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Royals Minor League Season in Review: Omaha Storm Chasers

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All the Lopezes!

Nicky Lopez warms up for the Omaha Storm Chasers.
Minda Haas Kuhlmann

The baseball season in Omaha began with a washout, as the much-anticipated exhibition game between the Royals and Omaha Storm Chasers from TD Ameritrade Stadium was rained out in March. But the Royals will return next year, and it was announced they will play the first-ever regular season Major League game in Omaha, taking on the Tigers just before the College World Series championship series in June next year.

On the field, the Storm Chasers experienced their third consecutive losing season, finishing 66-74. Some of that may be because the AAA team, like the MLB-squad, has gotten younger since they won the AAA championship in 2014. The team has far fewer minor league veterans and fringe Major Leaguers than in year’s past, instead relying on younger homegrown players from the system.

Best player: Frank Schwindel proved his 2017 season was no fluke, improving upon many of his offensive numbers in his first full-season in Omaha. The first baseman/designated hitter batted .286/.336/.506 with a team-high 24 home runs, setting the franchise record for doubles in a season with 38. He improved his low walk rate to six percent and actually cut his strikeout rate in the process.

Best pitcher: Trevor Oaks led the Pacific Coast League in ERA among qualified starters with 3.23, despite an August swoon. Oaks didn’t blow anyone away - he struck out just 4.9 hitters-per-nine innings. But he did maintain a 50% groundball rate in AAA, giving up just five home runs all season.

Best prospect: Richard Lovelady is ready. The 22-year old left-handed reliever was actually second in the PCL in ERA for all pitchers with at least 70 innings pitched with a mark of 2.47. From mid-summer, Lovelady was pretty much unhittable. After June 14 he allowed just five earned runs in 41 innings, with opponents hitting just .170/.213/.206 against him. Lovelady can miss bats, striking out 71 in 73 innings and should be ready to audition as a late-inning relief option in the Royals’ pen next spring.

The offense was led by two sluggers at first base, Frank Schwindel and Ryan O’Hearn. The two combined to hit almost a third of all the home runs for Omaha, and outfielder Paulo Orlando was the only other hitter to reach double digits in homers. Hunter Dozier earned a promotion to the big leagues in May and Adalberto Mondesi left for KC in mid-June. A week later, top prospect Nicky Lopez was promoted to Omaha. The former Creighton infielder had a four-hit game in his Omaha debut, and batted .278/.364/.417 with seven home runs in 57 games.

The rest of the infield was manned by a hodge-podge of organizational soldiers like Ramon Torres, Jack Lopez, and Humberto Arteaga. Arteaga, a 24-year old Venezuelan, enjoyed the best offensive season of his minor league career, batting .292/.322/.386 with a career-high six home runs. Torres, on the other hand, followed up a promising 2017 season by hitting just .230/.279/.343. Catcher Cam Gallagher continued his solid, albeit unspectacular offensive numbers with solid defense behind the plate.

The outfield was the home for the older players on the roster, with Orlando, Billy Burns, Terrance Gore, and Tyler Collins all on the wrong side of 27. Orlando shrugged off a rough start to finish the season with a line of .270/.319/.467, but Burns struggled all season, batting .255/.314/.316 with just 10 steals in 18 attempts. Collins was released in April, and more youth was injected into the Omaha outfield upon the promotions of Donnie Dewees in June and Elier Hernandez in July. Dewees finished the season on fire, hitting .351 over his last 29 games.

Trevor Oaks paced the Omaha rotation, and the team ended the year with three starters who made at least 10 starts and finished with an ERA under 4.00, no small feat in the thin atmosphere of the PCL. Jake Kalish shuttled in between Omaha and Northwest Arkansas a few times, but in the end he finished second in strikeout-to-walk ratio among all AAA pitchers with at least 80 innings pitched, inducing 85 strikeouts to just 13 walks.

Lefty Jonathan Dziedzic led the team in starts, posting a 3.94 ERA with 96 strikeouts in 139 13 innings. Heath Fillmyer, Glenn Sparkman, and Scott Barlow all joined the rotation at various times before getting a call to the big leagues, and Jorge Lopez joined the rotation after being acquired by the Brewers, giving the team three Lopezes (Nicky, Jack, and Jorge). Right-hander Arnaldo Hernandez was called up in July after beginning the year in High-A. He tossed seven shutout innings in a start in August, then fired a complete game his next time out, finishing his season in Omaha with a 3.55 ERA.

Reliever Josh Staumont led the team in strikeouts, getting 103 whiffs in just 74 13 innings, with a solid ERA of 3.51, although he continued to struggle greatly with command, walking 52. Lefty Richard Lovelady was dominating down the stretch, and led the team in saves with nine, while posting a 2.47 ERA. Eric Stout and Kevin Lenik each had mixed results, although Stout did make his Major League debut, and Lenik struck out over a hitter-per-inning. The Omaha bullpen was also notable for this, whatever this is.