We have covered the Top 12 Royals prospects to watch in 2023 in my Tier One (1st through 6th) and Tier Two (7th through 12th) posts. I figured with the slow Royals news day*, it would be a good time to look at the Tier Three prospects, which include the 13th through 17th-ranked prospects in the Royals system, according to my rankings.
Surprisingly, all the prospects in this Tier once again are pitching prospects.
While I know the Royals’ pitching development has been a source of critique over the past five seasons, I believe there is plenty of potential regarding arms in the Royals’ Minor League system. These five prospects are certainly sleepers in the Royals system who could take a big step in the right direction with the proper tutelage and development in the Minors in 2023 (though they are probably all at least a year away from making their Major League debut).
*Edit: As soon as I began writing this, it was announced by Jeff Passan and Mark Feinsand that the Royals traded Michael A. Taylor to the Twins for a pair of pitching prospects:
I will write more about my thoughts on this deal tomorrow.
What is a Tier Three Prospect According to Your Rankings?
I categorized the Tier Three prospects as the “other arms” to watch in the Royals system. These pitching prospects carry a bit more risk than the Tier Two pitchers in the Royals system. Furthermore, they still are at least a year away from making their MLB debut, though they all could be candidates to make the Opening Day roster in 2024, should they properly develop under the Royals’ slightly revamped pitching development and Minor League coaching staff this season.
Many of the prospects have been acquired from outside the Royals system, including in the last year. Most of the pitchers in this Tier had mixed results in their transition to the Royals’ farm teams, but I think the Royals Player Development staff could have a strong impact, especially with a full offseason and Spring of work.
Tier Three Rankings
(Rank; Name; Position; Highest Level Played in 2022)
13. Beck Way; RHP; Quad Cities River Bandits (High-A)
14. Chandler Champlain; RHP; Quad Cities River Bandits (High-A)
15. Andrew Hoffmann; RHP; Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Double-A)
16. T.J. Sikkema; LHP; Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Double-A)
17. Christian Chamberlain; LHP; Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Double-A)
Could Way and Champlain Be the Prizes of the Benintendi Deal?
Last July, the Royals traded Andrew Benintendi to the Yankees for a cadre of pitching prospects, including Way and Champlain.
Way and Champlain matriculated to High-A Quad Cities, where they pitched the remainder of the season.
For Way, it was a lateral move, as he made 15 starts in High-A with Hudson Valley. In 15 starts and 72.1 IP with the Renegades, Way not only posted a 3.73 ERA, but also a 27.6 percent K rate and K-BB rate of 18.6 percent.
He did get hit around a bit in the Sally, as he allowed an HR/9 of 1.12 and an HR/FB rate of 16.7 percent, prior to the trade. However, Way did showcase an impressive pitch mix in High-A ball, including a frisbee-like slider that complemented his 93-97 MPH sinker.
Unlike Sikkema and Champlain, who struggled in their transition to the Royals system, Way actually did better after the trade during his tenure in Quad Cities.
In seven starts and 35.2 IP with the River Bandits, he posted a 3.79 ERA and improved his K rate to 30.7 percent (a 3.1 percent increase) and his K-BB rate to 19.6 percent. In addition, his FIP of 3.15 in Quad Cities was 64 points better than his ERA, which was the inverse of what happened in Hudson Valley before the Benintendi trade (his ERA was 0.58 points lower than his FIP).
Way did see an increase in BB rate, as it went from nine percent in Hudson Valley to 11.1 percent in Quad Cities. However, when he was on with his command, he was borderline unhittable, as evidenced by this 10-strikeout, eight-inning performance back in September.
Safe to say, with continued development, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Way emerge as a Top-10 or even Top-5 prospect in the Royals system overall, though the transition to Double-A will be much tougher than High-A.
