Baseball is back, but it didn’t come without a cost. While we might get a truncated 2020 season, the fractured relationship between the players and owners won’t be easily mended and we are likely in for another labor dispute in 2021.
The long-term effects of the conflict could be severe, but what could also be damaging is a potentially lost season of minor league baseball. Hundreds of players have lost their jobs while many others have lost a season of development.
This is true of every team, of course. But the Royals are a unique example. For starters, they are the only team that has promised to not cut minor leaguers. That’s a good thing. But they are also the only team whose top prospect – their lone top-10 prospect and their only top 100 position player – is already 20 without a full season of professional ball under his belt. That’s a not so great thing.
Bobby Witt, Jr.’s age was arguably the biggest red flag when he was drafted by Kansas City last year, even more so than an underdeveloped hit tool. The high school senior turned 19 shortly after he was drafted, leaving less time to develop said hit tool.
Of MLB’s top 10 prospects, Witt is the second-youngest behind Wander Franco. However, Franco has already played in 175 games, including time in High A ball. Witt has played just 37 games at the rookie level.
There are three 21-year-olds in the top 10. Jo Adell has played 224 games, including some at AAA in 2019. Royce Lewis has already played two full seasons (a pattern for some former Royals’ high school draftees), including time at AA. MacKenzie Gore missed some starts due to injury in his first full season but came back to dominate in 2019 with some time spent at AA.
This isn’t a killer for Witt, and he isn’t the first old high school senior to be drafted. However, he is significantly behind his counterparts and it put the Royals in a uniquely difficult spot. Losing a year of minor league ball is a massive blow for Witt more so than most players.
As it stands now, Witt will be 21 before he finishes his first full minor league season. To give some context, Alex Gordon played his first full minor league season at 22 years old, but that came after three full seasons of college ball at Nebraska. He was a full-time Major League by his age-23 season.
Billy Butler, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas had both played two full seasons before they turned 21. Butler and Hosmer both had strong rookie campaigns in their age-21 season. Adalberto Mondesi played 125 games at Lexington as a 17-year-old. Salvador Perez made his Major League debut at 21.
Luke Hochevar is a guy who didn’t play in a full season until he was 23, but he was also a college junior draftee who played in just one full minor league season before his first call up. Witt Jr’s development is similar to that of a high school senior, but his age will look closer to a player drafted out of college.
A broad strokes comparison for Witt might be Bubba Starling. Both were nearly 19 years old when they were drafted. Both were high school seniors. Both played premiere defensive positions. And both were potential five-tool guys if the hit tool caught up with their other tools.
However, there are some key differences. For starters, Witt Jr’s makeup looks to be stronger. As Sam Mellinger put it, Starling’s personality “is often a bad fit for baseball’s relentless grind.” That grind nearly caused Starling to quit in 2017 before ever playing a Major League game. Witt, on the other hand, had a father who played 16 Major League seasons. Baseball America highlighted Bobby Witt, Sr.’s desire to ingrain the needed mental toughness into his son.
Starling was also conflicted about picking baseball over football. So much so that when people said he would take the baseball money and run, he told ESPN that they didn’t know how much he loved football. In fact, he was on Nebraska’s campus participating in voluntary football drills as Scott Boras was battling the Royals on his behalf. There was no such conflict with Witt.
The biggest difference is in their skill sets on draft day. While both were five-tool caliber guys with a still-developing hit tool, Starling’s was far more dependent on his freak athleticism compared to Witt’s more refined game. And although Starling was a top-five pick, he wasn’t the mega-prospect Witt is being hyped up to be.
I mean, several veteran scouts had Witt as the best shortstop prospect since Alex Rodriguez, and that includes guys like Chipper Jones, Manny Machado, and Derek Jeter. Regardless of what you think about that evaluation, the discussion alone shows the kind of prospect Witt Jr is in the eyes of some scouts.
If his tools are true and his makeup is what it is touted to be, a late start should be just a bump in the road. However, we would be remiss to not discuss his age. If it was a red flag when he was drafted, it is certainly one now that he won’t have a full season under his belt until he is 21. You would be hard-pressed to find a single prospect more disproportionately impacted by the layoff than Witt.