“Rising” Royals prospects from the 2021 Top 40 “Prospects Watch”

Typically, every winter, I create a “Royals Prospects to Watch” list on this blog. In 2020, it was the “20 in 20” Most Interesting Royals Prospects Watch. In 2021, it was the “21 in 21“, where I ranked the 21 most interesting prospect in the Royals farm system, but I ended up expanding that list to 40 before the start of Spring Training. This year, I hope to increase it by 10, and actually create a “Top-50 Royals Prospects” watch for 2022 after the turn of the new year.

However, before releasing this new prospect ranking list for 2022, I figured it would be appropriate to take a look at the “risers” from my Top-40 prospect list a year ago, as well as the “fallers” who may be down in this upcoming year’s rankings, or perhaps not at all on the Top 50.

In this post, I am going to look at the “rising” Royals prospects from the Top-40 “prospects to watch” list who are coming off promising Minor League campaigns. Furthermore, I will tier these promising prospects in a few different categories, in order to give Royals fans a sense of where these “risers” in the Royals system stand when it comes to this upcoming Spring Training and 2022 season.

(Note: rankings in parentheses identify what that player’s ranking was on my Top-40 list a year ago, prior to the start of the 2021 season.)


The Elite Risers

Bobby Witt, Jr. (No. 1), Nick Pratto (No. 9), and MJ Melendez (No. 10)

When I categorize Witt, Jr., Pratto, and Melendez as “elite risers”, I basically am saying that these three prospects already are considered cornerstones of the Royals’ future.

Yes, none of the three players have garnered a Major League at-bat. That being said, all three players had such dominant campaigns in Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha in 2021 that is hard to see them NOT being major contributors to this Royals team as soon as next season and for a decent amount of time (which all depends on how the CBA gets ironed out when it comes to team control and service time).

Even though Witt, Jr. continues to be the Royals’ best prospect, I am not sure many Royals fans saw Witt competing for the title of “top prospect in baseball” after only one full Minor League campaign. However, MLB Pipeline and Baseball America in their end-of-the-season rankings had him at No. 3, and when they reveal their rankings after the new year, it is plausible that Witt will ascend to the top spot, especially considering his legitimate five-tool skill set.

Witt also backed up his toolsy profile with incredible hitting campaigns in Double-A and Triple-A in 2021, as he posted a 145 wRC+ in Northwest Arkansas and followed it up with a 142 wRC+ in Omaha. For the year, he hit 33 home runs, scored 99 runs, drove in 97 RBI, and stole 29 bases in 123 total games between the Naturals and Storm Chasers (61 in Double-A; 62 in Triple-A). This all-around performance helped Witt earn Minor League Player of the Year from Baseball America:

While Witt lived up to his top prospect billing in 2021, Pratto and Melendez were much bigger surprises last year, especially considering they underwhelmed together back in 2019 in High-A Wilmington. Pratto hit .191 with a 73 wRC+ in 124 games with the Blue Rocks in 2019, while Melendez hit a paltry .163 with a 67 wRC+ in 110 games in Wilmington. However, both Pratto and Melendez, with the help of Drew Saylor and the Royals player development team, did some considerable work at the alternate site in 2020, and that paid off in Northwest Arkansas and Omaha in 2021. Pratto hit .271 with a 155 wRC+ in 61 games with the Naturals, and though his batting average dipped a little to .259 in 63 games after being promoted to Omaha, his wRC+ still remained strong at 156. Furthermore, Pratto continued to show prowess with his defense in 2021 (which was still rated highly during his rough campaign of 2019), as he earned a Rawlings Minor League Gold Glove at first base:

Melendez stayed consistent when it came to batting average, as he hit .285 in 79 games with the Naturals, and .293 in 44 games with the Storm Chasers last season. On a wRC+ basis, Melendez posted 157 and 170 marks in Double-A and Triple-A respectively. Lastly, Melendez proved to be one of the best power hitters in Minor League baseball, as he finished 2021 as the single-season home run leader in the Minor Leagues with 41 home runs:

Thus, when it comes to talking about the Top-Three prospects in the Royals system in 2022, the conversation has to start first with Witt, and then Melendez and Pratto in either order.


