The Royals at the big league level were a mixed bag of sorts for Royals fans. Yes, the Royals are currently 71-85 heading into their final homestand of 2021, and are projected to win 74 games, according to Fangraphs Depth Charts projections. Honestly, that’s around where most realistic Royals fans had this club (i.e. the 73-76 win range) in the beginning of the season. That being said, after a strong April which saw the Royals atop the AL Central for a brief period of time, such a record now seems like a disappointment especially for KC sports fans who lose their attention quickly once Chiefs training camp begins.
While the Major League Royals didn’t exactly “enthrall” Royals faithful (especially from June-on), the Minor League Royals were a different story. Of the Royals’ four Minor League affiliates, three of them (Triple-A Omaha, Double-A Northwest Arkansas, and High-A Quad Cities) finished with winning records, and at or near the top of their respective divisions. In the postseason, the Naturals set the standard by easily dispatching the Wichita Wind Surge to claim a Double-A Central championship:
Two days later, Quad Cities came back against Cedar Rapids, claiming the High-A Central championship after being down at one point in the series two-games to one:
The Storm Chasers are currently on the outside-looking-in when it comes to perhaps adding another trophy to the Royals’ Minor League system case, as they are currently 3-2 in the 10-game “Final Stretch” of the year, which is the middle of the pack in the Triple-A East “Midwest” division. That being said, the Storm Chasers finished the regular season 69-56, which is Omaha’s first winning record as a club since 2015.
And if that wasn’t enough, the Royals have seen their top position prospects not only flourish in the Minor Leagues both at the plate and in the field, but also jump up the prospect rankings as well (the Royals currently rank 5th, according to MLB Pipeline). MLB Pipeline just also recently released their “Prospect Teams” for 2021, and three Royals made the first team lineup (Nick Pratto, MJ Melendez, and Bobby Witt, Jr.) and one made the second team (Vinnie Pasquantino):
Thus, while the big league club may have fallen short of some Royals fans’ expectations in 2021 (especially after inflated hopes due to the surprising first month of play), the Royals farm system is as strong as it has ever been in the Dayton Moore-era. That’s that’s not exactly a “wishy washy” statement either, especially after the Royals had the best farm system in baseball by most experts back in 2011.
So with that being said, what can Royals fans take away from the success of the Royals farm system, especially at the upper levels of the Minors, in preparation for 2022?
Going into 2021, the story of the Royals’ farm system was pitching. With the success of Brady Singer and Kris Bubic at the Major League level during the shortened 2020 season, there was a lot hope and hype surrounding talented arms such as Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Asa Lacy, Jonathan Bowlan, Austin Cox, and Alec Marsh, all Top-15 arms in the Royals system at the start of the season. Lynch and Kowar eventually matriculated to the big league club at various points throughout the 2021 season. However, this season was a bit tougher for the other heralded arms in the Royals farm system.
Lacy struggled immensely in his professional debut, posting a 5.19 ERA in 52 innings of work in High-A Quad Cities, which included 41 walks. Bowlan was lost early in the 2021 campaign due to Tommy John surgery, and Marsh only made six appearances with the Naturals this season, as he suffered an injury on June 15th and missed most of the year as a result. And while Cox did pitch 15 games with the Naturals, and posted a 3.00 ERA in 63 innings of work, he wasn’t exactly impressive. According to Fangraphs, he posted a 4.54 FIP and allowed a HR/9 of 1.14, which hinted that he may have been more lucky than dominant against Double-A hitters in 2021.
There still is considerable pitching depth in the Royals farm system. The Royals would not have won two Minor League championships if they were completely bereft of pitching.
On the other hand, the Royals position prospects, which were not valued highly in the preseason outside of Witt, Jr., became the shining stars of the system this season.
Witt Jr. is having a 30 home run and near-30 stolen base season across two levels and 120 games total this season (in addition to a 145 and 151 wRC+ in Double-A and Triple-A, respectively, according to Fangraphs). Nick Pratto has channeled his inner Eric Hosmer in Double and Triple-A this year, though he may have more power and a better eye at the plate than the former World Series hero. And MJ Melendez has turned into a 40-plus home-run hitter this year, a 180 from the high-strikeout, low-batting average hitter that he once was in High-A Wilmington back in 2019.
