Royals' untapped depth on full display in Omaha

April 18th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Anne Rogers' Royals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

CHICAGO -- While the Royals (12-7) are in second in the American League Central, their Triple-A affiliate in Omaha (11-6) is tied for first in the International League West. Each has the best run differential at their respective level.

“It trickles down,” lefty Anthony Veneziano said Wednesday, when he joined the team in Chicago as the 27th man for the doubleheader against the White Sox. “They’re playing well up here; we want to play well down there.”

What’s noticeably different about Omaha this year is the Royals’ depth there, with several players in that lineup and on that pitching staff who have Major League experience. Kansas City hasn’t had to dig into that depth yet, but if it needs to, the front office and coaches feel good about who they’d be calling up.

“There are tougher decisions, and when you have tougher decisions, it means you’re a better team,” general manager J.J. Picollo said. “We feel like we’re in a pretty good spot, whether it’s starting pitching or having guys in Triple-A that we won’t take a huge hit if they come up. It’s a good feeling. It’s how good clubs are built.”

While he’s no longer listed as a top prospect because of his Major League experience last year, outfielder Drew Waters is still a young player the Royals see as part of their future if he can make swing-and-miss adjustments at the plate. In 14 games with Omaha, the 25-year-old has an .883 OPS with five doubles and nine RBIs, but he still has a 28.1% strikeout rate.

“I know he’s been a top prospect for many years, but Drew’s still a really young guy,” Picollo said. “Got a lot of great experience in the big leagues last year. I think there are some things in his mind that he wants to iron out from a swing perspective, but it’s really just consistency with Drew. The more at-bats he gets, the better.”

First baseman Nick Pratto has cooled off after his sizzling spring (1.292 OPS), but he’s slashing .246/.361/.426 with a 16.4% walk rate through 16 games, although his 31.3% strikeout rate still needs work. Other top performers in Triple-A who can offer depth include corner infielder CJ Alexander, who has an .899 OPS with four homers and who might see some time in the corner outfield to increase his versatility, and catcher Logan Porter, who has a 1.412 OPS and will rejoin the team after spending this week on the big league taxi squad.

On the pitching side, relievers Will Klein (No. 18 prospect) and Sam Long have yet to allow an earned run in eight and nine innings, respectively, while Jonathan Bowlan has gotten off to a good start in the rotation with a 2.25 ERA in three starts.

The Royals are playing well enough -- and they have been healthy enough -- that the depth hasn’t been needed yet. So the message to the players in Omaha is about continuing to force their way into conversations about the big league roster. And when the opportunity comes, take advantage of it.

“It depends on how much opportunity you really have here,” Picollo said. “A guy is swinging the bat really well, but you’re only going to get him on the field twice a week -- is that really what’s best for him? Over the course of six months, the opportunities arise that you need to bring someone up. You’ll know the right time.”

Here are some additional highlights from each Minor League level:

Double-A Northwest Arkansas: Lefty starter Noah Cameron, the Royals’ No. 20 prospect, has a 1.84 ERA across three starts, with 18 strikeouts and just five walks in 14 2/3 innings. Cameron has always been able to locate, but he got hit around and experienced some fatigue in Double-A late last year. Now, he’ll look to maintain this strong start.

High-A Quad Cities: The River Bandits’ rotation has been solid to begin 2024, with good results all around. Top pitching prospect Ben Kudrna (the club’s No. 3 prospect overall) has a 1.86 ERA through two starts, but seeing 2023 fourth-rounder -- and No. 22 prospect -- Hunter Owen (2.25 ERA in three appearances) display his stuff has been impressive. Owen has 13 strikeouts in 12 innings and he has a big, physical presence on the mound. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the lefty move quickly.

Single-A Columbia: No. 1 prospect Blake Mitchell has gotten hot over the last few days, hitting his first professional home run on Saturday and recording four hits in his past four games. While Mitchell does have 18 strikeouts in 50 plate appearances, he’s also worked 14 walks.