I have done Tier One and Tier Two prospects already on this blog, as I slowly reveal my “Top 50 Royals Prospects” rankings for the upcoming 2022 season. In this post, I take a look at the Tier Three prospects, which consists of Royals prospects ranked No. 12 through No. 17.
What is a “Tier Three” Prospect, according to your rankings?
In my rankings, I categorized Tier Three prospects as ones with Major League “regular” potential, but with some slight flaws. Basically, I am not sure if they have a lot of “star” upside compared to other prospects in the rankings (especially within the Top 25). However, I think they have pretty high floors as prospects, and though they are not as “certain” as Tier One or Two prospects, I think we could see Tier Three players carve out decent careers at the Major League level.
I tend to compare Tier Three prospects to Royals players like Jarrod Dyson, Hunter Dozier, and Brad Keller (and that’s the best-case scenario). They certainly have slight issues that will prevent them from being “Top Tier” position players or pitchers when they arrive in Kansas City. That being said, they will contribute and provide value to the Royals, or whatever big league club they end up with. I also think Tier Three players could be used as trade bait, should Dayton Moore look to package any prospects in a trade either this offseason or during the upcoming 2022 season.
Tier Three Rankings
(Rank; Name; Position; Levels played in 2021)
12. Jon Heasley; RHP; Kansas City/Northwest Arkansas
13. Angel Zerpa; LHP; Kansas City Royals/Northwest Arkansas/Quad Cities
14. Maikel Garcia; MI; Quad Cities/Columbia
15. Alec Marsh; RHP; Northwest Arkansas
16. Tyler Gentry; OF; Quad Cities
17. Austin Cox; LHP; Omaha/Northwest Arkansas
How will the Royals utilize Heasley and Zerpa in 2022?
Both Heasley and Zerpa made their Major League debuts last season, though it was more due to the fact that the Royals were lacking healthy arms on the pitching staff at the end of the season rather than anything Heasley or Zerpa did in the Minors. That is why I still consider Heasley and Zerpa prospects still unlike Jackson Kowar, who had a limited debut with the Royals in 2021. I believe that Heasley and Zerpa still have some things to prove and work on in the Minors, which most likely will be Triple-A for both of them. (On the other hand, I don’t think Kowar has anything to prove in Triple-A Omaha next year.)
Heasley was one of the Naturals’ best pitchers in Northwest Arkansas, as he posted a 3.33 ERA in 22 appearances and 105.1 IP. The former Oklahoma State product showcased excellent command and control, as he generated a K rate of 27.7 percent and a K-BB percentage of 19.9 percent against Double-A hitters, the latter an improvement on his 18.4 percent mark in low A Lexington in 2019.
When Heasley matriculated to the Major Leagues, he once again showcased solid control, as evidenced by a 5.1 percent walk rate. However, he didn’t generate as many strikeouts in Kansas City, as his 10.2 percent K rate and 5.1 K-BB rate were both paltry marks.
A big issue for Heasley in his short three-game, 14.2 inning stint with the Royals, much like in Double-A, was the long ball, as he gave up 15.8 percent HR/FB rate in the Majors and a 16.2 HR/FB rate in Double-A. According to Savant metrics, he also gave up a barrel rate of 12.5 percent, which was the fifth-worst mark for Royals pitchers last season.
A big concern is that Heasley lacks a premium fastball, as his four-seamer only generated a whiff rate of six percent, despite being thrown 44 percent of the time at the MLB level (his primary pitch in Kansas city). When Heasley failed to locate it properly, hitters crushed it, as evidenced by this Ryan Jeffers home run at Kauffman Stadium last year:
As for Zerpa, he moved up quickly in the Royals system, despite being a surprise addition to the 40-man roster prior to the 2021 season. The 21-year-old started in High-A Quad Cities and absolutely dominated, posting a 2.59 ERA and 26.9 K-BB rate in 41.2 IP with the River Bandits at the beginning of the season. Zerpa earned a promotion to Northwest Arkansas after eight starts in High-A and once again showcased solid control, posting a 17.5 percent K-BB rate with the Naturals. However, his 5.96 ERA in 13 starts and 45.1 IP was far less impressive than his tenure in Quad Cities.
So what was the difference?
Much like Heasley, Zerpa was hurt by home runs, as his HR/FB rate of 21.2 percent in Northwest Arkansas was nearly 15 points higher than his rate in Quad Cities (6.5 percent).
When Zerpa keeps the ball in the yard, he’s an efficient and effective pitcher, which was demonstrated in his lone appearance for the Royals on September 30th against Cleveland. Though he got a no-decision, Zerpa went five innings and allowed two runs (none earned) while only giving up two hits and one walk while striking out four.
