Witt Jr. paving way for full youth movement?

Melendez also producing for Royals; Pratto, Pasquantino may be next up from Triple-A

May 28th, 2022

MINNEAPOLIS -- Perhaps Twins analyst LaTroy Hawkins said it best on Friday night: “This kid has superstar written all over him.”

Who is ‘this kid’?

Bobby Witt Jr., of course.

The 21-year-old phenom was a double shy of the cycle in the Royals’ 10-7 loss to the Twins at Target Field, and his sixth home run of the season prompted the comment from Hawkins, when Witt crushed a sinker from Joe Smith a Statcast-projected 406 feet into the left-center-field bleachers.

Witt’s third RBI of the game pulled Kansas City within one after Brad Keller’s six-run, four-inning start, but Minnesota bookended the evening with a four-run eighth inning off reliever Joel Payamps to stave off any Royals’ comeback.

Witt’s performance in his first career three-hit game included all of his tools: His bat speed and power on the homer, his speed on his triple to center field, and an incredible defensive play in the second, when he nearly threw out Max Kepler at first base from his knees on the grass behind second base.

“I think he’s settling in, unfortunately for the league,” Twins manager Rocco Baldelli said. “I don’t love it when he comes to the plate. I think as time goes on, the league will probably love it even less.”

Production from Witt and MJ Melendez, who crushed a 436-foot homer in the ninth, added fuel to those clamoring for the youth movement to fully take over Kansas City. Imagine what the Royals’ offense could look like with Witt as its anchor, surrounded by No. 1 prospect Melendez, Nick Pratto and Vinnie Pasquantino, ranked by MLB Pipeline as the club’s Nos. 2 and 4 prospects.

Witt and Melendez are beginning to thrive in the Majors, as well as third baseman Emmanuel Rivera -- who was 2-for-4 with a walk -- and outfielders Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares, both of whom are currently on the injured list and expected back soon.

When will Pratto and Pasquantino join the group? Their Triple-A Omaha numbers beg the better question: Why aren’t they with the Royals already?

Pratto owns an .805 OPS in 132 at-bats, with eight home runs and 24 RBIs. Pasquantino has been even better. Only two Triple-A hitters have a higher wRC+ than Pasquantino’s 168, and he has a 1.020 OPS with 12 homers. The 24-year-old’s walk rate (13.2%) nearly mirrors his strikeout rate (14.8%).

That’s the production the Royals expected of the two slugging first basemen. But the club also believes there’s more to the story.

Pasquantino, an 11th-round pick in the 2019 MLB Draft, eclipsed 800 career at-bats in the Minors on Friday, with 352 coming at the upper levels -- 200 last season in Double-A and 152 this year in Triple-A.

“This isn’t to say he’s not ready, but it’s not a ton of at-bats, it’s not a full season between either level,” general manager J.J. Picollo said on Friday. “We want to time it right. They aren’t the type of players that you want to come up, get your feet wet, then go back to Triple-A.

“When they come up, we want to feel good that they’re going to stay here. We don’t know what the future holds, but we want to feel better than we do right now, at this point, about that.”

The Royals would like to see Pratto’s strikeout rate lowered before bringing him up to the Majors and facing significantly better pitching. The 23-year-old is striking out 31% of the time compared to his 28% rate with Omaha last year.

“There’s definitely still some things we’re working on with his approach,” Picollo said. “He’s so darn disciplined in hunting for pitches he wants to hit that it can be detrimental as well. When you get to the Major Leagues, and they can repeat pitches better, it can be more difficult.”

Picollo did acknowledge that Melendez was hitting .167 in Triple-A when he was called up at the beginning of May, and he has an .811 OPS in 20 Major League games. And the first-year GM also acknowledged that this conversation could change rapidly.

“It’s safe to say if Vinnie keeps doing what he’s doing, it’s going to be hard to keep him down,” Picollo said.

The other factor is playing time. First base is blocked by a combination of Carlos Santana and Hunter Dozier. Santana is earning $10.5 million in the final year of his two-year deal and he is hitting .164. The Royals, already 12 games out of first place in the American League Central, would like for the 36-year-old to heat up to accumulate value before this summer’s Trade Deadline.

Pratto has been learning the outfield in Omaha, playing the corners, which makes sense if the Royals trade left fielder Andrew Benintendi to open another spot.

In any event, the Royals know the future is not far off; it’s building with conversations about promotions and watching Witt establish himself at the big league level.

“He’s going to be the key going forward for our future,” said Nicky Lopez, who went 3-for-4 on Friday. “We have this young core that’s starting to build … that’s going to come up and be together for a really long time. We’re going to lean on them and the veteran guys. It’s a good mix. We just have to put it all together.”