While Royals fans (and prospect experts) will remember those three from 2021 this winter, there are other position player success stories throughout the system. Pasquantino may be Billy Butler 2.0 (great hitter, not sure about what position he’ll play). Nick Loftin and Michael Massey proved to be forces in the Quad Cities lineup and infield this year, with the latter getting a recent writeup on Royals Farm Report from Jared Perkins, another Royals writer KC sports fans should pay attention to:
There are plenty more position player tales to glean from this 2021 season. Brewer Hicklen was a strikeout machine, but showcased some interesting production and tools in Northwest Arkansas. Second baseman Clay Dungan may be a combination of Whit Merrifield and Nicky Lopez as a prospect. Maikel Garcia is showing that he may be more than just Alcides’ Escobar’s relative, especially after succeeding in the middle infield in Low-A Columbia and High-A Quad Cities, respectively. And Tucker Bradley may turn out to be one of the Royals’ undrafted gems from the shortened 2020 MLB Draft.
The Royals are deep all over now in their farm system. Not just on the pitching end, but on the position end as well. And though the lower minors didn’t perform as well as the upper levels, there still is a lot of upside and potential in Low-A Columbia and the Arizona Complex League, even if it may still be kind of raw for now.
And that should make Royals fans hopeful that the “Process 2.0” may be coming to full fruition not just in 2022 and 2023, but perhaps beyond that as well.
The success of this Royals farm system, both at the position and pitching level, should tell Royals fans one thing: this team is set up to be perhaps stronger than the 2013-2017 Royals teams, the most successful stretch of baseball in Kansas City under Moore. That is a bold statement, I know, but it makes sense when Royals fans look deeper into this farm system and how it was assembled this year.
In the previous incarnation of the “Process”, it seemed like the farm system was built and handled to go “all in” on one limited four-to-five year stretch, which proved to be the case. It was fun for Kansas City sports fans. It produced two pennants and a World Series title.
But it was short lived, and it ended as quickly as it came.
While the Royals haven’t achieved success at the Major League level since 2017 just yet, the growth of the prospects and teams in the Royals farm system this year feels different. This version of the rebuilding process feels more sustainable. It feels like there are not just good prospects in the Royals system, but good coaching and player development embedded throughout the organization, from Triple-A to the Complex League. Pratto and Melendez don’t have epic turnaround seasons without an intense intervention from the Royals player development staff, which now may be the envy of the league, as Alec Lewis wrote about in a recent piece on The Athletic:
And that is what makes this success in the Royals farm system so special. It truly feels like this could be the start of an incredible era of Royals baseball, especially if certain tweaks are made at the Major League level. (Waybe a change in the hitting or pitching coaches?) Royals fans could witness an era different from not just the 2013-2017 run, but perhaps those late 70’s and early 80’s Royals teams as well.
The Royals could be on the cusp of doing something that could change baseball for small market clubs, especially in rabid Midwest sports cities like Kansas City, where the stakes are a bit higher than in Oakland and Tampa Bay, where the fan reception is typically lukewarm (which allows the front office to take a whole lot more risks). Kansas City could set a new mold for a “small market winner” for years to come, and put other small market teams like Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Minnesota in the dust. The success of the Royals’ Minor League teams and prospects in 2021 could be the “spark” of that fire of success which could present itself at the Major League level as soon as 2022, especially if Pratto, Melendez, and Witt, Jr. make their triumphant debuts, and the right veterans are put in place on the Royals roster (who those are is yet to be determined).
Or at least that’s what it feels like anyways.
We Royals fans can be an overly optimistic bunch…
But the success of the Royals’ Minor League system, nonetheless, shouldn’t be taken lightly. There’s something legitimate brewing here long-term for the Royals.
What that will be exactly will be determined next season, maybe as soon as Spring Training.
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