Looking at the Tier One Prospects (Royals 2023 “Top 50 Prospects to Watch” Rankings)

With the beginning of the new year, I figured it would be a good opportunity to begin the “Top 50 Prospects to Watch” writeups, starting with our Tier One prospects.

Remember, just as a disclaimer, my rankings are a bit different than most “prospect rankings” from prospect experts or Royals fans. Instead of just ranking the best from 1-50, I try to lump similar prospects into “tiers”, which gives Royals fans what kind of prospects the ones profiled are, and what their outlook will be in the Kansas City organization.

For context, here are examples of Tier One and Tier Two prospect posts from 2022. That should give Royals fans an idea of how these rankings will look, and how posts will be structured as well over the next month.

My hope is to have the list completely unveiled and all tier posts written before the Royals begin Cactus League play.

So, onto the Royals Tier One prospects from this year’s “Top 50 Prospects to Watch” list!

What is a Tier One Prospect According to Your Rankings?

If you look at the list below, you’ll notice that there are no pitching prospects in this tier.

It’s not that I think that there isn’t potential when it comes to the pitching prospects in the Royals system. Ben Kudrna and Frank Mozzicato could take big steps forward in their second full seasons in the Minors. With the right coaching and tempered expectations, Asa Lacy could once again be a Top-5 prospect in the Royals system. Lastly, Beck Way and Andrew Hoffmann are two underrated pitching prospects who could be Top-5 guys in next year’s rankings.

That being said, the Royals system as a whole really failed to make any progress with the pitchers in their system. On the flip side, it was the opposite story when it came to their position players, mostly thanks to Drew Saylor and the Royals’ hitting development team. Many prospects who were probably “fringe” a year ago had solid seasons, and there was a good group of position players in the upper levels that matriculated to the MLB level, including Bobby Witt, Jr., MJ Melendez, Nick Pratto, Vinnie Pasquantino, Michael Massey, Nate Eaton, Drew Waters (after being acquired from Atlanta), and Maikel Garcia.

Thus, the top-six prospects in this tier are dubbed “the Position Studs”, as these are position players who could be major players for the Royals in the next few seasons.

Based on the recent history of Royals player development, this tier could realistically have a high chance of attaining success at the MLB level, with a couple of them having “star” potential. On the other hand, the ceiling of this group is a lot lower than the ceiling of last year’s “Tier One” position player (and overall) group, which included Witt, Pratto, and Melendez.

Tier One Rankings

(Rank; Name; Position; Highest Level Played in 2022)

  1. Maikel Garcia; SS; Kansas City Royals (MLB)
  2. Gavin Cross; OF; Columbia Fireflies (Low-A)
  3. Nick Loftin; UTL; Omaha Storm Chasers (Triple-A)
  4. Tyler Gentry; OF; Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Double-A)
  5. Cayden Wallace; 3B; Columbia Fireflies (Low-A)
  6. Carter Jensen; C; Columbia Fireflies (Low-A)

Why Garcia Over Cross?

To be honest, I went back and forth with whether Garcia or Cross deserved the top spot in my Top 50 rankings. Both certainly have cases to make.

Cross’ arrival to the Royals organization was met with mixed fanfare after the Royals drafted him 9th overall in the 2022 MLB Draft. Some Royals fans preferred Texas Tech’s Jace Jung, who has a slightly better hit tool, or Cam Collier, who had the highest upside of position players available.

Rather, the Royals went with Cross, a polished outfielder who hit .328 with 17 home runs in his final season at Virginia Tech.

Despite the pressure, Cross thrived in his first professional experience in Columbia after signing quickly.

In 26 games, Cross hit .293 for the Fireflies, which included seven home runs, 22 RBI, 20 runs scored, and four stolen bases. He demonstrated a keen eye at the plate, as he walked 17.9 percent of the time, and posted a BB/K ratio of 0.71 in his first professional stint. As a result, his 171 wRC+ was one of the most impressive marks of Fireflies hitters in that category, despite the short sample. In fact, Cross’ performance was a big reason why the Fireflies were considerably better in the second half of the year.

There is no question that of the group of Tier One prospects, Cross probably has the highest floor. He should be a guy who can hit for a high average, 20-25 home runs a year, and also steal double-digit stolen bases as well.

There is some hope that he can stick in center field, but he profiles more as a corner outfielder with potential Gold Glove ability. He certainly has the athleticism and skills to be a candidate when he matriculates to the MLB level, and that kind of skill set would be important to have at Kauffman Stadium, where corner outfielders have to be better than average defensively due to the K’s spacious dimensions.

