Royals Minor League Spring Training report

April 23rd, 2021

The player in question isn't even around -- he's off playing games in Arkansas, Ohio, Kentucky and shortly his home state of Texas -- yet he's discussed daily in Arizona. One would imagine PTI-style debate shows around the Minor League facility, or if we let the imagination run a little more wild, giant legislative bodies like the Roman Senate or the entire House of Parliament gathered to debate one question and one question only.

"Should Junior be at Double-A or Triple-A?" asks Royals assistant general manager of player personnel J.J. Picollo. "It's maybe the biggest question we need to answer before we start assignments next week."

To put that into perspective, consider who Junior is.

Bobby Witt Jr. was taken by Kansas City as the second overall pick in the 2019 Draft because of his true five-tool potential at the premium position of shortstop. His introduction to pro ball came in the complex-level Arizona League, where he played only 37 games the summer after the Draft. He was prepared to unleash his big-time power and impressive defense onto the full-season levels of the Minors before the coronavirus pandemic shut down that side of the sport in 2020. Instead, the 20-year-old moved to the Royals' alternate training site in Kansas City, where he utilized his incredible bat speed to terrorize pitchers with much more professional experience.

That, of course, all happened behind relatively closed doors. The baseball world didn't get a closer look at Witt's progress until this spring when he was a non-roster invite to Major League camp.

Again, the right-handed slugger looked like a more established veteran. Witt hit .289/.325/.526 with three homers in 14 games. One of those blasts traveled an estimated 484 feet. Assuming that is accurate, that would have been 12 feet longer than any homer measured by Statcast this spring, and the second-longest homer hit by anyone in pro ball in 2021, just one foot shy of Yermín Mercedes' 485-foot long ball on April 8.

Though there were some concerns about Witt's strikeout tendencies in the Cactus League, the sheer loud volume of his offensive tools got the baseball world talking about how soon the youngster could see the Majors.

It wasn't a totally unfair question. The Royals, for their part, got Witt looks at second base in case they truly needed help there, and though his services weren't required right away, part of the thinking to send him to the alternate site was to keep him close in case the Major League team needed emergency infield help. Had Witt stayed in Arizona, it could have taken up to seven days to bring him to the Majors once such a need developed. Instead, he was kept close just to be safe, and according to Picollo, he has carried his Arizona performance with him on the road against typically Triple-A-ready arms.

Now with Minor League Opening Day closing in on May 4, the Royals are staring down a decision, and like so many teams facing prospect assignments issues after the lost 2020, they feel like they're in uncharted territory.

"The large missing piece here is, other than 37 games at Rookie ball, we don't have a track record to say he handled Double-A pitching or Triple-A pitching in a season yet," Picollo said. "We know what our eyes are telling us. But other than that, it's the great unknown."

If one were pressed to hazard a guess this far out, it might be that the Royals will send Witt to Double-A Northwest Arkansas. Picollo noted that the Royals believe Double-A pitchers actually throw harder than their Triple-A counterparts in order to show off their tools, whereas the higher level has more finesse types. Seeing that raw velocity could be best for Witt's game right now. At least, that's one section of the rubric the Royals are considering.

"The other thing is when you talk about preparing a player for the Major Leagues, taking that first step at Double-A would be a huge step for him," Picollo said. "A Rookie-ball player going to Double-A doesn't happen all that much. And for him to build some confidence in the foundations he's building, you can make the argument that Double-A is the better place for him to do that. He should handle that competition a little bit better."

One thing that's much more certain is Witt's defensive home. While he did get plenty of looks at second to increase his versatility, the infielder is much more likely to stick at shortstop at the top level or move over to third if the roster requires it because of his size and plus arm. No matter where he opens 2021, those two positions will be his areas of focus.

"He's definitely a left-side guy," Picollo said. "He's a big kid. Six-foot-two, 205 pounds. He's not built like your typical second baseman. If he had to go over there, we now know that he can, but we certainly see him more on the left side."

No matter the position, the discussions Royals player-development staff are having about Witt's starting Minor League assignment are certainly rare, and that makes them all the more exciting. They might even be dress rehearsals for the coming attraction, possibly to a ballpark near you in 2021 -- Junior's Major League debut.

"We're still trying to figure it all out," Picollo said, "but you know, he's done enough for us to know that he's close."

Camp standout
Witt grabbed plenty of headlines because of his age and prospect status, but another first-rounder did plenty of heavy lifting himself.

No. 9 prospect Nick Pratto -- the 14th overall pick in the 2017 Draft -- set the Cactus League ablaze in March. The left-handed slugger hit .345/.406/.862 with four homers in 22 games during his time in Major League camp. That .862 slugging percentage was fifth-best among all batters to receive at least 30 plate appearances in the spring, and that must have come as a shock to anyone who saw Pratto hit only nine homers and slug .310 over 124 games for Class A Advanced Wilmington in 2019.

