'They're phenomenal talents': Young Royals backstops beginning to catch on

March 10th, 2024

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- There is a prevailing thought these days that developing young catchers might be the toughest thing a team can do. The high school catching segment of every Draft population is often considered to be as risky a pool to wade in as high school pitching.

The Kansas City Royals don’t seem to mind jumping into those waters at all.

They dipped their toes in at first in 2021, staying in their own backyard by taking Carter Jensen in the third round of the Draft and using some of the savings from taking Frank Mozzicato No. 7 overall to sign him for an over-slot bonus of $1.1 million, keeping him from heading to Louisiana State. Most of his numbers don’t jump off the page, but the one that might really stand out is 20. That’s how old the organization’s No. 11 prospect is after spending the 2023 season with Quad Cities.

“You have to remind people, this player is entering his third season,” Royals farm director Mitch Maier said. “He’s in Major League camp. He has a year of High-A under his belt and he’s not even 21 years old yet. He’d be a junior in college this year.”

And he’s the grizzled veteran of the group. Blake Mitchell was the club’s first pick in last year’s Draft, taken No. 8 overall, and he’s currently the top prospect in the system and it’s lone Top 100 representative. He’ll play most of the 2024 season as a 19-year old and has really impressed with his defensive abilities and has a ton of offensive ceiling as well.

“Blake is so advanced behind the plate,” Maier said. “You don’t see that at such a young age. As he continues to adjust offensively, he has a ton of power. Those talents are hard to find.”

No. 15 prospect Ramon Ramirez doesn’t turn 19 until June and after signing (for just $57,500) at the start of the 2023 international signing period, he’ll be making his United States debut this season after a very impressive debut in the Dominican Summer League (.344/.440/.615). He also has a plus arm behind the plate and the chance to really hit.

What’s even better is that this dynamic duo of teenage backstops have already formed a bond that started last fall.

“They’re really close,” Maier said. “Ramon came over this fall and was in our instructional league with Blake. Just seeing the interactions with them here throughout the spring. They’re pushing each other. They both know they’re extremely talented and they’re going to push each other to be better as they move through the system.

“They’re phenomenal talents. Those two being able to move up as young players and develop their talent ... there’s a reason why Ramon performed the way he did last year and Blake was selected where he was, it’s because they are extremely talented and gifted players.”

Add in Jensen and it’s looking very good for the Royals behind the plate. All-Star Salvador Perez has at least two years left on his contract (the team holds an option for 2026), so the timing might be right for the baton to be passed to one of these young backstops.

“Those three, you look at how they’ll be staggered throughout our system this season, we’re in a good spot with the catching depth with those young talented individuals,” Maier said. “We’re excited to develop them and see what they can do in a few years.”

Camp standout: Blake Wolters

The Royals thought they were getting some serious projectable talent when they took Wolters in the second round of last year’s Draft and went over slot to sign him for $2.8 million. He didn’t really pitch after signing save one game at instructs, so this is, in many ways, the first real look at the 6-foot-4 right-hander.

“We knew the talent we were getting last summer. ... We knew his routines and the way he went about it were extremely professional for his youth,” Maier said. “To watch him here this spring, he is an extremely talented individual that I look forward to the league getting the chance to watch him perform because it’s elite stuff. He’s going to be an extremely good pitcher for the years to come.”

Breakout candidate: Frank Mozzicato

When the Royals took Mozzicato in the first round out of the Connecticut high school ranks in 2021, there was an understanding it might take a little while for things to take off. He’s shown that he can get Minor League hitters out and miss bats, with a 12.2 K/9 rate and .211 batting average against heading into this year. He’s also struggled with finding the strike zone, with a 6.6 BB/9 rate thus far. A collision with a teammate during batting practice last June didn’t help, as he was off to a very good start and then took a while to regain his bearings.

“He was performing, pitching so well and then the injury happened where he collided with a teammate and so it bumped him off the tracks a little bit,” Maier said. “He had momentum and then to have an injury or setback where you have to hit a reset there, I think it definitely had a little bit of impact.”

Still only 20 until June, there’s plenty of time for the Royals’ No. 5 prospect to figure things out. Adding strength was a focus in the offseason and there are adjustments he’ll need to keep making as he moves up the ladder, with Maier feeling optimistic things will start to click for the southpaw.

“Coming into this season, you see he’s more physical, he’s maturing physically and mentally as he goes through this,” Maier said. “There are adjustments that need to be made at each level. Can you make those adjustments and continue to so-called ‘beat the level’ as you move up through the system?

“It’s repeating the delivery and to be able to command and do what you want with the baseball and execute his pitches. He’ll continue to make those adjustments every year, continue to sync up his mechanics. Making sure he repeats so he can execute pitches is going to be key for Frank.”

Something to prove: Gavin Cross

There can be a lot of pressure on a first-round pick to live up to the expectations of being picked so high in a Draft. Not only did Cross put up huge numbers in his last season at Virginia Tech to put himself into the top 10 of the 2022 Draft, he raised the bar even more with an OPS over 1.000 during his 29-game pro debut last summer.

He wasn’t able to carry that over with a move to High-A in 2023, finishing with a .203/.298/.378 line. His approach seemed to regress as the No. 8 prospect sold out for power too often, perhaps trying to do a bit too much. The Royals are hopeful this can be a bounce-back campaign for the outfielder.

“He’s worked extremely hard to get his swing to a position where he can continue to impact the baseball the way we know he can,” Maier said. “That first season, getting the adjustments to professional baseball, playing every single day; he knows what to expect, knew how to prepare for this offseason. I look forward to Gavin being in much better spot this season, going back to Double-A where he had just a brief look. He’s extremely talented -- can run, throw; the power is real.”