The “On-the-Cusp” Major League guys

Jonathan Bowlan (No. 12), Alec Marsh (No. 21), Angel Zerpa (No. 22), Maikel Garcia (No. 24), and Jon Heasley (No. 32)

Of these five prospects, four are currently on the Royals’ 40-man roster (Bowlan, Zerpa, Garcia, and Heasley), and two made their Major League debuts a year ago (Zerpa and Heasley). While none of these players will be “franchise cornerstones” like Witt, Pratto, and Melendez, they could be contributors to the Royals pitching staff or lineup as soon as next year, depending on their respective Minor League seasons, as well as performances and injuries of other players on the Royals’ active roster.

Bowlan probably would have debuted with Zerpa and Heasley last year, had he not gotten hurt and received Tommy John surgery. In four starts with the Naturals, Bowlan posted a 1.59 ERA, a K rate of 37.9 percent, and a K-BB percentage of 33.3 percent, all career-highs. While Bowlan will have a delayed start to 2022 due to recovery, he could move quickly in the Royals system next year, especially if they elect to move him to the bullpen (which would put less strain on his arm).

Marsh was probably under-ranked in my previous rankings, and while he is a “riser”, I am not sure if he is a “major” one by any means. Much like Bowlan, he was affected by injury, as he only made six starts with the Naturals a year ago. While his 4.97 ERA wasn’t impressive, his 3.87 FIP was more encouraging, and he also generated a 39.6 percent K rate and a 27.4 K-BB rate in 25.1 IP a year ago. The big priority for him will be limiting home runs, as he allowed an HR/FB rate of 21.1, which is pretty lackluster. It will be interesting to see if the Royals will continue to push him as a starter or if they will move him to the bullpen next year, though considering he’s not on the 40-man roster, the Royals can elect to be more patient with his development.

Zerpa and Heasley made their Major League debuts a year ago, as Zerpa pitched 5 innings while Heasley tossed 14.2 innings with the Royals. Though they didn’t blow anyone away with their stuff, they at least showcased solid control at the Major League level, which couldn’t be said of many Royals pitchers who made their debut last year (Jackson Kowar sticks out). That being said, when they commanded pitches properly, they could get MLB batters to swing and miss, as evidenced by this Heasley strikeout against the Mariners at Kauffman Stadium in September:

While Zerpa and Heasley most likely will start the year in Triple-A, they could be the first pitchers to be called up, should the injury bug or ineffectiveness strike any of the Royals pitchers at the Major League level. Going into 2021, I figured Zerpa and Heasley would be more bullpen pieces, and wouldn’t be major players for spots in the Royals bullpen until late 2022 at the earliest. But they have moved quickly in the Royals system and could be more than that projection if they can build on their promising 2021 campaigns.

The last prospect on this “On-the-Cusp” list is Garcia, who was either pretty low or absent on most royals prospect rankings going into Spring Training. It made sense: Garcia lost time in 2020 due to the cancelled Minor League season, and while he offered a good hit tool and discipline at the plate, the power tool he showed in rookie league play in 2019 was pretty subpar. However, while the power tool still needs work, Garcia posted a 129 wRC+ in low-A Columbia and a 108 wRC+ in high-A Quad Cities, which helped him earn a spot on the Royals 40-man roster this offseason in order to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft.

The Royals have tremendous depth in the middle infield, as Nick Loftin, Nate Eaton, and Michael Massey will compete with Garcia for playing time in Double-A in 2022. That being said, Garcia went from non-prospect to perhaps a Top-15 or 20 one in the Royals system by the season’s end in 2021. Thus, it is possible that if he continues this progression, Garcia could not just be a major player in Double-A in 2022, but could perhaps reach Omaha and maybe Kansas City by season’s end, should things continue to develop for the soon-to-be 22-year-old Venezuelan-born infielder.


The “Sleeper” Prospects

Will Klein (No. 36), Vinnie Pasquantino (No. 37), and Tucker Bradley (No. 41).