"I've been doing this for close to 20 years," Picollo said, "and I have not seen a player make so many good adjustments like he has over the last two."

Adjustments is the key word there because the Royals believe this power surge was no small-sample flash in the pan for Pratto. The left-handed slugger has revamped his entire approach since the end of the 2019 season and started to show more pop at last year's alternate training site. He carried that with him this spring, and it hasn't stopped since he moved to Minor League camp, where he has featured on the Double-A Northwest Arkansas roster during spring games.

"It wasn't so much trying to redefine his swing or make over his swing, but it was more about pitch selection," Picollo said. "What am I trying to do with certain pitches? That adjustment has changed his swing to where it looks more like it did in high school. He got a little too inside-out. Balls he hit to left field were lazy flyballs. Now, he drives the ball to left field. He's turning on balls. He's probably hit between Major League camp, Minor League games, I'm gonna say he has anywhere from 15 to 17 home runs this spring. It's a completely different kid."

Alternate training site report
While Witt is competing with the alternate-site group, the Royals' top two pitching prospects, Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar, are much more likely to open with Triple-A Omaha. The pair got extensive looks by Spring Training standards, combining for 11 appearances in the Cactus League. While results weren't stellar -- Lynch had a 7.71 ERA in 11 2/3 innings, Kowar a 10.80 ERA in the same span -- their places in Kansas City's future remain just as large.

Lynch -- MLB Pipeline's No. 25 overall prospect -- has the higher ceiling of the pair, thanks to a plus fastball that can touch as high as 99, a plus slider and good control of his entire four-pitch mix. It's his changeup that Picollo believes will be the separator and could get the 24-year-old southpaw his first Major League look at some point in the first half.

"He's commanding all of his pitches better, but he has so much more confidence in his changeup now," Picollo said. "It's a devastating pitch for him. He'll throw it 3-0, 3-1, 0-2. He can go to that pitch whenever he wants to, and it's either a swing and miss or weak contact. Rarely does he elevate it. If I had to pick one thing, that would be the pitch that he really improved on, and it can be a difference-maker for him."

The changeup was already a standout offering for Kowar, who earns 70 grades for the pitch because of the way it mirrors his heater so well before fading from hitters. The 24-year-old right-hander has focused more on the curveball, and Picollo says it's no longer a team-mandated emphasis either. Whereas before the Royals would necessitate that Kowar throw the breaker 15-18 times per start, the hurler now has enough confidence in the curve to make it a solid third pitch in his repertoire and leans on it himself.

Lynch and Kowar are both up to 90 pitches per outing to this point and, barring injury, aren't expected to face limitations beyond that when they first take the ball for Triple-A Omaha in early May.

Prospect we'll be talking about in 2022
The Royals have high hopes for No. 6 prospect Erick Peña. They see him as an above-average left-handed hitter with good power potential, especially as he fills out his 6-foot-3 frame. That's why they signed him for $3,897,500 in July 2019. It's why they gave him time at the alternate site in 2020. It's why they brought him to Major League camp this spring.

Why we'll be talking about the outfielder more in 2022, however, is that he's still young and inexperienced.

Peña only turned 18 in February, and he certainly looked his age this spring as he went 0-for-7 with five strikeouts. Since moving to Minor League camp, Peña has featured regularly in the Low-A Columbia lineup to get as much exposure as he can to full-season pitching as he works on pitch selection and eliminating a hand hitch in his batting stance. But even then, the Royals believe they might want to start him slow, if only to allow him to pick up the successes that could make him a Top 100 prospect by this time next year.

"We're leaning towards extended [spring training] because he hasn't played any professional games," Picollo said. "He hasn't played in the [Dominican Summer League]. He hasn't played in the [Arizona League]. It's not so much that we want to evaluate Spring Training, but we need to have a feel for if can he deal with that adversity. Right now, we are leaning towards keeping him here because we don't want his first experience in pro ball to be getting kicked in the teeth and not recovering."

In the Dominican
The Royals have about 35 players at their facility in the Dominican Republic, hitting the limit as allowed by COVID-19 protocols. The organization is preparing to clear most of that group out at the end of the month and bring those players over to Arizona for extended spring training, only to refill the complex with more prospects that will begin their own preparations for the Dominican Summer League season that is scheduled right now to open in late June.

No. 18 prospect Daniel Vasquez is a special case right now. After signing for $1,497,500 in January, the 17-year-old shortstop showed up to the complex with the first group in and will remain in the Dominican Republic when others leave for Arizona. He'll likely open in the DSL, though it's possible he heads to the AZL by the end of the summer. Kansas City likes Vasquez's defense at short and his potential to be an above-average hitter from the right side.

"He got a head start," Picollo said. "It's the first time we're really getting him in our facility so we got him in there early. He's a priority player."