I have already released my first analysis post of the “Top 50 Prospects to Watch” rankings, as I looked at the Tier One prospects in the Royals system (which included the No. 1 through No. 6 prospects). As one noticed in the post, no pitchers were included in the Tier One rankings.
That is a bit of a different story in the Tier Two rankings, which includes the No. 7 through No. 12 prospects in the Royals system. This tier only includes pitchers, ironically.
Let’s take a look at the Tier Two prospects, and why Royals fans should be paying attention closely to this next group of prospects, especially considering the state of the farm system in regard to pitching.
What is a Tier Two Prospect According to Your Rankings?
I categorized the “Tier Two” prospects as the “main arms” in the Royals system. Even though the Royals didn’t have any pitching prospects in the “Tier One” category, there are still some talented Royals pitching prospects in the Minor Leagues that could have an impact with the right adjustments and development.
In this tier, I identified six pitchers who I felt were the “top” pitching prospects in the Royals system, and perhaps could have an impact on the MLB club in 2023 or 2024.
Tier Two Rankings
(Rank; Name; Position; Highest Level Played in 2022)
7. Ben Kudrna; RHP; Columbia Fireflies (Low-A)
8. Frank Mozzicato; LHP; Columbia Fireflies (Low-A)
9. Asa Lacy; LHP; Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Double-A)
10. Jonathan Bowlan; RHP; Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Double-A)
11. Alec Marsh; RHP; Omaha Storm Chasers (Triple-A)
12. Angel Zerpa; LHP; Kansas City Royals (MLB)
Why Kudrna Over Mozzicato?
The Royals’ top picks in the 2021 MLB Draft (Mozzicato 7th overall; Kudrna 43rd overall) both had up and down seasons in Low-A Columbia, which is to be expected for two prep pitchers drafted out of high school (and from cold-weather states nonetheless). However, while neither produced dominating campaigns as teenagers, they certainly showed enough promise to be considered Top-10 prospects in the Royals system, with the opportunity to climb higher depending on their development in 2023.
Kudrna is ranked one spot higher simply because his season was a bit more consistent overall. In 17 starts and 72.1 IP with the Fireflies, Kudrna produced a 3.48 ERA, 4.29 FIP, and produced a 1.91 K/BB ratio. The former Blue Valley Southwest product also limited the long ball in his stint in Columbia, as he only allowed an HR/9 of 0.50 and an HR/FB rate of 4.5 percent.
As stated before, it wasn’t an incredible season on paper for Kudrna. However, it was good enough to earn him Pitcher of the Year honors in Columbia:
Command-wise, Kudrna is a bit more polished than Mozzicato and his stuff is a little more developed as well, including his four-seamer, which is currently rated as a 50 with 55 potential, according to Fangraphs. He thrives with an above-average slider and changeup as his secondary offerings, which are currently rated as a 45 and 50, respectively.
Here’s an example of Kudrna’s aggressive approach and solid command producing a quick at-bat back in June:
The command did wane toward the end of the season, as Kudrna had multiple walks in seven of his final eight starts, according to Fangraphs game logs. Considering it was his first full Minor League season out of high school, it is likely that those struggles in walks allowed were probably due more to fatigue and should not be as big of an issue as he continues to get more development and builds up his stamina each year.
Mozzicato on the other hand actually finished the year much stronger than Kudrna, as he allowed only two runs, struck out 21 batters, and walked eight, in three of his final starts from August 17th to August 31st, according to Fangraphs. He had a rough final outing of the year where he failed to get out of the first, and three of his first four starts in Columbia were ugly, which contributed to his 4.30 ERA and 1.75 K/BB ratio in 69 IP.
That said, Mozzicato’s fastball (30), slider (20), and changeup (30) have been rated as much “rawer” pitches than Kudrna’s offerings, according to Fangraphs. So some growing pains were to be expected with Mozzicato in his first full MiLB season.
Even though the floor of Mozzicato is much lower than Kudrna’s, I do think the ceiling may be slightly higher. When his stuff was on, Mozzicato could be flat-out dominating, mostly thanks to a curveball which is already rated as a plus pitch according to Fangraphs (55 specifically with 60-grade upside).
Here’s an example of Mozzicato thriving on the mound in August as he struck out six while allowing no hits in four innings.
The big issue for Mozzicato to pay attention to in 2023 will be how he limits his walks and irons out his command on a consistent basis. His BB/9 was 6.65 in 2022, nearly three walks higher per nine than Kudrna’s rate. On the other hand, Mozzicato did have a K/9 of 11.61, which was 4.02 higher than Kudrna.
If anything, Kudrna and Mozzicato should be seen as the 7A and 7B prospects in the Royals system, going into 2023. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Mozzicato surpass Kudrna by end of the year, especially with Mozzicato having more strikeout upside than Kudrna currently.
Can Lacy, Bowlan, and Marsh Rebound?
Going into 2021, Asa Lacy, Jonathan Bowlan, and Alec Marsh were seen as three pitching prospects who were expected to contribute in some way in 2023. Due to various injuries and other issues though, their pitching futures look questionable, despite still individually possessing some of the most upsides in the Royals system.
