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Royals Minor League Season in Review: Wilmington Blue Rocks

The Blue Rocks have a need for speed.

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Brewer Hicklen of the Wilmington Blue Rocks gives a thumbs up.
Bradford Glazier

The Wilmington Blue Rocks play in one of the toughest hitters parks and that has perhaps made it difficult to succeed in the Carolina League. The Blue Rocks have not had a winning season since 2009, when Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Danny Duffy were in Wilmington. That would continue this season, as the Blue Rocks finished 68-72, although they had a winning record in the second half of the season.

The problem this year wasn’t offense, as the team finished fourth in the league in runs scored. Frawley Stadium did inhibit home runs, but the Blue Rocks led the league in walks and steals. And the stadium didn’t help the pitching much, with Blue Rocks pitchers giving up the fourth-most home runs, the third-most walks, with the fewest strikeouts.

Best player: D.J. Burt led the league in steals with 32 and was fifth among qualified hitters with a .367 on-base percentage. The 22-year old utility player didn’t hit for much power, but legged out seven triples and hit .280. You could make a decent case that players like Khalil Lee and Kort Peterson were better offensively, but both were promoted mid-season, while Burt played a full season in Wilmington, using his speed as a weapon.

Best pitcher: Gerson Garabito led the Carolina League in ERA at 3.16, and his 116 strikeouts were fifth-best. Garabito closed his season out strong, posting a 1.70 ERA over his last ten starts with opponents hitting just .203/.303/.307 in that time. Honorable mention to closer Bryan Brickhouse, who came out of retirement to post a 1.99 ERA with 39 strikeouts in 31 23 innings.

Best prospect: Khalil Lee is perhaps the crown jewel of the Royals organization with five-tool ability. Lee showed plate discipline unheard of in this organization, with a 15.9% walk rate before his promotion to AA Northwest Arkansas. The lack of power is a bit concerning and not entirely a product of Frawley Stadium - he hit just one home run on the road in the Carolina League, and just two in 29 games after being promoted to the Texas League. But the 20-year old Lee held his own against much older competition, hitting .270/.382/.390 overall this year between High A and AA.

The Blue Rocks were a running team with seven players reaching double digit stolen base totals. Burt led the way, but outfielders Nick Heath and Rudy Martin each stole 29 apiece, doing their best to claim the mantle of “the next Jarrod Dyson.” Heath, a product of Junction City, Kansas, enjoyed some of his best offensive numbers, hitting .284/.397/.366 before a promotion to AA in July. Martin missed six weeks with a leg injury and struggled with the bat following his return, finishing with a line of .232/.345/.359. The mid-season trade for outfielder Blake Perkins from the Nationals added even more speed, with Perkins swiping 17 bags in 64 games. He also led the Carolina League in walks with 92 overall combining his numbers before and after the trade for Kelvin Herrera.

Right fielder Kort Peterson led the Blue Rocks in home runs with eight despite playing just 62 games in Wilmington. He didn’t walk much, but his .292/.365/.498 line got him promoted in June. Khalil Lee held his own in center field, and cut his strikeout rate to a career-low 23.7%. Outfielder Vance Vizcaino joined the team in May, but hit just .232, and promising young outfielders Brewer Hicklen and 2018 eighth-round pick Jackson Lueck joined the outfield late in the year.

Slugger Chase Vallot struggled to hit in the Carolina League, batting just .108 in 47 games but with 31 walks and seven home runs. The 21-year old spent a handful of games at catcher and was demoted to Idaho Falls to get his career back on track. First baseman Chris DeVito, dubbed “Red Hercules”, also struggled mightily and was released after hitting just .181 in 65 games. Travis Jones would take over at first base after a promotion from Lexington, excelling with a line of .298/.438/.356 with 17 steals.

Meibrys Viloria provided solid defense behind the plate for the Blue Rocks, hitting .260/.342/.360 with a significant increase in his walk rate this year. Second baseman Gabriel Cancel tied for the league lead in doubles with 31, but his offensive numbers fell overall from his season in Lexington last year. Third baseman Emmanuel Rivera led the team with 61 RBI, but his numbers took a dip as well. Shortstop Angelo Castellano had the second-worst OPS among qualified hitters in the league.

Ofreidy Gomez was not far behind Gerson Garabito in league leaders for ERA, although both struggled a bit with high walk rates. Daniel Tillo was rocked for seven runs in less than two innings in his last outing to make his 4.94 ERA look worse than it was, but he did struggle with walks all season. Jace Vines had an unimpressive 5.04 ERA before his promotion to AA but his FIP showed a better performance than his ERA would suggest.

Arnaldo Hernandez had the best strikeout rate out of any Blue Rocks starter with 7.5 per-nine-innings, and enjoyed a meteoric rise through the system, ending the year in AAA Omaha with his mid-90s fastball. Nolan Watson and Andres Sotillet joined the rotation mid-season and showed flashes of brilliance but with inconsistent performances.

Bryan Brickhouse, a 26-year old Tommy John surgery survivor, returned to the organization to post a 1.99 ERA with 14 saves and over a strikeout-per-inning before his promotion to AA. Carter Hope also had a return to the organization after coming back from a drug problem, giving the Blue Rocks a 4.93 ERA in 73 innings. Anthony Bender was a versatile pitcher in every role for the Blue Rocks, posting a 3.57 ERA in 93 innings and reliever Grant Gavin earned a promotion after posting a 3.18 ERA in 22 23 innings. Justin Camp and Vance Tatum posted solid ERAs, although troubling peripherals, while Cristian Castillo was just the opposite with a 5.16 ERA but solid strikeout and walk numbers.