Alec Marsh and TJ Sikkema Could “Make or Break” Picollo’s Tenure (“Royals Rule 5 Radar”)

In the first post of the ‘Royals Rule 5 Radar” series, I wanted to take a look at two special pitchers who are both Rule 5 eligible and have hazy outlooks not just in the Royals organization, but in professional baseball in general.

There’s no question that Alec Marsh and TJ Sikkema have serious talent. After all, they were both competitive balance-round picks in the 2019 draft.

However, a combination of injuries and inconsistent performances, especially last year in Double-A Northwest Arkansas, has some Royals fans and prospect experts questioning their long-term future as professional pitchers.

On one hand, they both have the stuff to be legitimate starters at the Major League level, with No. 2 or No. 3 potential. And yet, there are enough command and control issues with both of them that could perhaps limit them to the bullpen long-term or worse yet, organizational depth within the Royals system.

If JJ Picollo wants to make his stamp in his first year as the head of the Royals front office, he will need to make the right pitching coach and development hires who can tap into the potential of Marsh and Sikkema, and help them see growth at the Minor and maybe Major League level in 2023.


Marsh: Strikeout Stuff; Longball Issues

Marsh, the 70th overall pick in the 2019 MLB draft out of Arizona State, has long been on Royals fans’ prospect radar.

During the pandemic-affected season of 2020, Marsh impressed Royals brass and media during his time at the alternate site. This was despite him having only pitched in short-season Idaho Falls primarily in 2019 (he posted a 4.05 ERA in 13 starts and 33.1 IP in the Pioneer League).

Marsh’s impressive showing at the Alternate Site earned him a lot of hype from prospect experts going into the 2021 season.

While a lot of the focus in Spring Training was on top pitching prospects such as Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, Jackson Kowar, and 2020 fourth-overall pick Asa Lacy, Marsh was also being touted as a “dark horse” in the Royals system who could be just as good, if not better than those other five arms.

Marsh started off the year well in Double-A Northwest Arkansas, as he generated a 14.92 K/9 and 3.23 K/BB ratio in six starts and 25.1 IP with the Naturals. However, an elbow injury shut him down in early June, which put a stunt in his development in 2021, as profiled in a piece by Kansas City Star Royals beat writer Lynn Worthy.

Here’s a snippet from the article about Marsh and his injury:

Marsh’s bicep injury progressed gradually last year in spring training. Initially, he didn’t think it was anything aside from typical soreness, so he pushed through it, intent to prove he had been underestimated.

By his fifth start for Double-A Northwest Arkansas, ignoring the ailment “caught up to him” and progressed to the point where he couldn’t keep throwing through it. Marsh made four starts of at least five innings apiece (one six-inning start) to start the season. In those initial 21 innings, he struck out 34, allowed a .189 opponent batting average, and recorded a 1.05 WHIP and a 3.86 ERA.

But then he went just 2 2/3 innings on June 3. After that, he didn’t pitch again until June 15 and went 1 2/3 innings before the Royals shut him down…

“An injury made Kansas City Royals pitcher Alec Marsh take the chip off his shoulder” by Lynn Worth; Kansas City Star

Marsh fully recovered for the 2022 season, and as expected, he repeated in Northwest Arkansas, where he made 25 starts and pitched 114.1 innings for the Naturals last year.

And it was a year of weird highs and lows for the 24-year-old pitcher.

On one hand, Marsh continued to prove that he was one of the best strikeout artists in the Royals’ system. The former Sun Devil struck out 147 batters in Northwest Arkansas in 2022, good for a K/9 of 11.57.

He also had incredible outings like this one in May against the Arkansas Travelers where he struck out eight batters in a row.

Additionally, Marsh also made the Futures Game last Summer (albeit as a replacement for Nick Pratto, who was called up to the Majors shortly before the All-Star break).

Unfortunately, while Marsh’s strikeout ability and accolades were nice to see, his command was a different story in his first full season in the Minor Leagues.

The walks were high (4.25 BB/9) but his high strikeout rates negated those free-pass problems (a 2.72 K/BB ratio). The bigger issue was the home runs allowed, as he gave up an HR/9 of 2.13 and an HR/FB rate of 20.6 percent with the Naturals last season. This was a primary reason why his ERA ballooned to 7.32 in Northwest Arkansas last year, and his FIP wasn’t much better either at 5.83.

Unfortunately, this has been an issue not just for Marsh last year, but in previous seasons as well, as evidenced in the data below:

In a brief stint in Triple-A Omaha last year, Marsh saw his HR numbers decline a little. That said, it was only a 10-inning sample, and he seemed to benefit from an abnormally low BABIP (.148) and overly high 93.8 percent strand rate (LOB%).

