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The top 20 Royals prospects for 2020

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20 for 20

West Fall Stars v. East Fall Stars Photo by Jennifer Stewart/MLB Photos via Getty Images

This will be the seventh year of giving you my bizarre and completely unsolicited thoughts on Royals prospects. My first list (which you can find a list of every ranking I’ve done - pre and mid-season) was in September of 2013, shortly before I officially joined the site. Only four (Zimmer, Starling, Dozier, and Mondesi) of the top 20 prospects from that list are still in the organizations, a testament to the turnover that MLB teams can have and also prospect attrition.

The way I have done things has changed since then, particularly in how I view prospects. I used to buy a bit more into tools back then but I think I’ve found what I think is the appropriate balance of tools, results, and projection. I’ve been - criticized is the wrong word - but told that I lean more towards safe prospects, but I’m not entirely sure that is true (see: Vallot, Chase). Instead, I lean towards probabilities, which I think is the correct way to value/rank prospects given all we know about prospect bust rates. Now that isn’t to say I’d take your high floor college shortstop over a 19-year old in A-Ball like Wander Franco (who is clearly the best prospect in baseball), but I think striking a balance between risk and reward is important.

I considered making an entire post about this at one point, but I think it could be summarized here (*warning* niche finance concept incoming). In finance, there is the idea of building a portfolio under the concept of risk parity. Essentially, you weight the assets inside your portfolio so that they are all contributing an equal amount of risk. This intuitively this means your high-risk assets are underweight compared to your low-risk assets so that no one asset is contributing more risk than any other. I think there are some principles in risk parity that could also apply to farm systems.

Take for example two hypothetical farm systems, using the probability of outcomes that FanGraphs has given them from their 2020 top 100 list

Just looking at the names, you would probably want the high upside squad. They are all ranked on average almost twice as high as the other group and the chance for them to be 60+ or high future value is 8% higher (which is pretty big relatively speaking). However on the flip side, the chances of the high upside group being an average player is 9% less and busting is ~7% higher. The chance of them busting over the high floor group is almost equal to the chance of them being 60+ FV.

The cumulative probabilities are more just for show, but the chances of all of the high floor group busting is almost non-existent vs the high upside group being 5x higher. The chances of all of the high floor group being average or so is almost 8x higher. The chances of the high floor group all being 60+ FV is just short of half the high upside group.

If we followed the risk parity model, it would probably look something more like this

We are at just about equal weight in the bust/40-55/60+ averages and at the midpoint in average rank between the two. The idea here is that we can mimic the risk of the high upside group, but skew the results to the positive side more.

This isn’t a perfect example I’ll admit, as in risk parity we’d weight the risk buckets so that everything was even. Let’s use dummy prospects instead

In the above hypothetical system, it may look like it leans more low risk, but it ends up equal across the board since the bust rate is lowered by the low risk prospects and the 60+ FV rate is raised by the high risk prospects.

This is ideally what I think a system should probably look like: a mix of prospects, risky to low. Farm system rankings will always skew towards risky prospects, as they typically are the higher ranked prospects (though FanGraphs admittedly does a good job in my opinion here of realizing that there is risk and ranking accordingly), but there are entirely realistic scenarios where a system ranked say, 15th overall ends up better than one ranked 5th overall if the mix skews towards risk for the 5th ranked org. That isn’t to say the 15th-ranked organization should be ranked higher, but that the expected outcome for the hypothetical 5th-ranked org should be higher than that for the 15th.

I guess this ended up being an entire piece length, oh well!

Having said all that, the Royals system is probably more skewed towards the bust side but unfortunately it isn’t accompanied by the 60+ FV side that we’d like given that it is pitching prospect heavy in the meat of it. Pitching prospect probabilities look something like this:

The chances of them busting is basically higher than the combined chances of them not busting; it’s incredibly asymmetric and not something you want your system to be made up of.

As always, re-read how I rank prospects as my general philosophy has remained mostly unchanged since 2018.

1) LHP Daniel Lynch, A+ Wilmington (2.99 ERA, 3.12 FIP in A+)

What I said midseason:

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.

Nothing has changed here for me at the top. Lynch is still the best prospect in the system, mainly because he’s the most complete. I think though it should be more said that he lacks the existential flaw that others in the system do (hit tool for Lee/Witt, changeup for Singer, breaking ball for Kowar, etc..).

Under normal circumstances, Lynch would have had a shot to be in the Major Leagues in 2020, but given the pandemic shortened season now, there isn’t really a reason to not let him go the rest of whatever this year ends up in the minors and eye towards the major league rotation in 2021.

2) RHP Jackson Kowar, AA Northwest Arkansas (3.52 ERA, 3.64 FIP in A+/AA)

What I said midseason:

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.

