clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

There is concerning regression among Royals minor league hitters

Go back! We went the wrong way!

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

MLB: Spring Training-Los Angeles Dodgers at Kansas City Royals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The MLB Trade Deadline is now behind us and the Kansas City Royals can now turn their eyes to the remainder of what has been a disappointing season overall. There are the major league results — a team on pace for well over 100 losses despite a recent resurgence in the win column — and there is the farm system lacking an MLB top-100 prospect. The system ranked 29th in baseball before this season, according to MLB Pipeline. None of this is news to anyone who’s followed the team to this point in the season, but there are plenty of developments to point to this season.

Some of them are good and some are quite bad, but first, it’s important to distinguish why they matter. The Royals aren’t going to right the ship by striking gold in a trade or even by hitting on a first-round draft pick. Doing either of those things is a good step in the right direction, but the true path to making Kansas City a good baseball organization lies in scouting and development. On the international market, in the draft, and via trades, the Royals need to do a good job of scouting. Then, once the players are in the system, they need to develop to become even better and one day have a positive impact on the Major League roster.

It’s easy to make a blanket statement that the team needs to “scout better” and “develop better” but how can we tell whether they’re doing either of those things well? Someone I respect quite a bit worded it very well in the last week or so, but I can’t find the exact quote so I’ll re-word it a bit: good scouting leads to early success after a player enters the system and good development leads to lasting success the longer the player remains with the organization. So how are the Royals doing there?

A tale of two trajectories: Hitters and Pitchers

The Royals have, by most accounts, been pretty good at scouting recently. Gavin Cross was selected ninth overall in last year’s draft and hit the ground running. Over his first 26 games for Low-A Columbia in his debut season, he slashed .293/.423/.596. At the time, all signs pointed to Cross being exactly what we all hoped for. Then this season, Austin Charles, Ryan Ramsey, Javier Vaz, Mason Barnett, and others have looked pretty great at times in their first full professional season.

In trades, Cole Ragans joined the organization and looks great since joining the Royals in the Aroldis Chapman trade. There are a lot of good scouting processes happening and results that point to those improvements. On the development side of things, there have been signs of life from minor-league pitchers. Anne Rogers of MLB.com highlighted earlier this season many of the revamped changes in the minor leagues:

At the All-Star break, five Royals pitchers ranked in the top 100 of all Minor League pitchers (minimum 30 innings) in strikeout percentage and strikeout-to-walk percentage; six rank in the top 100 in swinging-strike percentage. In 2022, Kansas City had just one pitcher — Noah Cameron — rank in the top 100 (minimum 60 innings) in strikeout percentage and strikeout-to-walk percentage. The Royals have seen improvements across the board in what they call key performance indicators — ERA, WHIP, hard-hit percentage, first-pitch strike percentage and more.

When looking at the statistics, pitchers like Ben Kudrna and Chandler Champlain have gotten better this season. Alec Marsh, John McMillon, and Tyson Guerrero all have as well. The pitching development as a whole is not where it needs to be in the big picture, but it’s substantially better.

With their young hitters, the Royals looked like they were already there when this season got underway. In August 2021, Alec Lewis of The Athletic took a detailed look at the team’s transformation. Lewis documented the widespread changes and improvements that Kansas City had made to improve their hitting development under Alec Zumwalt and Drew Saylor. At the time, we saw serious turnarounds from Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez. We saw what looked like the future lineup taking shape via lasting and impactful improvements.

Where has that gone? The Royals' minor-league hitters don’t look impressive this season. At the same time, many of their major league hitters haven’t looked impressive either. Michael Massey and MJ Melendez have struggled through serious slumps and only just recently started to perform at just a league-average level at the plate. Drew Waters hasn’t carried over his strong finish from 2022 into much of his 2023 season thus far. If those MLB struggles weren’t enough to make you worry, the performances in the minors haven’t been much better.

Only Jean Ramirez and Brett Squires rank in the top 100 among qualified Low-A hitters for wRC+. In High-A, the results are a bit better with four players — Cayden Wallace, Javier Vaz, Juan Carlos Negret, and Carter Jensen — ranked among the top 100. In the upper minors, however, there isn’t a lot to be excited about at the plate. Jorge Bonifacio (30) and Logan Porter (28) are ranked in the top 100 hitters of their respective levels. The third and final Royal in that group at AA or AAA is Samad Taylor, who has seen mixed results in the Majors so far.

The Royals have just ten qualified players in full-season affiliated baseball (Low-A through AAA) with a wRC+ over 100 this season. The Dodgers have 15. The Reds have 20. Inside the AL Central, Minnesota has 19, the Tigers have 18, Cleveland has 17, and the White Sox have 13. The hitting development simply isn’t continuing at the same pace it was two years ago and Kansas City can’t afford to lose ground anywhere.

Sure, the pitching development looks like it’s on the right track, but that won’t mean a whole lot if the minor-league hitters don’t get back on track. The Royals can’t afford to go backward anywhere, much less when it comes to developing future talent for a last-place major league team. It’s still possible that Alec Zumwalt and Drew Saylor get things back on track as the season moves along. Into next year, however, if there aren’t signs of improvement then the front office needs to consider whether they can still bank on those successes of yesteryear to carry them into the future.

The Royals rank 22nd in batting average, 29th in on-base percentage, 29th in runs scored, and 29th in wRC+ this season. The time to start asking why offense is down at all levels of the organization is now. Otherwise, it’s hard to see the rebuild paying off anytime soon.