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Looking ahead to 2020 debuts

We saw 13 Royals play in the big leagues for the first time. How many will we get next year?

Nick heath steps into the box for his first AAA at bat; Photo by Minda Haas Kuhlmann. Twitter: @minda33. Instagram: minda.haas.

The Royals have lost 207 games over the last two seasons, which is as many as they lost between May 18, 2013 and the end of the 2015 season including playoffs. So it’s been a rough go, which means rather than actual games or series, we look forward to big league debuts. We were treated to Kyle Zimmer, Nicky Lopez, Richard Lovelady, Josh Staumont and Bubba Starling in 2019 as anticipated debuts as well as less heralded debuts from Humberto Arteaga, Nick Dini, Chris Ellis, Kelvin Gutierrez, Ryan McBroom, Erick Mejia, Frank Schwindel and Gabe Speier.

So who is on the cusp to make their debuts in 2020 as the organization tries to turn the Luke Hochever memorial corner back to relevancy? I’m so glad you asked.

Big Names with a Great Shot

These are alphabetical, so it’s not in order of likelihood of making the big leagues.

Nick Heath

The Royals have a history of speedsters, and Heath definitely fits that bill. The 25-year old stole 60 bases in the minors this season with the first 50 coming in Northwest Arkansas and the final 10 in Omaha. He seemed primed to be added to the 40-man roster in September and called up before an injury ended his season, but he needs to be added now and there’s little doubt he will. Offensively, he’s not going to wow anyone, but he did show improved plate discipline in 97 plate appearances in Omaha with a 17.5 percent walk rate. Of course, he also struck out nearly 28 percent of the time, so that’s not great. But that’s not where his value comes in. He can fly and he plays some great defense. He added a little pop to his game this year, posting a .132 ISO across the two levels and while he might never be more than a fourth outfielder, those certainly have value.
Estimated Arrival: Before May 1

Jackson Kowar

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Florida vs Texas Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The first 2018 supplemental first round pick made it up to AA Northwest Arkansas in his first full professional season and pitched quite well with a 25.2 percent strikeout rate and a 3.51 ERA. If he had been dominant, I’d say the Royals, right or wrong, would give him a real chance to crack the roster out of spring training. He’ll be in camp and they might even say he has a shot, but I doubt he does. It’ll be very interesting to see if they continue the ascension and start him in AAA with the super happy fun ball or give him a chance to be dominant in AA before the promotion.
Estimated Arrival: July

Khalil Lee

The Royals picked Lee in the 3rd round in 2016, which means he’s going to have to be added to the 40-man following the 2020 season. His rise has been pretty steady, but the production has been uneven. He works a walk and has a very good handle on the strike zone, but needs to add some aggression to his game. It’s weird to say about a Royals prospect, but he strikes out looking a lot. And the power that he flashed in Lexington with 17 home runs and a .193 ISO has all but disappeared in games since moving on to Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas. He has the raw power. If he can start accessing it in game with his defensive abilities, he’s an asset to the big league club and figures to make his big league debut in 2020 if all goes well.
Estimated Arrival: May if he’s good, September if not

Brady Singer

NCAA Baseball: College World Series-Arkansas vs Florida Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The Royals top pick in the 2018 draft didn’t throw professionally until this past season, but it was a success by the numbers. He posted a 1.87 ERA in Wilmington before getting challenged with a promotion to Northwest Arkansas. His first three starts were a bit of a slog. He struck out five and walked six in 12.2 innings, giving up 16 runs and three home runs. From that point forward, though, he struck out 80 over 78 innings, walking just 20 and posting a 2.54 ERA (3.12 RA). Like Kowar, you wish he’d have dominated a bit more, but a 24.8 percent strikeout rate and 6.2 percent walk rate will play. The same questions for Kowar are here for Singer. Where does he start?
Estimated Arrival: Two weeks before Kowar

Daniel Tillo

One player I was told to watch heading into the 2018 season was Tillo because he had boosted velocity and looked like a breakout candidate. It didn’t really happen. He struggled even in the pitcher-friendly ballpark in Wilmington. He started 2019 there again and pitched better, but he didn’t strike hardly anyone out and walked way too many to be successful at higher levels. He was promoted to Northwest Arkansas, partially to make some room on the Wilmington roster for higher touted prospects and was ultimately shifted to the bullpen. Including a rough first outing, he struck out 11 in eight innings without walking a batter. The velocity was up, the slider was better. All of a sudden, he’s a prospect and one who has a real shot to make the big league club out of spring training. He hasn’t been great in the AFL, but the scouting reports on him are generally very positive.
Estimated Arrival: May

Less Big Names With a Less Great Shot

A few others seem a bit less likely to find their way to the big leagues in 2020 who probably won’t generate the fanfare of the above. That’s okay, they’re still people too and deserve to be lauded.

