“Falling” Royals Prospects from the 2021 Top 40 “Prospects Watch”

As I have mentioned before on this blog, with it being December, I have reviewed and reflected on my 2021 “Top 40 Prospects Watch” from the previous year, and have already begun the process of formulating a new one, which will be a formal “Top 50 Prospects Watch.” (Now with more prospects!)

In a previous post, I took a look at the “rising” prospects on my Top 40 list, who will be undoubtedly ranked higher than my previous ranking of them in 2021. In this post, I will take a look at the prospects whose stock fell a little in 2021, and what their outlook will be in the Royals organization for 2022 and beyond.

Much like the previous post, I have categorized all the “falling” prospects into three tiers. Here are the tiers, and brief descriptions of their characteristics:

  • Down, But Not Out: These are prospects who regressed, but they either still have time and/or potential to rebound and climb up the list in the following season. They will still be on the 2022 list, but ranked lower.
  • Possibly Gone: These are prospects who not only regressed in 2021, but whose future in the Royals appears in doubt, either due to roster crunches or the upcoming Major League Rule 5 Draft, which is still schedule to go on, whenever the lockout ends.
  • Not a Prospect: These are prospects who will either be fringe contributors at the Major League level, have too much to prove to be taken seriously as a prospect, or have an outlook that seems pretty “determined” at this point in their professional careers (and not in a good way).

Hence, let’s take a look at the “falling” prospects from my Top 40 list, and which tier they fall under for the upcoming 2022 season.

Down, But Not Out

Erick Pena (No. 5), Daniel Tillo (No. 23), Noah Murdock (No. 28), Samuel Valerio (No. 38), and Adrian Alcantara (No. 39)

I was really optimistic about Pena going into the season, due to his possible “five-tool” skill set and potential to play center field long term. However, it seems like he may be destined more for a corner outfield position, and he struggled immensely in his professional debut in the Arizona Complex League.

In 40 games and 156 plate appearances, Pena hit .161 and posted a wRC+ of 52, pretty lackluster numbers, even with the fact most Royals hitters struggled in the Complex League. His swing certainly still has that power potential, but it is pretty loopy and needs a lot of refinement this offseason and Spring.

It will be interesting to see if the Royals Player Development team led by Drew Saylor can find success with Pena this Spring and season like they did with Pratto and Melendez a year ago.

Tillo underwent Tommy John in 2020 and didn’t debut until later in 2021 with Northwest Arkansas. With the Naturals, he appeared in 17 games and pitched 23.1 innings, posting a 4.60 ERA mostly as a reliever (though he did make two starts).

The former Kentucky product certainly brings it, and the reports were good with his velocity in his return. However, walks continue to be an issue, as he posted a BB/9 of 5.79 and a K/BB ratio of 1.47, which was actually lower than his mark in Double-A in 2019 (1.91). The 25-year-old is still on the 40-man roster, but he could be a DFA candidate early in 2022 if he doesn’t show progress in the Minors next season.

Murdock has been a polarizing prospect and has fluctuated in many prospect rankings this offseason. He struggled with injury and only made seven appearances and six starts and posted a 3.18 ERA in 22.2 IP. However, his FIP was 3.82, and his K/BB ratio was 1.73, which hints that his limited stint wasn’t as good as his ERA indicated. Murdock has the size (he stands 6’8) and stuff to rise in the rankings next season, but he needs to stay healthy, and that’s a big “if” right now.

I had Valerio and Alcantara as really high-risk lower-level arms who I thought could provide some value at the end of the list. Neither really had a good campaign, as Valerio posted a 5.06 ERA in 10.2 IP in the Complex League, and Alcantara posted a 5.33 ERA in 96.2 IP in low-A Columbia. That being said, I think the Royals really played it safe with Valerio, and I could see him pitch much better once he transitions to full-season ball in low-A Columbia:

As for Alcantara, what really did him in last year were the home runs, as he gave up 1.68 home runs per nine innings last year, which was abnormally high for him, considering his previous stints. Despite that, he still posted a K/BB ratio of 3.25, which was roughly around what he did in Rookie ball in 2019.

While Alcantara is Rule 5 eligible, I think the likelihood of him getting drafted is VERY low, especially since he hasn’ t pitched beyond low-A ball. I could see the Royals player development staff really work with him this offseason and Spring, and see him break out in high-A Quad Cities, which is where he is projected to pitch in 2022.

Possibly Gone

Seuly Matias (No. 8), Austin Cox (No. 11), Brewer Hicklen (No. 14), Zach Haake (No. 16), Yefri Del Rosario (No. 25), and Yohanse Morel (No. 33).

All these listed are Rule 5 eligible and have a decent shot of being drafted in the upcoming Rule 5 draft, as they could last a full season at the MLB level, given the right situation.

Matias‘ power is unreal, and he showed it off once again in the Arizona Fall League. But he’s been constantly injured, as he only played in 59 games between High-A Quad Cities and Double-A Northwest Arkansas in 2021. Even though he had made a lot of noise with his home-run swings over his career, his contact issues, as well as his inability to stay healthy, probably steered the Royals front office away from adding him to the 40-man roster.

Thus, it is possible that a team could take a flier on him, as his power tool is Major League-ready and then some:

Cox was also another intriguing prospect not added to the 40-man roster this offseason, especially since he has been a fringe Top-10 prospect in the Royals system in the past.