The issue with Lacy in 2022 seemed to be a combination of lingering issues, and perhaps a case of the “yips” (i.e. a mental block). Lacy only pitched 28 total innings between Double-A and the Arizona Complex League (which is usually reserved for MiLB rehab stints and rookies). While he struck out 35 batters in those two combined levels and only allowed 13 hits, he also walked an astounding 42 batters as well.
The former fourth-overall pick simply just could not find the strike zone in 2022, and it was common for his outings to be incredibly short with very few outs recorded.
When his command is on (which is rare but it does happen), Lacy may be the “best” pitcher in the Royals system. I say best in parentheses though because a pitcher has to throw strikes consistently to be effective, and that just didn’t happen enough for Lacy last season in either Northwest Arkansas or Arizona.
Royals fans should not give up on Lacy though.
He’s definitely been plagued by injuries, a lost Minor League (and abbreviated college) season due to COVID, and being rushed through the Royals system. Nonetheless, Lacy has incredible swing-and-miss potential, and seeing clips like this one below makes me optimistic that some new changes in the Royals’ pitching development staff could have positive effects on him in 2023.
Bowland comes in as the No. 10 prospect in the Royals system mostly because I think last year was a bit of a blip on his record, which is to be expected for a guy coming off of Tommy John.
The 6.92 ERA, 1.76 K/BB ratio, and 1.62 HR/9 in nine starts and 39 IP with the Naturals do not look good by any means. However, his complex numbers look a lot more impressive, as he posted a 6.50 K/BB ratio and 29.2 percent K rate in 19.1 IP. The ERA was high there (5.92), but the focus at that level was on rehabbing and getting back his command, and he did that really well after not pitching for almost two seasons.
When Bowlan was “on” in 2022, he showcased why the Royals added him to the 40-man roster in 2021. Here’s an example of Bowlan just having a dominating start in his only appearance in High-A last year with the Quad Cities Rivers Bandits.
With two Minor League options remaining, I have a feeling Bowlan’s likely path to the Majors will be through the bullpen. He strikes out batters in bunches and limits walks, and I think that quality could be better utilized for him in short stints, especially at his age (26 years old). It wouldn’t be surprising to see Bowlan pitching in the Royals’ bullpen in June or July.
As for Marsh, he will still be developed as a starter, though a bullpen stint may be better for him as well.
Much like Bowlan, Marsh has demonstrated an ability to produce whiffs and keep his walks manageable, as evidenced by his 2.72 K/BB ratio with the Naturals in 25 starts and 114.1 IP. On the other hand, the long ball has plagued Marsh throughout his career, which is amplified by the 2.13 HR/9 he allowed with the Naturals last season.
Marsh has been candid about his struggles. In many interviews, it seems like he is trying to keep things in perspective and has been working hard with the Royals’ pitching development this offseason to regain some of that confidence that made him a 1st round pick out of Arizona State. Marsh has a solid four-seam and slider combo, and if he can utilize the command on those two pitchers more effectively in 2023, he could at the very least be contributing to the Royals bullpen in 2023, with some potential to be a setup man or possible closer in the future.
The numbers from 2022 may look bleak for Marsh. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see him have the most impact on the Royals’ pitching staff in 2023 of the pitchers in this tier, especially after being added to the 40-man roster this offseason.
The Enigma of Zerpa
If there’s one pitcher in this group I struggle to project, it may be Zerpa, who actually has the most MLB experience in this tier (four appearances; three starts; 16 career MLB IP).
On one hand, Zerpa works fast and may have the best command of this tier (Zerpa has at least proven it at the MLB level). There’s an aggressive and fearless nature to Zerpa’s approach on the mound, and earlier this offseason, I compared Zerpa’s outlook to Philadelphia’s Ranger Suarez.
Zerpa pitched primarily in Double-A and his numbers for the most part are solid. In 13 starts and 64 innings pitched, he posted a 4.30 ERA, a K/BB ratio of 3.29, and an HR/9 of 0.98. While many other pitching prospects struggled in Northwest Arkansas (Marsh, Anthony Veneziano, etc.), Zerpa thrived and certainly earned his promotion to Kansas City.
If Zerpa was so impressive in Double-A, then why did I not rank him higher?
Well, I worry about the swings and misses transitioning to the MLB level.
His three pitches all grade out under 50, according to Fangraphs, and his CSW (called strike plus whiff) rate of 23.9 percent at the MLB level last year doesn’t really move the needle either. Furthermore, he saw a spike in hard-hit (55.3 percent) and barrel rate (10.5 percent), which makes me wonder what his overall numbers would look like over the course of a full MLB season.
Here’s an example of Miguel Cabrera barreling a ball, but being a victim of Kauffman Stadium’s “pitcher-friendly” confines.
The one thing going in Zerpa’s favor is that he’s a supreme competitor and he’s adjusted well to hitters every year. After posting a 5.96 ERA in 2021 in Double-A, Zerpa was much more dominant when he repeated the level in 2022.
It’s possible that with a full offseason, Zerpa can make that adjustment at the MLB level in 2023 and continue to get better each season after as well.
But, I will need to see it first from Zerpa this season before I am comfortable with moving him up in the rankings.
Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports