Three Royals players who need to have strong AFL campaigns

I am taking a break from the “Royalty Awards” in this post in order to talk a little bit about the Arizona Fall League, which begins on Wednesday. Royals players will be playing on the Surprise Saguaros roster, which makes sense considering the Royals’ Spring Training complex is in Surprise. In addition to the Texas Rangers (who share the complex with the Royals), prospects from the Cincinnati Reds, New York Yankees, and Washington Nationals will be playing with Royals prospects this fall in Arizona.

At the end of last week, the Royals announced officially which prospects would be participating in the AFL this season, and honestly, it’s an interesting list:

The AFL can be a great launching pad for Royals prospects to build their case as legitimate players in the farm system in preparation for next Spring. The Royals have seen success stories like Kyle Isbel and Nicky Lopez, who have parlayed strong AFL seasons to success in Spring Training a few months later. While some Royals AFL stars have failed to capitalize on their success (Scott Blewett is a prime example), for the most part, a strong AFL campaign is a good sign for a prospect, especially if they had an uneven or injury-affected Minor League season prior.

In this post, I am not going to focus on ALL of the Royals prospects who will be representing in Arizona this fall. Rather, I am going to take a look at three prospects who need to have at least “decent” AFL campaigns in order to bounce back as prospects in the Royals farm system. While a good AFL season won’t automatically save their outlook as possible Major League players, a poor AFL campaign most likely will make their projection even more bleak for next season and beyond.

Here are three Royals prospects from the list above that need to demonstrate some growth this fall in order to stay on Royals fans’ prospect radar for the 2022 season.

Asa Lacy, LHP

Going into this past Spring Training, Lacy’s name was being circulated as a guy who could move quickly in the Royals system. Drafted No. 4 overall in the 2020 MLB Draft, many Royals fans figured that Lacy would move quickly in the Royals system, much like Brandon Finnegan, who went from first round pick in 2014 to pitching key innings during the MLB postseason. After all, Lacy was seen by many prospect experts as the best “overall” pitching prospect in the 2020 Draft, and the fact that the Royals were able to add him to their farm system was only a “plus” for a system that was already flush with pitching prospects going into the 2020 MLB Rule 4 Draft.

However, while the hype surrounding the former Texas A&M product was considerably high for Lacy going into the 2021 season, it is safe to say that Lacy didn’t quite live up to Royals fans’ expectations. Lacy primarily pitched in High-A Quad Cities, and his stat line with the River Bandits didn’t exactly “impress” by any means. Lacy made 14 starts with the River Bandits and posted a 5.19 ERA in 52 innings of work, according to Baseball Reference. Furthermore, Lacy was shut down in late July, a disappointing end for a pitcher with such promise going into this season:

At the surface level, it is easy to focus on the “negative” from Lacy’s professional debut. His ERA was certainly high, and it was amplified by a walk per nine of 7.1, a concerning sign considering Lacy’s history of control and command struggles back at Texas A&M. That being said, Lacy still limited hits and contact at a decent rate, which was evident in his H/9 (hits per nine innings) and K/9 (strikeouts per nine innings) rates. In his first professional year, Lacy only allowed 7.1 H/9, and additionally, he posted a K/9 of 13.7 percent. Thus, if Lacy can get his walks under control in 2022, it is possible that he can once again be the “top prospect” he was tabbed to be by the Royals and most prospect experts when drafted 4th overall by the Royals in the 2020 MLB Draft.

Even amidst his struggles, Lacy at times showed the potential to be an “ace” at the Major League level. Here’s an example of him striking out six batters in five scoreless innings back in May:

Furthermore, here’s an example of Lacy generating painting the edges of the strike zone at the High-A level, an encouraging sign even though he had his fair share of struggles finding the strike zone against Midwest League hitters in 2021:

Lacy has gotten lost in the shuffle among the Royals top pitching prospects this year, which makes sense considering the emergence of Carlos Hernandez, Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, and Jackson Kowar at the Major League level. However, Lacy still has a ton of potential, and now that he’s finally healthy, it will be interesting to see if he can have a solid AFL campaign this upcoming fall, which could build some positive momentum in preparation for Spring Training in 2022.

if he does well in the Arizona Fall League, not only will Lacy thrust himself back into the “best Royals pitching prospect” in 2022, but he could put himself in the “best Royals prospect overall” discussion as well. This could be further amplified in the beginning of April, especially if Bobby Witt, Jr., MJ Melendez, and Nick Pratto graduate to the Major League club at the conclusion of Cactus League play.

Stephen Woods, Jr., RHP

Woods is an interesting prospect who’s been hard to get a grasp on the past couple of seasons since being drafted in the Rule 5 Draft back in 2020.