Cox’s numbers from this past season aren’t bad, as he posted a 3.00 ERA in 15 starts and 63 innings in Northwest Arkansas in 2021. However, he doesn’t generate a whole lot of strikeouts (8.00 K/9 in Double-A last year), and there are concerns about how his velocity would play at the MLB level. However, a team could take a chance on him, especially if they believe his control and command could perhaps make him a Kris Bubic-lite in 2022.

Hicklen and Haake are probably destined to be back in the Royals organization in 2022,as they are not on many experts’ Rule 5 draft boards. However, they are “gamer” types both in the field and on the mound, respectively.

While I’m in the minority among Royals fans, I think Hicklen’s tools could be utilized in a platoon outfield role as soon as next year. Granted, his strikeout issues probably would hold him back from a regular role (he posted a 31.1 percent K rate in Double-A last year), but the dude is just a gamer at the end of the day, and that could be valued in the Rule 5 Draft by a team looking for a jolt.

Haake doesn’t quite have Hicklen’s intangibles, but he did decently in High-A Quad Cities in the past season (3.74 ERA in 45.2 IP) and was making noise in the Arizona Fall League early on in the Fall. He could find a bullpen role on a team looking for relief upside.

Morel and Del Rosario are high-upside, high-risk arms with interesting backgrounds, as they came from outside the Royals organization originally. Morel was acquired in the Kelvin Herrera trade with the Washington Nationals back in 2018, while Del Rosario was picked up by the Royals after the Atlanta Braves’ international signing scandal back in 2017 (which banned Braves GM at the time John Coppolella from MLB for life).

Morel was seen as the highest-upside piece in the Herrera trade (they Royals also acquired outfielder Blake Perkins and third baseman Kelvin Gutierrez, who are both no longer with the Royals organization). However, he appears to be a reliever at this point in his career. In 30 appearances and 50 innings with the High-A River Bandits, Morel posted a 6.66 ERA and pretty much struggled in every category. His HR/FB rate was 16.7 percent, his K/BB ratio was 1.41, and a 6.27 FIP showed that he wasn’t much different from what his ERA indicated.

Nonetheless, Morel has some promising stuff, and it will be interesting to see if another club feels that they could tap into his potential:

Del Rosario was a little bit better in Northwest Arkansas, as he accumulated 70.2 IP in 26 appearances and 11 starts with the Naturals last season. His 5.99 ERA wasn’t impressive, but he struck out 9.93 batters per nine innings, and his 2.23 K/BB ratio was at least more respectable than Morel’s. Del Rosario struggled with home runs as well (15.8 percent), but he experienced some rotten batted ball luck (.345 BABIP) and strand rate issues (66.9 percent), which makes one think that he could be a much better pitcher in 2022, especially since 2021 was his first competitive experience since 2018 (he missed all of 2019 due to injury).

Not a Prospect (Anymore)

Brady McConnell (No. 13), Brandon Marklund (No. 27), Gabriel Cancel (No. 31), and Charlie Neuweiler (No. 34).

McConnell has been a tough story in the Royals situation, as the former second round pick has struggled through a whole variety of issues in his short tenure in professional baseball.

The former Florida Gator only hit .211 in 38 games in Idaho Falls his rookie season, and he didn’t fare much better in low-A Columbia this past year. In 30 games, McConnell hit .196 and posted a 78 wRC+, which included a 40.2 strikeout rate. In July, Alec Lewis wrote about McConnell’s struggles with depression, and after only playing 30 games in low-A ball, one has to wonder how long he will be in the Royals organization, or baseball in general:

Marklund was an intriguing prospect heading into 2021, as he was a fireball-throwing pitcher from Canada who played in New Zealand before signing with the Royals. However, after lighting up low-A ball in 2019 with the Lexington Legends (0.46 ERA and 10.07 K/9 in 39.1 IP), the 25-year-old right-hander missed all of 2021 due to an army injury. Unfortunately, it is indeterminate where Marklund stands in the Royals organization (he’s not listed on Fangraphs’ Roster Resource Depth Chart), which probably means his days with the Royals systems are numbered.

On the middle infeild prospect end of things, Cancel has always been a “stats over scouting” kind of guy, as he has put up some interesting numbers, even though scouts were never high on him in regard to his MLB outlook.

The former 7th-round pick did in Omaha last season what he usually has done at the Minor League level over his career: hit some bombs, but struggle to hit for contact on a consistent basis to be taken seriously as a Royals 40-man addition. Cancel hit 14 home runs in 57 games and posted a 110 wRC+ to boot. However, he only hit .228 and struck out 30 percent of the time in Omaha, a career-high.

Thus, it’s hard to see Cancel more than organizational middle infield depth at Triple-A.

Lastly, it was tough to put Neuweiler in this tier, especially since he has been a Top-40 prospect in the Royals system before. However, while Neuweiler’s metrics aren’t bad by any means, I am not sure if he does anything to stand out amongst the plethora of arms in the Royals system.

After all, are the Royals going to really stick with a 22-year-old pitcher drafted out of high school who hasn’t progressed past High-A ball yet (and posted a 4.81 ERA in 58 innings in High-A to boot)? That seems hard to believe, especially after a recent draft where they invested in so many high school arms, including Frank Mozzicato, Ben Kudrna, and Shane Panzini, just to name a few.

I want to root for Neuweiler, and I still am, as long as he’s in the Royals organization.

But much like McConnell, I think his days are dwindling in this Royals system, and I could see him pitching elsewhere as soon as next Spring.

Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

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