Revamped And Rejuvenated Farm System Has The Kansas City Royals Ready To Rebound


Image credit: Blake Mitchell (Photo by Tracy Proffitt/Four Seam Images)

After the 2021 season, the Kansas City Royals’ farm system ranked fifth in baseball. It was led by superstar-in-waiting Bobby Witt Jr. and also included future big leaguers Vinnie Pasquantino and Alec Marsh. 

Now, Witt is one of the best players in the sport, while Pasquantino and Marsh have contributed to a big league team that, as of June 20, was 41-34 and in possession of an American League wild card spot. 

Once that trio graduated from prospect consideration, however, things began to go south. Kansas City’s system ranked 29th the following year and entered this season dead last in BA’s annual organizational rankings

There was nowhere to go but up, and a system-wide overhaul has helped expedite that process. And although the results are only now starting to shine through, the first hints of change came in 2021, when the Royals overhauled their minor league hitting department.

‘Training To The Truth’

One of those key additions was Drew Saylor. Hired away from an assistant hitting coordinator’s role with the Pirates, Saylor joined the Royals after the 2019 season and really set to work implementing his vision once the minor leagues resumed in 2021. 

A major part of his plan involved what he tabbed “training to the truth.”

“We wanted our guys to be able to hit velocity,” Saylor said. “We got them more comfortable with being uncomfortable, and we wanted them to be able to learn how to hit certain pitch shapes and movement profiles and kind of started there.

“Then we’re able to kind of start to bake in ‘OK, well, this guy’s movement profile says this, this guy’s strength profile says that, here’s how we’re going to build and put together all those pieces. Here’s how we’re going to forecast what this should look like. And then, (later), we’re going to reevaluate that.’”

To accomplish those goals, each affiliates’ pregame routine changed. Instead of hitting against a coach in batting practice, Royals prospects began facing machines designed to spit out pitches that closely mimic the arsenal of that night’s opposing pitcher. If he has a top-down curveball, the machine will serve up snapdragons. If sweepers are on the menu, the machine will sling those at hitters. And if a pitcher can bring the heat, the machine will ratchet up the velocity. 

Results have been mixed from a team-centric perspective, as all four of Kansas City’s full-season affiliates are middle-of-the-pack in their respective leagues. But there have been some key rebounds throughout the system. 

2022 first-rounder Gavin Cross, for example, is hitting .286/.368/.454 with seven home runs for Double-A Northwest Arkansas. That upswing comes a year after Cross produced an OPS of just .683 in a season spent mostly spinning his wheels at High-A. An illness suffered last season almost certainly contributed to those struggles and limited Cross’ promotion to Double-A to just two games. Now, the Virginia Tech alum appears rejuvenated and back to something resembling what Kansas City expected when it drafted him seventh overall. 

A level lower, at Quad Cities in the Midwest League, 20-year-old catcher Carter Jensen has quietly produced an excellent season. A year after a rough introduction to the level, the 2021 third-rounder has shown an eye-opening mix of impact and patience. Through 67 games, the Missouri native was among the league’s top 10 in hits (69), extra-base hits (24) and total bases (110), and was leading the league with 48 walks. 

At Low-A, there’s 2023 first-rounder Blake Mitchell, a high school catcher taken by the Royals out of high school in Texas with the eighth overall pick a year ago. Despite showing a significant platoon split, Mitchell has still produced some of the better offensive numbers in the pitcher-friendly Carolina League. His.390 on-base percentage is seventh in the league, his eight home runs are tied for fourth, his .827 OPS is tied for eighth, and his 43 walks place third. 

A Foundation In Coaching

Part of the system’s offensive uptick can be attributed to a stronger investment in development, particularly when it comes to younger coaches fluent in analytics and adept at teaching. Every level of the Kansas City system features at least two pitching coaches and two hitting coaches, many of whom are new to the organization within the last few years. 

“There’s a level of compatibility, character and the way they believe in coaching and teaching, along with the competency and domain knowledge and skill set they bring through their experiences and their learning to where we felt we can construct and put that puzzle together,” Royals farm director Mitch Maier said when asked about the kinds of traits the team has sought in its new hires. 

“We’ve put a very diverse group together to help us reach all players, from a Spanish-speaking player, a high school player, a college player from a big school, a player from a small school, a high pick, a low pick, whatever. We have individuals in every role who have the experience and knowledge compatible with what we believe it means to be a coach within this organization.”

