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On exaggerated rumors of a farm system’s demise

Is it really as bad as so many will have you believe?

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Surprise Saguaros v. Peoria Javelinas Photo by Jill Weisleder/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Zero top 100 prospects, failed first-round picks, failed development throughout the minor leagues — the list goes on for the Kansas City Royals. At least, so some would have you believe.

The farm system has been quickly on the decline ever since the system graduated a handful of top prospects. Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch IV, MJ Melendez, Nick Pratto, and Bobby Witt Jr. were all MLB Pipeline Top-100 prospects for the Royals between 2018 and their eventual MLB promotions. Sadly, all but Witt have seen their share of struggles in the big leagues. They’ve been unable to live up to their prospect status to this point, leaving the Royals stuck in the basement of the American League Central.

That poor performance with former top prospects in the mix has the Royals in a very difficult place. The team hasn’t been winning and the farm system represents little to no hope on the horizon. After Gavin Cross fell off the MLB Pipeline Top-100 in the middle of last season, the team had no top prospect to speak of from any major publication. This season, that’s again the case according to Baseball America, ESPN, and FanGraphs. MLB Pipeline ranks Blake Mitchell as the 94th overall prospect — the Royals' lone representative on the list. It’s pretty easy to see why the overall consensus is so pessimistic on the Kansas City farm system that lacks a ceiling.

Is the farm system truly as awful as some would have you believe?

Despite that negative narrative, the future isn’t all bad. Somewhere between the negative majority and my rose-colored glasses lies the truth. The state of the system is far from what it once was, but it isn’t entirely bereft of talent. On Thursday morning, David Lesky of Inside the Crown shared his Top 20 prospects in the system. Before his rankings, he shared a quote from an unnamed scout on the state of the system.

I promise I’m actually going to get to my rankings here in a second, but I do want to relay something from a scout I talk to pretty regularly. He believed the Royals system from 9-30 is borderline top-10 in baseball. But 1-8 is like 28th best. What does that mean? It means that the depth in the system is actually quite good, but there simply isn’t star power.

Now, as much respect as I have for David Lesky, I don’t want to make anyone think that the opinion of a single unnamed scout should change everyone’s thoughts on the state of the farm system. However, those exact sentiments are something that I’ve believed for some time and mentioned back in July shortly after the draft.

The real issue with the farm system following those graduations has been a lack of ceiling. There’s a good amount of depth in players like Nick Loftin, Tyler Gentry, Carter Jensen, and others. Cayden Wallace may prove more valuable than expected but he’s currently not listed on any top 100 prospect lists. No one in the system is.

This report from an unnamed scout matters because it matches what some of us have said all along. It brings some form of obscure confirmation that the farm system is rather deep, despite lacking any true superstar ceiling. Assuming that’s true, how exactly did we get here? What led the Royals to this point as an organization? Finding out what led us here can only help to avoid the same mistakes in the future.

Failed first-round prospects weigh heavy on the farm system

The first thing worth mentioning when analyzing the farm system is the first-round talent the team has acquired in recent years. Dating back to 2020, no one has truly “hit” to this point. Asa Lacy was taken fourth overall in 2020 and has 80.0 total minor league innings in the three seasons since. Next came Frank Mozzicato. Although he’s still just 20 years old, he’s been extremely inconsistent and has yet to raise his prospect stock into what you’d expect from a seventh-overall selection.

Gavin Cross came next and briefly infused some life into the system. He had an impressive Low-A debut in 2022 but quickly fell off the Top-100 after struggling in High-A for most of 2023. Lastly, of course, comes Blake Mitchell who saw mixed results in the Complex League and is yet to debut with a full-season affiliate. The jury is still out on all of these players but had just one or two of them panned out as a locked and loaded top prospect, the farm system looks vastly different.

Hindsight is always 20-20, but the players the Royals have passed on weigh just as heavy as the poor performance of some of these recent first-round selections. Andrew Painter was taken six picks after Mozzicato in 2021. Matt McLain and Jackson Merrill came later in that same first round as well. The Tigers selected Jace Jung just a few picks after Gavin Cross, and Jung was outstanding in Double-A last season. Finally, Kyle Teel was taken by the Red Sox later in last year’s first round after the Royals passed on him. He slashed .363/.483/.495 across 26 games at three levels in 2023.

The Royals have to start hitting on their first-round picks once again if they wish to ever infuse a ceiling into their farm system. Blake Mitchell could be the first successful Royals first-rounder in some time. Frank Mozzicato could be as well. However, as of writing this, that isn’t the case.

Improved performance on the international stage has improved depth

The first-round picks have limited the upside in the farm system. What’s created the depth? One of the more quiet developments for the organization has been its improvements on the international signing stage. They’ve continued to revamp that piece of the system this offseason with additions to the front office. The team hired Johnny DiPuglia earlier this offseason, perhaps most famous for his time with the Nationals which saw international signings such as Juan Soto.

Even before that hire, the Royals have started to find more success abroad in recent years. Ramon Ramirez was signed by the team for $53,000 in the 2022-23 international class. He’s now ranked as the club’s top prospect by Prospects Live. Others, such as Luinder Avila, Emmanuel Reyes, Erick Torres, and Asbel Gonzalez continue to move their way through the system. In baseball’s modern era of extreme financial disparity, small-market teams must succeed on the international stage.

Just last month, the team also signed four of the top 100 international prospects in this year’s class. The Royals seem to be on the right track in that regard and it’s helping them to build depth within the farm system. Freddy Fermin brought some of that depth to the big leagues in recent years and had a successful 2023 season for the Royals. It’s going to take a lot more success over many more years, but the improvements in international scouting are a large reason behind the Royals' added depth in the farm system.

Late-round success has supplemented the back of the farm system well

Late-round success in the draft has been very important for the Royals in recent years. They’ve done very well and that success has built up the depth we now see in the farm system. Vinnie Pasquantino was an 11th-round pick and has cemented his place in the heart of the Royals lineup to open the 2024 season. Other current prospects taken in the tenth round or later include Luca Tresh, Javier Vaz, Austin Charles, Jared Dickey, River Town, Milo Rushford, Anthony Veneziano, Tyson Guerrero, David Sandlin, and Ryan Ramsey.

The best pitcher in the entire system (and one of the best in the entire minor leagues) last season was John McMillon. He was an undrafted free agent signed by the team after the shortened 2020 MLB Draft. The Royals have noticeably changed their draft strategy in recent years and it has allowed them to attack the later rounds and find hidden talent. For all the groans that follow the term “under slot,” it’s made the depth in the farm system happen. Had the first-round picks panned out to some degree, the farm system would be ranked in the top half of the league.

That brings us to the 2024 Royals farm system. It’s a true chicken-and-egg argument. Had the Royals not gone under slot for players like Frank Mozzicato and Blake Mitchell then they’d have never drafted Ben Kudrna or Blake Wolters. At the same time, perhaps the entire reason the team has missed on so many recent first-round picks is that they’ve chosen to go under slot in the first place. It’s a fine line to toe, for the Royals front office. If you spend up on the very best talent available every first round, you’ll find yourself with a top-heavy system that might not carry you very many years.

At the same time, if teams save money on the wrong prospects, they could end up with a good amount of organizational depth, but no top 100 prospects to show for it. Sound familiar? It’s worth analyzing whether scouting or development has played the biggest role in the floundering of recent top picks, but that’s a discussion for another day that’s already been held for years now. The Royals have to find a way to toe the line a little more closely in the coming years. While building depth, they have to also scout and develop top-end talent. Once that happens, building a consistent winner will be possible.