Power, pitching lead Minor League roundup

June 2nd, 2021

KANSAS CITY -- A month into the Minor League season, the Royals’ farm system has seen prospects shine and under-the-radar players stand out. Entering the month of June, two of the club’s four affiliates were in first place (Triple-A Omaha and High-A Quad Cities) and one was tied for first (Low-A Columbia, South) in their respective divisions.

Perhaps most importantly at the development level, after a year without Minor League games, the Royals were hoping that the work they put their prospects through at the alternate training site and fall camps last year would pay off, and the early returns in 2021 are positive throughout the system.

As MiLB enters its second month of the season -- and teams prepare for an influx of prospects with the 2021 Draft coming up on July 11-13 -- MLB.com checked in with Royals assistant general manager of player personnel J.J. Picollo on who has stood out across the organization:

Big boppers at Northwest Arkansas
The Royals knew going into the season that they had a solid lineup at Double-A Northwest Arkansas. Top prospects Bobby Witt Jr. (No. 1), Nick Pratto (No. 9) and MJ Melendez (No. 14) are in the middle of the order, and they’ve displayed exactly the kind of offense the Royals hoped to see this year, combining for 23 homers and 49 RBIs entering Wednesday.

“I know a lot of people were skeptical on Pratto because of what he did in ‘19, but what our eyes are telling is, that’s in the past,” Picollo said.

It’s not just those three. The Naturals lead their division with a .358 on-base percentage and an .803 OPS, and they have the second-fewest strikeouts (221) in their division, too. Players like leadoff man Clay Dungan, who jumped from Rookie ball to Double-A and is hitting .263, and outfielder Rudy Martin, who was drafted in the 25th round of the 2014 Draft and is finally seeing it come together with a 1.084 OPS, are contributing.

“What’s been great about it is, for a year now, we really started to implement a plan and approach that wasn’t so much focused on their swing, their swing mechanics, but more on pitch selection,” Picollo said. “What are you looking to do with this ball? Where are you looking to hit it? … Those guys you mentioned, middle-of-the-order guys and top prospects, but it’s not just them. It’s throughout the lineup that it’s working. It’s really good to see.”

Kowar’s time?
Jackson Kowar (No. 4) has been outstanding at Triple-A Omaha, and every start seems to bring him a little closer to the Majors. In five starts (26 2/3 innings), he has a 1.01 ERA with 36 strikeouts and a 0.97 WHIP.

Kowar has displayed excellent fastball command and his devastating changeup, but what’s been the biggest key for him is the development of his curveball. He throws it with better spin and shape now than he did in college, and it’s turned into a solid third offering for him this year. When he doesn’t have a good feel for the changeup, he can stay in games with his curveball and vice versa.

“When you start mixing in feel for and consistency with the curveball, and now he’s throwing 97 and he’s got a wipeout changeup, that gets really hard on hitters,” Picollo said. “And that’s what he’s done. It’s been a nice run he’s been on, and he’s certainly making strides and making us believe that he’s inching closer to the Major Leagues.”

Lynch’s adjustments
Daniel Lynch’s first stint in the Majors early in May didn’t go as planned. The Royals’ top pitching prospect gave up 14 earned runs in eight innings across three starts, with pitch tipping a major problem. So the Royals sent him back to Triple-A, where he immediately got to work.

Lynch is now working from the stretch exclusively, Picollo said, and the Royals worked with him on making the ball less visible early. He’s also controlling the bottom of the zone with his fastball much better, and he’s had a focus on throwing inside with more effect and intensity than he’s done in the past. In three games (two starts) and 16 2/3 innings, Lynch has allowed five runs with 20 strikeouts and six walks.

With all the things the Royals have thrown at Lynch, 24, this month, they’ve been impressed with how he’s handled the information and adversity. There’s little doubt he’ll be back in the Majors soon.

Lacy’s introduction to pro ball
Asa Lacy, the No. 4 overall Draft pick out of Texas A&M last year, didn’t go through the normal post-Draft routine due to the pandemic. The Royals' No. 3 prospect was added to the Royals’ alternate training site in August and pitched at Kauffman Stadium during Kansas City's fall camp. His first big league Spring Training was a learning experience, and in his first month of professional ball, he’s adjusting to pitching every fifth or sixth day instead of every seventh day like in college.

In High-A, Lacy has started five games, allowed 11 runs (6.75 ERA), walked 16 and struck out 23 in 14 2/3 innings. The numbers tell a story: He’s got wipeout stuff, armed with a 92-97 mph fastball, two distinct breaking balls and a fading changeup. He’s struggled with command, but the walks have decreased with each outing. He wasn’t hit particularly hard until his last outing on May 30 against Dayton (Reds), when he gave up five runs in 1 2/3 innings. He faced the same team earlier in the week on back-to-back starts, a quirk in the six-game series that teams are playing this year.

Lacy’s also learning how to trust his stuff and control his emotions when things don’t go well on the mound. Because the stuff, well, it’s why the future is bright for the 22-year-old.

“Asa’s a very aggressive guy by nature, and when either he’s getting hit or he walks a guy, he tends to go harder,” Picollo said. “And learning how to just back off and trust the stuff -- because the stuff is Major League stuff right now. It’s just a matter of repeating it and commanding it.”

Other standouts
• Nathan Eaton, drafted in the 21st round of the 2018 Draft, has the Royals’ attention in High-A, where he’s hitting .262/.361/.405 in 22 games. An under-the-radar guy, Eaton can play third base, shortstop and the outfield and has stood out for his athleticism.

• Maikel Garcia is hitting .353 with a .447 on-base percentage at Low-A Columbia following a stellar winter ball season and Spring Training. The 21-year-old has gotten better offensively every year since his rookie year in 2017, and he plays an excellent shortstop.

• Lefty A.J. Block pitched so well in Low-A that the Royals moved him to High-A last week, an unusual move this early in the season. But he was dominating hitters: In 18 1/3 innings, he has 30 strikeouts and a 0.65 WHIP.

Injury report
• Noah Murdock (No. 16 prospect) was set back last week with a tweaked hamstring. The right-hander hasn’t left Arizona yet because he was dealing with a minor pectoral strain, but he was in his second four-inning outing at the Royals’ facility when he felt the hamstring pull. He’s still been able to throw for the past week, just not to hitters, so a new progression will take place once he’s healed.