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The 2021 Royals draft class, one year later

How are the kids doing?

Royals first round pick Frank Mozzicato pitching with the Columbia Fireflies
Royals first round pick Frank Mozzicato pitching with the Columbia Fireflies
Jeff Blake |

The Kansas City Royals shocked the baseball world in last year’s draft by selecting Frank Mozzicato with the seventh overall selection. Mozzicato, a left-handed pitcher from a cold weather state, was roughly a top 50 player—a bit of a far cry from a top 10 player. The Royals’ selection of Mozzicato echoed their selection of Hunter Dozier in 2013, a play made by the team to strategize around the somewhat convoluted draft signing bonus pool rules. By picking a player who would accept an underslot bonus with their top pick, a team can instead spread around that bonus to multiple players.

Kansas City chose this route, doubling down on high school pitching prospects along the way.

Will the strategy pay off in the long run? I had my doubts at the time, claiming that the 2021 draft was an exercise in hubris due to the inherent volatility of high school pitching and the Royals’ lengthy and rather comprehensive lack of developing high school pitching talent. Indeed, Andrew Painter, Sal Frelick, Matt McClain, and Michael McGreevy—all of whom were picked within the top 20 selections of the draft—have already sailed through the lower minors and played in Double-A or Triple-A this season. Meanwhile, the Royals’ prized high school arms never got out of A ball, slogging their way through the league to varying degrees of success.

The good news is that a draft is not just few key players, and the better news is that the careers of the Royals’ top selections has yet to be set in stone. Pitchers make a lot of strides in their late teenage years and early 20s, and there is yet time for a star to rise. So: let’s take a look at how the 2021 Royals draft class has done. We’ll split it into four groups.

The high school pitchers

Royals second round pick, Ben Kudrna, pitching for the Columbia Fireflies
Royals second round pick, Ben Kudrna, pitching for the Columbia Fireflies
Jeff Blake |
  • Frank Mozzicato, 7th overall
  • Ben Kudrna, 43rd overall
  • Shane Panzini, 108th overall

Frank Mozzicato. What a delightfully Italian name, one that could give Vinnie Pasquantino a run for his money. Anyway, Mozzicato is a particularly young pitcher who just turned 19 near the end of June. He’s shown flashes of brilliance, mostly related to his advanced curveball and his impressive strikeout rate of nearly 30%.

But Mozzicato is so far just that: flashes of brilliance. He ended the 2022 season with a 4.30 ERA, notably lower than his 4.74 FIP. Mozzicato’s Achilles heel at the moment is—you guessed it—lack of control. He walked 16.7% of batters, and you just can’t turn everybody into Joey Votto and suspect to escape unscathed.

Ben Kudrna has been a bit more polished than Mozz. With a 3.48 ERA and a 4.29 FIP, he’s elicited more soft contact and hasn’t been as bad in tough spots. However, he struck out 19.6% of batters—10% less than Mozz—while walking over 10% of batters.

Finally, Shane Panzini has been not unlike Mozzicate. Panzini posted a 5.00 ERA this year with a 5.56 FIP, with the same good strikeout rate (23.3%) and walk troubles (13.4%). Panzini lacks Mozzicato’s killer curveball.

None of the three big high school pitchers have made top 100 prospect lists. But importantly: all three remained healthy, and with a hopefully re-imagined pitching development arm of the organization, they are poised for a leap forward next year. And with thin pitching depth everywhere, the organization is in big trouble if they don’t.

The high school hitters

Carter Jensen catching for the Columbia Fireflies
Carter Jensen catching for the Columbia Fireflies
Jeff Blake |
  • Carter Jensen, 78th overall
  • Ryan Cepero, 229th overall
  • Brennon McNair, 319th overall

There aren’t a lot of hitters in their age-18 season who can post a 17.1% walk rate and a .363 OBP in A ball, but that’s just what Carter Jensen has done for the Fireflies. He’s still a little rough around the edges—he’s shown just ok power and his low batting average is stopping him from destroying the league—but he’s also a catcher. He gives off some MJ Melendez vibes, which isn’t the worst thing at all.

There’s not much to say about Ryan Cepero or Brennon McNair. Neither have made it out of Arizona yet. Considering that both were picks in the 200s or 300s, that might not ever happen.

The college hitters

Royals catcher Luca Tresh batting for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals
Royals catcher Luca Tresh batting for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals
David McLelland | @dwwmc
  • Peyton Wilson, 66th overall
  • Dayton Dooney, 169th overall
  • Parker Bates, 259th overall
  • River Town, 439th overall
  • Luca Tresh, 499th overall
  • Cam Williams, 559th overall

The Royals have tended to have pretty good success with college hitters but haven’t usually spent a lot of draft capital on them. That seems to be the case here, but for one Luca Tresh. A consensus top 100 player in the draft, Tresh fell due to signability concerns. But the Royals hadn’t just saved money for Kudrna, and they were able to lure Tresh to professional baseball and nab a third round talent in the 17th round.

It’s paid off for them. After dipping his toes into the professional waters with Columbia in 2021, Tresh kicked off this year with the High-A Quad Cities River Bandits. In 347 plate appearances, Tresh swatted 14 home runs and posted a cool .360 OPB en route to a 130 wRC+ as a catcher. The performance earned him a mid-year promotion to the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals, the only member of the 2021 draft class to do get there. Tresh posted a wRC+ of 111 at Double-A and could be a dark horse candidate to get to the big leagues next year.

Otherwise, watch for Peyton Wilson and River Town. Wilson has been solid all year for the River Bandits with a 128 wRC+ while playing both second base and center field. Meanwhile, Town and his 80-grade name turned in a really impressive stint with the Fireflies and earned a midseason promotion to the River Bandits.

The college pitchers

Anthony Simonelli
Anthony Simonelli
Josh Franzen | @PrtTimeFranimal
  • Eric Cerantola, 139th overall
  • Noah Cameron, 199th overall
  • Shane Connolly, 289th overall
  • Tyson Guerrero, 349th overall
  • Caden Monke, 409th overall
  • Anthony Simonelli, 469th overall
  • Harrison Beethe, 529th overall
  • Jack Aldrich, 589th overall

Standing in stark contrast to 2018’s college-heavy pitching class that has already resulted in five big league pitchers, the Royals spent most of the 2021 draft class with college pitching as an afterthought. It took until the 139th overall selection for the Royals to pick a college arm, and indeed they only picked two in the top 288 selections.

As one might expect from a group selected from low draft capital, the results haven’t really been great. Shane Connolly stuck with the Fireflies all year in Low A ball, and the rest ascended to High-A Quad Cities. All of them ended the season with a 4.85 or worse ERA with the River Bandits, save one—Noah Cameron. Cameron struck out an absurd 41.4% of opposing batters in his nine starts with Quad Cities and has done so without walking many at all. The Royals nabbed him in the seventh round as Cameron was recovering from Tommy John surgery, and his three-pitch mix is something to watch as he ascends to the upper minors.

2021 draft class gallery

Many thanks to the photographers featured in this piece: Jeff Blake, David McLelland, and Josh Franzen.