As for Champlain, the Royals promoted him to the Quad Cities after he primarily pitched in Low-A Tampa before the trade. Champlain was a ninth-round pick by the Yankees in 2021, so he had less prospect luster in the Yankees system than Way. However, he pitched decently in his pro debut in the Florida State League, generating a 4.30 ERA and 24.4 percent K-BB rate over 16 appearances (15 starts) and 73.1 IP.
The transition to High-A was a bit tougher for Champlain, but that was to be expected in his first full Minor League season.
In eight starts and seven appearances with the River Bandits, he produced a 9.84 ERA and 7.1 K-BB rate in 32.1 innings of work. In the mid-season promotion, he saw a decline in his K rate, as his 14.1 percent mark was nearly half his mark in Tampa.
That being said, while it’s easy to dismiss Champlain’s tenure with the River Bandits as another Kansas City “pitching development failure”, there are some encouraging signs from Champlain’s 2022 when one digs deeper into the metrics.
For starters, he was hurt by a .466 BABIP and 53.9 LOB% (strand rate), which would’ve leveled out had he pitched more innings in Quad Cities. Also, his HR/FB rate was only 8.1 percent, which was 14.1 percent better than what he allowed in Tampa. And lastly, his 4.55 FIP in Quad Cities was not much worse than his 3.68 FIP in Tampa.
Was Champlain worse in Quad Cities? Sure, but it wasn’t as bad as the surface-level metrics suggest, and it was to be expected that some growing pains would happen in his move up in competition.
His electric first inning in the Minor League “Field of Dreams” game demonstrates the kind of potential Champlain could have when everything is clicking command-wise.
Champlain most likely will repeat in Quad Cities to begin the year. However, if he starts off strong, it wouldn’t be surprising to see a promotion to Double-A Northwest Arkansas mid-season.
Can Hoffmann and Sikkema Bounce Back After Rough Stints in Double-A?
Sikkema was the third piece in the Benintendi trade, while Hoffman was an add-on piece in the Drew Waters trade with Atlanta (along with corner infielder CJ Alexander). Both pitchers struggled in their Double-A debuts with Northwest Arkansas in 2022, as they posted ERA numbers of 6.64 and 7.44, respectively.
To begin with Hoffmann, the stuff and projection are certainly there, especially as a pitcher who is 6’5 and weighs 210 pounds. With a long frame and gangly hair, Hoffmann can remind some of Tyler Glasnow, even though Hoffmann’s prospect status as a former 12th-round pick by the Braves isn’t quite as illustrious as the Rays’ “borderline ace”.
With High-A Rome last year, Hoffmann was pretty dominant. In 15 starts and 80 innings pitched, he posted a 2.36 ERA, 28.4 percent K rate, and a K-BB rate of 21.8 percent. His fastball-slider-changeup mix to go along with his big frame made him an incredibly efficient as well as an impressive pitcher last season in the Sally.
The Royals promoted Hoffmann to Double-A Northwest Arkansas after the trade, and the results were a lot more mixed.
As expected, his ERA spiked, but his K rate dropped to 16.2 percent and his K-BB rate also dipped to 5.4 percent. Much like Champlain, his BABIP ballooned in Double-A ball, as it went from .276 in High-A Rome to .354 in nine appearances and 39.1 innings pitched with the Naturals. Add those factors with a 23.5 percent drop in LOB% and it makes sense why Hoffmann’s Naturals ERA was almost triple his number in Rome.
That being said, he had outings where he looked solid in Northwest Arkansas, and demonstrated that he could be a potential productive pitcher at the MLB level. As noted in the Tweet below from Royals Farm Report, he was bitten by some rotten BABIP luck during his short stint in Double-A.
Another acquired pitcher who struggled in his Naturals debut was Sikkema, a former Mizzou product who missed all of 2021 due to recovery from Tommy John surgery. Sikkema flourished in High-A Hudson Valley at the beginning of 2022, posting a 2.48 ERA and K-BB rate of 31.7 percent in 11 appearances (10 starts) and 36.1 IP.
It was initially thought, due to his local ties and high draft status in 2019 (38th overall pick) that Sikkema would be the main prize of the Benintendi deal.
Unfortunately, the Texas League seemed to just be too much for Sikkema after the trade.
In addition to his ERA ballooning to a near eight mark, he also saw a decline in his K-BB rate (9.0 percent) as well as a massive inflation in HR/FB rate (22.2 percent). Like most Royals pitching prospects in Northwest Arkansas, his BABIP was not ideal, as his .353 mark was nearly 100 points higher than his BABIP in Hudson Valley (.257).
Sikkema’s campaign was so rough that he was not left protected in the Rule 5 Draft in December. Thankfully for the Royals, Sikkema was not selected, which means he probably will return to Double-A to begin the year in 2023.
There were a couple of positive things to glean from Sikkema’s season in Double-A and his short stint in the Arizona Fall League. He did produce a GB rate of 54.4 percent with the Naturals, which shows that he could at the very least have an outlook as a lefty reliever who could get out of jams at the MLB level. In addition, he posted a 2.45 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in three starts and 11 IP with Surprise this fall, which should give him some positive momentum as he prepares for Spring Camp.
Sikkema’s MLB outlook may simply be a lefty-only reliever (i.e. LOOGY) and the Royals are certainly flush with those types right now on the 40-man roster (Amir Garrett; Richard Lovelady; Anthony Misiewicz, etc.). Nonetheless, one has to wonder if perhaps Sikkema could develop into something more with some appropriate tweaks in Double-A in 2023.
Can Chamberlain Progress Quickly to Kansas City?
One of the things I took away from Royals Farm Report’s interview with Driveline founder and former Cincinnati Reds pitching development coach Kyle Boddy was how impressive Chamberlain was against a Reds affiliate with Boddy in attendance.
I can’t remember the exact spot in the interview, but Boddy gushes about Chamberlain more than once.
Chamberlain has had a weird Minor League career. Drafted in the fourth round of the 2020 draft out of Oregon State, he has been affected by both the pandemic as well as injury in 2021. Going into last season, he had only pitched 3.2 innings since being drafted. Hence, it’s not surprising that his ERA numbers were a little shaky in High-A (4.29 in 21 IP) and Double-A (7.71 in 28 IP), especially since it was his first full professional season, essentially.
That said, Chamberlain is a prime example of a “stuff” over stats kind of pitching prospect.
Despite high walk rates in Quad Cities (21.3 percent) and Northwest Arkansas (18.1 percent), he still dominated hitters when he was finding the strike zone. That is evidenced by his 41.5 percent K rate in Quad Cities and 22.1 percent K rate in Northwest Arkansas.
Here’s a look at his stuff when he’s locating his four-seamer in the right upper area of the strike zone (though this is from 2021):
While the 2022 numbers aren’t good metrically, one has to understand that Chamberlain spent most of 2021 recovering from injury, so it was more about getting back to speed rather than trying to “perform” by any means.
In retrospect, the Royals probably should’ve kept him in High-A longer. Considering the Natruals’ pitching struggles last season though, it’s not surprising that the Royals tried to push him aggressively due to their needs at that level. I hope the pitching development team is a lot more patient with him in 2023 because he could be a key cog in the bullpen in 2024 and beyond.
This fall in the AFL, Chamberlain was a breakout star with Surprise.
Not only did he post a 3.48 ERA in eight appearances and 10.1 IP, but he also struck out 12 while allowing five walks and only seven hits. The control issues that dogged him in High-A and Double-A last year seemed more corrected in Arizona, and against some of the best prospects in the game to boot.
It’s totally plausible that I am ranking Chamberlain way too high here. But I think now that he’s fully healthy, he’s due for a big season, with a repeat in Double-A more than likely to start the 2023 Minor League season.
And don’t be surprised to see him turn into a key arm in the Royals bullpen as soon as 2024.
Photo Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports