The Arizona Fall League wrapped up play this past weekend. For the second year in a row, the Surprise Saguaros — rostering players from Kansas City, Texas, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Toronto — claimed the AFL title, defeating the Peoria Javelinas in the championship game. The Saguaros were clearly the best in the desert this autumn with a 19-11 record and +38 run differential. They weren’t quite as stacked prospect-wise as last year’s squad, but they featured a top-100 guy in Ricky Tiedemann and some other interesting prospects like Eric Brown Jr. and Mitch Bratt. The Royals sent several top prospects to Surprise for the fall, as well as some org guys that played key roles. 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.
Kansas City’s 2022 first round pick hoped to put an unhealthy and poor 2023 minor league showing behind him with a stint in the desert. Cross played in four games over the first couple weeks of play, then missed the next three weeks with a hamstring injury. He came back to play four games once the calendar turned to November, but he did not appear in the championship game. In 27 plate appearances split between DH, right field, and center field, Cross hit .222/.353/.296 with eight strikeouts and six walks.
Cross’s AFL performance was just as disappointing as his minor league season, and in similar ways. His hit tool continues to be much worse than expected coming out of Virginia Tech with lots of strikeouts and a low batting average. The power was a letdown as well as he failed to go yard in Arizona’s friendly power environment. On the bright side, he got reps in center field, demonstrated his ability to work a walk, and stole seven bases without being caught despite limited playing time.
Turning 23 in February, the ship has not sailed on Cross, but he will have much to prove in next year’s minor league season.
Royals 2022 first-rounder Gavin Cross singles to right-center, then swipes second in AFL action. pic.twitter.com/z0KDyDBtQ2— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) October 4, 2023
Ending the 2023 season on the big league roster, Loftin posted solid but flukey numbers in a short stint. This came on the heels of two largely underwhelming minor league seasons after a strong High-A showing in 2021. He played in two games early on, one at second base and one at first, and went 3-11 with a couple doubles. For reasons that were never announced, he was subsequently pulled from the Saguaros roster.
I have a feeling that Loftin will be this offseason’s version of Drew Waters: a guy that posted good surface level numbers in a small sample at the end of the season despite some scary underlying metrics. That’s not to say he doesn’t deserve a shot in Kansas City next season, just don’t expect him to be Whit Merrifield.
Wilson was the 2023 version of Samad Taylor from last year’s squad — with 101 plate appearances, Wilson was as close as it gets to an everyday player in the AFL. He primarily played second base but also drew some starts in left field and at DH. Wilson got off to a torrid start that included a two-homer game, but tapered off as the autumn wore on. That makes sense given his workload, with 663 plate appearances between Double-A and the Fall League, a vast increase over his 390 minor league PA’s in 2022. Wilson finished the circuit hitting .272/.390/.432 with an 18.8% strikeout rate and 15.8% walk rate.
Relative to his Double-A season, Wilson performed very similarly with slight improvements. He hit for more power and took more walks — much more in line with his ‘22 High-A performance — without a meaningful increase in strikeout rate. There was no BABIP-driven improvement either as his .323 mark was lower than his ‘22 and ‘23 minor league rates.
It’s unclear to me exactly what Wilson’s path is to the majors. Loftin, Taylor, and Michael Massey are all ahead of him on the depth chart, and the incumbent Massey has a much stronger minor league track record than Wilson. Perhaps he can be a better version of Taylor, but we haven’t seen that materialize yet.
Arriving in the same trade that brought Waters to Kansas City, Alexander has been basically the same player in this system as he was in Atlanta’s. Taking Loftin’s spot on the roster, Alexander made his AFL debut on October 21 and was a mainstay in the lineup the rest of the way. Splitting time between first base and DH, he hit .213/.291/.553 in 47 plate appearances.
Alexander is the classic power-over-hit 1B/DH type with approach issues. He walked 10.9% of the time in Arizona, which is better than he had done in the upper minors, but he also punched out 29.1% of the time, roughly in line with his Triple-A rate. He did make the most of his contact, leading the team with a .340 ISO, but it’s hard to bring much value offensively with an OBP below .300.
At 27 years old with no defensive value to fall back on, Alexander is more organizational depth than actual prospect. With enough injuries at first base next year, maybe he can find his way to the roster for a bit. Alexander is not on the 40-man roster and will be subject to the Rule 5 draft this winter.
Zerpa is unusually experienced for the Fall League, having pitched in parts of three major league seasons. Those parts have amounted to just 58.2 innings at the highest level though, and the Royals wanted him to get more innings after being limited by injury this year. No pitcher “starts” in the traditional sense in the AFL, but Zerpa pitched in a multi-inning role at the beginning of games throughout the circuit. He saved his best for last, throwing three scoreless innings with six strikeouts in the championship game. He otherwise struggled, however, allowing runs in four of his five other appearances. In 14.1 innings, he posted a 4.29 ERA with 20 strikeouts and seven walks.
A couple times in the fall, Zerpa was stung by the longball and at others he struggled throwing strikes. It was a bit head scratching when the Royals first added Zerpa to the 40-man roster and, in the three years since then, he hasn’t done much of anything to justify the move. He’s still only 24, but I have a hard time seeing him as anything more than a swingman.
Angel Zerpa was dealing in the @MLBazFallLeague Championship Game.— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) November 12, 2023
The @Royals prospect fanned six in three scoreless innings for Surprise.
Watch LIVE: https://t.co/9jUS7vkYQ7 pic.twitter.com/Ovoywo7xgi
Flashing big stuff and 30-grade command for the 2021 national champion Mississippi State Bulldogs, Cerantola pitched primarily as a multi-inning reliever in 2023 between High and Double-A. He occupied the same role in Surprise, pitching 14 innings across six appearances. He got knocked around a bit on October 18 and lost the zone in his next outing, but he pitched quite well overall with a 3.85 ERA. The peripherals were very encouraging, with 21 strikeouts to just six walks.
This is a prototypical modern relief prospect. Big-bodied with an upper-90s fastball, Cerantola can also spin the hell out of a slider. He’s coming off a nice season in the minors with lots of strikeouts and an elevated but manageable walk rate. His performance in Surprise is a good note to end the season on. Given his stuff and the current issues on the big league roster, Cerantola could factor into the Royals bullpen as soon as next season should he continue throwing enough strikes.
Eric Cerantola got some ugly swings tonight in his last action of the fall.— Preston Farr (@royalsminors) November 12, 2023
2.0IP, 1H, 1ER, 1BB, 3 SO pic.twitter.com/MlvfZplfRi
Drafted out of high school in 2018, Kaufman was limited to just 29 innings in the minors this season. He ran solid strikeout rates and was tough to hit, but also struggled throwing strikes. He made seven appearances out of the bullpen in the Fall League and was only scored on in two of them. He was generally a one inning guy but was on a couple occasions stretched for longer. In 8.2 innings, he ran a 4.15 ERA with nine punchouts and five walks. He finished particularly strong; after allowing a hit to the second batter he faced on October 24, Kaufman retired 13 of the next 15 batters he faced without allowing a hit.
Injuries and the Covid season early on may have screwed up the lefty’s development as he threw just 15 minor league innings prior to 2021. He posted full seasons in ‘21 and ‘22 as an old-for-the-level starter, producing solid strikeout rates but little else to hang his hat on. He’ll be 25 next June and likely starting the season in Double-A, where the Royals will have to decide if he has a future as a starter or if it’s time to move to relief. Kaufman is not on the 40-man roster and will be subject to the Rule 5 draft this winter.
Acquired in a trade for Wyatt Mills over the offseason, Wallace was rather boom-bust in the AFL. In his first outing, all five of his outs came via strikeout, but he also got taken deep. A couple weeks later, he walked four of the seven batters he faced. He pitched a scoreless inning on October 24 then, for whatever reason, did not pitch again. He finished the slate with six innings and a matching ERA, punching out nine and walking six.
Can you say “big stuff with strike-throwing issues?” Wallace throws a riding fastball in the upper-90s with a good slider and 30-grade command. He’s been healthy in the minors and spent the last two full seasons in Double-AA, striking out 27% of batters (good!) and walking 18% (not good!), while also plunking eight guys and uncorking 16 wild pitches for good measure. Guys with this type of stuff that stay healthy generally get a shot eventually, but he’s a very volatile prospect. Wallace is not on the 40-man roster and will be subject to the Rule 5 draft this winter.
Jacob Wallace was originally drafted by the Rockies in the third round in 2019.— Baseball America (@BaseballAmerica) November 14, 2023
Since then, he’s flashed big-time stuff but struggled with control and command.
What is the @Royals prospect outlook now after the AFL?https://t.co/ZpBPPVjqN7 pic.twitter.com/AJI0QGn0Sv
Joining the organization last year in the trade for Andrew Benintendi, Way bounced between starting and relief in his first Double-A action. He pitched rather sparingly but was effective until getting shelled in the last game before the semifinals. Like Wallace, he went 666 with his innings, earned runs, and walks. Unlike Wallace, he only struck out seven.
In terms of stuff, you can read the second paragraph above and apply it here. Way struggled immensely in Double-A as his strikeout and walk rates both moved in the wrong direction, though he did improve in the second half. He was something of a project when he came over from the Yankees and that remains the case. Way is not on the 40-man roster and will be subject to the Rule 5 draft this winter.