Bryan Brickhouse

Photo by Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Man what a great story he is. As Clint Scoles noted in 2018, Brickhouse had tons of injuries and reworked his motion to show some great velocity. He struggled when getting to higher levels in 2018, but made his way to Omaha in 2019, where he struggled again with a 10.38 ERA in 17.1 innings. The big issue was walks. He had 19 of them and only seven strikeouts. For those of you out there reading about baseball for the first time, that’s, uh, not great. So I wouldn’t say he has the best chance to reach the big leagues, but he did strike out 24 in 16.1 innings between Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas, so if he can figure things out in 2020, the Royals could use him in their bullpen.

Xavier Fernandez

The Royals deep stable of minor league catchers means that some guys get lost in the shuffle and Fernandez is often one of them we forget about all too easily. The Royals drafted him in the 11th round in 2013, so he’s been in the organization awhile. He’s a very good receiver and looks to be a very good framer, so he definitely has the tools to be a backup catcher. He’s come around offensively to find himself firmly in the backup catcher conversation next year when Salvador Perez returns. Meibrys Viloria and Cam Gallagher are currently ahead of him, though it’d be no surprise if Gallagher is moved this offseason and if the Royals want Viloria to get everyday reps, Fernandez might be the beneficiary.

Conner Greene

Claimed off waivers from the Cardinals before last season, the Royals mostly used the hard thrower as a starter in Northwest Arkansas before shifting him to the bullpen to try to hide his command issues. He was then promoted to Omaha where he walked 16 in 15.1 innings, so he’s maybe just as likely to find himself DFAed as promoted in 2020, but if he is still on the roster and figures out something with his control, he could be part of a bullpen carousel throughout the season since he does have an option left and has enticing stuff.

Foster Griffin

Photo by Minda Haas Kuhlmann

The numbers don’t exactly jump off the page the last two seasons, but Griffin has taken the ball pretty much every fifth day in Northwest Arkansas and Omaha the last two years. And while his 5.23 ERA looks ugly last year, it was still below average for the league, if you can believe that. It was actually 12th out of 24 pitchers with 100 or more PCL innings. Griffin’s likelihood of a callup comes from the idea that the Royals will probably cycle through a lot of starters and will need someone to throw some innings at some point just to get through the season. He’s not anything special, but might be better than Eric Skoglund at least.

Tyler Zuber

This is a name to watch as the Royals work to rebuild their bullpen in the hopes of building another powerhouse and maybe should even be in the above list given how dire the straits are for the big league club’s bullpen. Zuber can run it up in the mid-90s and occasionally reach back for more. He was out of this world good in Wilmington and then maybe actually a little better in Northwest Arkansas, walking only five batters in 26 innings with 18 hits allowed. In all, he had a dominant season across two levels with a 31.6 percent strikeout rate and 7.4 percent walk rate. That’ll play. It’ll be interesting to see where he starts the year because that’ll help determine how likely a callup for him is in 2020.

Give it Another Year

A few guys could show a meteoric rise and get to the big leagues, but they’re more likely to be on the 2021 list. One such name is Daniel Lynch, who would likely be on the big league track if not for all the missed time with his elbow injury last year. He and Kris Bubic both have been absolutely dominant at times in the lower minors and will need to prove it at the next level before they show they’re ready for the bump. Carlos Hernandez missed so much of the season with injury that he still has yet to pitch above Lexington in his career. If he’s bumped to the bullpen, though, you could see a Kelvin Herrera-like rise through the system.

Jonathan Bowlan is another guy who is going to have to prove it at each level before he gets the bump, but he’s another pitcher who could be fast tracked if he’s moved to the bullpen. Then you add in some of the others like Austin Cox, Zach Haake, Jon Heasley and Josh Dye and you could see the 2018 draft class well represented in the big leagues in the next few years. Obviously, there are a lot of TINSTAAPP caveats here that’ll stop at least a couple from making it, but the depth on the pitching side is impressive.

Unfortunately, there isn’t nearly as much in the way of bats. Kyle Isbel is impressing quite a bit in the Arizona Fall League right now and Brewer Hicklen just completed an excellent season, but outside of them and maybe a Michael Gigliotti or Gabe Cancel (who had a rough end to his 2019), it looks like it’ll be at least a couple of years for any additional offensive impact.

Of course, this whole list isn’t exhaustive. There’ll likely be a Rule 5 pick (or two) and a surprise like we saw with Dini, Speier and McBroom this year. But it does look like a good chunk of the next core of the team could find their way to the big leagues this year and into 2021, and that’s an exciting prospect to keep an eye on in 2020.


How many Royals make big league debuts in 2020?

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