Witt, Jr. is ranked No. 1 in the “21 in 21 Prospect Watch” Series.
Last year, I rated Brady Singer as the Royals’ most interesting prospect over Bobb Witt, Jr. mostly because the Royals needed their 2018 first round pick to have some kind of impact in 2020 to give Royals fans hope (thankfully, he did). Furthermore, Witt was barely a year out of high school, and though I felt confident in Witt’s future as a Royal going into 2020 Spring Training, his pedestrian .262/.317/.354 line 37 games and 180 plate appearances in the Arizona Rookie League brought a little skepticism among Royals fans. Would Witt’s supremely rated tools translate as advertised, like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas? Or would Witt fall into Bubba Starling territory, and be a prep first-round pick who failed to live up to his massive draft hype?
Even though there was no Minor League season in 2020, Witt was able to boost his prospect stock in a tremendous fashion, thanks to his surprising performance in Summer Camp and at the Alternate Site. Even though Witt had not played beyond Rookie-level ball as a professional, Witt impressed Royals front office members, coaches, and fans with his play at Kauffman and T-Bones Stadium this summer, giving Royals fans hope that the 2019 No. 2 pick could indeed be a franchise-changing player in the George Brett mold.
Of course, Royals fans have been here before with the “Next Brett” talk. Hosmer, Moose, and even Alex Gordon all carried that “Next Brett” label. Brett certainly casts a shadow over this Royals organization like Barry Bonds in San Francisco or Ken Griffey Jr. in Seattle or Pete Rose in Cincinnati, just to name a few. That being said, it’s hard to not salivate about the 20-year-old’s potential after witnessing him go against Royals players on the 40-man roster, as well as other MLB pitchers in exhibition games, this past summer.
Here’s a look at what he did at the plate in an exhibition game against the Astros last year:
And if his approach at the plate wasn’t enough, here’s a clip of him showcasing some impressive glove play at the hot corner in the same game:
With any position prospect out of high school, one would expect to see those highlights at high A or Double-A as a 19-20 year-old. However, Witt. Jr did that against Major League competition. Granted, it’s a small and weird sample (i.e. glorified Spring Training), and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the Royals should be thrusting Witt into the 2021 Opening Day starting lineup. That being said, any concerns about Witt from his lackluster 2019 in Arizona has seemed to be forgotten about among Royals nation.
Because honestly, to Royals fans, Witt’s development over the next two years could determine the Royals’ future…
As well as the future of Royals general manager Dayton Moore.
To say the Royals haven’t had much success drafting position players in the first round recently may be putting it lightly. Let’s take a look at the position players Moore has drafted in the first round since 2010 other than Witt (WAR information according to Baseball Reference):
- 2010: Christian Colon, SS, 4th overall, 1.2 bWAR
- 2011: Bubba Starling, OF, 5th overall, -1.5 bWAR
- 2013: Hunter Dozier, SS, 8th overall, 1.8 bWAR
- 2017: Nick Pratto, 1B, 14th overall, has not played in Majors (last played in High-A Wilmington in 2019)
- 2020: Nick Loftin, SS, 32nd overall, played last year at Baylor University
In 2010, 2011, and 2013, Moore selected position players with Top-10 selections and has not gotten much return with those picks. While Colon was a 2014 playoff and 2015 World Series hero, he failed to get much traction at the Major League level, and was eventually let go in favor of Whit Merrifield (which proved to be a sound decision). Starling has been an up and down roller coaster throughout his professional career who has demonstrated some tools (especially on the defensive end), but has struggled with plate discipline at the Major League level, and was eventually non-tendered this off-season. And even though Dozier seems to be projecting upward after a solid 2019 campaign and decent 2020 run, his career has been marred by injuries, and he has failed to stick at one position in Kansas City, which puts his future in doubt.
As Royals, Colon, Starling, and Dozier have produced a 1.5 bWAR combined. Furthermore, only Dozier is in a position to add to that number in 2021 and beyond (Starling is back with the organization, but it seems like a long shot that he’ll have any impact in Kansas City next year).
Witt cannot become a Colon or Starling 2.0 for Moore to continue to have a job as general manager of the Royals. He and the Royals front office need Witt to turn into the player he was drafted to be.
As of now though, the signs are good, as nearly everyone in the organization sung Witt’s praises this summer. Here is what assistant GM JJ Picollo said about Witt shortly before Fall Camp began, as profiled by KC Star Royals beat writer Lynn Worthy:
It’s not hard to equate the pitching Witt is currently facing to Double-A or higher. And he continues to rise to the level of his competition.
“He’s doing it against upper-level pitching,” Picollo said. “Even since summer camp has ended, he has not shown any signs of let-up. It continues to be really impressive. It’s almost every day he does something that you go, ‘Wow.’ He handled this. He handled that.”