One of those coaches is Ari Adut, who has spent time in the Yankees and Phillies organizations and is now one of two hitting coaches with Low-A Columbia. He came to pro ball after a five-season run as an assistant coach at Los Angeles Valley College. He also played two seasons in the Pecos League. 

Now, he’s tasked with helping some of the Royals’ youngest prospects—like Mitchell, tool shed shortstop Austin Charles and powerful trade import Derlin Figueroa—become the best versions of themselves. 

To do so, he and the rest of the coaches in the system have tried to accentuate each hitter’s strengths while also molding them into the kind of player the Royals prefer. 

“They want them to be team players to the nth degree,” said Adut, who also noted that the team has placed a strong emphasis on situational hitting and mimicking game situations as thoroughly as possible during their pregame work. “They’re searching for that team camaraderie, which we’re building here as much as possible. It’s harder in the minors, but that has been our goal since day one.”

The Long Road To A Rebuild

As with any process, Kansas City’s new offensive game plan has taken time to implement. There certainly have been and will be bumps and bruises along the way. Even if the results aren’t there immediately, part of the team’s player development staff’s job involves getting players to stay patient and trust the process.

That’s not always an easy ask.

“I think the more consistent our process is, hopefully it kind of leans in on them,” Adut said. “And also there’s conversation about it, right? No matter what we say, a scoreboard shows stats. It just is what it is, and we try to get them to focus on what they’re trying to do, take it one pitch at a time, one idea at a time and not let that one trickle into the next one.

“That’s the thing: (Development) can happen when they’re hot, when they’re cold, when they’re just normal. But it’s that consistency of reminding them to continuously take it as a process as much as possible and know that they don’t need to be a finished product leaving (a level).”

Of course, hitting is just one part of the equation. The Royals have seen plenty of gains on the mound, too. 

In the Texas League—one of the most hitter-friendly atmospheres in the sport—the Royals have two of the top 10 strikeout leaders. Mason Barnett’s 73 punch outs are fourth in the league, while fellow righthander Eric Cerantola is tied for eighth with 62 Ks. 

Lefthander Hunter Patteson dominated the competition in the Carolina League before a promotion to High-A, and righthander Steven Zobac has thrown one of the highest volumes of strikes in the minor leagues. Righthander Chandler Champlain, a trade acquisition from the Yankees in 2022, has consistently been mentioned by evaluators as one of the more intriguing arms in Kansas City’s system. 

As on the hitting side, each Royals minor league affiliate staffs two pitching coaches. That process began with the upper levels in 2021 and completed this season. 

When looking to add coaches to the organization, pitching coordinator Paul Gibson seeks people who are curious, creative and willing to dig deep into a pitcher’s strengths and weaknesses to find areas of improvement. 

“When you look at player development, there are, essentially, to me, three different stages,” Gibson said. “The early development of their deliveries and their arms and building their bodies and getting them stronger. And then the normal course of action that you would see as they develop through the system. And then, finally, what plays in the big leagues. When they get to the back end of Double-A, Triple-A, at that point, you’re hoping that (they already have) a lot of the foundation base, and now it comes down to, “OK, what plays in the big leagues?

“For me, these guys are involved in all of that. First building that foundation, and then putting the little pieces in place to build a strong foundation for the player.”

Next Steps

Although Kansas City’s system is in a much better place than it had been in each of the last two seasons, it still has a ways to go. Prospects have rebounded and newer players are producing, but the organization still doesn’t have a player among BA’s Top 100.

That should change once the Royals sign their sixth overall pick from this year’s draft, but for now, there are no truly elite prospects in the organization. There is improvement enough, however, that the team has the prospect depth to swing trades for reinforcements to the big league club. So even if a prospect doesn’t wind up playing for Kansas City, his progress will help the team get closer to its goal of returning to the postseason for the first time since winning the World Series in 2015. 

That same year Kansas City won it all, Jesus Azuaje joined the organization as a coach. Now the manager at Low-A Columbia, he’s seen the highs and lows of a system in the midst of a rebound. 

“We’re very excited about where we are right now, talent-wise,” Azuaje said. “The last two years were big for us in the draft. The guys are doing a really good job performing, and we’re excited for our future.

“Guys are coming in who know how to play the game. They bring a lot of passion for the game, which has helped. You have to have a love for the game and a passion to keep developing and learning how to play the game the way it’s supposed to be played.”

There’s still plenty of room for growth, but the people and processes Kansas City has added over the past few years have put the Royals on a much better track. Now, the results that have shown up in the big leagues are beginning to make their way to the minor leagues. 

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