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Royals mid-season top 20 prospect list

A look to the future.

High School: Gatorade Athlete of the Year Awards Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve long compared teams, and specifically farm systems, as similar to a portfolio. They are effectively a collection of somewhat diverse assets who you want to appreciate in value. Yea, it might be insensitive to be so cold to reduce players to some sort of tangible value but we’ve been using numbers to talk about, describe, and evaluate players for years in the modern sabermetric era.

So how has the organization grown since we last talked about the system? There is no doubt it is better than where it sat before the season started, but why? I’ve been thinking about recently how you want your organization to grow: either organically or through acquisitions (ideally both).

Baseball America moved the Royals organization up about a dozen spots to #18 but editor J.J. Cooper admitted it was mostly due to just adding Bobby Witt, Jr. in the June draft. While the pitching core has done well, the hitting core has mostly struggled. For Jackson Kowar there has been Nick Pratto. For Kris Bubic there has been MJ Melendez. For Brady Singer there is Seuly Matias. Each gain mostly made by the pitchers in Wilmington (and some now in Northwest Arkansas) has been offset by the losses to the hitters in Wilmington. The portfolio has mostly broke even.

You want your portfolio to grow from gains in the assets, not new money. If two portfolios go from $500 to $1000 but one is due to asset growth and the other is due to just depositing another $500...the ending is the same (a portfolio of $1000) but the path to that ending is different and a sign of a positive process.

Let’s look at the top prospects in the system.

1) LHP Daniel Lynch, A+ Wilmington (currently rehabbing in Burlington)

What I said before the season, when I also ranked him #1:

We don’t really know ceiling, it’s more a distribution of probable outcomes, and Lynch’s distribution is probably something like 50% #3/4 starter and 25% #2 or #5. He’s a good stuff lefty that while he doesn’t have a true elite pitch, just does a bit of everything and has enough command to not go off the rails.

I think Lynch is still both the best pitcher in the organization and the one who is most surely a starting pitcher. It’s not that I think some of his “big four” peers are relievers, but Lynch has the most complete arsenal of any of them.

He missed time this season due to an “arm injury” but it doesn’t appear (at this point) to be of any long term issue as his MRI was fine and he’s pitched well in rehab. Lynch might get some time back in Wilmington again (a level he’s too advanced for) since the minor league season is coming to an end. The other outcomes are that he stays in Burlington for the rest of the year or heads to AA NWA Arkansas if the org decides the Wilmington rotation is too crowded, but given the time left in the season for all three levels, he’s probably staying where he is and then heading to AA next year to start the season.

2) RHP Jackson Kowar, AA Northwest Arkansas

What I said before the season, when I ranked him #7 in the system.

Kowar has always been to me a bit more of a thrower than a pitcher. He can bump it up to 98 MPH (one of the highest in the system) but of the big three taken (Lynch, Singer, and Kowar) he has the worst command. He and Kris Bubic fight for the best changeup in the system, but Kowar has a much better fastball, whereas Bubic has the better curveball given it’s spin.

Kowar still is working with just two pitches (fastball and changeup) and it worked well against hitters in Wilmington, where the level of competition wasn’t that much higher than SEC play. The curveball is just...okay-ish. It’s a bit loopy and he doesn’t use it much because he’s been able to get guys out up in the zone with his fastball and lefties out with his changeup (left-handed hitters are batting .237/.333/.358 against him).

I’ve been coming around to the idea that breaking balls don’t just develop by themselves because it’s mostly a feel thing with them. Either a pitcher flashes it as an above-average offering and then he works to getting it there consistently (or doesn’t) or it never flashes and never develops. How often does a pitcher with a 40 curveball turn it into a 55+ pitch often? Sixto Sanchez comes to mind, as does Jose Suarez, but they were both 16-year olds when they signed. I just wonder what the development curve is for guys with 300+ innings in college and the minors on developing a below average breaker into average or better.

Even if Kowar never brings the curveball around, his two other pitchers are good enough to make him a #4/5 starter in the vein of Kris Medlen.

3) SS Bobby Witt Jr , Arizona Summer League

My motto for prospects is typically “prove it”. I’ve learned that I’d rather be late to a guy who is good than early to a guy who is bad. there is a point where tools and production have to merge. Obviously Witt isn’t near that point where performance matters over tools but Lynch and Kowar have “proved it” enough (via tools and performance) that I can’t put them behind a prep player with less than 100 PA in rookie ball who I had some concerns with since he was drafted.

