Top prospects cruising throughout KC's system

May 5th, 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.

KANSAS CITY -- Winning baseball has made its way back to Kansas City five weeks into the 2024 season, and that seems to be trickling down to Royals affiliates in the Minor Leagues. Entering Sunday, this was the organization’s record across each level:

Kansas City: 20-14
Triple-A Omaha: 18-11
Double-A Northwest Arkansas: 12-13
High-A Quad Cities: 17-9
Single-A Columbia: 13-11

“Overall, the system’s off to a pretty good start for the month of April,” director of player development Mitch Maier said. “And that’s putting these guys in a position to continue to climb the ladder and support the team in Kansas City.”

After nearly a month of Minor League play, we checked in with Maier on some of the Royals’ top prospects. Here are some highlights:

In years past, you’ve held high school Draft picks back in extended Spring Training in their first full professional seasons, but that wasn’t the case with righty Blake Wolters (No. 6), who went straight to Columbia and has a 3.78 ERA in four starts. What went into that decision, and how has he handled it?

Maier: We got a feel for him last year, and just seeing how he went about it, getting a chance to monitor this offseason and spring, seeing his routine and throwing schedules -- it was all really impressive. We felt comfortable from a maturity standpoint and a health standpoint that he was ready to go out and compete at that level. That was the best spot for him to start this year.

The thing with Blake is that his routine and understanding, how he adjusted, his discipline and how he handles what he does in between outings is so impressive. Now, to see the composure and how he handles himself in outings, when things aren’t always going his way, he has a maturity and a foundation in place. That’s what made us feel good about putting him there, and he’s continued to show it with what he’s done.

No. 1 prospect Blake Mitchell has turned it on recently in Columbia and now has a .866 OPS with three homers. His strikeout rate, though, is 34%. What have you seen from the catcher so far?

Maier: He’s continued to come back and have a really good approach day in and day out. And he’s done some really good things offensively. He’ll continue to adjust and get better, and I think we’ll see those strikeout numbers start to come down. It’s part of it, being his first full season. There are times where he’s exposed to things that he’s never been exposed to before. So now it’s about seeing him make those adjustments, which he’s already started to do. We’re happy with how he’s caught and handled the pitching staff. And his at-bats have continued to get better.

Another catcher, Carter Jensen (No. 10) returned to Quad Cities this year and has a .955 OPS, a 163 wRC+ and more walks (24) than strikeouts (23). Knowing it’s still early, when do you start to evaluate when he’s ready for the next level?

Maier: He has an understanding of the league. He’s really coming along with the way he’s working and preparing. I know he’s off to a good start offensively, but he’s continued to do a really nice job catching-wise. … I think he understands the process. They are just a short amount of time into the season. We’re looking for consistency from series to series, as you start to face pitchers multiple times, how they adjust to you, all of those things are part of the learning. Those are all things he’s done a nice job of to start the season, but we’ll continue to monitor it in the coming weeks and months.

A newcomer to the High-A rotation is Hunter Owen (No. 22), a big lefty from Vanderbilt selected in last year’s Draft. He was injured last summer but now has a 1.96 ERA in five appearances. How has he adjusted to pro ball?

Maier: We didn’t get to see Hunter last year after the Draft, but as we started to get into spring and see it unfold, we saw he had some pitchability that we felt comfortable with sending him to Quad Cities. How he utilizes his fastball, changeup and breaking ball, executing all of them -- we felt confident with him there. He had a really good foundation coming out of the Draft.

In Omaha, CJ Alexander is crushing the ball with a .947 OPS and six homers. He has played a lot of first base in his career but has seen some time at third base, too. Will he see any time in the corner outfield to increase his versatility?

Maier: That’s definitely something we’re exploring. He only played a handful of games in the outfield last season. But now he’s playing a lot more third. And we will look at him in the outfield more because he is athletic. Having that versatility in the corners of the infield and outfield is important, and we’ll continue to explore that. Because he’s off to a really good start offensively, much more consistent than he was last year at this time.

Offensively, he’s fine-tuned his approach, too, to where he’s a little quieter. Being able to get back to his approach and simplify it, know who he is and what he does well, following through with his plan every day, I think that's been a big part of it for CJ.

The Double-A rotation has a ton of top names, with Mason Barnett (No. 5), Chandler Champlain (No. 11), Noah Cameron (No. 20), Tyson Guerrero (No. 29) and Luinder Avila (No. 30). But what’s the status of Eric Cerantola (No. 26), who has seen two starts and four multi-inning relief appearances with a 1.86 ERA this year?

Maier: We’re excited for that whole group. What they’ve done there, it’s really encouraging. … With Cerantola, he’s in a piggyback right now where it’s three or four innings. I wouldn’t say he won’t be on his own going five or six innings at some point. He’s got power stuff, and we’re continuing to try to stretch him out. We’ll see how things unfold over the course of the season. He has a background in relieving as well. But these longer outings allow him to get more touches on the ball.