We didn’t see much progress from the curveball in 2019, but his two other pitches still remained strong. He probably has the most upside of any pitcher in the system and a floor above Brady Singer. However without finding that third pitch, he’ll remain in between Lynch and Singer.

3) OF Kyle Isbel, A+ Wilmington (97 wRC+, .164 ISO, 7% BB%, 20.3% K%)

What I said midseason:

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.

Isbel did move up, obviously, based mostly on just reconsidering the rankings of those around him, not explicitly because he did something. I think from here on, these guys are interchangeable within 3-4 spots and I won’t argue much.

Isbel’s floor is lower than Singer I think (even considering the bust rate of pitching prospects) as Singer should at least be a reliever in some capacity whereas Isbel isn’t quite good enough of a defender to be an elite defensive utility kind of guy (the equivalent of a reliever in a way). Still, his 2019 stats were mostly just noise in an injury plagued season and his performance in Arizona was raved about.

4) RHP Brady Singer, AA Northwest Arkansas (2.85 ERA, 3.40 FIP in A+/AA)

What I said midseason:

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.

I’ll continue to accumulate future freezing cold takes points here and take the heat if the day ever comes, but I still don’t think Singer belongs in the top two of a Royals prospect list. It’s easy to fall in love with the snarling college pitcher who dominated the SEC but even though he did do better down the home stretch in AA (2.98 FIP in his last 8 games vs a 4.72 FIP in his first 8), he didn’t really “wow” enough to fulfill the proverbial crown he has been given. Left handed batter hit .307/.374/.398 and .260/.337/.379 off him in Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas, respectively.

5) SS Bobby Witt Jr , Arizona Summer League (85 wRC+, .091 ISO, 7.2% BB% 19.4% K%)

What I said midseason:

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.

Witt’s performance in his pro debut couldn’t have been much worse but it also it at the point where it couldn’t have really mattered less. Yes, you want your #2 overall pick to not hit like Chris Owings in the lowest level possible, but you can excuse it as a long summer (he had been playing for basically a year straight) and his first dip in the pool. The most encouraging thing in his performance is the batted ball data, that even as a teenager has him hitting as hard as some Major Leaguers on average.

Unfortunately, we are getting close to calling 2020 an almost irrelevant season too if minor leagues don’t start up soon (and they shouldn’t until things get considerably more safe than they are now). That’s going to stink a bit, having a bad pro debut and an essentially small sample size/lost season to follow it up. There is a chance we don’t get a true full season Witt until the age of 21.

6) OF Khalil Lee, AA Northwest Arkansas (112 wRC+, .109 ISO, 11.9% BB% 28.2% K%)

What I said midseason:

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.

Somehow, after I wrote that in August, both Lee’s groundball rate and strikeout rate went up, as he finished the year with a 59.3% groundball% and 28.2% K%. That’s not good enough to be a major leaguer, as the list of hitters with 1,000+ plate appearances and a K% >25% and groundball% >50% is fairly short and not great

Obviously those numbers aren’t concrete - Lee is still hasn’t turned 22 yet - but groundballs and strikeouts have been a consistent them for him over the past few seasons.

7) 2B Gabriel Cancel, AA Northwest Arkansas (104 wRC+, .181 ISO, 6.6% BB% 28.1% K%)

What I said midseason:

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 organization. It seems like he’s in that discussion now.

I still remain on the high side of Cancel (maybe my take here needs to be CANCEL-led itself). He outhit Khalil Lee for most of the season before a colder August swapped the two. I’m a bit more comfortable in Cancel’s ability to make contact than Lee but Lee has the much better pitch recognition.

Still, Cancel is speedier than he looks, can play an okay second, has above average power, and lifts the ball well. I think Lee and Cancel are essentially equal but Lee gets the nod because of his defensive superiority and plate discipline.

8) LHP Kris Bubic, A+ Wilmington (2.30 ERA, 2.57 FIP in A+)

What I said midseason:

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.

Bubic certainly put up an impressive season, leading all the minor leagues in strikeouts, however that’s not an award that historically has meant much going forward:

2018: Taylor Widener

2017: Triston McKenzie

2016: Jaime Schultz

2015: Jaime Schultz

2014: Taylor Cole

2013: Angel Landazuri

Still, Bubic was a cool story to watch and he really did beat the hell out of A+ hitters. There are things to like about his pitchability and secondary stuff to distract you from the lack of fastball velocity that is typically needed in today’s game. I could see Bubic having a good few early years but falling off as he loses velo in a Drew Smyly kinda way

9) CF Michael Gigliotti, A+ Wilmington (119 wRC+, .086 ISO, 9.6% BB% 18.9% K%)

What I said midseason:

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.

It had to be done, unfortunately. Gigs drops down the list because of his inability to stay healthy. He missed an entire month between July and August. When he was on the field before his trip to the IL he hit .285/.369/.374 (121 wRC+), buoyed mostly by a strong performance in Lexington.

