One of the drawbacks to this season is Major League Baseball limiting the active roster to 28 players in the final month of September rather than the full 40, which was the case pre-pandemic. The decision makes sense for a variety of reasons: having 28 guys in the clubhouse limits potential COVID spread, and due to the late start to the Minor League season, Royals farm system teams get to keep around their key guys for longer (the Minor League season used to end in the beginning of September).
However, one of the benefits for hardcore baseball fans, especially for those of teams out of the playoff race, was the ability for fans to see players at the Major League level that they had not witnessed or heard about for most of the season, due to those players being in the Minor Leagues. Sometimes, those players are big-time prospects. That being said, there’s also a handful of journeymen who get a chance to shine in September, even if it may only be a limited stint at the big league level.
In this post, I am going to take a look at four players on the 40-man roster who have played mostly in the Royals’ Minor League system this year, and most likely will continue to do so in September, barring a string of injuries at their position (and even then, it may be unlikely). In addition to looking at how they have done this year, I will also look out their outlook for Spring Training in 2022, and whether or not they have a shot to keep their 40-man roster spot for next season.
Scott Blewett, RHP, Omaha Storm Chasers
Blewett was called up to the Royals on August 26th as an emergency arm, but he failed to make an appearance before being optioned back down to Omaha on August 30th. The Royals’ former 2nd round pick in the 2014 draft has failed to live up to his once massive prospect hype, as he has struggled the past two stints in Triple-A Omaha, especially when it comes to the longball.
In 2019, in 81.1 IP with the Storm Chasers, he gave up HR/FB rate of 19.2 percent, which resulted in a high ERA of 8.52, according to Fangraphs. This season, in 61 IP in Omaha, he has lowered his ERA to 6.49, but has still struggled with home runs, as his HR/FB rate is 25.4 percent, which is 6.2 percent worse than his first stint in Triple-A. Thus, these home run problems, combined with his lackluster command and control (1.90 K/BB ratio this year in Omaha), make him not just a non-factor not down the stretch in 2021, but a non-tender candidate this offseason as well.
That being said, Blewett, who has mostly been used as a starter over his Minor League career, could perhaps find late life in his career as a reliever, if he can find an “out” pitch. Blewett doesn’t have the pitch variety, or possess a plus-fastball to be a lights-out starter at the Major League level. But, his slider does show some potential, and it would be interesting to see if Blewett could perhaps complement it with a cutter or sinker, which may be able to revitalize him as a “Wade Davis” lite.
Here’s an example of Blewett using his slider effectively in his lone MLB call up, as he strikes out the Cardinals’ Paul DeJong on the pitch in a 12-1 victory at Kauffman Stadium back in 2020:
Granted, this is a long shot, and in all likelihood, Blewett will be off the 40-man this Winter, especially with the need to add Nick Pratto, MJ Melendez, and most likely Bobby Witt, Jr. to the 40-man roster at some point before Opening Day in 2022. However, if Blewett is still able to stay in the Royals system, and somehow does some work in developing a “go-to” pitch, it is possible that he could somehow make his return to Kansas City as a possible middle-innings candidate in 2022.
Lucius Fox, Infielder, Omaha Storm Chasers
Fox has a cool name and some interesting tools, but the player acquired in the Brett Phillips trade with Tampa Bay back in 2019 has really failed to do anything of note in Omaha this season.
I liked Fox as a prospect (I had him on my “prospects to watch” list), mostly because I liked his defensive and speed tools, and I thought he demonstrated some decent plate discipline for a player with that kind of skill set. This season, Fox has been adept at showing a patient eye at the plate, as he is posting a 13.4 percent walk rate and BB/K ratio of 0.55. Furthermore, he has also demonstrated some skills defensively in the field, as evidenced by this recent play against Toledo at Werner Park:
However, after that, there aren’t a lot of positives to gleam from Fox’s 2021 with the Storm Chasers. Going into Tuesday’s games, he is hitting .192 with a wRC+ of 59 in 40 games and 146 plate appearances, according to Fangraphs. Granted, he has struggled with injury, as he missed considerable time at the beginning of the year, which undoubtedly has had an effect on his play since returning off the IL. However, for a guy who is known for speed, it’s hard to have much value when one has a hard time generating hits and getting on base, which has been the case this year for Fox in Triple-A.
