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The 2017 Royals draft class, two years later

With more time to judge, how has the 2017 draft played?

First baseman Nick Pratto in a game for the Wilmington Blue Rocks
First baseman Nick Pratto in a game for the Wilmington Blue Rocks
Ryan Griffith

In hindsight, 2017 was really the last hurrah for the Kansas City Royals team that went to two consecutive World Series. In June, when the 2017 draft occurred, the Royals were still in it. As such, attention to the draft didn’t quite reach the fever pitch it did in 2018 and in 2019.

After completing my 2018 draft class review, one year later, I received requests to do the same form of article for the 2017 class. So, not wanting to disappoint our readership, here it is.

The 2017 draft featured two high school hitters at the top, a pair of junior college arms, and then mostly a flurry of four-year collegiate players. Because we’re two years removed from this draft, there’s more information about these players—and more attrition. As a result, there will be fewer groupings of players here. The sad fact of the matter is that most prospects fail, and spending time talking about players entering their third straight season of short-season ball isn’t of great interest.

Should those players pop up and do well, then we can talk about them. But for now, let’s examine the notable names of the 2017 Royals draft class, two years later.

The High School Duo

Catcher MJ Melendez before a game for the Wilmington Blue Rocks.
Catcher MJ Melendez before a game for the Wilmington Blue Rocks.
Ryan Griffith
  • Nick Pratto, 14th
  • MJ Melendez, 52nd

Despite playing different positions, Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez are likely to be grouped together for a long time for a few reasons. Both were high school position players with not even two months separating each other in age. Both began their pro careers in Arizona in 2017, both played together in Lexington in 2018, and both are playing in Wilmington this year. Furthermore, thanks to the Royals’ forfeiture of their first round pick in 2016, both were the highest drafted players by Kansas City since 2015.

In their first two years, both performed well. By wRC+, an adjusted statistic that measures offensive performance relative to league average, both Pratto and Melendez had above average years in 2017 and 2018 (though Pratto was barely, barely so in 2017).

And, most notably, both hit a wall in Wilmington, a notoriously difficult place to hit. Their power numbers have dropped precipitously and their BABIP is down, too. Still, they are both doing significantly worse than average: Pratto has a 61 wRC+ this year, and Melendez is at 74. They are both posting frightening strikeout rates, with both striking out over one third of the time.

Melendez certainly has more wiggle room than Pratto. Melendez offers very good defense at a premium position—catcher—which will afford him opportunities as long as his intriguing power keeps his bat afloat. Pratto, though, is a first baseman (although his athleticism could play in right field, should the Royals want to go down that road). He’ll have to hit to succeed.

If you’re looking for positives, though, you don’t have to look very far. Over the last 28 days as the weather has warmed up, Pratto has posted a .731 OPS and Melendez has posted a .746 OPS. In the bizarro world of Wilmington, those are really strong numbers. Second, and perhaps more importantly, both Pratto and Melendez are extremely young. Since 2018, Pratto and Melendez have combined for 1,590 plate appearances against older pitchers. They have combined for 11 plate appearances against younger pitchers.

This year hasn’t been great for them, but they’ve got some track record of success and are very young. That’s been a far sight better than many recent high school selections.

The Non-Four-Year Arms

Pitcher Evan Steele in a game for the Lexington Legends on June 12, 2019
Pitcher Evan Steele in a game for the Lexington Legends on June 12, 2019
Regina Rickert
  • Evan Steele, 73rd
  • Daniel Tillo, 90th
  • Charlie Neuweiler, 150th

Over the years, Dayton Moore’s Royals have struggled mightily to develop any pitcher who didn’t go to a four-year institution. It will come to no surprise that this fact has been true in this draft as well.

Evan Steele is the best of the three, and when he’s been on the mount he has been pretty good. Unfortunately, Steele only pitched eight innings in 2017 and missed all of 2018. He’s back for 2019, and in Lexington he’s been quietly excellent over nine starts; he boasts a 1.76 ERA and a 4.3 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Of course, he’s no longer young. A junior college draftee, Steele turns 23 in November, placing him in the age range of Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar, who are both two levels above Steele.

Daniel Tillo, also a JUCO draftee, and Charlie Neuweiler, a high school arm, haven’t got much traction in their professional careers. Now in Wilmington, Tillo is working on his third consecutive stop with an ERA above 4.35 and a strikeout rate under 17.5%. He just turned 23. Neuweiler has been able to strike more batters out, sporting a strikeout rate of at least 20% in each of his four pro stops. But his walk rate has hovered near 10%, too, meaning that he doesn’t have much wiggle room. He is on his third consecutive stop with an ERA above 5.00, and a shift to the bullpen seems inevitable. At 20 years of age, though, he does have some time on his side.