Let’s be clear: a teenager’s first 100 or so PA right after being drafted don’t matter much but you’d rather them be good than be bad, right? Compared to some others in his draft class:

  • CJ Abrams hit .401/.442/.662 in the same league (and has since been promoted to A-Ball)
  • Riley Greene is hitting .295/.377/.452 between Rookie ball, Low-A, and A-Ball
  • Andrew Vaughn (who I preferred over Witt Jr. but is a college player) is hitting .289/.400/.467 between Rookie League, A-Ball, and A+

How about the high school guys who were considered old for their draft class?

  • Witt Jr. is hitting .261/.312/.313 in Rookie Ball
  • Brett Baty is hitting .210/.342/.427 in Rookie Ball as well

Again, first stint numbers aren’t as important as next year or the year after. Each year the numbers become more important for a player because you are looking for that merger of tools and production.

Think of a graph with age or number of professional seasons as the X-axis and importance of production as the Y-axis with a slope that increases as the line runs left to right. As a player gets more tenure under his belt, we can no longer just hold the line on the tools, because what good are the tools if the performance doesn’t match and shouldn’t we be re-evaluating the tools?

Witt is effectively at the intercept point of the regression but his is a little different than some of his prep peers from the 2019 draft given his age. I’m not sure even if a hot start would have moved him up two spots over Lynch and Kowar because I want to see his performance in full season ball to feel comfortable given his profile.

One more time, just to be clear, you shouldn’t read too much into his performance so far, he just didn’t do well enough out of the gate that I would be forced to move him up above the two prior players.

4) CF - Michael Gigliotti, A+ Wilmington

What I said about him before the season, when I reanked him #3:

Plus defending, plus running centerfielders with a good approach at the plate is a good player type, and guys like Ender Inciarte, Mallex Smith, Lorenzo Cain, Denard Span, and Kevin Pillar have shown that profile can work.

Gigs returned just fine from his ACL injury so far and tore up Lexington to the tune of .309/.394/.411 (137 wRC+) with 29 steals and excellent defense in center. He was promoted to A+ Wilmington in July and has had a slow start of .203/.276/.246 (56 wRC+). However unlike the “hitting core” that went from Lexington to Wilmington this year and has struggled, Gigliotti has a legit excuse for his numbers in a .264 BABIP. His groundball rate provides some issues and you’d like to see him hit more line drives to take better advantage of his speed.

I’m not worried about the slow start (it’s been only 20 games) but it’s worth keeping an eye on if his BABIP regresses but his production doesn’t follow upwards.

5) RHP Brady Singer, AA Northwest Arkansas

What I said about him before the season when I ranked him #6:

I somewhat reluctantly put Singer here. I’m not an overall fan of his stuff and profile, but we’ve reached the point where his high probability of pitching in the majors for a few years warrants it. And I don’t mean just because he was an early pick he’ll get MLB time, but because he has enough stuff to stick around, like Jake Junis.

I’m still reluctant to put Singer now at #5, but I just have a hard time arguing against who the hell else to put in front of him. He naturally moves up because Nicky Lopez is off the list and Khalil Lee/Kyle Isbel moved down, but I don’t think Singer’s stock has changed much at all. He’s still the fastball/curveball pitcher with no changeup that struggles against left-handed hitters (they are hitting .310/.389/.440 off him this year).

Some have said there is a 50/50 chance he is a reliever, and while I think it is more likely than not he can stick as a starter, I think he’ll just be a back-end sort of guy who gives you 180 IP and around 2 WAR per season. Nothing wrong with that but it’s not an exciting 80th percentile profile.

I’ve seen every Singer start in AA this year (and a few in A+ but Wilmington doesn’t have a home feed) and I sometimes wonder if you didn’t know he was a first-round pick, what would you rate him? I have a hard time convincing myself it would be anything better than a #4.

6) LHP Kris Bubic, A+ Wilmington

What I said before the season when I ranked him #9:

Bubic has mostly mowed down the hitters he’s faced so far in pro ball, what you would expect a more polished power conference pitcher to do against unrefined low minors hitters. Bubic is more of a pitcher than a thrower like Kowar, whereas Kowar has more lively stuff, Bubic’s fastball sits several ticks lower. I can see the argument for Bubic having the better changeup and his spin rates beat out Kowar by a mile.