Cross can project to be an Andrew Benintendi or Alex Gordon type, which would certainly be needed in Kansas City, even with the glut of young outfielders currently at the MLB level (Waters, Eaton, Kyle Isbel, and Edward Olivares).

So why didn’t I rank him number one?

Well, when it comes to ranking a “No. 1 Guy to Watch”, I would rather have someone who can be a “superstar” in that spot, even if there may be some considerable risk in that happening.

Cross can be a star, and a multiple All-Star to boot.

But Garcia? He can be a superstar, especially considering his lineage to Alcides Escobar and Ronald Acuna, Jr.

There is a chance that Garcia could be the Royals’ most successful international signing to date, which is impressive considering this organization has also signed and developed Salvador Perez.

A big reason Garcia has jumped so much in many prospect rankings (including my own) is that Garcia has quickly developed his power tool after being categorized as a “light-hitting” utility infielder earlier in his Minor League career.

After only hitting four home runs combined in Low-A and High-A ball in 2021, Garcia increased his HR total to 11 in 2022, including seven in Omaha in only 186 plate appearances. The home runs seem to be a product of Garcia’s refined swing, which helps him get more loft on batted balls, and gains in weight and strength over the past two years.

When Garcia broke into the states from the DSL in 2018, he was pretty much a skinny teenager, though he certainly possessed some speed on the basepaths and skills with the glove. Last year, he looked more like a fully-developed adult, which paid dividends in Omaha.

The power certainly has turned heads in the Royals organization. But even before this power surge, Garcia has shown seeds of being a successful MLB shortstop, with Escobar being at least a floor of what his potential could be in the future.

Unlike Escobar, Garcia shows a patient approach at the plate, which includes BB/K ratios of 1.15, 0.60, and 0.68 in stints from Columbia to Quad Cities to Northwest Arkansas, respectively. The BB/K ratio did dip to 0.40 in Triple-A, but he made up for that with a boost in ISO, as his .186 mark was a career high.

Also, the 22-year-old Venezuelan native earned high remarks from scouts in the Minors for his glove and was not only known for his smoothness and consistency but for dazzling plays as well, such as this one in Northwest Arkansas.

What finally gives Garcia the edge over Cross is that Garcia has frequently played among the older competition, and continues to thrive.

Despite not playing above Double-A ball in 2022, Garcia earned a call-up amidst the Royals’ “unvaccinated fiasco” and held his own in a nine-game, 23-plate-appearance stint. While he didn’t show much power, he did hit .318, posted a 102 wRC+, and transitioned that confidence to his promotion to Triple-A for the remainder of the year.

And this winter, he has absolutely set the Venezuelan Winter League ablaze with Tiburones.

In 59 games and 250 plate appearances, Garcia hit .323 with a .942 OPS in his third stint with Tiburones. In the VWL this year, he has shown an influx in power, as he has hit four home runs, five triples, and slugging of .498. For context, he had ZERO home runs with Tiburones in 2020 and 2021 combined, and his slugging numbers were .412 and .418 in 2020 and 2021, respectively.

Here’s an example of Garcia hitting an absolute moonshot to deep centerfield this winter:

Garcia’s winter has been so phenomenal, that he has recently been voted as the team MVP of Tiburones this year, which is nothing to shrug about, especially with MLB veteran Franklin Barreto on the team (Barreto has played for the Angels and A’s).

Cross could take the next step in 2022, and I look forward to what he can do in High-A ball with the Quad Cities River Bandits.

But Garcia could help add a dynamic element to the Royals infield in the middle of 2023, even if may require shifting young Royals star Witt to third base in the process.

Loftin and Gentry Offer Solid Floors (And Could Be Up Soon)

Loftin and Gentry certainly didn’t deserve the top spot, but I flirted with them in the number two spot at various times in the creation of these rankings. Loftin’s rough go in Omaha, and Gentry’s disappointing campaign in the AFL deflated their stock a bit, but they are both high-floor prospects who could contribute as soon as next season.

Loftin hit .216 with a 69 wRC+ in 38 games in Omaha, which doesn’t look good on paper at first. However, he did perform much better down the stretch and seemed to hit some rough BABIP luck, as it was only .259 with the Storm Chasers (compared to .288 in Northwest Arkansas and .323 in Quad Cities). It’s likely the expectations of his call-up weighed on him a bit at first, as his BB/K ratio was drastically different in Omaha (0.24) than earlier in the year in Northwest Arkansas (0.70).

