So far, the month of May has been one to forget for Royals fans, which is disappointing considering how much hope April brought Kansas City baseball fans. The Royals are now currently 16-17 and third place in the AL Central and have seen their playoff hopes go from the 20-plus percentage range at the beginning of May to 9.7 percent as of Monday May 10th, according to Fangraphs’ Roster Resource.
A positive development during this rough stretch of Royals play, however, has been the start of the Minor League season last week. In addition to the Royals affiliates getting off to some solid starts as a team, there have been some prospects who have also gotten off to stellar starts during the first week of Minor League play. That is especially true in Triple-A Omaha, as the Storm Chasers played well in their first home series against the St. Paul Saints, the new Triple-A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins (the Saints were previously an independent league team). Additionally, there are some Storm Chasers players who could merit call ups soon, especially if they are able to build on their solid starts to the Triple-A season.
Let’s take a look at five players currently in Omaha who could help the Royals soon, and what the time tables would look like for each of those players in a possible promotion.
Edward Olivares, OF
On 40-man roster: Yes
Olivares came over from San Diego in the Trevor Rosenthal trade last summer and made an immediate impact, as he hit two home runs and posted a .274 average and .302 wOBA with the Royals in 65 plate appearances. Olivares struggled in his MLB debut in San Diego, but seemed a lot more comfortable at the plate in Kansas City, as he lowered his strikeout rate from 38.9 percent in 36 plate appearances with the Padres to 16.9 percent with the Royals. Though he didn’t walk much (3.1 percent), and didn’t offer a whole lot of pop (23.1 percent hard hit rate as a Royal), there were many Royals fans who felt that Olivares, with some seasoning, could be a starting outfielder in 2021 (including myself).
Unfortunately, though Olivares did okay at the plate in Cactus League play, he was eventually demoted early in Spring Training, mostly due to some defensive struggles. Since Triple-A play began though, Olivares has been the Storm Chasers’ best hitter, as he is hitting .417 with a 1.125 OPS that includes a home run and two stolen bases in 24 at-bats and six games this season. Furthermore, the 25-year-old is showing a good eye at the plate, as he has three walks to only five strikeouts thus far in Triple-A play.
After a hot start to the season, Michael A. Taylor has cooled down a bit, as he is only posting a .255/.309/.333 slash in 110 plate appearances this year. Furthermore, after the demotion of Kyle Isbel, the Royals have not been able to find a consistent option in right field, as they have rotated Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier at the position, which doesn’t necessarily help the Royals defensively. The return of Adalberto Mondesi, which seems to be on track for late May or early June, could be a boost for Olivares’ candidacy for a call up soon, especially since it seems like Whit Merrifield is entrenched at second base, and the Royals would be better off using Nicky Lopez’s roster spot on someone who could play everyday in right field everyday. Olivares fits the mold perfectly.
Granted, it is still to be determined if Olivares’ defense has developed after a rough outing in Arizona, but if Olivares continues to produce at the dish over the next month, it will be hard for the Royals to ignore Olivares, especially since he is on the 40-man roster, which would make things easy on the Royals when it comes to calling him up.
Jackson Kowar, RHP
On 40-Man Roster: No
While Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic joined Brady Singer in Kansas City this month (to mixed results, as I profiled yesterday), Kowar has been dubbed the “ace” of the Storm Chasers rotation by the graduations of Lynch and Bubic to the Royals before the start of the Triple-A season. That being said, through two starts, the early results from Kowar seem promising, as he is posting a 0.87 ERA and has struck out 14 and only walked 4 in 10.1 IP. While hitters are posting a high BABIP against Kowar (.364), it hasn’t hurt him too much when runners are on base (92.3 strand rate), and he is also generating a 50 percent groundball rate (and 1.38 GB/FB ratio), according to Fangraphs data, which has helped him escape some jams early on this season in Triple-A.
Clint Scoles of Royals Academy and now Royals Review wrote a great piece where he interviewed Kowar after his first couple of starts in Omaha. Kowar gives some really good perspective on his second start, and it sounds like he is making the proper adjustments to succeed not just with the Storm Chasers, but perhaps the Major League level as well. Here is a snippet from his interview with Clint:
Kowar: I think it was a little less about the second time and more about me giving them leverage counts. I think I was a lot 2-0 or 3-1 in that first inning. For me, it’s about controlling the count more than anything. They have some experience, especially at the top of that order, and you can’t be giving those guys too many fastball counts in a row. I was able to get the leveraged counts more in my favor as the game was going on and put up some zeroes.“Jackson Kowar talks pitching” by Clint Scoles; Royals Review
Here is also video from Clint of Kowar utilizing his changeup effectively against the Saints, which should make Royals fans eager about his potential call up this year:
Lynch’s struggles in his last start, and how he reacts to what the Royals do with him, will be an interesting development and could affect Kowar, who seems like the next major arm up in the Royals system. Kowar got hit pretty hard initially in Spring Training, but seemed to surge in his later starts in Cactus League play. If the Royals want to make a playoff run and be competitive in the division, they will need quality contributions from their starting pitching staff, especially in the middle to end of the rotation.
