SEATTLE -- The Royals knew they had a solid farm system and tons of promising prospects when the 2021 Minor League season began. But watching their four affiliates play real games after having none last season further solidified their optimism about their future.
Kansas City is listed at No. 5 in MLB Pipeline’s midseason farm system rankings, below just the Orioles, Mariners, Marlins and Pirates. The Royals have risen from No. 10 in the preseason ranking and No. 17 in 2020’s preseason ranking.
The rise tracks with the improved performances the Royals have seen across the Minors, especially with their hitting. Director of hitting performance Alec Zumwalt and his coaches have implemented a transformation in individualized game planning and hitting approach for each hitter in the organization.
That approach been the biggest difference the organization has seen among its hitters.
“You can see some nights, like all players, they might have a tough night,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. “And then they seem to bounce back the next night, which is a good sign they’re not getting away from what they need to do. When guys can do that and do it consistently, that’s when it’s going to play out in the at-bats.
“They’ve just matured as hitters in the way they think about getting ready for games.”
The teaching has paid off. Top prospect Bobby Witt Jr. -- ranked No. 3 in baseball -- is a legitimate star who is only getting better at Triple-A Omaha.
But it’s the depth behind Witt that has become more well-rounded since the season began.
First baseman Nick Pratto (No. 4 prospect in the organization, No. 71 in the Top 100) and catcher MJ Melendez (No. 5 and No. 73) have seen the biggest improvements, with Pratto’s OPS jumping from .588 in 2019 to .994 this season between Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Omaha. Melendez posted a .571 OPS in ’19 and this year has a .976 across Double-A and Triple-A.
“No doubt there’s been improvement,” Picollo said. “I think more than anything, it’s one thing to do it for a short period of time, but now we’re heading into the last couple of weeks of the season, so they’ve maintained it and gone up a level. So the work they put in has been great. They’ve bought into everything that they’ve needed to do, and they’ve done it at two different levels.”
The Royals' pitching throughout their system remains impressive, led by No. 6 prospect Jackson Kowar at Triple-A. No. 3 prospect Asa Lacy (left shoulder) is on the injured list at High-A Quad City, but he showed elite stuff at the beginning of the season. And the addition of Draft picks Frank Mozzicato (No. 9) and Ben Kudrna (No. 10) added depth that will be showcased years down the road.
Plus, the Royals have seen some of their top pitching prospects transition into the Majors and see success, like Daniel Lynch (No. 2) and Carlos Hernández.
“When you look at what Jackson Kowar has done all year at Triple-A, it’s been a really good year,” Picollo said. “Look at what Daniel has done to bounce back up here. Carlos is pitching well. It’s been more of a success than we probably get credit for, but the expectation is so much higher for the pitchers, just from where they sit in the rankings.”
Veteran leadership boosts Santana
What reliever Ervin Santana did in Tuesday night's 4-0 loss to the Astros at Minute Maid Park was what the veteran right-hander has been doing all year: giving the Royals innings and having success, too. He threw two scoreless innings after Brady Singer got through five, allowing one hit and striking out two while saving the rest of the bullpen for Wednesday and for the four-game series in Seattle before Monday’s off-day.
Santana has come up big in those situations all year, and although it’s not a coveted spot in the bullpen, it’s sometimes needed. What really sets Santana apart, though, is his leadership with the Royals' young pitchers, including Carlos Hernández, Joel Payamps and Domingo Tapia.
“He’s been fantastic across the board,” manager Mike Matheny said. “Always teaching, obviously got a heart for some of the Latin pitchers. Erv is one of those guys that you trust what he’s saying is going in the right direction to help these guys progress. And [then] he shows up when we need him to go in and get outs for us. His stuff looks good, and we’ve been able to use him in a lot of different roles. And he’s been open to whatever role, and [he] shows up here each day, almost the epitome of what you’d say you’d like a veteran pitcher or player to be and do. He’s been such a bright spot for our club this year.”
With how many young players the Royals have on the rise and what the organization is trying to accomplish with them over the next few years, Santana’s presence has been indispensable.
“We have a very young and impressionable group that needs that kind of input,” Matheny said. “When you have good players that are spreading the right message and helping guys get better, but also building what we believe is a winning culture, they’re priceless pieces.”