I think Bubic and Singer are fairly close (obviously given their ranking) but I do think there is a bit of a gap between those two and Lynch/Kowar. Bubic’s numbers are impressive but we’ll have to see how he fares outside of the Carolina League, much like we’ve waited on Singer and Kowar.

Like Singer and a little bit like Kowar (who wins out on fastball velocity - a key element in today’s game mostly), development of a third pitch while be the difference maker. His margin for error is much smaller than those two though.

7) OF Khalil Lee, AA Northwest Arkansas

What I said before the season when I ranked him #2:

I admittedly go back-and-forth on Lee between a guy who might figure out contact, get into his power, and maybe play a few seasons in center vs tweener-ish profile. The bull case is what I just laid out: moves the hit tool up to a 50, gets into his 60 raw, and plays center well enough to stick. The bear case is that the hit tool never comes around and he gets demoted to right field, where power-over-hit guys are ubiquitous.

Lee has been mostly fine in AA, racking up 43 steals and a 116 wRC+. I think I might have underrated his speed and defense before the season - he made two really good plays in centerfield the other night to save a couple runs. The minor league defensive numbers we have for Lee like him more in right than center field but I can buy a bit more now that he could stay there.

His groundball (58.1%) and strikeout rates (26.8%) are worrisome, particularly the strikeout rate paired with his lack of power over the past two seasons. While you can’t call him a “slap hitter”, he’s more like a “slap it over the infield hitter” where I think he’ll hit a good bit of singles to right/center/left field and also dump some down the line too.

I’m not quite sure if he’s reached a level where you could see him as a everyday regular on a playoff caliber team, or if he’s some sort of Keon Broxton/Michael A. Taylor/Brandon Nimmo type (Nimmo obviously being a great outcome).

8) OF Kyle Isbel, A+ Wilmington

What I said before the season when I ranked him #5.

Really, I think it’s a bit interchangeable for the next handful of players and spots, but Isbel at least is my preference right now (rankings are a snapshot in time) even if he’s still in the “prove it” phase. You don’t have to squint to see a bunch of 50s across the board and he’ll likely get better in centerfield with more reps. Most likely, he is going to have a 45 hit tool and the rest 50s, but there is the making of an everyday player here.

Isbel missed time again this year after taking a ball to the face and suffering a hamstring injury (he missed time last year due to a hamstring and wrist injury), so while you can’t really blame him for it, the injury bug may be a concern at some point.

Like Gigliotti, he’s getting BABIP’d to death, running a .224 BABIP, which mostly explains his .196/.248/.366 line. Most of his peripherals are still in line, so I wouldn’t be too worried about the performance just yet, but I moved him down slightly as part of a reshuffle. He could be a few spots higher again come the offseason list.

9) RHP Jonathan Bowlan, A+ Wilmington

Lynch is the most likely to be a starter, Kowar and Singer have some reliever potential, and Bubic and Bowlan are the most likely of the five to be relievers.

You gotta love Bowlan’s size and he reminds me of Andy Sisco physically (from the right side obviously). Like all of the Royals’ top pitching prospects except Lynch, Bowlan is a guy who needs to figure out a third pitch consistently to increase his chances of staying in the rotation.

10) 2B Gabriel Cancel, AA Northwest Arkansas

What I said before the season when I ranked him #12:

One of “my guys” Cancel doesn’t have flashy tools but he’s a bit like a middle infield version of Cheslor Cuthbert (yes I know the irony here of me liking a Cheslor Cuthbert-esque player). Stocky, hit well at a young age, has some innate power, and some bat control. He takes some big cuts every so often, which he’ll have to tone back on, but there is the makings of some sort of big leaguer here.

Maybe I was higher than anyone on Cancel but he deserved to be talked about when you talked about the top 20 or so guys in the entire organizaion. It seems like he’s in that discussion now.

I truthfully have lost a little steam on him and don’t necessarily liked that he’s moved up two spots but that’s mostly because of Gutierrez and Lopez moving off the list. I can buy the argument that Melendez belongs ahead of him, and that’s fine, but I’m slotting Cancel in front of him until if/when Melendez gets out of A+.

11) C MJ Melendez - A+ Wilmington

What I said before the season, when I ranked him #8:

Another sort of “reluctant” ranking, where I don’t really believe in Melendez as a future big leaguer mostly, but he’s about even on MLB probability as most the guys in this area and his upside is probably the highest.

