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This Year in the Minors: the Columbia Fireflies

Logo for the Columbia Fireflies, with gray letters surrounded by navy accents and some neon yellow streaks
The Columbia Fireflies finished the season 52-79

‘This Week in the Minors’ is our weekly look at notable performances from all over the system, from big-name prospects and less-heralded guys alike. The mission is to answer this simple question: “Who had a good week?”

However, the Minor League Season is over. So it is time to pull away a bit further from the calendar and look at the whole 2022 season. First up:

Single-A Columbia Fireflies (52-79 overall; 34-31 in second half)

schedule | roster

Columbia was managed by Tony Peña, Jr. After his playing career wound down, Peña Jr. came back to the Royals organization in various coaching roles, like managing the Arizona League Royals in 2019. Had it not been for the 2020 MiLB season being canceled, he would have served as a bench coach for the Triple-A Omaha Storm Chasers.

In his first season managing the Fireflies, Peña Jr. led the team to a disappointing 18-48 in the first half, but then turned things around for a competitive second half with the addition of several debuting players.

Among the later additions was 2022 first-round draftee Gavin Cross, who hit the ground running after his August 10 debut and slashed .293/.423/.596 in 26 games. Prior to the draft, ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel described Cross as a “steady, well-rounded corner bat with strong performance, plus power and a high probability hit tool.”

Catcher Carter Jensen played 113 of the team’s 131 total games, with 46 coming behind the plate and the rest as DH. Jensen just turned 19 in July, and was over two and a half years younger than average league mates. The month of May was a tough one for Jensen, but he pulled out of his struggles and played better in June, then better yet in July, and was incredible in August.

On the mound, the best among pitchers with at least 50 IP at keeping the ball in the park was right-hander Ben Kudrna, Kansas City’s 2nd round pick in 2021. Early in the season, Alex Duvall at Royals Farm Report raved about Kudrna:

Ben Kudrna is a certified STUD. To quote Rany Jazayerli on Twitter, I am “gobsmacked” by how impressive the big righty has looked in his first two starts. His fastball is consistently 93-94 and touches 95-96 semi-regularly. His changeup is a legitimate weapon, the likes of which you will RARELY see from a RHP in A-ball. His slider was much better in this start than it was last week and has the makings of a legitimate putaway pitch against RHH. I cannot say enough about this kid. I know we were excited about him preseason but that excitement is off the rails right now. We’ll see what Kudrna looks like when he doesn’t have his A-stuff (it happens to everyone from time to time), but the version we’ve seen so far is a certified top-100 prospect.

Jensen and Kudrna were the Player and Pitcher of the year.

At Prospects Live, Jared Perkins profiled Kudrna, who talked about how having his fellow draftees along for the ride has been helpful:

Kudrna had the opportunity to go through the process with guys who were all taken in the 2021 draft. Frank Mozzicato, Carter Jensen, and Shane Panzini were all high schoolers taken by the Royals in the 2021 draft. All four of them spent time in the Arizona Complex League last year. And they are all playing together in Low-A for the Columbia Fireflies this year.

“I live with Shane and Frank and Carter is right next door,” Kudrna said. “Having us four altogether has been big. We are all on the same boat. Us four are all going through the same things. We all got each other to come back to at the end of the day.”

Mozzicato started 19 games for Columbia, with his debut coming about a month before his 19th birthday. Walks were a bit of an issue, with the lefty handing out 6.7 walks per nine innings on the season. But he also struck out a lot of batters, a team-leading 11.6 strikeouts per nine among pitchers with 50 or more IP.

Minor League coaching staffs typically get announced in about January, so it remains to be seen how the shakeup at the top of the Royals organization will affect Peña Jr., John Habyan, hitting coach Jesus Azauje, or the rest of Columbia’s field staff.

Up for discussion: What players do you think will repeat the level to start next season? Who would you promote before the spring, as things stand now? Would you shake up the coaching staffs?