Klein, Pasquantino, and Bradley all barely made my Top-40 a year ago, and now they all have climbed considerably in the Royals system. Thus, while expectations were not high for them less than a year ago, these three prospects could not just be major players in the Royals system in 2022, but could also make pushes to make the Royals roster in 2023.

I liked Klein as a “powerful but raw” arm when he was drafted in the fifth round by the Royals in the 2020 draft out of Eastern Illinois. I wasn’t sure how Klein would handle the lost Minor League season in 2020, but he seemed to develop well in the Royals system, despite not pitching competitively during the COVID-affected season. In 2021 in high-A Quad Cities, Klein pitched 70.1 innings in relief, and posted a 3.20 ERA, in addition to a 40.9 percent K rate and a 26 percent K-BB rate. While his BB rate was a little high (14.9 percent), he probably has the best pure stuff in the organization, especially on a fastball end. That could help him move quickly in the Royals system, especially if Royals struggle in the bullpen at the Major League level to begin the year:

Pasquantino has been an interesting story mostly because he’s not an overly-athletic prospect, and his value pretty much depends on his hit tool, similar to Billy Butler over a decade ago (which is a reason why Pasquantino has earned the nickname “Italian Breakfast” due to his comps to Butler). Pasquantino might not hit more than 20 home runs at the Major League level, especially while playing home games at Kauffman Stadium, which saps home run power typically. That being said, Pasquantino has hit in everywhere he’s played as a professional, as he has posted wRC+ marks of 152 in Burlington (short-season Rookie), 154 in Quad Cities, and 153 in Northwest Arkansas.

Sure, Pasquantino doesn’t have Pratto’s power, athleticism or glove, but he’s been far more consistent as a hitter at the Minor League level than Pratto. Hence, it’s not a surprise that Baseball America ranked him No. 10 in their most recent Royals Top-10 prospects list for 2022.

The last “riser” from my Top-40 list is Bradley, who was a non-drafted signee out of Georgia in the 2020 MLB Draft. Bradley probably would have been drafted in 2020, but Major League Baseball decided to shorten the draft to 10 rounds due to the pandemic, and Bradley unfortunately just missed the cut. The Royals were able to sign him quickly, and Bradley has rewarded the Royals for their faith in him.

Bradley mostly played in High-A Quad Cities last year, and hit .280 with a wRC+ of 122 in 360 plate appearances. The 23-year-old shows a mature approach, and even though he didn’t hit a whole lot of big flies (nine home runs), he still hit 18 doubles and five triples, which helped him produce a decent .150 ISO (isolated slugging). In addition, Bradley posted a 0.55 K/BB ratio, which demonstrates his patient batting eye in his first professional baseball season.

In many ways, Bradley feels very much like Kyle Isbel as a prospect, and that is evident when one watches his swing, which mirrors Isbel’s very closely in form:

While I am not sure if Bradley will exactly be like Isbel, his progression in the Royals system has been similar, and I think he could have that kind of outlook, should Bradley stay healthy (which was an issue for him at times at Georgia). Because of his undrafted status, Bradley went pretty unnoticed in 2021, especially with Pasquantino and first rounder Loftin mashing for the River Bandits.

However, after a solid year in the Quad Cities, the former Bulldog outfielder will be on more prospect experts as well as Royals fans’ radar…

And it will be hard to ignore Bradley if he continues to hit, like he did in High-A a year ago.

Photo Credit: MLB.com

3 thoughts on ““Rising” Royals prospects from the 2021 Top 40 “Prospects Watch”

  1. […] Garcia was recently added to the 40-man roster, and rightfully so, after solid campaigns in Low-A Columbia and High-A Quad Cities last season. Garcia doesn’t have much of a power tool, as he only hit four home runs in 104 games between Columbia and Quad Cities in 2021. That being said, the 21-year-old Venezuelan shortstop demonstrated a great hit tool last year, as he hit .303 in Columbia and .281 in Quad Cities, and he also showcased excellent plate discipline as evidenced by BB/K ratios of 1.15 and 0.60 in Columbia and Quad Cities, respectively. Furthermore, he also stole 35 bases on 41 attempts, showing that he not only has excellent speed but great instincts on the basepaths as well. […]

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