Keeping Up With the Royals in the Minors

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Back in April I took an early look at how some of the Kansas City Royals top prospects were doing down in the minors.Since we are a little past the halfway point of the season and getting closer to September, when call-ups are made, I thought we could take a look today at how not only the prospects mentioned in April were doing, but also a few others.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Let’s start with Jorge Bonifacio, who has continued to be an offensive force in AAA Omaha. In 104 games this year, he has put up a line of . 276/.344/.470 with 15 home runs and 64 RBI’s. You can add a wRC+ of 114 to his numbers, which are almost all higher than his stats for last year. Bonifacio has even seen an uptick in his walk rate, while his strikeout rate is on par with 2015. I really don’t know if Kansas City still sees him as a future starter in the outfield, but if not he could be a nice trade piece if the team is looking for young starting pitching this offseason.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

When last we checked in, Brooks Pounders was starting for the Storm Chasers while putting up some good numbers. He would eventually be moved to the pen, where he is continuing to put up good numbers. Over 70 innings, Pounders has an ERA of 2.82, FIP of 3.90 and 10.49 K/9. Pounders has had two stints with the Royals so far this year, with very mixed results. Pounders still has value out of the pen for the Royals, but probably not a permanent spot with the team.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Most Royals fans are interested in how Bubba Starling is doing since his recall to AAA, as he was given a promotion about a month ago. So far in 29 games, Bubba is hitting .218/.269/.327 with 2 home runs, 12 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 56 in 109 plate appearances. His walk and strikeout rate are a bit higher in AAA than he put up in AA in about half the games. This is the definition of a small sample size, but it doesn’t appear as if a higher level of talent has elevated Bubba’s offensive game much. Good thing he is a plus defender.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Third base prospect Hunter Dozier started the year in AA but was soon recalled to Omaha and has probably been their best hitter this year. In 76 games in AAA, Dozier is raking at a .306/.368/.519 clip with 13 home runs, 38 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 133. Combined with his AA numbers, he has hit 21 home runs, drove in 59 and a wRC+ of 164. Dozier has bounced back nicely from his rough 2015 season and has to be viewed as a possible replacement for Kendrys Morales next year as the Royals starting DH. He is definitely knocking on the Royals door and should be allowed entry soon enough.

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Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann

Alec Mills started the 2016 season in AA and was able to make his major league debut in May. Mills has started 20 games combined this year between AA and AAA, with a bit of a mixed bag when it comes to results. Mills was solid in AA, throwing 67 innings with an ERA of 2.39, FIP of 2.09 and K/9 of 9.04. During his 8 games in Omaha, Mills numbers aren’t quite as impressive, as he has posted an ERA of 5.54, FIP of 5.59 and K/9 of 7.85 over 39 innings. His walk rate has jumped up to 3.23 in AAA and his HR/9 has also seen an uptick, to 1.62. There is quite a bit of room for improvement in Mills at AAA, but is still a solid prospect for Kansas City and I would imagine we will probably see him again sooner rather than later. I’ve always felt he might be better suited for work out of the bullpen, but with the Royals struggles with starting pitching, he could get a shot at the rotation in 2017.

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Matt Strahm has put up solid numbers this year for AA Northwest Arkansas, posting an ERA of 3.43, FIP of 3.68 and K/9 of 9.41 over 102 innings. The most impressive part of his season to me has been the dip in his BB/9, down to 2.02, the lowest of his career. Strahm was recalled by the Royals this past weekend and while he struggled in his major league debut, he threw some major heat in his second outing, ending his time on the hill with a strikeout on a fastball clocked at 97 mph. When the season began it seemed Strahm might be better suited for the pen in the long-term, but I think there is a chance he could be a future mid-rotation starter for Kansas City if allowed to develop. Either way, his electric arm will be in play soon enough for the Royals and should see some success no matter the role.

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Back in April we discussed Ryan O’Hearn, as he was killing the baseball for the Royals High A ball affiliate, the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Not long after my post, O’Hearn was summoned to AA and took over first base for Northwest Arkansas. O’Hearn had a small learning curve very early there, but would soon find his stroke. In 83 games, he is hitting .265/.349/.440 with 9 home runs, 36 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 125. Combined on the season, he has hit 16 home runs, 54 RBI’s not bad numbers for a guy in his age 23 season. O’Hearn has seen his walk rate kick up this year while his strike out rate has been steady, a good sign for a future power bat. O’Hearn seems to be developing at a good rate and I still feel like he has a good shot of being Eric Hosmer’s replacement at first base if Hos leaves Kansas City after the 2017 season.

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Pedro Fernandez was also recalled to AA this year but hasn’t seen much time there so far. After 6 games in Wilmington, Fernandez was recalled to Northwest Arkansas and so far has appeared in just 8 games, 5 of them starts. In AA he has an ERA of 4.03, FIP of 4.07 and his K/9 is at 5.90. The move to a higher level of baseball hasn’t been dominant for Pedro, but most of his numbers, like BB/9 and HR/9 are just a slight notch above what he has done the last few years in A ball. I doubt we see him in Kansas City anytime soon, but I would think he will begin the 2017 season in AA and then go from there.

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Samir Duenez has put up some stellar numbers at the Royals High A ball team, the Wilmington Blue Rocks. Duenez took over first base from O’Hearn and has hit .313/.380/.524 with 6 home runs, 24 RBI’s and a wRC+ of 149. Duenez has played in only 39 games in Wilmington, since being recalled from Lexington, another A ball affiliate for the Royals. Duenez has seen his walk rate improve in Wilmington but has also seen a slight increase in his strike out percentage. Between both teams this year, he has produced 12 home runs, 79 RBI’s and 41 total extra base hits. Duenez is only 20 years old and very well might improve his power numbers as he ages. Duenez is definitely a player to keep an eye on and see how he progresses in the minors.

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Josh Staumont is an interesting pitcher in the Royals farm system who was just recently recalled to AA from Wilmington. Staumont is a power pitcher, as is evident from his 11.59 K/9 in A ball this year. Problem is, he also has a bit of a control problem, also apparent by his BB/9 ratio of 8.26. Staumont has an electric arm and when he is on he is almost unhittable with his 95 mph+ fastball. But he still has a problem finding the strike zone some times and is still very much a work in progress. He has appeared in 4 games so far this year in AA and has an ERA of 3.31, FIP of 5.29, K/9 of 11.57 and BB/9 of 8.82. He has thrown 89 innings combined so far this year and most can see that Staumont could be a great arm for the Royals at some point down the road. Unfortunately, his control issues will slow down his progress and it is going to have to see an improvement before we can even discuss him contributing for the big league club. The arm is there, but Staumont is nowhere near a finished product.

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There are a number of other names within the Royals farm system you should keep your ear to the ground on. Nolan Watson, Ashe Russell, Marten Gasparini, Scott Blewett, Foster Griffin, Chase Vallot and Ramon Torres are all names that you could be hearing over the next 2-3 years. I would love to throw Kyle Zimmer into this conversation, but honestly, his health has been a constant concern. Zimmer was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome and we won’t really know more until Spring Training rolls around next year. The Royals have some pieces for the future that will be helping the big league club and they will need it once the 2018 season rolls around. We are all aware that the farm system was gutted last summer in the Cueto and Zobrist trades, trades that helped the Royals win a world championship. The cupboard isn’t empty, but the team does need to stockpile more talent over the next couple seasons. Baseball has been moving more toward youth the last few seasons and more and more teams are willing to take chances on younger(cheaper) talent. These players could very well be part of the Royals future, some sooner than later.

So About That Royals Farm System…

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Last week I was posed the question of whether there was anyone in Kansas City Royals camp that could surprise the team this spring. I discussed a few non-roster invitees, but no prospects and there are a few reasons for that. For one, this team is pretty close to a set roster and will only have a few spots open for competition. The other reason is that there are very few Royals prospects on the verge of breaking into the big leagues. If you look at the top of most prospect lists for Kansas City, you will see Raul Mondesi, Kyle Zimmer and even Bubba Starling taking up space. Starling is probably (at the least) another year away, while Zimmer has to stay healthy first before he can be considered to help Kansas City this year. I do believe we will see Mondesi this year, in fact I wouldn’t be shocked if he is the starting second baseman by August. Defensively he is ready, but his offense is still a work in progress. But after these three? Well, the farm system has taken a hit the last few years, and is currently anywhere from 18 to 23 in most MLB depth lists. Is that a fair position to put the Royals farm system in?

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I believe so, since the team lost a number of top prospects this past summer in the Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist trades. Sean Manaea  went to Oakland for Zobrist and he is now the A’s top prospect. Cody Reed was a part of the Cueto deal and he is currently number two on the Reds prospect charts. This is all without mentioning Brandon Finnegan, the former number one draft choice who was dealt with Reed to Cincinnati last summer. It sounds like a lot of talent dealt, and it was, but think of it this way; without those trades, the Royals probably aren’t world champions, so at the end of the day it was worth it. The other thing to remember is that a number of main talents are in the lower minor leagues for Kansas City, players that have been stockpiled over the last few drafts. Guys like Foster Griffin, Nolan Watson, Ashe Russell, Ryan O’Hearn and Chase Vallot are all players you should store in the back of your mind for future reference, although none will be seeing the major leagues anytime soon. The Royals front office and scouting department has done a nice job over the last few years re-stocking their minor leagues with players who will hopefully be the next wave of talent that rises through the minors together, but they won’t be part of the big picture for a few more years. So who could we see this year in Kansas City?

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There are obvious choices, like Cheslor Cuthbert and Miguel Almonte, players we saw off and on throughout the 2015 campaign. A few other prospects worth mentioning are Matt Strahm and Alec Mills, two pitchers who have steadily risen through Kansas City’s farm system. Strahm is a lefty who could see some time out of the bullpen this year, while Mills is another power arm with a nice array of pitches in his arsenal. Mills finished the year in high A ball, striking out 111 batters while walking only 14. Either guy could be contributing for the Royals out of the bullpen by the end of the year.

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So there are prospects that can contribute this season, but not many. Just looking at the surface, it appears the Royals have neglected the farm. But in reality it is a steady process that will take a few years to fully bloom. This is what happens when you win; you don’t get the higher draft picks that are on the fast track to the big leagues. Instead you accumulate arms and athletes and hope a few over-exceed expectations. The future is bright, but it gleams brighter the deeper you look.

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