The jump to Double-A is typically thought of as the toughest leap for a prospect to make. Someone forgot to give Royals lefty Daniel Tillo that memo, even if he did recognize the challenge when he was moved up from the Class A Advanced Carolina League to the Double-A Texas League at the end of July.
“I actually did better in Double-A than I did in High-A, which is kind of funny,” Tillo said. “The hitters have better approaches. They don’t swing at your stuff, they don’t chase as much compared to High-A. The strike zone gets smaller, you just have to be a little bit better with everything you do as you move up levels.”
The Royals’ No. 30 prospect largely was better with everything once he joined Northwest Arkansas, though his numbers were in line with what he had done in Wilmington. The biggest improvement was consistently repeating his mechanics and executing his pitches.
“It’s always been consistency with me, finding that feel for my pitches,” Tillo said. “My fastball has always been really good, but consistency with it has always been what I’ve been fighting. This year, I was just in a groove. Once the first half ended and I started the second half, I was in a groove the rest of the year. It was awesome.
“My issue has always been my arm slot. On the Rapsodo numbers, last year I was a lot lower, more inconsistent with all my pitches. This year, I was just within a few inches with all my pitches. It was a huge jump with that, just being more consistent with my four-seam, my slider and my changeup. Everything was just a lot more similar with the tunneling, more repetition with it, just a huge jump for me doing all that.”
Tillo has taken all of that with him into his work with Surprise in the Arizona Fall League. The left-hander is also working in a relatively new role, one that suited him at the end of the season: reliever. In six outings out of the bullpen in Double-A, Tillo struck out 11 and walked none over eight innings of work. He never missed that many bats as a starter, but does have a 2.38 groundout-to-airout ratio in his career and made it very clear he’ll do whatever is needed by the big league staff.
“When I was coming out of the bullpen, I was throwing pretty hard, too,” said Tillo, who is working on his slider in particular this fall. “I can do that out of the bullpen or I can start and get groundballs and go late into games doing that.
“I just ran away with it a little bit. I was excited for it. Since I knew I was doing it here, I was looking forward to it. I was just kind of letting it eat when I was coming out of the bullpen. My velo jumped, my slider actually got sharper, I was just ripping it. At the end, it’s what I can do in the big leagues to help the Royals out.”
Royals hitters in the AFL
Brewer Hicklen, OF (Royals No. 15 prospect): Hicklen continued to show an intriguing power-speed mix in his second full season in the system, with 14 homers and 39 steals in the Class A Advanced Carolina League, his second straight year of 35 or more stolen bases. He did improve his walk rate in 2019, but still needs to cut down on the strikeouts more, a part of his game he’s surely working on in the Fall League.
Kyle Isbel, OF (No. 8): The Royals’ third-round pick in the 2018 Draft vaulted up prospects lists with a very strong summer debut, posting a .326/.389/.504 line the summer after he was drafted. After a hot start to 2019, he was shelved for three months with a broken hamate, so he’s making up for a lot of lost at-bats this fall.
Travis Jones, 1B/3B: Jones started the year in Double-A, his first taste above A ball since he was the Royals’ 29th-round Draft pick in 2017 out of Texas. He had a solid April and a rough May, but was having a very good June (.322/.406/.441), before playing only one more game with Northwest Arkansas all year because of an oblique injury. While making up for that lost time in the AFL, Jones is playing both first, his primary position, and third, a spot he last played in 2018.
Royals pitchers in the AFL
Daniel Lynch, LHP (No. 3; No. 69 in MLB): One of the better lefty prospects in the game (No. 8 on the Top 10 LHP list), Lynch had a huge pro debut to put him on a faster track. But minor arm issues forced him to miss about a month and a half, perhaps keeping him from getting promoted to Double-A in his first full season. His time in the AFL should prepare him for that jump and put him back on the fast track.
Trevor Oaks, RHP: Originally drafted by the Dodgers back in 2014, Oaks looked poised to become a solid big league starter with a huge 2016 season. Injuries set him back in 2017 and he was dealt to the Royals prior to the 2018 season. A solid first year in the organization led to his big league debut, but he missed all of 2019 following hip surgery, so his AFL innings are his first of this season.
Tad Ratliff, RHP: Ratliff was a non-drafted free agent who signed with the Royals out of Division II Lenoir-Rhyne University in June 2017. Moving one rung at a time, Ratliff has been a very capable reliever, saving 33 games over his first two seasons and leading the Carolina League in saves (23) in 2019.