Even though he hadn’t pitched above Double-A prior to his debut, Zerpa was absolutely fearless against Cleveland hitters, and that showed in his strikeout of Cleveland slugger Jose Ramirez on an 0-2 fastball clocking in at 95 MPH:
Zerpa and Heasley will both begin the year in Omaha, and the big priority for them will be limiting those barrels and home run balls that both haunted them a bit in Double-A (though more so for Zerpa than Heasley). However, should any of the Royals’ starters struggle at the beginning of the year, they can fill in quickly and deliver quality innings, though their upside certainly isn’t as high as other pitchers like Kowar, Daniel Lynch, or even Asa Lacy, who most likely will start the year either Double-A or High-A.
Can Garcia and Gentry continue to surprise?
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.
Garcia is related to not only Braves superstar Ronald Acuna, Jr., but also former Royals shortstop and World Series hero Alcides Escobar. When Royals fans watch Garcia on tape, he does show that potential of perhaps being another Escobar at the Major League level:
As for Gentry, the Royals drafted him in the third round of the 2020 MLB Draft out of the University of Alabama, and Gentry was known for being a polished college hitter who could progress through the system quickly.
Though he lost a Minor League season in 2020, he did well in Quad Cities in his professional debut, posting a 135 wRC+ and hitting six homers in 44 games and 186 plate appearances for the River Bandits. Granted, the former Crimson Tide outfielder struck out nearly 30 percent of the time in High-A ball, but he still posted a BB/K ratio of 0.53, and he looked better at the plate after a slow start, as mentioned by Alex Duvall of Royals Farm Report in the Tweet below:
Garcia and Gentry certainly have their flaws. I am not sure how Garcia’s power will translate at the MLB level (or even upper Minors) and there is already a lot of competition in the middle infield with Nicky Lopez, Whit Merrifield, Nick Loftin, Adalberto Mondesi, and of course, Bobby Witt, Jr. As for Gentry, I would like to see him fully healthy, and want to see if he can stabilize that strikeout rate over 100-plus games in a Minor League season.
That being said, despite those flaws, both players were encouraging surprises in the lower levels of the Royals system last year, and Royals fans need to keep an eye out on them in Double-A in 2022, where they most likely will see significant time.
Can Marsh and Cox bounce back after underwhelming 2021 seasons?
Going into 2021, Marsh and Cox were seen as “dark horse” pitching prospects who weren’t getting enough love from prospect experts.
Yes, the Royals had high-profile arms in Lynch, Singer, Bubic, Kowar, and Lacy, but there were some Royals fans and experts who felt that Marsh and Cox had the opportunity to emerge as potential end-of-the-rotation options in Kansas City at the end of 2021 or by Opening Day in 2022.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go as smoothly for Marsh and Cox last year, albeit for different reasons.
Marsh still showcased elite stuff, as he generated a K rate of 39.6 percent and a K-BB rate of 27.4 percent in Northwest Arkansas, both impressive marks. However, Marsh was plagued by home run issues, as he gave up an HR/FB rate of 21.1 percent, which contributed to a lackluster 4.97 ERA with the Naturals in 2021. Furthermore, Marsh struggled to stay healthy, as he only made six starts and pitched 25.1 innings last season, which was disappointing considering all the “dark horse” hype he was receiving prior to the 2021 season.
However, when healthy, Marsh still possesses some of the best pure stuff in the Royals organization, as evidenced in the clip below:
As for Cox, his metrics aren’t bad at the surface level. He made 15 starts, pitched 63 innings in Northwest Arkansas, and posted a 3.00 ERA to boot. Furthermore, Cox was seen as one of the more dependable Naturals pitchers a year ago, as they tabbed him as the Game 1 starter in the Double-A Championship series:
However, a deeper dive into Cox’s metrics show a more questionable profile.
His FIP was 4.54, nearly 1.54 points higher than his ERA. Furthermore, his ability to strike batters out has gotten worse as he has moved up the Royals system, as his K rate dropped from 23.3 percent in High-A to 21.5 percent in Double-A to 12.9 percent in Triple-A. While his Triple-A sample was small, it is questionable that his stuff will play at the Major League level, and that could be a reason why the Royals elected to not add him to the 40-man roster, even though he is Rule 5 Draft eligible.
Marsh and Cox could be better in 2022, and the fact that the Royals don’t need to rush them to the Major League level is a sign of the strong pitching depth in their farm system (though it will be interesting to see if a team will select Cox in the Rule 5 Draft, whenever that happens). However, if Marsh and Cox want to be taken seriously as potential starters in Kansas City, they will need to see some gains in Triple-A next year, which will likely be their starting spot in 2022 (though it is possible Marsh could repeat Double-A).
If they don’t, it is possible that Marsh and Cox could be the second coming of Scott Blewett and Foster Griffin, respectively.
Photo Credit: Abbie Parr/Getty Images