I often go against the grain with rankings given the way I look at prospects a bit differently than most. Sometimes it leads me to being wrong, like ranking a player far too high, but sometimes I think it leads to being right too. I’m not declaring victory here or anything because I don’t want to take pride in a player being unsuccessful, but I thought most people had Melendez, Nick Pratto, and Seuly Matias far too high by like 10+ spots. They didn’t seem to me to deserve to be in consideration for the top five prospects in the org and their performance (so far) in Wilmington has helped confirm my belief.

Melendez is a very, very good catcher with great awareness and a penchant for trying to backpick runners. There is a chance he’s Mike Zunino, an above-average fielding catcher with power but terrible strikeout/OBP numbers. That would be a giant turnaround from where he is now, where there is a chance he returns to Wilmington next year unless Northwest Arkansas needs a catcher.

12) OF Erick Pena, Unassigned

Gosh. Pena could be ten spots back from here or five spots further either right now depending on how much you want to bet on a non-elite July 2nd guy (even elite guys can fall off quickly: see Maitan, Kevin). The same can be said a year from now depending on what he looks like when he makes his stateside debut in Arizona.

I don’t know enough or have seen enough to have a confident ranking on where he should be, so this is a bit of a placeholder. He should be in the conversation around this range, and you could easily argue most guys in A+/AA who aren’t non-prospects deserve to be ranked higher than him, but we’ll know a lot more this time next year I think.

13) RHP Carlos Hernandez, A Lexington

What I said before the season when I ranked him #13:

Hernandez has the best fastball spin rate in the org (one TrackMan source said he was up to the mid-2550’s which would put him in the top 20 of all MLB pitchers) and it’s clear it is his best pitch

Arguably the best fastball in the system, Hernandez is going to hold steady for this update but will be re-evaluated in the offseason. He needs to both 1) stay healthy and 2) finally get out of Rookie Ball and Lexington

14) OF Darryl Collins, Arizona Summer League

Collins is intriguing and I love his background. He was signed as a 17-year old out of The Netherlands earlier this year. He might be the most intriguing player below A+ for the Royals but the range of outcomes for yet-to-turn 18-year old in Rookie Ball who is already a corner outfielder is the size of Andy Sisco.

15) RHP Austin Cox, A+ Wilmington

Cox has fair results to pair with good stuff, but he’s a guy we need to see outside of Wilmington maybe as much as anyone.

16) RHP Alec Marsh, Advanced-Rookie Idaho Falls

Marsh has a few things going for him (some command, two good breaking balls, not a complete lack of velocity) but he needs to get out of Rookie Ball.

17) OF Seuly Matias, A+ Wilmington

What I said before the season when I ranked him #10:

Matias is basically MJ Melendez without defensive value but with more power (so maybe he isn’t Melendez?). The path to him making the majors is solely dependent on how much contact he makes. If he continues on his current path, he isn’t a major leaguer.

Yep, I think that still fits and now he’s out for the entire season due to injury.

Player A career MiLB line: .218/.299/.449 .231 ISO 107 wRC+ 8.3% BB% 36.2% K%

Player B career MiLB line: .212/.338/.420 .201 ISO 117 wRC+ 12.8% BB% 38.3% K%

Player A is Matias. Player B is Chase Vallot

18) SS Brady McConnell, Advanced-Rookie Idaho Falls

I don’t love the swing and miss in McConnell’s game but he’s a bit Giavotella-esque except Johnny had a better feel to hit. He’s got some speed, raw power, and can play up the middle but he’ll have to prove the doubters wrong at every level.

19) 3B Emmanuel Rivera, AA Northwest Arkansas

What I said before the season when I ranked him #19:

Pretty similar overall to Gutierrez, whereas Kelvin is a bit further up the metaphorical ladder.

Not a lot has changed with Rivera, still the same ol’ guy - good defender with contact skills and a bit of raw power but doesn’t make quality contact. Could be a call up in the way Kelvim Gutierrez himself was.

20) OF Brewer Hicklen, A+ Wilmington

Hicklen struggles to make contact but the power is real and he has some approach at the plate where he isn’t just outright lost like Matias or Melendez. 23 is too old to be in A+ still but he could develop into a later-bloomer.

Previous Royals prospect lists:

Preseason 2019

Midseason 2018

Preseason 2018

Midseason 2017

Preseason 2017

Midseason 2016

Preseason 2016

Midseason 2015

Preseason 2015

Midseason 2014

Preseason 2014