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Royals Minor League Season in Review: Northwest Arkansas Naturals

The Nats were pretty even Steven this year.

The Northwest Arkansas Naturals celebrate a win.
Tim Campbell

The Northwest Arkansas Naturals have seen virtually all recent Royals stars in their dress rehearsal before they began their Major League careers. The Royals have typically used AA as their last big stop to face other top prospects, figuring AAA is more for veteran players. Some weaker draft classes has thinned out the talent at the top of the Royals minor league system, however, and the Naturals were left with few high upside prospects this season. They still managed to finish at .500 this year, going exactly 35-35 in both the first and second half of the season.

Best player: Jecksson Flores joined Clint Robinson as the only Naturals hitters to ever win a Texas League batting title. The 24-year old infielder topped the league with a .314 average, and his 144 hits were fifth-best in the league. He was third in the league in doubles with 31, his 27 steals were fourth-best, and he was seventh-best in on-base percentage at .363.

Best pitcher: Yunior Marte served as a long reliever for the Naturals, going more than one inning in 32 of his 43 outings. But he struck out 80 hitters in 80 innings, and opponents hit just .225/.301/.343 off of him. His 2.91 ERA was fourth in the league among all pitchers with at least 80 innings pitched.

Best prospect: Nicky Lopez spent about half a season with the Naturals, and was their best player in his time there, hitting .337/.397/.416 before being promoted to Omaha. The season highlight was when he hit for a “natural cycle” in late June just before his promotion. He walked 33 times in AA to just 23 strikeouts in 73 games, and showed great speed and defense.

The Naturals had a lot of speed finishing second in the league with 167 steals and setting a franchise record with 44 triples. Veteran 29-year old Alex Liddi paced the Naturals with 23 home runs, but the former Mariners infielder hit just .247 and struck out 126 times in 107 games. The club has been high on first baseman Samir Duenez, but a wrist injury limited him to 80 games. He fared well when on the field, hitting .282/.357/.463 with 10 home runs, while being one of the youngest hitters in the league. Infielder Erick Mejia, acquired from the Dodgers last winter in the Scott Alexander trade, finished second in the league with 34 steals, but hit a disappointing .263/.318/.367, the worst season of his minor league career. Kelvin Gutierrez came over mid-season from the Nationals in the Kelvin Herrera deal and provided solid defense and a steady bat.

Jecksson Flores and Nicky Lopez provided solid offensive options in the middle infield and were Texas League All-Stars, along with Mejia. Outfielder Elier Hernandez hit .285, but with just three home runs and massive splits, hitting much better at home and against left-handed pitchers. Anderson Miller slumped in the second half to hit .255/.308/.414 but finished second on the club with 13 home runs. Donnie Dewees struggled in his second tour of Northwest Arkansas, but fared much better after being promoted to Omaha. Top prospect Khalil Lee would join the outfield in late June, but hit just .245/.330/.353 after his promotion.

The Naturals rotation featured two of the best pitching prospects in the organization, but both Foster Griffin and Scott Blewett struggled with ERAs around 5.00 and strikeout-per-nine-innings rates around 6.0. Emilio Ogando walked 72 hitters in just 118 13 innings, and posted the highest FIP (6.28) among qualified starters in the Texas League, but pitched much better down the stretch, hurling a 31-inning scoreless streak. Zach Lovvorn and Jace Vines rounded out the rotation with underwhelming results. Overall, the Naturals finished with the third-worst ERA in the league.

Yunior Marte proved to be a valuable long reliever out of the pen, and while Franco Terrero struck out a hitter-per-inning, he also gave up 49 runs in 63 23 innings. Walker Sheller pitched well out of the pen with a 3.53 ERA, although a low strikeout rate, and Andres Machado fared well in Northwest Arkansas once he was demoted from Omaha. Gabe Speier joined the team in June from the Diamondbacks organization in the Jon Jay trade and posted a 3.73 ERA in 31 innings. Pedro Fernandez, Grant Gavin, and Jake Newberry all performed well in the pen, with Newberry eventually earning a promotion to the big leagues.