KANSAS CITY -- The Royals spent much of this past season focused on revamping their pitching development, using new voices and plans to help their young pitchers take steps forward.
That group showed some improvement, but the Royals still have work to do across the Minor Leagues. Several position players regressed this year, and Kansas City is one of two clubs (along with Houston) that does not have a Top 100 prospect. MLB Pipeline ranked the Royals as the sport’s No. 29 overall system.
For an organization that prides itself on homegrown talent, a lot rests on the development in 2024 to help the current core in the Majors -- which, we should note, does include former Top 100 prospects Bobby Witt Jr., MJ Melendez, Vinnie Pasquantino, Brady Singer and others who came close.
Here’s a quick rundown of what we saw down on the farm in ‘23:
3 players who forced their way onto the radar this year
RHP Chandler Champlain
The Royals will look externally to add to their pitching staff this winter, but it’s imperative they also have depth. After a solid 2023, Champlain could offer that. One of the pitchers the Royals got in the trade that sent Andrew Benintendi to the Yankees in ‘22, Champlain shook off a rough first impression with Kansas City last year and posted a 3.33 ERA across two levels this year. The 24-year-old threw 135 1/3 innings in High-A (2.74 ERA) and Double-A (3.82 ERA), and he posted good strikeout and walk numbers at both levels. Champlain, the Royals’ No. 11 prospect per MLB Pipeline, is strong and durable, with a good mix of pitches, and it’s likely he’ll be close to helping out the big league staff next year.
RHP Mason Barnett
The Royals’ Paul Splittorff Pitcher of the Year and No. 12 prospect, Barnett had an excellent first full pro season. He posted a 3.18 ERA across 82 innings to begin the year in High-A, then closed out the year with seven strong starts in Double-A, in which he had a 3.58 ERA across 32 2/3 innings. Barnett, the Royals’ third-round pick out of Auburn last year, impressed with his arsenal, including a good fastball paired with a slider and curveball that miss bats. Barnett is 22 years old and could move fast on his current track.
RHP John McMillon
McMillon had somewhat of an anticlimactic ending to his season when he suffered a forearm injury at the end of August that shut him down for the rest of the year. But there’s no question the Royals are intrigued by what the 25-year-old could offer in their bullpen next season, health permitting. McMillon, an undrafted free agent who signed with the Royals after the 2020 Draft and is now their 24th-ranked prospect, flew onto the radar this year with a 2.10 ERA across 51 1/3 innings in Single-A, High-A and Double-A before jumping straight to the Majors in mid-August. He has big strikeout stuff -- his strikeout rate hovered around 50% in Single-A and High-A and 37% in Double-A -- and should be in the running for a bullpen spot next season.
2 possible breakout players to watch in 2024
2B/OF Javier Vaz
It can be argued Vaz had a breakout year this year as the inaugural Alex Gordon Heart & Hustle Award winner in the Royals organization. But could there be more in the tank for the 23-year-old? Vaz, who was drafted in the 15th round in ‘22, slashed .279/.373/.400 between High-A and Double-A, with 18 doubles, eight home runs, 51 RBIs and 30 stolen bases. He walked (64) more than he struck out (50). Vaz has elite contact rates, but not much power. Still, when he gets on base, he’s not only fast, but also smart and efficient. Vaz’s zone awareness, bat-to-ball skills and defensive ability to move around the field -- not to mention his clubhouse presence as a leader -- helped him jump onto the Royals’ top prospect list at No. 13. And they’re are all worth watching as he climbs in the system.
RHP David Sandlin
Sandlin, Kansas City’s No. 19 prospect, was one of the breakout players this year until an oblique injury ended his season in July. The Royals’ 11th-round pick last year out of Oklahoma, Sandlin began his year in Single-A Columbia, where he struck out 79 batters in 58 2/3 innings (12 starts). He was promoted to High-A but only threw eight innings before the injury. The 22-year-old should be healthy to start ‘24, and he could make a leap after his first taste of pro ball.
1 big question for next season: Can recent high Draft picks find their footing?
The Royals don’t have a Top 100 prospect, but 2023 first-rounder and No. 1 prospect Blake Mitchell (chosen No. 8 overall) has the potential to join the list with graduations and his own play next year. The 19-year-old catcher has above-average power and a cannon of an arm, and he’s already impressed scouts with his receiving skills during instructional league this fall in Arizona. Mitchell will have lots of eyes on his first full pro season next year, because outside of Witt (No. 2 overall in 2019) and Singer (No. 18 overall in ‘18), the Royals haven’t had great success with first-rounders recently.
First baseman Nick Pratto (‘17) has struggled to find his place in the Majors, and 2020’s No. 4 overall pick Asa Lacy did not leave Surprise, Ariz., all season. Time will tell with No. 6 prospect Gavin Cross (‘22) -- who is playing in the Arizona Fall League right now and had a .676 OPS in High-A this year before his season was cut short by an illness -- and fourth-ranked prospect Frank Mozzicato (‘21), who started the season as one of the best pitchers in MiLB but never got right mechanically again after a collision interrupted his season.
There is plenty more to a Draft than the first round, but it’s imperative the Royals find valuable players early.