The Royals have a low-ranked farm system, a system that was further depleted this summer when they sent one of their top prospects in Matt Strahm, and one of their highest upside prospects in Esteury Ruiz, to the Padres for three pitchers.
However, we have seen a few players emerge from under-the-radar to become solid Major Leaguers for the Royals. Whit Merrifield, Jorge Bonifacio, and Jakob Junis were not highly regarded prospects, but they made the big leagues and had solid seasons in 2017. There may be a few more gems in the system who could surprise and become big league contributors. Let’s take a look at some candidates.
Cramer had a lackluster career at Stanford, pitching in just 23 games before leaving after his junior year. He went undrafted, but signed with the Royals as a free agent in 2015. Over the last three seasons he has pitched just 75 1⁄3 innings, but has struck out a whopping 109 hitters, for a 13.0 strikeouts-per-nine innings rate. Last year for Wilmington he pitched 13 2⁄3 innings and struck out 47% of all hitters he faced - 27 strikeouts to just two walks, while posting a 1.98 ERA.
Cramer gets whiffs with a 97 mph fastball, in addition to a curveball and change up. He is used to facing top competition. In addition to facing touch Pac 12 hitters, he has pitched in the elite Cape Code summer league, and represented Team Israel in the World Baseball Classic last year, pitching one scoreless inning. Cramer has had some injury problems, but with that big fastball and ability to miss bats, he could have a future as a late-inning reliever.
Dini missed most of 2016 with injuries, but rebounded in a big way to put himself on the map in the organization. The catcher was originally a 14th-round selection in the 2015 draft out of Wagner College in New York. He hit well in Idaho Falls his first season, but everyone hits well in Idaho Falls. He played in just 20 games last year, playing well, and began this year in Low A Lexington. He performed well enough to get promoted all the way to AA Northwest Arkansas, where he spent much of the year, hitting .310/.381/.380 in 64 games.
Dini hasn’t shown great home run power in his career so far, which is not surprising given his 5’8’’ frame. However, he has good line drive power, and runs pretty well for a catcher, swiping ten bases this year. He has good plate coverage and was one of the toughest hitters to strike out in the organization last year, whiffing just 9.9% of the time last year. He is already 24, so he should be in the upper minors this upcoming season.
Gavin is a local kid from St. Pius X in Kansas City, who attended Division II baseball powerhouse University of Central Missouri. Gavin has pitched in 114 2⁄3 innings in his first two pro seasons as a reliever, striking out 9.7 hitters-per nine innings with a minuscule ERA of 1.81. He has a decent walk rate and has given up just two home runs, despite a flyball rate near 50%.
Gavin’s fastball runs in the mid-90s, with a curveball that can be above-average at times. He also features a change up, which is by his own admission, a work in progress. Gavin turned 22 this past July and has already reached High A ball with Wilmington this year, where he had a 1.93 ERA in 32 2⁄3 innings. He could begin next year in AA and with a solid showing, be in the big league bullpen by the end of 2018.
Garabito signed for $50,000 out of the Dominican Republic, which could turn out to be a steal if he continues to progress. The right-hander posted a 2.81 ERA in 15 starts for Low A Lexington at age 21 with 74 strikeouts in 80 innings and a solid walk rate of 2.2 per-nine innings. It was his second tour in Lexington after he had struggled in 2016. He was flat out dominant in the first half of the season, posting a 2.20 ERA with a tiny walk rate, but had his season derailed a bit by injuries, returning in late July with encouraging results.
Garabito has a fastball in the low-90s that can hit 95 with a solid curveball. Some evaluators think his fastball could add some velocity, and he still needs to develop a third pitch. He projects as more of a back-of-the-rotation pitcher, but he just turned 22 and may still have some more upside in him.
Gigliotti had perhaps the best performance out of any Royals 2017 draft pick, hitting .320/.420/.456 in his first professional season after being selected in the fourth round out of Lipscomb University. Gigliotti started out in rookie ball, but after hitting .329 in 42 games for Burlington, was moved up to Low A Lexington. He held his own against the more experienced players hitting .302/.378/.419 in 22 games.
Gigliotti is everything the Royals could want out of a leadoff hitter. He may already be the best hitter in the organization at drawing walks, with a 13.7% walk rate last year. He doesn’t strike out much, hits for average, and can fly around the bases, stealing 22 bases last year. Gigliotti is great at working the count and has quick hands that allow him to make contact and make things happen - skills that could work well someday in Kauffman Stadium. He is noted as a solid defender in center and could be patrolling that position in Kansas City before too long.
Hicklen is the prototypical Royals draftee - toolsy and exuding character and leadership traits. Unlikely many toolsy outfielders they draft, however, Hicklen had the polish of a college player. He was both a baseball player and a wide receiver on the football team at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. Like most receivers, Hicklen shows outstanding speed, which is probably why the Royals selected him in seventh round of last June’s draft.
Hicklen, like many two-sport stars, is considered a bit raw despite his college career, but he managed to jump in and succeed immediately at the pro level. He hit .348 with three home runs in 19 games for the Royals’ Arizona Summer League team before moving on to Idaho Falls and hitting .299/.384/.471 in 20 games. He has already shown some of that raw speed, swiping 16 bases in 39 games, with some good pop as well. Hicklen is a big whiffer, striking out more than once per game on average, but that could be refined as he develops. It is just a handful of games, but Hicklen has been able to draw walks, and has shown much promise in his first pro season.
The 2016 ninth-round pick has an all-time bad pitcher’s name up there with Homer Bailey, Bob Walk, and Grant Balfour. Fortunately, Sheller has not lived up to his name, instead pitching very well since leaving Stetson University. Sheller struggled initially with control, walking 15 in 21 1/3 innings for Burlington last year, although he did put up a 2.95 ERA. But he improved that command considerably last year, walking 3.6 per-nine-innings with 66 strikeouts in 62 1⁄3 innings.
The Royals promoted him aggressively last year, moving him from low A Lexington to High A Wilmington to AA Northwest Arkansas by the end of the year, where he tossed six shutout innings. He had a 3.18 ERA overall out of the bullpen, posting a high ERA at Wilmington largely because of one disastrous outing in which he gave up five runs with no outs recorded. He has been a reliever throughout his career, hitting 95 on the radar gun. Sheller has a low arm angle and has some deception to his delivery that reminds me a bit of former reliever Louis Coleman. Sheller is just 22 but could be in the big leagues pretty quickly as a reliever.
If you are looking for someone that can be a poor man’s Whit Merrifield, Corey Toups could be your candidate. Toups can play all over the field, and does a little bit of everything - he can draw some walks, hit for some pop, and steal some bases. Toups began the year with AAA Omaha, but struggled a bit, hitting .232/.322/.363 in 88 games. He was sent down to AA Northwest Arkansas where he ended the season on a better note in his second tour there.
Toups was originally a 15th-round pick in 2014 out of Sam Houston State, where he was teammates with Royals prospect Ryan O’Hearn. The right-handed hitter has mostly played second base, but has experience at third, shortstop, and left field as well. He probably doesn’t have huge upside at age 24, but could be a solid utility player at the big league level.
Vines is a sinkerballer who posted one of the top ground ball rates in minor league baseball last year, well over 50%. Vines began the year at low A Lexington, where he had a 3.42 ERA in 100 innings before moving up to Wilmington. He held his own for Wilmington and even moved up to make one start for pitching-deprived AAA Omaha at the end of the year. The right-hander was originally selected in the fourth round of the 2016 draft out of Texas A&M, where he had lackluster results, but still had good upside as a draft-eligible sophomore.
Vines throws in the low 90s, but has good sink to his pitches. He also flashes a sinker and slider. While he won’t miss a lot of bats - his strikeout rate last year was a poor 5.3 per-nine innings, he could find success if he continues to get hitters to pound the ball into the ground.
Others: I know nothing about Delvin Capellan, but the 18-year old right-hander had a 0.48 ERA in 56 innings in the Dominican Summer League with just three walks. Three. Kevin Lenik was signed out of the independent Frontier League, but posted a 1.69 ERA in 37 1⁄3 innings across three levels, including Omaha. I don’t know if he still pitches like this, but Lenik used to have a very low arm angle, which could be effective as a reliever. Darrell Miller, Jr., the son of the former big leaguer and nephew to basketball stars Reggie and Cheryl, didn’t even play baseball in 2016, but wrecked the Pioneer League, hitting .376/.459/.554 in 48 games for Idaho Falls.
Any prospects under the radar that you think can surprise in 2018?