SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The Royals had several of their top pitching prospects get shut down with injuries in 2021, with the organization taking caution after a season without Minor League games in '20. But many are back and in camp now, poised for breakout seasons if their health allows.
Jonathan Bowlan, the Royals’ No. 10 prospect, was the only injured pitcher on this list who required surgery when he needed Tommy John surgery in June. The Royals added him to their 40-man roster before the lockout and expect him to be back on a mound by midseason.
Let’s look at some of the top pitching prospects at Royals camp who are eyeing healthy seasons:
LHP Asa Lacy, No. 3 Royals prospect
Earlier this week, Lacy said this is “the best he’s ever felt.” That’s a sigh of relief for him and the Royals after their top pitching prospect missed half of last season with left shoulder discomfort. In his professional debut season, Lacy struggled with control and walked 41 batters for a 7.10 BB/9 -- but struck out 79 batters in 52 innings. The organization was cautious when he felt nagging shoulder soreness after the inconsistent and low-mileage 2020 season, but Lacy was able to ramp back up for the Arizona Fall League and post a 2.35 ERA in 7 2/3 innings.
Beyond just the health are the mechanical adjustments Lacy is making to his delivery to counteract the command issues he faced last season. Keeping his head in a straight line as he finishes his delivery will be key, as well as not speeding up his movements. How he performs in '22 will give insight to his future, but how he looks and feels at the start of Spring Training is a good sign.
RHP Alec Marsh, No. 14
Marsh was primed for a big year on the mound in '21 after he unlocked even more velocity during the pandemic season. His performance in Spring Training around the big league club gave him even more momentum. But that came to a halt when he felt pain in his bicep and upper-arm area. The Royals shut him down with a humerus stress reaction, and he ended up pitching in just six games for Double-A Northwest Arkansas.
“It was insanely hard,” