Looking at the Tier Four Prospects (The “Top 50 Royals Prospects” Rankings)

We’re getting back to the “Top 50 Royals Prospects” Rankings today, and in this post, I will take a look at the Tier Four prospects, which includes the No. 18-21 ranked prospects in the Royals system, according to my rankings.

For those who have missed the earlier posts, my other prospect rankings for the 2022 season can be found below:

What is a “Tier Four” Prospect, according to your rankings?

When it came to identifying “Tier Four” prospects in the Royals system, I pretty much categorized them as prospects with “star potential” but carried a lot of risks, flaws, or challenges in the organization (i.e. blockage in the upper levels and/or Majors). These are prospects who could be potential All Stars for Kansas City, but they also could burn out, and perhaps even fail to make the Major Leagues at all.

While they are volatile players projection-wise, they still possess a ton of upside and potential and will be important prospects to watch in 2022, wherever they should play. If things go right next season, they are the kind of prospects who could easily jump to Tier Two or even Tier One level in the rankings by 2023.

Tier Four Rankings

(Rank; Name; Position; Levels played in 2022)

18. Darryl Collins; OF; Columbia

19. Michael Massey; 2B; Quad Cities

20. Erick Pena; OF; Complex Rookie

21. Ben Hernandez; RHP; Columbia

Can Collins and Pena be the future of the Royals outfield?

There is no question that the Royals are thin in the upper levels of the system when it comes to outfield prospects. While Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares have shown flashes of being good corner outfielders at the Major League level, it is still to be determined whether they are true “every day” outfielders, or perhaps bench/platoon types long-term. Furthermore, according to Fangraphs’ Roster Resource Royals Depth Chart for 2022, it is unlikely if Dairon Blanco or the newly-acquired JaCoby Jones are going to provide much hope in Triple-A Omaha next season as well.

However, the Royals do have a pair of young international outfielders in the lower minors who have tremendous upside in Darryl Collins (who hails from the Netherlands) and Erick Pena (who hails from the Dominican Republic).

Of the two, Collins had the better campaign in 2021 and seems more ahead of the game in terms of making the Majors (though to be fair, he is older than Pena).

Last year, Collins played in 86 games and accumulated 343 plate appearances for the Low A Columbia Fireflies. While his .246 average doesn’t really impress, he did post a .367 OBP, and his 13.6 percent walk rate and 0.95 BB/K ratios demonstrate that Collins has a mature eye at the plate. His power wasn’t all that consistent in Columbia, as he only posted a slugging of .338 and ISO of .091. However, he did hit more flyballs in 2021 (0.88 GB/FB; down from his 1.36 mark in 2019 in rookie league ball), and when one watches his swing in action, it is easy to see Collins’ power metrics increase as he gets older and gains more strength while progressing up the Royals system.

Pena on the other hand pretty much fell flat in the Arizona Complex Rookie League after being named a Top-10 prospect in the Royals system going into 2021 by many publications (including Baseball America). The Royals seemed to push Pena quickly in Spring Training, as he garnered some at-bats in Cactus League play last Spring, even though he had never played professional ball beyond a stint in the Instructional League (which was due to a lost Minor League season because of COVID).

In those Cactus League at-bats, Pena looked incredibly overwhelmed, and that proved to be the theme of his 2021, which is demonstrated in his sub-stellar stat line.

In 40 games and 156 plate appearances in Arizona, he hit .161 and struck out 36.5 percent of the time. While he did show some power potential with three home runs and an ISO of .153, Pena still proved last year that he is incredibly raw, and is still a work-in-progress as an outfield prospect.

That being said, while his metrics in his professional debut were underwhelming, he still has incredible potential, and could catapult easily in Tier One status in 2023, should he make the proper adjustments this offseason and Spring.

Both Collins and Pena are still incredibly young (20 and 18, respectively), so they will have plenty of time to develop and improve their skills as they progress in the Royals farm system. The Royals will likely take it slow with the both of them, and it is unlikely that they will play at more than one level next year unless something really dramatic happens.

Where does Massey fit in the Royals organization?

There is no question that Massey has proven himself thus far in his short tenure in the Royals Minor League system, especially at the plate.

In 42 games in Rookie League Burlington in 2019, the former fourth-round pick out of Illinois hit .272 and posted a wRC+ of 105, according to Fangraphs. In his Minor League debut, Massey proved to be the typical Royals middle infield prospect: good hit tool; good glove; nothing else really special tool-wise though.

However, in 2021, Massey broke out in High-A Quad Cities in a big way at the plate.

Over 99 games and 439 plate appearances, the 23-year-old hit 21 home runs and stole 12 bases on 14 attempts. Furthermore, he continued to maintain the solid hit tool (.289 batting average) and discipline at the plate (0.49 BB/K ratio) he showed in Burlington in 2019 against High-A pitching last year. Thus, Massey soared up prospect rankings midseason, going from perhaps a “fringe” utility infield type to perhaps a dark horse “regular” depending on how his power tool fares at the upper levels of the Royals system, which most likely will be this year.

When watching highlights of him on tape, it is tantalizing to think what he could do with his bat at Kauffman Stadium in perhaps 2023, or maybe late 2022, depending on how the infield situation sorts out at the Major League level at the beginning of the year.

The jump in power and stolen base numbers make it a possibility that Massey could be a 20-20 type at the Major League level, which would be incredibly valuable for someone at the keystone position.

That being said, the Royals infield situation is incredibly crowded, as Whit Merrifield is slotted to be the Opening Day second baseman in Kansas City in 2022, and Nicky Lopez, Adalberto Mondesi, Bobby Witt, Jr., Maikel Garcia, and perhaps Nick Loftin could all be vying for playing time in the middle infield in 2022 and 2023 as well, which makes the opportunities limited for Massey in the short and long term.

No one is doubting Massey’s skills or potential. He has proven himself thus far in Rookie and High-A ball, and it is likely that Massey will continue to impress in Double-A Northwest Arkansas, his next likely destination.

But will he get that opportunity in Kansas City? Or could Dayton Moore perhaps use Massey as a piece in a possible trade either this season or next?

Is Hernandez going to emerge as the next big Royals pitching prospect?

The pitching depth in the Royals system that past few seasons has been something to behold, and without a doubt will be key to Kansas City being competitive again at the Major League level in 2023 and beyond (I still think 2022 will be a developing year).

For small-market clubs like the Royals, the biggest key to success is drafting/signing and developing pitching internally, with the hope that they sign reasonable deals prior to arbitration that can keep them in their small-market city for a decent amount of time. Big-name free-agent pitchers like Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer are not coming to small-market franchises, especially ones in the rebuilding process like Kansas City (sorry Royals fans).

The Royals have already seen a decent amount of homegrown pitchers graduate to the Major League level, with Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, Carlos Hernandez, Daniel Lynch, and Jackson Kowar being the most glaring five. However, there still is a cadre of talented arms in the upper minors, including Jon Heasley and Angel Zerpa, who made their Royals debuts last year, as well as Jonathan Bowlan, Asa Lacy, and Austin Cox, who are all Tier Three and above pitching prospects.

However, a pitching prospect that went under-the-radar last year was Ben Hernandez, the Royals’ second-round draft pick in 2020 who hails from the Chicago area. As a prep prospect from a cold-weather state, it was expected that the Royals were going to move slowly with Hernandez in 2021. That being said, the 20-year-old right-handed pitcher has a live arm and a mature pitch arsenal, which could make him a fast-riser in the Royals system in 2022.

Hernandez primarily pitched in Low A Columbia, and he only made nine starts and pitched 31.1 innings due to injury (he also made three rehab appearances in the Complex League). He posted a 4.31 ERA and a 1.82 K/BB ratio with the Fireflies last season, which included a 22.3 percent K rate and an HR/FB rate of 8.3 percent, both solid marks in the latter categories. Furthermore, Hernandez did a stellar job of generating groundballs in his limited stint in Columbia, as evidenced by a GB rate of 50.6 percent and a GB/FB ratio of 1.83. While the strikeouts may not be as high as one would want from a top pitching prospect (yet), the fact that he can generate so many groundballs at the lower levels of play is a good sign going forward.

A big reason Hernandez is able to do that is due to his changeup, which is his most premium pitch. Here is Hernandez generating a strikeout last year up in the zone back in May:

Here is also Hernandez generating a backward K on his changeup in another clip, and Jared Perkins of Royals Farm Report has a good writeup in his Tweet that summarizes Hernandez’s potential for next season:

Hernandez still has a way to go before he will be competing for a spot in the Royals rotation (or bullpen), as he needs to prove that he can stay healthy and pitch more innings over the course of a full Minor League season first. However, Hernandez’s profile may be the most interesting of any of the Royals’ current pitching prospects, especially in the lower levels.

Don’t be surprised to see Hernandez jump up on a lot of experts’ midseason prospect rankings, especially if he can limit his walks a bit and stay healthy at the beginning of the 2022 season.

Photo Credit: Zachary Lucy/Four Seam Images via AP

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