The Royals are relying on homegrown talent to get them back to contention, but there may not be much more help on the way if the opinions of some talent evaluators in the game is correct. ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel ranked the Royals 28th in his his organizational rankings this off-season, while Prospects 1500 ranked them not much higher at #24. In mid-summer updates last August, MLB Pipeline ranked them #21, Fangraphs ranked them #25, and Baseball America ranked them dead last. If you’re looking for a more optimistic ranking, Keith Law of The Athletic has them #16 in his off-season update.
Law writes the system is “underappreciated because it’s very easy to point to names in the system who have maybe not performed up to expectations,” pointing to the slow progress of former first-round pick Frank Mozzicato. But he adds the system is “actually pretty deep”, with “a lot of guys who can at least become regulars or fourth starters, and if you’re the Royals that’s really valuable.” McDaniel seems to concur with that notion, writing that the “farm system is more a group of solid players than future stars.”
Adam Halpin at Prospects 1500 writes the Royals “have a dozen or so pitching prospects who are difficult to evaluate, as well as some notable lower minors hitters.” He adds the 2023 season will be “a crucial year to see if the pitching development pipeline can take a step, nay, leap forward.”
The lack of upper level star talent is evident in top prospect rankings as well, many of which are bereft of Royals prospects. Law ranked outfielder Gavin Cross, last year’s #9 overall pick, as the only Royals prospect in his top 100 list, ranking him #57. Law writes that he saw improved power from Cross over the summer, and “he showed better bat speed and more impact when he squared it up, so his power ceiling might be closer to 30 homers than the 20-ish expected of him when he was an amateur.”
Cross came in at #62 on MLB Pipeline’s list at #97 on Baseball America’s, again the only Royals prospect listed on each. Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin at Fangraphs ranked 112 prospects, with not a single Royals prospect. In a chat session, Longenhagen explained that he thought Cross was “more a bankable platoon corner guy” and that he “should have destroyed A-ball”. McDaniel also didn’t rank Cross, but he did include shortstop Maikel Garcia in his top 100 list at #78, writing the 22-year-old is a “plus hitter with an excellent approach and a steady glove at shortstop, but below-average in-game power.”
On one hand, the lower farm ranking should be a bit expected after graduating so many promising young players to the big leagues. As MLB Pipeline explains in their low ranking, “once so many lose prospect status, expect a steep drop.” In the last year, the Royals have sent top prospects like Bobby Witt Jr., Vinnie Pasquantino, MJ Melendez, and Nick Pratto to the big leagues. Before that, they graduated many pitchers like Brady Singer and Daniel Lynch from top prospect lists, while Jackson Kowar and Asa Lacy have fallen off lists due to poor performance.
On the other hand, that puts a lot more pressure on the current crop of youngsters in the big leagues to perform, because there may not be much in the way of impact players to add to the roster. While the Royals have gotten some good performances from players like Singer, Witt, Melendez, and Pasquantino, they haven’t made the impact that other first- and second-year players have made like Julio Rodriguez, Spencer Strider, or Alek Manoah. The Royals crop of players can certainly improve, particularly with the new coaching staff. But a lot hinges on their improvement.
And the Royals have certainly had opportunities to add to the farm system in the last three seasons by virtue of drafting so high. Four college pitchers from the first-round of the 2020 draft have already made their MLB debut, but not fellow college first round pick Asa Lacy. Seven players taken after Frank Mozzicato in the first round of the 2021 draft are on Baseball America’s top 100 prospect list, including #5 prospect Andrew Painter, a high school draftee who has a chance to make the Phillies rotation this year. It’s obviously way too early to write Mozzicato off already, and drafting him allowed them to grab Ben Kudrna and Carter Jensen later on in the draft, but that decision does bear some scrutiny.
Prospect rankings aren’t everything, of course. Whit Merrifield was an All-Star who never sniffed a prospect list. And no team hits on every draft or international signing. But if the Royals aren’t going to be major players in free agency, they need to have a steady pipeline of talent coming from the minors. There is definitely hope that prospects like Cross, Garcia, Mozzicato, Kudrna, Jensen, and perhaps a few others could take a big jump this year and get on some prospect lists. If the Royals want any chance of making it back into contention, they will need their farm system to improve.