like a reliever-only kind of pitching prospect, which limits his value, but he has a good three-pitch mix, as FFC mentioned that “he is the type of arm where everything is going to play off his big-time fastball, but being able to flip this breaking pitch into the zone to give hitters different looks and tunneling it well with his heater will be effective.” If Coleman is back to flashing the kind of upper 90s velocity he displayed in college and in 2018, then it is possible that Coleman could move quickly in the Royals system in 2021.

Coleman may be the furthest away from the three listed when it comes to making the Majors, as it is likely he’ll begin the year in High-A Wilmington. But relievers like him can move quickly, and it’s possible that Coleman could be a “local” kid who could find his way to the Royals sooner than expected, much like Zuber or even Aaron Crow, before him.

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