The Surprising College Outfielders

Outfielder Michael Gigliotti before a game for the Wilmington Blue Rocks on June 20, 2019
Outfielder Michael Gigliotti before a game for the Wilmington Blue Rocks on June 20, 2019
Ryan Griffith
  • Michael Gigliotti, 120th
  • Brewer Hicklen, 210th

At the beginning of 2018, it seemed like Gigliotti was on the fast track to the big leagues. After conquering Burlington to the tune of a 152 wRC+ and then Lexington with a 133 wRC+, Gigliotti hit .235/.435/.471 with more walks than strikeouts in six games in Lexington again. Unfortunately, Gigliotti tore his ACL, and the speedy outfielder from Lipscomb missed the rest of the year rehabbing.

As a plus defender, thrower, and runner, an ACL tear was one of the worst injuries Gigliotti could have suffered. Nevertheless, he came back with a vengeance in 2019, putting up a 137 wRC+ with a ridiculous 29 stolen bases in 59 games in Lexington. That earned him a promotion to Wilmington, where—you guessed it—Gigliotti ran into the Delaware buzzsaw and has only hit .167/.286/.250, albeit in a handful of games. Like Isbel, Gigliotti is a guy to watch, a high-floor athlete with the potential to be a solid contributor at the big league level without ever really making a top prospect list. He is 23.

Brewer Hicklen is an interesting case and is another under-the-radar candidate. A two-sport athlete out of high school, Hicklen was a walk-on for the baseball team at University of Alabama-Birmington and intended to play football as well. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for his pro career, UAB cut their football program and Hicklen never set foot onto the football field.

Hicklen has shown both strength and speed as a pro, as one might expect from a guy who earned a scholarship to play wide receiver at college, but in 2019 has added plate discipline to resume as well. Hicklen, 23, has endured the crucible of Wilmington valiantly, walking 14.6% of the time and hitting 40% better than league average. He profiles as a corner outfielder and will probably find himself at Double-A Northwest Arkansas before July is over.

The College Pitchers

Pitcher Tyler Zuber at the end of an inning in a game for the Wilmington Blue Rocks
Ryan Griffith
  • Tyler Zuber, 180th
  • Holden Capps, 240th
  • J.C. Cloney, 270th
  • Collin Snider, 360th

If you’re interested in putting on your speculation hat, these four college draftees could be a smidgen of the reason for Kansas City’s college arm-heavy draft in 2018. Despite being drafted in the sixth, eighth, ninth, and 12th rounds, respectively, as a group they have had much more success than the three non-four-year players drafted in the top five rounds.

Holden Capps and Collin Snider have similar stories. Both started some games earlier on in their pro career before moving to the bullpen full time. It has been a boon for both. Capps and Snider are both currently flourishing in High-A. Capps in particular seems not long for Wilmington; with a 1.73 ERA, a 26.9% strikeout rate, and an even 6:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio, the 24-year-old Capps is a large part of why the team has been so good so far. The 23-year-old Snider hasn’t nearly been as flashy—he’s only struck out 15.6% of batters so far—but pinpoint control has led to a 2.73 ERA.

Zuber, on the other hand, has been a reliever from the beginning, and he’s ratcheted up his effectiveness this year. The 5’11” Zuber just turned 24 not a month ago; he parlayed a 33% strikeout rate and a 1.23 ERA into a midseason promotion to Northwest Arkansas. In 8.1 innings at Double-A, Zuber has struck out 29% of batters and has yet to walk one. Keep an eye on Zuber—he’s in the mold of a Greg Holland, an undersized righty that will never make a top prospect list due to prospect pedigree and size but who could nevertheless make an impact in the big league bullpen someday.

The Verdict

Despite living in the shadow of the all-important 2018 draft class, the Royals’ 2017 draft class could sneakily end up producing some big league talent.

Melendez is an extremely intriguing prospect, an athletic catcher with bigtime power that has held his own so far in his pro career and has been a significantly better hitter since June. Hicklen and Gigliotti are dark horse candidates to be productive left fielders, and both are pretty likely to eventually carve out a role as a reserve outfielder at some point in the future. And Zuber and Steele are intriguing arms that have avoided the pitfalls that Royals pitching so often falls into.

Remember: even the best drafts produce one or two big league players of note. Even after two years of attrition, the 2017 draft class still has multiple candidates to make their mark on a future Royals team.