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Royals in the Arizona Fall League

The Royals contributed to a Cactus Fall League championship

Surprise Saguaros v Mesa Solar Sox Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

The Arizona Fall League wrapped up play this past weekend. The Surprise Saguaros, who roster players from Kansas City, Texas, Houston, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia, defeated the Glendale Desert Dogs in a 7-6 extra-inning thriller to claim the AFL title. The Saguaros were clearly the best in the desert this autumn with a 19-10 record and +29 run differential. The Saguaros featured some of the best prospects in baseball, including Henry Davis, Nick Gonzales, and Quinn Priester. While the Royals didn’t send any top prospects to Arizona, several of their players were key contributors to the Saguaros. Let’s take a look at how Royals farmhands fared in the desert. Please note that all of these guys come with the “small sample size” disclaimer.

Samad Taylor

Surprise Saguaros v Mesa Solar Sox Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Taylor was a mainstay in the Saguaros lineup serving as the team’s nominal second baseman. His 76 plate appearances were the third most on the team, while his 21 games tied for the team lead. He typically hit at or near the bottom of the order. He started the championship game in the nine-hole and was the only Saguaro that failed to record a hit, although he did steal a base and come around to score after reaching on a fielder’s choice.

The total autumn numbers were uninspiring: Taylor slashed .152/.237/.318 with three doubles, a triple, and two homers. He did show his wheels with nine stolen bases, second on the team, and only getting caught once. The plate discipline numbers were very problematic as Taylor had a solid 10.5% walk rate but an unplayable 34.2% K rate. It is possible to be productive with a high strikeout rate.

In fact, the four qualified hitters with the highest strikeout rates in 2022 were all above average by wRC+. Those guys make up for the whiffs by hitting for a lot of power. Taylor is not that type of player. He had a .167 ISO in Arizona, right in line with the .168 he posted at AAA this year. He cannot strike out that much and still be productive. Worth noting that he had a BABIP of just .200, so there was probably some bad luck involved. He showed flashes, but it appears Taylor may need another year of minor league seasoning before he can contribute at the big league level.

John Rave

Surprise Saguaros v Mesa Solar Sox Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Like Taylor, Rave was a regular for the Saguaros with 75 plate appearances (fourth on the team) and 18 games played (tied for second). He made appearances in all three outfield spots. Rave got off to an excellent start this autumn and made an appearance in the Fall Stars game, but he tapered off as the season progressed. Due to that strong start, Rave frequently batted near the top of the order. He played in just one of the last three games and did not appear in the championship game.

Rave finished the fall hitting .217/.280/.377 with three doubles, a triple, and two homers. He attempted two stolen bases and was successful both times. As with Taylor, whiffs were an issue as Rave punched out in 29.3% of plate appearances while walking in just 8.0%. While I do have concerns about his strikeout rate, I’m more concerned about pop-ups. Rave has had major pop-up issues throughout his minor league career with an infield flyball rate above 20% at each of his minor league stops thus far. He had an AFL pop-up rate of 14.9%, which is an improvement but is still too high.

On the bright side, Rave had a groundout-to-air-out ratio of 0.52 this fall. That means he excelled at hitting the ball in the air. This was usually about 1.30 for him in the minors, so it remains to be seen if this improvement in elevating the ball is sustainable.

It’s hard to see what sort of role Rave could have on next year’s Royals squad, He’ll be 25 and has played just 11 games in AAA. His prospect profile is somewhat similar to Kyle Isbel: he can work a walk, swipe a bag, and occasionally run into one, but lacks a standout tool. However, Isbel has shown he is a legitimately elite defender at the big-league level. I’m not sure Rave can go get it in the outfield quite like Isbel and his hit tool is still a question mark. That said, if there are injuries in the outfield and he plays well in AAA, Rave could factor into the outfield equation next year.

Tyler Gentry

AZ Fall League: Surprise Saguaros at Peoria Javelinas Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Gentry was the breakout star in Kansas City’s system this year, putting up huge numbers in A+ before being promoted to AA. He didn’t miss a beat, continuing to pummel minor league pitching while cutting his strikeout rate and hitting for more power. Among Texas League hitters with at least 300 plate appearances, Gentry was third in wRC+, while being one of only two hitters in the top 14 in that stat that also had a K-rate below 20%.

Unfortunately, Gentry had a disappointing and somewhat odd stint in Surprise. In just his second game, he went yard twice.

After that, though, he never really got going. On October 21st, Gentry started in Surprise’s 7-2 victory over Glendale, going 0-2 with two walks and two strikeouts. That was the last game he would play in the AFL as he was removed from the roster shortly thereafter. I cannot find any news indicating that he was injured so I’m not really sure what happened there.

Ultimately, Gentry appeared in ten games for Surprise and hit .139/.244/.333 with a double and two homers. Despite being 15th on the team in plate appearances, he somehow led the squad in GIDP with five. I’m not sure what to make of his autumn. Plate discipline was not a concern as his 19.5% strikeout rate and 12.2% walk rate were both very similar to what he did in AA. His .194 ISO is roughly in line with his career rate in the minors. What I think really says the most is he ran a .115 BABIP. He consistently ran BABIPs above .360 in the minors so such a drop can likely be chalked up to poor batted ball luck.

While it would have been nice to see a big fall performance for Gentry, I’m not concerned about his struggles. I think there’s a very good chance that Gentry factors into the Royals outfield as soon as next year if he keeps on hitting and guys like Isbel, Olivares, and Waters struggle.

T.J. Sikkema

2022 Arizona Fall League Headshots Photo by Kelsey Grant/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The pitching staff keyed Surprise’s title run as the staff led the AFL in ERA at 4.33, nearly a full run better than second-lowest Glendale’s (5.28). Surprise struck out the most batters while allowing the fewest hits, walks, and home runs. While Royals hitters mostly had disappointing falls, the arms really showed out.

Sikkema began the fall in the starting rotation. His first start came in Surprise’s fourth game of the season. He started well, facing the minimum through the first two innings with each out coming via a ground ball. However, he ran out of gas in the third. Sikkema walked the bases loaded to start the inning and allowed a single to score two runs. He managed to escape with no further damage thanks to a GIDP and a groundout, but his outing was over.

His next start came October 11 against Mesa. After failing to record a strikeout in his first outing, Sikkema fanned Ronny Simon and Jasson Domínguez consecutively on three pitches in the first inning. He ran into some trouble with two outs in the third, allowing three straight batters to reach and a run to score. He managed to limit the damage to one and came back out for a 1-2-3 fourth on a tidy nine pitches.

Having already thrown almost 70 minor league innings after missing all of 2021, Sikkema made his last AFL start on October 18 against Peoria. He was outstanding with six strikeouts in four innings while allowing only an unearned run. The fourth inning was dicey as he allowed three singles in the inning, but only the unearned run scored before he escaped the inning.

Sikkema totaled 11 innings across his three starts and pitched to a 2.45 ERA, striking out nine batters and walking six while not allowing a home run. While the peripherals aren’t inspiring, he reduced his walks in each start while increasing his strikeouts. Having ended with his best start since joining the organization should give Sikkema a nice confidence boost entering the offseason.

Christian Chamberlain

Salt River Rafters v. Surprise Saguaros Photo by Jill Weisleder/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Chamberlain was a 2020 draft pick of the Royals out of Oregon State. Stop me if you’ve heard this sort of profile before: explosive fastball-breaking ball combo with 30-grade command. He split the season between A+ and AA and showed off swing and miss ability but also walked the world.

The lefty played a key role in the Saguaros bullpen, totaling 10 13 innings across eight appearances. He allowed 4 earnies, good for a 3.48 ERA. He was stung by the longball (two homers allowed) but continued showing the strikeout stuff he had in the minors with 12 punchouts while only walking five batters. Five walks in 10 13 innings is still a bit high, but much better than his rate in the minor league season. His most impressive moment came in the Fall-Stars Game. Chamberlain entered the game with top 100 prospects Zac Veen, Jackson Merrill, and Andy Pages coming up. He punched out all three and needed just 12 pitches to do so. While he is unlikely to contribute at the big league level in 2023, the stuff is legit and just some refinement in command could make him a quality reliever.

Jonah Dipoto

Surprise Saguaros v. Scottsdale Scorpions Photo by Jill Weisleder/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I’ll get this out of the way immediately: Dipoto is more organizational depth than legit prospect. He lacks the raw stuff of a guy like Chamberlain and, while he has shown solid strikeout ability in the minors, he’s also had walk issues. Perhaps most importantly, he turned 26 in September, so it’s not like there’s much projection here.

With all that aside, Dipoto flat-out dominated the Fall League competition. He allowed just two earned runs in 9.1 innings, good for a 1.93 ERA. Even more impressive? 14 strikeouts to just one walk. He struck out 40% of batters faced while allowing a paltry .257 OBP. All this while running a fairly elevated BABIP of .368. He capped off the season by striking out the side in the championship game. This autumn could give him something to build on going into next season. Given his age, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Royals give him a shot in the majors next season just to see what they have.

Walter Pennington

Surprise Saguaros v. Mesa Solar Sox

Pennington was part of Kansas City’s 2020 undrafted free agent class. Playing for the Division II Colorado School of Mines, he got some action as a two-way player but has been exclusively a pitcher as a pro. Pitching mostly in AA this year, Pennington showed a nice groundball rate but unimpressive strikeout numbers and a few too many walks.

On the surface, Pennington’s Fall League was unremarkable. He rolled up a 5.79 ERA in 9.1 innings, walking four batters (high, but not too bad) and punching out ten (solid, but not great). Yet he didn’t give up any homers and only allowed a .289 OBP, so I think the inflated ERA is a result of poor sequencing or just one or two outings going sideways.

Pennington isn’t much of a prospect and I’m not really sure what the path forward is for him, but with a solid showing in the upper minors next year, perhaps he can factor into the bullpen as a sort of lefty groundball specialist.

Nate Webb

Kansas City Royals Photo Day Photo by Daniel Shirey/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Webb is a local kid, hailing from Lee’s Summit and having worked on the grounds crew at Kauffman Stadium. He is also, you guessed it, a reliever with explosive stuff and walk issues. Webb spent most of the season in AA and paired many strikeouts and walks with a .448 BABIP somehow.

He wasn’t originally on the Surprise roster, joining the team on October 22, presumably as a replacement for Gentry or Sikkema. He only pitched 5.2 innings but he was solid, retiring 17 of 23 batters faced, six of them via strikeout. He walked just two batters and no earned runs scored on his watch. Webb was an intriguing prospect coming into 2022, but he really struggled this year and he’s 25. He was designated for assignment earlier this week, so his future is murky.

Noah Murdock

Glendale Desert Dogs v Surprise Saguaros Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images

Unlike the previous three pitchers, Murdock still has a shot at starting thanks to his command and the depth of his arsenal. He was effective but oft injured in his first two years in pro ball. He was finally healthy in 2022 but really struggled between A+ and AA, walking almost as many batters as he struck out and serving up a ton of homers.

Murdock joined the team on October 25 and only managed four innings for the Saguaros. He faced 16 total batters and struck out three, walked two, and allowed one run on three hits. So not bad, but not an especially inspiring performance.

He’s Rule 5 eligible and was not added to the 40-man, but it seems unlikely he gets poached. Murdock just turned 24 a few months ago so there’s still hope, but he really needs to show something next season if he’s going to have a future in the majors.