An end-of-year update on Royals’ Minor League hitters

September 10th, 2023

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.

The Minor League season is coming to an end, with Single-A Columbia and High-A Quad Cities wrapping up this weekend. Double-A Northwest Arkansas still has a week to play, with its last game on Sept. 17, and Triple-A Omaha ends its season on Sept. 24.

With 2023 nearly in the rearview mirror, we thought it would be good to catch up with Royals director of hitting performance Drew Saylor about several Royals position players.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Royals hitters have had an up-and-down year in terms of results, but how have you evaluated this year?

Saylor: “We renovated our player-planning process last year, and like any other year, we’re auditing our systems and processes to see if we can find ways to shrink some of the timelines and development gaps that our players have. We made a concerted effort this past offseason to be able to find where those gaps are, what information our guys need. I think that this year, we also took steps to be able to collaborate more across all our different departments to have a little bit better global understanding of how we’re developing hitters.

“... If you look at the state of the department, we’ve graduated a bunch of guys, and then there’s a reload period that comes in. I'm excited about the people we brought in and our processes. I’m a realist in the fact that we did not perform in the aggregate this year. We know that. We’re finding where those holes are, and we’re actively trying to find ways to improve our guys and improve our processes.” No. 6 prospect Gavin Cross hasn’t played a game with Double-A Northwest Arkansas since Aug. 9 because of an illness. What’s next for him?

Saylor: “He’s rebounded well. He’s going out to Arizona this week, and we’ll get him ramped up. Once we get him back at full speed with everything, we’ll continue to develop him. Really excited about him. Just one of those freak things that happened with the illness.” Entering Sunday, No. 8 prospect Tyler Gentry is slashing .289/.429/.489 with a 136 wRC+ in the second half. What led to his turnaround in Triple-A this year?

Saylor: “Some people get caught in the results mentality, when they’re trying to swing for results instead of swing for the process. Having those conversations with him helped, and the staff there definitely helped navigate some of those things. I think, at times, guys can get a little bit tinker-focused. They may be going down some paths that are taking them away from where they want to go. We made a small tweak to be able to hit more spin. Then from there, it’s just trusting his path is good and it works, and where he makes contact with the ball, that’s the direction. I think it was just trusting the process and then making the small tweak with hitting a little more spin.” One breakout prospect this year was Javier Vaz, your 15th-round Draft pick out of Vanderbilt last year, now ranked No. 13 in the system. How exciting has it been to watch and work with him?

Saylor: “Javy Vaz has probably been the lightning rod guy in the organization this entire season with how well he’s been able to perform. A college guy who’s produced high-contact rates, and just the way he’s able to make consistent contact -- walks and strikeout rates being low -- in terms of the quality of contact. I think he does a great job of really knowing who he is and playing within his skillset. His mental strength and fortitude and the zest to win is palpable. A fair amount of guys who come out of Vanderbilt’s program, they just come with a hunger and determination that they want to win.

“... You look at his skillset -- high-contact guy, knows his run game is important, versatility -- all those things are super critical to why he’s been able to grow and have the season he’s had. He’s one of those glue guys in the organization.” Let’s talk about some of your 2023 Draft hitters because some of them are raking. Trevor Werner, the Royals’ seventh-rounder out of Texas A&M this year, has eight home runs in 30 Single-A Columbia games. Combined with four rookie-ball games, he has a 1.178 OPS this season. What are your initial impressions of the third baseman?**

Saylor: “A very imposing figure in the box, very well put together. If you put football pads and a helmet on him, you’d say, ‘Oh, that could be a linebacker or a really athletic defensive end.’ I love the athleticism. We’ve been working on his path so it can be a little more connected -- at times, it can be a little step-by-step.

“I love the way he rotates. The whole group we got in the Draft, all our guys rotate really well. There are really good, efficient movers that are in there, and they’re able to get up to speed, up to velocity really well.” Does that include fifth-rounder Spencer Nivens (No. 21) and 11th-rounder Jared Dickey (No. 20), who are both in Columbia right now?

Saylor: “Nivens is a really good, efficient mover. Love his path. He ran into a bit of hard luck there, but I love the way he’s been conducting his at-bats. We were really excited when we took him in the Draft. Dickey has done a tremendous job for us there. He has a toe-tap, small leg kick type of move that can look a little bit atypical, but the path works. He rotates well. He’s doing a really good job getting acclimated to our training strategies.” Catcher Blake Mitchell, the No. 8 overall pick this year and the club’s No. 1 prospect, didn’t have eye-popping results in the Arizona Complex League (.147 average and .599 OPS) but only had 34 at-bats. Where’s he at now, and what did you make of him to start his pro career?

Saylor: “He’s in instructional league with our Arizona group right now. I’m really, really happy with his progress. A lot of the feedback we’ve been getting is that he’s done a phenomenal job from the catching/receiving part, and the hitting will start to come along. High school kid who’s learning how to play every day, learning the nuance and finer details of skills behind the plate, and I do believe that the bat will play.

“Of course, his first home run came in an instructional league game. I was literally on the phone as I’m walking into Peoria Stadium, and I heard the whack. Look up and it’s just sailing out there, line drive left-center field.”