2021 Kansas City Royals Midseason Top 30 Prospects Update
An early run in which the Royals finished April with a 15-9 record didn’t last long, but it was perhaps a sign of better days to come for the rebuilding franchise.
They spent much of April and the first few days of May in first place before an 11-game losing streak dropped them into more familiar territory in the AL Central. Veteran catcher Salvador Perez is having another outstanding year at the plate, already with 21 home runs in 359 at-bats through July 18, and Danny Duffy, another longtime Royal, is leading the pitching staff with a nice bounceback season.
The biggest news in the farm system centers around three young prospects at the Double-A level through the first half of the season. Shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. continues to progress into a franchise cornerstone, and with his recent promotion to Triple-A he’s a candidate to make his major league debut before the end of the season. First baseman Nick Pratto and catcher MJ Melendez are both having strong seasons after their significant struggles in High-A in 2019, a testimonial to the extra work put in by the players as well as the Royals minor league hitting development program.
It’s almost a certainty that the Royals will be looking to further enrich their farm system by dealing useful vets at the trade deadline. Duffy, fellow lefthander Mike Minor, second baseman/outfielder Whit Merrifield and first baseman Carlos Santana are the most likely candidates to be dealt.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Bobby Witt Jr., SS
Age: 21. Team: Triple-A Omaha
Heading into his first full professional season, expectations were high for the 2019 No. 2 overall pick and he exceeded those projections. He showed more power than expected, with 16 home runs in 244 at-bats at Double-A Northwest Arkansas and a batting line of .295/.369/.570 before a promotion to Triple-A. There was a chance that Witt was going to break camp with the big league team after spring training, so don’t be surprised if he makes his major league debut later this season.
2. Daniel Lynch, LHP
Age: 24. Team: Triple-A Omaha
Kansas City’s top pitching prospect made his MLB debut earlier this year with three rough starts and the numbers at Triple-A Omaha weren’t special, but the stuff remains as good as before and he’ll likely get another shot in the Royals rotation before long. The most important stat was a 62-to-18 strikeout-to-walk rate through 12 appearances with Omaha.
3. Asa Lacy, LHP
Age: 22. Team: High-A Quad Cities
Lacy went to big league spring training, but didn’t actually appear in a game until minor league spring training a month later. He was rusty at times but flashed the repertoire that made him the No. 4 pick in 2020. The control was shaky in his pro debut in High-A, but he held hitters to a .208 average and struck out 14 per nine innings through 13 starts. Most importantly, his first pro season has been a solid learning experience as he transitions from the college game.
4. Nick Pratto, 1B
Age: 22. Team: Triple-A Omaha
Pratto re-engineered his swing and his mindset at the plate after his disappointing 2019 season at High-A Wilmington, but had to wait nearly two years to prove that the changes were more than enough to restore his prospect status. Mission accomplished. With 15 home runs in 221 at-bats and a batting line of .271/.404/.570 to go with his plus defense at first base, it’s safe to say that Pratto is back, earning a midseason promotion to Triple-A Omaha.
5. Jackson Kowar, RHP
Age: 24. Team: Triple-A Omaha
Kowar was outstanding in 10 Triple-A starts as of July 19, posting a 2.02 ERA with a 69-to-17 strikeout-to-walk rate in 49 innings. The Florida product had three rough outings with the Royals earlier this season when his fastball command wasn’t up to par, but his Triple-A performance is more indicative of his future. Give credit to the continual improvement of his curveball, which has become a weapon that keeps hitters from sitting on his plus-plus changeup.
6. M.J. Melendez, C
Age: 22. Team: Double-A Northwest Arkansas
After his abysmal 2019 in High-A, Melendez went back to the drawing board in restructuring his swing and approach. He became more selective and battled longer through his at-bats. The power was very real; it’s just that with a better approach he was able to get the pitches he wanted to hit. The result was that he led all of Double-A in home runs through July 20 with 19 in 233 at-bats and showed that he can go opposite field. There’s still plenty of work to do to develop defensively, but he’s flexible, agile and has plenty of arm strength.
7. Kyle Isbel, OF
Age: 24. Team: Triple-A Omaha
Isbel spent the first three weeks of the major league season in the Royals starting outfield before heading to Omaha for more minor league seasoning. He made adjustments to his swing but continued to draw walks and hit balls hard, so more power should emerge. Isbel, who spent time as an infielder in college, continued to improve defensively, showing that he can handle center field.
8. Erick Pena, OF
Age: 18. Team: Rookie-level Arizona Complex League
Pena would have made his professional debut last season at 17. Instead, he’ll hope to make up for lost time with a strong season in the Rookie-level Arizona Complex League. Pena has strong bat-to-ball skills and the strength to eventually hit more balls over the fence. His body got thicker, so he’s not likely to stay in center field, but he continued to improve his jumps and reads and should have enough arm for right field.
9. Jonathan Bowlan, RHP
Age: 24. Team: Double-A Northwest Arkansas
Bowlan was on the fast track to the big leagues with his first four starts at Double-A Northwest Arkansas, when he posted a 1.59 ERA with a 25-to-3 strikeout-to-walk rate in 17 innings. His stuff was electric, with his pitches exploding late in the zone. But an elbow injury required Tommy John surgery, putting him out of action until at least the middle of 2022. Bowlan would likely have made it to Kansas City at some point this season, but with his lightning stuff, strong work ethic and makeup, this delay should be just a blip in his career.