With the Naturals though, he showed that he has the potential to be a “Whit Merrifield 2.0” with perhaps more power upside. He hit 12 home runs and stole 24 bases in 90 games with the Naturals, and also hit .270 with a wRC+ of 100 exactly. Loftin also played all over the field, including stints at 2B, SS, 3B, LF, and CF.

Whit is always going to be a common comparison for Loftin, especially with his multi-position versatility and ability on the basepaths.

But I do think Loftin could be a more special player than Whit, especially since I like his power tool transitioning to the Majors better than Whit’s. While his 2022 in Omaha was nothing to shout home about, I could see Loftin bouncing back in Omaha this year, and being a candidate for a callup in September, especially if the Royals clear some space on the roster by the Trade Deadline.

As for Gentry, his timetable for making his MLB debut is more realistic in 2024 than in 2023. That being said, he made such progress in 2022 that I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a shot in September this year either.

Gentry was hyped up to be one of the Royals’ top prospects in Surprise this fall in the AFL, but he only played in 10 games and hit .139 in 41 plate appearances. On the flip side, he did get off to a good start with two home runs in his first game, which makes one wonder if he was dealing with a minor injury or something else this fall.

Gentry’s main feature as a prospect is his bat, and he was absolutely solid in both Quad Cities and Northwest Arkansas, as he hit 21 home runs and posted a combined .965 OPS in 108 games and 483 plate appearances between High-A and Double-A ball. What was also impressive to see was Gentry improving his plate discipline from High-A to Double-A in 2022, as he improved his BB/K ratio from 0.51 to 0.60 in the promotion from Quad Cities to Northwest Arkansas. This also included lowering his K rate from 25.7 percent with the River Bandits to 19.9 percent with the Naturals.

The main issue will be if Gentry’s glove will stick in the Majors. It’s not like he’s a bad defensive prospect by any means, but he doesn’t have the versatility of Loftin or even other outfielders like Eaton, Sibel, and Waters, who likely will be on the Royals’ Opening Day roster.

Nonetheless, Gentry’s bat plays, and that should continue to carry him as one of the Royals’ best prospects in 2023.

Wallace and Jensen Could Be Top Royals Prospects in 2024

Wallace was the Royals’ second-round pick in the 2022 draft and he was thought of as a first-round talent, which was further confirmed by the Royals signing him over the slot.

The Royals’ decision to compensate Wallace paid off though, as he absolutely crushed Low A pitching in his Minor League debut.

Wallace hit .294 with two home runs and 16 RBI in 27 games and 122 plate appearances for the Fireflies, which was good enough for a 131 wRC+. He also posted a 0.55 BB/K ratio and a .174 ISO in Columbia, though he did benefit from a .353 BABIP in his first Minor League stint.

The Royals currently have a hole at third base, and if Wallace transitions this solid start to High-A and the upper levels of the Royals’ Minor League system in 2023, then it is possible that Wallace could make a run to be the Royals’ Opening Day third baseman in 2024, especially if they are intent on keeping Witt at shortstop long term.

As for Jensen, I wanted to rank him higher, but couldn’t justify putting him over anyone on this list just yet, especially with his future hazy at catcher defensively.

The Royals have had a mixed track record with highly drafted prep catchers recently. Yes, there is the success story of Melendez, a second-round pick in 2017. But you can’t forget about Chase Vallot, a first-round pick (compensation round) in 2014 who absolutely flamed out and is no longer in the Royals system (or affiliated ball for that matter).

Right now, Jensen is looking more like Melendez, with a solid first full season in Columbia that saw him hit 11 home runs and post a 111 wRC+ in 485 plate appearances. Despite Columbia’s struggles from position player prospects in 2022 (especially in the first half), Jensen was a dependable bat who showed a keen eye (a 0.81 BB/K ratio) and some power potential (.155 ISO).

Some Royals fans may look at the .226 average and grimace. However, Jensen mostly played as an 18-year-old in Columbia a year ago, thus making him one of the younger players in Low A ball in 2022. He also wasn’t helped by a .275 BABIP. However, his high flyball rate (43.5 percent) and pull rate (41.5 percent) will likely benefit him more as he gains more strength and transitions to more hitter-friendly environments, especially in Quad Cities and the Midwest League in 2023, where he likely will start.

The main question about Jensen is his defense, as scouts do not think he will be able to handle catching long-term. That said, the Royals should continue to keep him there for at least 2023, with the hope that he could handle and work on some multi-position versatility eventually in 2024, much like Melendez did prior to his call-up in Kansas City last year.

There is a lot of potential with Jensen, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him have a big 2023 and emerge as the Royals’ consensus top prospect for 2024.

Photo Credit: Rich Schultz/Getty Images


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