Woods had an outside chance to make the Royals roster back in Spring Training in 2020 and at the Alternate Site as well. However, while Woods’ struggles with command and control prevented him from realizing his Major League dream initially, Dayton Moore and the Royals front office believed in him enough to acquire him in a trade and keep him in their farm system for the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

Unfortunately, Woods hasn’t quite found his groove as a professional pitcher, especially in the Royals system. When looking at his numbers via Baseball Reference, it is easy to see Woods as an “organizational depth” piece, especially considering that he is 26-years-old, which is pretty “old” for a prospect. Primarily pitching in Double-A Northwest Arkansas this year, Woods posted a 7.42 ERA, 2.20 WHIP, and 1.07 K/BB ratio (with the latter being hindered by a BB/9 of 8.6 percent). Those numbers are not encouraging, and at first glance, it would be easy to dismiss Woods from having any shot of making in impact in Kansas City in 2022, let alone beyond next season.

That being said, Woods was much better as a reliever than a starter, and that was demonstrated in his metrics once he made the transition to the bullpen after the first couple of months of play in the Texas League competition. This season with the Naturals as a reliever, Woods posted a 4.38 ERA and 11.3 K/9 in 15 appearances and 24.2 IP as a reliever, an upgrade from the 10.72 ERA and 6.8 K/9 rates he posted in seven starts and 22.2 IP as a starter in Double-A. Therefore, it is possible that the Royals are having Woods put in some work in the AFL with the hope that he can move quickly in the system, and perhaps become a sterling bullpen arm for the Royals in 2022.

When Royals fans take a look at his stuff, it is easy to see the potential, as evidenced by this strikeout he generated in relief with the Naturals back in July:

The clock is ticking for Woods to get his “shot” at the MLB level. Right now, if he doesn’t make the Royals club out of Spring Training, it is likely that he will be pitching elsewhere, whether it’s at the Minor League level or perhaps on an Independent League team. That being said, Woods sports some solid stuff, and if he can harness his control in a relief role, he could end up being a low-cost, high-upside reliever who could be exactly what the Royals need in the middle innings out of the bullpen.

Woods could perhaps be the 2022 version of Jake Brentz…

But he will need to have a solid stint in the Arizona Fall League first if he wants to confirm that narrative for next season.

Seuly Matias, OF

It is possible that there is no prospect in the Royals system who is more polarizing than Matias, who has struggled to stay healthy since 2018.

On one end, Matias continues to showcase his power potential at the Minor League level. In High-A, he posted an OPS of .805 and hit 10 home runs in 36 games and 159 plate appearances, according to Baseball Reference. When the Royals promoted him to Double-A Northwest Arkansas late in the season, Matias continued to showcase the power stroke, as he hit seven home runs and posted a .774 OPS in 23 games and 93 plate appearance with the Naturals.

That was further demonstrated in some of the bombs he hit in Double-A, with the home run below a prime example:

In addition to showcasing home run power, Matias also showcased some premiere tools in the field. Here is an example of Matias making an incredible play and throwing out a Wichita Wind Surge player with ease during their playoff series (which Northwest Arkansas won):

Despite the power and potential tools, Royals fans can’t help but say that 2021 was a bit of a disappointment for Matias, especially considering the gains his former Wilmington teammates Melendez and Pratto made this season, respectively. Considering Matias was seen as a Top-3 prospect in the Royals system back in 2018, it’s hard to dub what Matias’ outlook will be, especially after only playing in 64 games in 2021, and considering he posted strikeout rates of 36.5 percent and 37.6 percent in High-A and Double-A, respectively, according to Fangraphs. It’s hard to imagine a prospect having success at the Major League level when he’s striking out nearly 40 percent of the time at High-A.

That being said, Matias is still relatively young at 23-years-old. He is actually younger than Saguaros teammates Jake Means and Zach Haake for example, which is crazy to think considering that it’s felt like Matias has been in the Royals system for a long time. Thus, there still is some projection for Matias, and while he didn’t hit for high average in 2021 (.213 in Quad Cities; .193 in Northwest Arkansas), he still proved that his power tool is legit, and that will be hard for the Royals Player Development staff to ignore, especially considering the Royals’ power issues at the Major League level (not Royals hitter hit more than 20 home runs this year, other than Salvy).

Right now, it’s a long shot to think that Matias will be anything at the Major League level. He’s a lottery ticket who possesses one prodigious tool, but is hampered by below-average tools in other areas of his game (especially when it comes to making contact). However, if Matias can stay healthy this fall in the AFL, and continue to build on the power he showcased in Quad Cities and Northwest Arkansas? Well, then maybe Matias could make his case that he is finally ready to have his breakout in 2022, similar to what Melendez and Pratto did in 2021.

It’s wishful thinking, I know. But if Matias mashes AFL pitching, then it will be hard to ignore Matias this upcoming Spring…

Because it is entirely possible that he’ll be the next “successful” Royals player development story, like Melendez and Pratto, much to the satisfaction of Royals fans as well as the front office.

Photo Credit: Instagram/@the_ace35_

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