Picollo has raved about Witt’s ‘mature approach” at the plate, referring specifically to his pitch recognition and ability to hit with two strikes, which Picollo described as being “as good as I’ve ever seen with a young player.”“Royals pouring ample resources into top prospects Asa Lacy, Bobby Witt Jr. this summer” by Lynn Worth; KC Star
Manager Mike Matheny also cited Witt’s potential on Day 1 of Summer Camp, an impressive feat considering Witt’s youth and lack of experience in professional ball in comparison to other Royals players in attendance. Here is what Matheny said in Royals.com beat writer Jeffrey Flanagan’s piece:
“I watched Bobby Witt Jr. take his first Major League camp live at-bat today,” Matheny said. “And it was a 12-pitch at-bat that ended with a one-hopper off the right-field wall. That just made me giggle a little.”
“You watch young guys come here like him, and he has just so much excitement and such a bounce in his step,” Matheny said. “You can’t step into a cage against a Major League pitcher and put together a solid at-bat like that without doing a ton of work leading up to it.”“Day 1: Witt Jr. impresses Matheny with spunk” by Jeffrey Flanagan; Royals.com
Even the prospect experts were impressed by Witt’s performance this summer, as JJ Cooper of Baseball America ranked Witt, Jr. as the Royals’ top prospect according to their 2020 Mid-Season Prospect List, and had this to say about the impact he had this July in Kansas City:
Witt has put together quality at-bat after quality at-bat during summer camp (he went 4-for-4 against Royals’ ace Danny Duffy). He’s already shown he’s more advanced than could rightfully be expected. Summer camp has given him a chance to show he’s ready for an aggressive assignment in 2021.“Kansas City Royals 2020 Midseason Top 30 Prospects Update” by JJ Cooper; Baseball America
Safe to say, the early returns going into 2021 are promising, especially since he is being so highly lauded from the front office as well as on-field coaching staff. But what can Royals fans realistically expect from him next season?
According to Roster Resource’s projected Royals organizational Depth Chart for 2021, it seems likely that Witt will start 2021 in Double-A Northwest Arkansas. At the surface level, the promotion may appear aggressive, especially since he only played Rookie league ball in 2019. However, it makes the most sense considering Witt’s success in Summer Camp and at the Alternate Site in 2020, and it would give him the most appropriate challenge next season.
If Witt thrives, then it is possible that he could be available for a late-season call up in 2021, especially if the Royals’ season goes south. If the Royals still stay in contention, then a promotion to Omaha may be more likely if he is mashing Texas League pitching. If he does, he could repeat Double-A in 2022, or perhaps go to high-A Quad Cities at some point midway in 2021 to work on some things, which should be a much more favorable hitting environment than previous high-A affiliate Wilmington.
Granted, the Royals do not need to rush him to the Majors in 2021. Adalberto Mondesi turned things around in the second half of 2020, and he will have a firm grasp of the shortstop position in 2021. Dozier should also be entrenched at third, but if he is injured, it is likely that Kelvin Gutierrez will get a chance to show that he is still worthy of a roster spot (or perhaps a possible trade to garner a prospect or two in return). Witt needs to experience the full grind and travel of a full professional season, something he has not had yet since being drafted. Thankfully, the Double-A Texas League will give him that next season.
There will be plenty to watch for from Witt next year, and there are certainly some questions Royals fans have that will need to be answered. Will his renewed plate discipline transition to 2021, or will his strikeout and contact issues from 2019 rear their ugly head again? Will he truly be able to stick at shortstop (scouts seem to think so), or is third or second base more in his future as a Royal (especially with Mondesi currently at shortstop)? And though he showed his contact skills at Summer Camp this past July, will Witt’s power start to blossom in 2021 in the Minors, thus showing that he can indeed be multi-year All-Star infielder for the Royals in the near future? It would be nice to see Witt showcase the home run swing that he demonstrated at prospect showcases in the past, as evidenced in the video below:
If the Royals want to be a consistent contender in the Al Central, especially in 2022 and beyond, then Witt will be the key. Yes, the Royals future pitching is stacked, but to contend, a team needs bats as well. The Twins and White Sox showed that in the division last season. Good pitching without the hitting can only take one so far, and if Witt is not as good as advertised, then the Royals could be in trouble beyond 2022.
Royals fans need Witt to live up to his hype if they want to see winning baseball on a consistent basis again. Moore needs Witt to live up to his hype if he wants to continue to have a job as a General Manager.
The signs look good for Witt going into 2021.
Let’s hope that he continues to make that progression this year, and give Royals fans (and Moore) even more hope for 2022.