Kowar could be a boost for the Royals rotation, especially if the Royals cannot find a solution in the No. 5 spot in the rotation over the next month. While he is not currently on the 40-man roster, Dayton Moore certainly would get creative with the roster in order to clear a spot of Kowar as soon as the Royals feel he is ready.
Kyle Isbel, OF
On 40-Man Roster: Yes
Isbel struggled in his MLB debut, as he struck out 41.7 percent of the time in 36 plate appearances, according to Fangraphs. However, he still hit .265, and his 78 wRC+ signifies that he could break out after working on some things in Triple-A Omaha. So far, Isbel is performing well with the Storm Chasers, as he is posting a .385/.429/.462 slash with an .890 OPS in 26 plate appearances. Furthermore, Isbel had a key double against the Saints that brought in Olivares:
Isbel still demonstrates an overly-eager approach at the plate, as he has struck out seven times this year and only walked once. A 0.14 BB/K ratio in Triple-A is not much better than the 0.13 ratio he was posting with the Royals. While Isbel may never be a high walk rate hitter, it will be interesting to see if he can at least stabilize his strikeout rate and see that mark get under 20 percent in Triple-A. If he can cut down the strikeouts a bit, or at least garner a few more walks, the Royals may deem him ready again for another shot, which is much needed considering the Royals glaring hole in right field since his demotion.
Scott Blewett, RHP
On the 40-Man Roster: No
Blewett made his debut a year ago during the shortened 2020 season, which was a promising sign after he struggled in Triple-A Omaha back in 2019:
That being said, while Blewett struck out four hitters in three innings of work at the MLB level, he did allow a 54.5 percent hard hit rate as well as a barrel rate of 18.2 percent, according to Baseball Savant. Thus, Blewett’t struggles in allowing hard contact, both last year and during Spring Training, not only earned him an early Spring demotion to Omaha, but also prompted the Royals to release him from the 40-man roster before the start of the 2021 season.
While it is easy to think that Blewett may be a Four-A pitcher at this point (and that could still be the case), he is off to a strong start in Omaha, as he struck out eight, walked two, and allowed six hits and two runs in five innings of work in his debut. While Blewett may not be a top-of-the rotation guy as expected when he was drafted in the second round back in 2014, he could be an effective swing man who could pitch 2-3 innings and produce some strikeouts and swings and whiffs.
The fact that he is not on the 40-man roster anymore makes things complicated when it comes to a potential call up. However, if it is June and the Royals relievers are still struggling, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Royals perhaps part ways with one of their veterans (such as Ervin Santana, Wade Davis, or even Greg Holland) and give Blewett another shot in a hybrid role out of the bullpen.
Kelvin Gutierrez, 3B
On the 40-Man Roster: Yes
Gutierrez has struggled immensely with injuries over the past couple of seasons. Due to various injuries, he has only played in 24 games in Kansas City since coming over from Washington in the Kelvin Herrera trade back in 2018. However, when healthy, Gutierrez presents an interesting profile: he has a rocket arm, a solid glove, and some power potential, even though he tends to hit too many balls on the ground for a corner infielder.
This past winter, Gutierrez was starting to show better launch on his batted balls in Dominican Winter League play, and that seemed to carry over a little bit in Spring Training as well, as evidenced by this barreled ball against the San Diego Padres below:
Gutierrez is off to a good start in Omaha, as he is posting a .385/.385/.577 slash with a 145 wRC+ in 26 plate appearances, according to Fangraphs. Gutierrez has also come up in the clutch as well in his time with the Storm Chasers this season, as evidenced by him hitting a game-tying single below against the Saints:
The Royals infield defense has left a lot to be desired so far this year, as they rank as one of the worst units according to DRS and UZR this season. Hunter Dozier also has not been great this year at third base, as he is already four outs BELOW average, according to Statcast’s OAA metric. Thus, the Royals could shift Dozier to right full time and slide in Gutierrez at third in order to boost their infield defense on the left side of the field.
If Gutierrez continues to hit, the Royals may be tempted to make that move, especially if Dozier continues to struggle defensively at the hot corner over the next month.
Photo Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports