In any club’s farm system, there is usually a mix of “prospects” and “non-prospects”. Prospects are the main reason why most casual baseball fans follow the Minor Leagues. These are the “future” everyday players of a Major League club, or valuable assets who could be dealt to acquire veteran talent via a trade. That being said, Minor League baseball isn’t all about prospects. After all, there are plenty of players on a Minor League roster at each level, and some players are often there for organizational depth, with meager expectations place upon them (i.e. career Minor Leaguers).
However, every now and then, some “non-prospects” can turn out to be pretty solid players at the MLB level. Maybe they were late-bloomers. Maybe they made some adjustments over the years that made them better as they garnered more at-bats or innings at the Minor League level. Whatever the reason, it always seems like there are some “non-prospects” who end up having solid Major League careers, and the Royals are certainly flush with such success stories, as Whit Merrifield was mildly classified as a non-prospect for a while and ended up being a two-time MLB All-Star.
The Royals’ Minor League system has been pretty solid at nearly every level on a win-loss basis, and that is due to the performance of not just the prospects, but non-prospects as well. Therefore, I wanted to highlight three non-prospect position players who have been making noise this Minor League season, and what they could offer perhaps in the next year or two at the Major League level.
Dairon Blanco, OF, Northwest Arkansas (Double-A)
Blanco joined professional baseball in the United States late, as he was a Cuban defector who had a two-year layoff before making his Stateside debut in 2017 with the Oakland Athletics organization. Here is what Baseball America said about him in their scouting report, when he was rated as the Athletics’ #28 prospect in their system, back in 2019:
Blanco was regarded as Cuba’s fastest player when he defected to the Dominican Republic. He came to terms with the Athletics in December 2017. Because of a two-year layoff from game action, Blanco began his U.S. career at high Class A Stockton in 2018 even though he turned 25 in April.Dairon Blanco: No. 28; Oakland Athletics Top-30 Prospect Rankings; Baseball America
The Royals acquired Blanco from the A’s in the Jake Diekman trade back in 2019 (they also received right-handed pitcher Ismael Aquino, who currently is pitching in low-A Columbia). Though Blanco in 2019 posted a .360 wOBA and 125 wRC+ at the Double-A level with the Midland Rock Hounds prior to the trade, he struggled in his adjustment to Northwest Arkansas, even though he stayed in the Texas League.
In 32 games and 135 plate appearances with the Naturals, Blanco only posted a .269 wOBA and 69 wRC+, not a good sign for a guy who was already 26-years-old in 2019. Thus, the sub-par season, and a lost Minor League season due to COVID made Blanco a staunch non-prospect going into 2021, especially since he would be repeating Double-A for a second straight season.
However, Blanco has really been on a tear this year in Northwest Arkansas, as he is posting a .377 wOBA and 128 wRC+ in 216 plate appearances this season. Royals Farm Report also posted this eye-popping stat drop on Twitter after Blanco broke a tie game against the Wichita Wind Surge:
Blanco is 28-years-old, which is old for a prospect, especially one at Double-A. That being said, people forget that he got off to a late start to American professional baseball due his situation as a defector, and he has a tool set that plays like a younger player. I worry less about his age, because I think development-wise, he’s at what a 25-year-old would be, due to those two lost seasons in the transition to the States, and that lost year in 2020 due to COVID.
Granted, I am not saying he’s going to be a future starting outfielder at Kauffman for sure. He may simply be a fourth outfielder at the MLB level, and his upside may not be more than an Edward Olivares-type. That being said, if Blanco continues to mash, a call up to Omaha seems likely, especially if Olivares and Kyle Isbel get call ups to Kansas City down the stretch.
And if Blanco continues to transition this performance to Triple-A? Well, he may be earning an invite to Spring Training in 2022, and could make a case for a 40-man roster spot if he performs well in Surprise.