I don’t know what you do with him now. He needs to get out of A-Ball in Lexington, but he doesn’t need to go hitters hell in Wilmington but I’m not sure about throwing him in AA right away either. I suppose I’d do that and see what happens.

10) RHP Jonathan Bowlan, A+ Wilmington (3.14 ERA, 2.82 FIP in A/A+)

What I said midseason:

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.

Bowlan’s command is a lot better than his size let’s on just as his velocity is a little slower than the same size might look like it should be. He’s got the build of a lumbering hard thrower with nasty stuff but iffy command (Lance Lynn, Joel Hanrahan, Carlos Zambrano, etc...) and yet, he has pretty good command, good velocity, but lacks a wipeout pitch.

That puts him as not quite good enough to relieve but not quite bad enough to relegate him to the bullpen effectively. He fits best in a back end role or a long starter type.

11) RHP Austin Cox, A+ Wilmington (2.67 ERA, 3.48 FIP in A/A+)

Another tweener pitcher type where you could see him in the bullpen/long relief/ or starting just depending on minor movement in pitch outcomes.

12) RHP Tyler Zuber, AA Northwest Arkansas (1.79 ERA, 2.51 FIP in A/A+)

Kitchen sink throwing reliever who could end up in high leverage situations.

13) RHP Carlos Hernandez, A Lexington (5.31 ERA, 4.21 FIP in A)

Hernandez keeps missing time for non-arm injuries but remains tantalizing with his velo and above average curveball. He’s now in year four in the org and hasn’t gotten above A-Ball, so the clock is ticking but he just turned 23 and there is really no age-related clock if he ends up a reliever.

14) OF Erick Pena, DNP

The epitome of a “prove it” player, Pena has zero true organized playing experience in the United States other than the fall league, having just signed in July out of the Dominican Republic. We have no way to project him other than looking at his size and tools for his age and overlapping it to past players. That’s a really easy but dangerous thing to do.

It’s going to be interesting to see how he fills out; he’s already 6’3” at the age of 17 and he could be a physical specimen.

My ranking here is conservative because we’ve been burned not less than 1,000 times on international prospects, but he’s toolsy enough with implied variance that he could be either a top 20 prospect or still in A-Ball four years from now.

15) RHP Alec Marsh, Advanced-Rookie Idaho Falls (4.05 ERA, 4.08 FIP in Adv Rookie)

Another kitchen sink low velo type that doesn’t have much projection but could carve out an intermediate length career at the back of a rotation

16) SS Brady McConnell, Advanced-Rookie Idaho Falls (80 wRC+, .188 ISO, 8.4% BB% 38.2% K% in Adv Rookie)

The strikeout issues carried over from college but the solid defender at SS, power, and speed remain. It’ll be a fine needle to thread to be a regular major leaguer.

17) C MJ Melendez - A+ Wilmington (67 wRC+, .149 ISO, 10.5% BB% 39.4% K% in A+)

Nick Pratto and Seuly Matias are currently not legit prospects right now and Melendez is only hanging on by the thread that is his good defense, which seems to not have tracked as well as expected when he was drafted.

Maybe he ends up as Mike Zunino - which would be a fantastic outcome - but that’s like the 90th percentile right now.

18) OF Darryl Collins, Arizona Summer League (132 wRC+, .116 ISO, 10.6% BB% 14.4% K% in AZL)

Really fun story and player to watch with an intriguing background but no real precedent for his size/profile/biography.

Would have been nice to see how he handled Burlington this year, which can still happen as it is a short season league, but we’ll have to see what the Royals do with the guys at the lowest level.

Absolutely could be 10 spots higher a year from now depending on what 2020 may bring.

19) RHP Zach Haake, A Lexington (2.70 ERA, 3.07 FIP in A-Ball)

Good stuff but iffy command pitcher with a track record of arm-related injuries that almost never ends up with a long career.

20) 1B Logan Porter, Arizona Summer League (201 wRC+, .297 ISO, 16.8% BB% 18.4% K% in Rookie Ball)

I’m going to use the final spot for a fun pick as the #20 prospect in the current Royals org is no different than the #40 really. Porter destroyed the Appy League and was the Player of the Month for July...but he was also 23 years old.

He was an undrafted free agent out of Dixie State but is two-for-two hitting by season so far. He’lll sink-or-swim in full season ball in 2020, in which will surely seal his fate. It’s unlikely he ever makes the majors, but it would be a great story.

Previous Royals prospect lists:

Midseason 2019

Preseason 2019

Midseason 2018

Preseason 2018

Midseason 2017

Preseason 2017

Midseason 2016

Preseason 2016

Midseason 2015

Preseason 2015

Midseason 2014

Preseason 2014