10. Frank Mozzicato, LHP
Age: 18. Team: N/A
NEW The Royals surprised the industry when they announced the Connecticut high school product as the seventh overall pick, especially with bigger names still on the board. Mozzicato didn’t pitch in many senior showcases leading into his senior year, and wasn’t much of a known commodity as a prep Connecticut lefty prior to the spring. But he soon changed that, throwing four consecutive no-hitters and surging up draft boards. What separates Mozzicato from other high school pitchers is his plus curveball, perhaps the best breaking ball among prepsters in the draft.
11. Alec Marsh, RHP
12. Nick Loftin, SS
13. Ben Kudrna, RHP
NEW Kudrna ranked just below first-rounder Mozzicato on most draft lists, giving the Royals a pair of highly-ranked high school arms in the first two rounds. The Louisiana State commit’s projectable frame means he’ll be able to add velocity to a fastball that touches 97 mph.
14. Austin Cox, LHP
15. Ben Hernandez, RHP
16. Carlos Hernandez, RHP
17. Jon Heasley, RHP
18. Peyton Wilson, 2B
NEW Drafted in the supplemental second round, the Alabama outfielder has twitchy athleticism and explosive hands from both sides of the plate. At least a plus runner, Wilson is the type of player capable of playing multiple positions on the field, a trait that the Royals have frequently coveted.
19. Noah Murdock, RHP
20. Angel Zerpa, LHP
21. Zach Haake, RHP
22. Darryl Collins, OF
23. Carter Jensen, C
NEW The Royals stayed close to home with their third-round pick, taking Jensen, a product of Park Hill High in Kansas City. The Louisiana State commit has an advanced lefthanded bat with a knack for finding the barrel and plenty of time to develop more over-the-fence power. Like most prep catchers, it will take time to determine if he’s got the receiving skills to stay behind the plate, but the bat is expected to play elsewhere.
24. Lucius Fox, SS
25. Daniel Vazquez, SS
26. Yefri Del Rosario, RHP
27. Samuel Valerio, RHP
28. Ronald Bolanos, RHP
29. Vinnie Pasquantino, 1B
NEW It’s all about the hit tool for Pasquantino, and he proved he was more than capable of hitting for power and getting on base with a strong season at High-A Quad Cities.
30. Anthony Veneziano, LHP
Who Is The Breakout MLB Hitter Of 2023?
Baseball America staffers make their picks for the breakout hitter of the 2023 season.
Nick Pratto’s 2019 season was concerning, but his resurgent 2021 season has him back on track. His numbers from 2019 to 2021 speak volumes, with his OPS shooting up almost 400 points. He’s reworked his swing and no longer gets eaten up by fastballs.
Pratto isn’t the only member of that 2019 Wilmington team who needed a swing overhaul, and the changes made by M.J. Melendez have also boosted his stock. The catcher has increased his OPS in Double-A over 350 points from his 2019 season. Most importantly, Melendez cut his strikeout rate from 39.4 to 22.1% as of July 20. He’s doing a better job of working counts and getting into better positions to hit.
Jon Heasley continues to improve since being drafted in the 13th round in 2018 from Oklahoma State. Having cleaned up his delivery and improved the quality of his four-pitch mix, Heasley has improved his chances to stay in the rotation, but if he goes to the bullpen he could be a force with an uptick in velocity.
Darryl Collins performed well in the Rookie-level Arizona League in 2019 while still only 17, and the ability to consistently barrel up balls and his advanced plate discipline have continued as he’s handling Low-A pitching at only 19. More power is expected to emerge with maturity and experience.
As a big, hulking first baseman and a well below-average runner, Vinnie Pasquantino needs to hit to continue advancing in his career. That’s exactly what he did at High-A Quad Cities this year, with a .291/.384/.565 batting line and 13 home runs in 237 at-bats, leading to a promotion to Double-A.
Seuly Matias has the best raw power in the organization and a plus-plus arm in right field, but the hitting ability just isn’t coming together for him. He’s also missed valuable development time to hand injuries both in 2019 and 2021 and an oblique injury in 2020.
Brewer Hicklen was coming off a strong season in 2019 at High-A Wilmington but has not handled Double-A pitching this year, as he’s had issues with his mechanics and timing at the plate, being very rigid with his load and chasing breaking balls out of the zone.
Kris Bubic made 10 starts with the Royals in 2020, falling one-third of an inning short of no longer qualifying for the prospect list. He’s hit that milestone this year as he’s already pitched in 16 games in a combined starter/reliever role.
Tyler Zuber has spent parts of the last two seasons in the Royals bullpen but has yet to duplicate his minor league success. His walk rates have risen dramatically from where they were during his minor league career.
Jonathan Bowlan was off to a strong start in Double-A before suffering an elbow injury requiring Tommy John surgery. He’ll miss the rest of the 2021 season and likely a good chunk of 2022.
Ronald Bolanos is out indefinitely with a flexor strain and was put on the 60-day injured list in mid June. He was used as a starter with Triple-A Omaha and pitched effectively in three relief appearances in Kansas City.
Seuly Matias missed more than a month of the minor league season with a broken finger before returning to High-A Quad Cities in early July.
Noah Murdock was delayed at the start of his regular season, first to minor soreness in spring training and then a hamstring injury during extended spring training. He returned to the mound for High-A Quad Cities in mid June and recent quality starts indicated that the Virginia alum is back on track.