So, while his 1.80 ERA in two starts with the Storm Chasers was a promising finish to the year, one has to wonder what his overall line would have looked like in a larger sample in Triple-A.

Marsh will most likely begin the year in Omaha if they decide to add him to the 40-man roster this offseason. So Royals fans most likely will get to see how Marsh will look over that large sample, and see if his 10-inning stint was him indeed making progress with his command, or just a flash-in-the-pan.


Sikkema: Can He Be the Prize of the Benintendi Deal?

Sikkema was not the lone acquisition in the Benintendi deal, as the Royals also acquired Beck Way and Chandler Champlain from the Yankees organization.

Sikkema is a local product, as he was drafted by the Yankees in 2019 out of Mizzou. Much like Marsh, Sikkema was affected by injury in 2021, as he missed the entire season due to a lat injury. And thus, 2022 was not just his first full season in professional baseball, but a year of uneven performance, much like Marsh.

The Yankees understandably moved slowly with Sikkema, as he primarily pitched in High-A Hudson Valley. With the Renegades, Sikkema made 11 appearances (including 10 starts) and pitched 36.1 innings. Over that time frame in High-A, he was pretty dominant, as he posted a K/9 of 13.38, a 6.00 K/BB ratio, and a 2.48 ERA.

The combination of Sikkema’s unorthodox delivery and exceptional pitches (especially his nasty slider) made Sikkema a difficult at-bat for opposing High-A hitters.

While Sikkema was dominant, he was old for the level at 23 years old. After being traded to the Royals, Kansas City promoted Sikkema to Double-A Northwest Arkansas, where the results were a lot more mixed.

Over eight starts and 32.2 IP, Sikkema posted a 7.44 ERA, and much like Marsh, struggled with walks and home runs in the Texas League.

Sikkema’s BB/9 rose from 2.23 in Hudson Valley to 4.13 with the Naturals, and his K/BB ratio dipped from 6.00 to 1.93 as well, respectively. Lastly, his HR/9 rate ballooned from 0.74 in High-A to 1.65 in Double-A, which had a primary effect on his rough ERA numbers.

Even though the surface-level metrics weren’t good for Sikkema (his K/9 also dropped from 13.38 in Hudson Valley to 7.99 in Northwest Arkansas), there were some encouraging developments. Sikkema generated more groundballs, as his 54.4 percent groundball rate was 7.9 points higher than his rate in Hudson Valley. If the BABIP wasn’t as bad with the Naturals (.353), it’s likely that Sikkema’s ERA wouldn’t have been as rough as it appeared.

Despite the rough debut in Double-A, Sikkema was named to the Surprise Arizona Fall League roster. So far, he’s had a solid showing in the AFL, as evidenced by his most recent outing, which helped lower his overall ERA this fall to under three:

Can Sikkema build off this solid AFL showing into a productive offseason and Spring Training campaign?

The Royals will need him to take some steps in the right direction on the mound in 2023 if they want to see any return value from the Benintendi deal last summer.


What Should Royals Fans Expect from Marsh and Sikkema in ’23?

There’s no question that Marsh and Sikkema offer enticing potential on the mound, and if things go right, they could make their MLB debuts in September 2023. That’s how close they are to the Major League level and a big reason why I think the Royals will protect both pitchers from the Rule 5 draft. It is likely that they will be swooped up if they are eligible in the December draft.

That being said, both Marsh and Sikkema need some major development and help with their control and command, especially when it comes to limiting the home run ball.

They both showed last year that they can strike out batters in tremendous numbers. On the other hand, they made mistakes far too often with their command, and that’s a big reason why they posted ERA numbers over seven, which is pretty rough, even for two pitchers coming off major injuries.

The Royals have a lot of pitchers they need to work with this off-season. Lacy needs major work to help regain his confidence as a professional pitcher.

Jonathan Bowlan is on the 40-man roster, but he needs to help regain his stuff to generate more strikeouts like he did pre-Tommy John.

Marsh and Sikkema don’t have those problems. They have the moxie and swing-and-miss ability to succeed in Kansas City as soon as next season.

With the right pitching development program and coaching, Marsh and Sikkema could be Picollo’s earliest “success stories”, which will help Royals fans regain faith that better days are ahead for not just the Royals pitchers in the Minor League system, but the overall team at the Major League level as well.

However, if Picollo can’t tap into Marsh and Sikkema’s potential in 2023?

Well, that will be an early mark against Picollo’s tenure as Royals GM…

And he can’t afford too many of those, especially with the pressure on Picollo to make Kansas City a winner soon after six-straight losing seasons.

Photo Credit: MLB Pipeline

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