Gabe Cancel, Inf, Omaha (Triple-A)
Cancel has always been an interesting case to me in the sense that I am not really sure what he is as a prospect (or if he’s a prospect at all). He’s always rated on the lower end of the prospect lists in years past (if he did rank), mostly due to the fact that he doesn’t really showcase plus tools outside of his power, which profiles well for a middle infielder. Unfortunately, while his power has been a plus tool for him over his career, his defense hasn’t really been good enough to stick in the middle infield, and when he’s anywhere else in the field, his power is average or sub-par. In addition, Cancel has always had plate discipline issues, as he had a 0.24 BB/K ratio in Northwest Arkansas back in 2019, which also included a 28.1 percent strikeout rate, according to Fangraphs.
Cancel earned a spot on the Omaha roster this year after playing all of 2019 in Northwest Arkansas, and he still is striking out a lot, as he is posting a 28.7 percent strikeout rate and 0.26 BB/K ratio in 202 plate appearances. However, Cancel is showcasing big power for an infielder, as he was posting a .274 ISO and 108 wRC+ with 13 home runs before hitting the IL around the MLB All-Star break. Here is an example of what Cancel can do when he gets his pitch:
It will be interesting to see how long Cancel will be on the shelf, as there definitely is some competition in the infield in Omaha. Lucius Fox, who is on the Royals’ 40-man roster, just recently returned from the IL and even though he doesn’t have Cancel’s power upside, he has much better speed and defensive tools in comparison to the 24-year-old Puerto Rican infielder. Thus, it will be interesting to see how Cancel fares when he returns off the IL, and how the Storm Chasers utilize him in the lineup, since there are plenty of at-bats that need to go around among the roster.
That being said, if Cancel comes back and continues to hit bombs against Triple-A pitching, he’ll definitely make an interesting case for a possible promotion, especially if the Royals start jettisoning away players, and clearing spots at the Major League level.
Jimmy Govern, 3B, Omaha (Triple-A)
Govern has been a fast riser, as he is a recent addition to Omaha after Cancel hit the IL. Govern isn’t really ranked on anyone’s prospect list, as he was a 30th round pick out of Eastern Illinois in the 2019 draft. He mostly played in the Arizona Rookie League in 2019 after signing, playing in 46 games and hitting .365 with a 196 wRC+ in 199 plate appearances. Govern did get small cups of coffee with Idaho Falls (three games) and Omaha (six games) in 2019, but they weren’t substantial enough samples to really evaluate him seriously.
Govern seems to be the classic “great stats, but questionable tools” kind of player, which is why he is classified as a non-prospect by most experts and scouts. However, he has showcased excellent plate discipline and contact skills (only a 15 percent strikeout rate this year in High-A), and he demonstrated an ability to produce with his bat consistently in his stint as the regular third-baseman in High-A Quad Cities, where he played 40 games before being called up to Omaha. In 160 plate appearances, the 24-year-old infielder was posting a .382 wOBA and 132 wRC+ with the River Bandits, according to Fangraphs. Thus, after Cancel hit the shelf, it is only mildly surprising that the Royals organization tabbed Govern to replace him, even if it meant skipping the Double-A level.
And since returning to Omaha, Govern has lit it up, as he already hit a clutch home run in his first couple of games with the Storm Chasers:
Govern is probably one of the more fascinating stories in the Royals system this year, for Govern would not have been drafted under the current MLB Draft format, which was shortened to 20 rounds this year. Even though the odds are against a player like Govern to make it to the Big Leagues in terms of projection, he continues to hit at nearly every level he’s played at. Furthermore, even though his progression through the system has been wonky (especially so after a lost Minor League season), he is filling in well at Triple-A, and could be there a while as long as he is hitting.
While he won’t attract the most prospect attention in Omaha, he is definitely one that Royals fans should keep an eye on not just this year, but perhaps even next. It is likely that he will slowly climb up the Royals prospect rankings this Winter, even if it may result him being on the lower end of those lists.
After all, after what he’s done in the Quad Cities and so far in Omaha, it will be hard for Royals fans and prospect experts to ignore him for much longer.
Photo Credit: Midland Rockhounds