Fox got a brief call up to the Taxi Squad this year when the team traveled to Toronto, but he’s been pretty much a non-factor on this Royals’ 40-man roster. With Whit Merrifield and Nicky Lopez holding things together up the middle, Adalberto Mondesi back on the active roster, and Witt, Jr. due to make his MLB debut at some point in 2022, it just seems like there won’t be an opportunity in Kansas City for Fox anytime soon. Add that with the fact that the Royals often have a short leash with “traded for” prospects (i.e. Phillips, Franchy Cordero, Brian Goodwin, Edward Olivares, etc.), and it just seems likely that Fox could be a DFA candidate this Winter, even though he still has Minor League options remaining.
Daniel Tillo, LHP, Northwest Arkansas Naturals
Just a Spring Training ago, it seemed like Tillo was knocking on the door to break through into the Royals bullpen. Though Tillo had a mixed track record as a starting pitcher (4.22 FIP in 107.1 IP in high-A Wilmington back in 2019), there was a lot of thought that with a 96-plus MPH fastball, Tillo could be a reliable left-handed reliever in Kansas City (which was amplified by clips like this below):
Unfortunately, Tillo got injured last Spring, had to get Tommy John surgery, and has been out for the most part since. He didn’t pitch at all in 2020 (even at the Alternate Site), and he just recently returned to make his rehab appearance at Northwest Arkansas, where he’s been for the entire year thus far, and probably will stay, especially considering the Royals’ desire to preserve his health.
With the Naturals, Tillo hasn’t looked bad, especially when Royals fans remember that he hasn’t pitched professionally since 2019. His walk rate is high at 13.2 percent, but he’s only allowing a HR/FB rate of 9.2 percent, and he’s also posting a strikeout rate of 22.4 percent, which would be higher than what he posted in 2019, according to Fangraphs. Here’s a look at Tillo in one of his first rehab appearances where he struck out three in only 1.1 innings of work:
Unlike the two guys above, I think it’s likely that Tillo stays on the 40-man roster in 2022, though he most likely will start again in Double-A, or possibly get a call up to Triple-A, depending on how he finishes the year with the Naturals. He has a good fastball-changeup combo, and the Royals need left-handed pitchers, especially after losing Richard Lovelady for what may be an extended period of time.
Hence, if the chips fall right for Tillo in Spring Training and early on in the Minor League season, it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to imagine Tillo making his MLB debut sometime in June or July, which would be a great story considering what happened to him in 2019.
Angel Zerpa, LHP, Northwest Arkansas Naturals
Zerpa was a surprising add to the 40-man roster this Winter (to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft), and many people have dubbed him as a “left-handed Carlos Hernandez”, which wouldn’t be a bad thing to have considering Hernandez’s emergence in the rotation this season. I think that comparison is a little rash (and a little lazy honestly), but Zerpa could be one of the more surprising arms to emerge in the Royals system in 2022.
Zerpa pretty much dominated in High-A Quad Cities this season, as he struck out 53 batters in 41.2 IP, a 31.7 rate, according to Fangraphs. However, it was his immaculate control that most wowed scouts, as he only posted a walk rate of 4.8 percent and a WHIP of 0.96. Here’s an example of Zerpa absolutely dominating opposing Midwest League hitters:
Thus, it is not surprising that after posting a 2.59 ERA in eight starts, the Royals promoted him to Double-A Northwest Arkansas.
Granted, Zerpa hit some roadblocks in Double-A, something he didn’t really go through in his stint in Quad Cities. He missed some time due to injury, and even when he did pitch, the numbers weren’t as impressive, as his HR/FB rate ballooned from 6.5 percent in Quad Cities to 21.5 percent in Northwest Arkansas. Furthermore, he also saw an uptick in walk rate as it rose to 10.8 percent, nearly six percent higher than his High-A mark. Of course, Zerpa is only 21-years-old, so the fact that he was taking his lumps against much older hitters isn’t that much of a surprise, especially considering he made the move mid-season.
In addition, despite the struggles with home runs allowed, Zerpa did show some solid defensive skills with the Naturals, as evidenced by him turning this double play below:
The Royals do not need to rush Zerpa to Kansas City, especially considering the starting pitching depth they have currently, and the fact that he’s the youngest player on the 40-man roster. It seems like most scouts are projecting him to be a reliever in the long term, but remember, that’s what they were saying about Hernandez as well at the end of 2020.
While Zerpa still needs to prove himself over a full season at Double-A (and an eventual call up to Triple-A), I think it’s possible that Zerpa could be an excellent left-handed starter at the MLB level, even if it may take a couple of seasons for that projection to come to fruition.
But if Zerpa does make solid progress at the Minor League level in 2022…well…just imagine what the starting pitching could look like for the Royals as soon as 2023 or 2024.
Photo Credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images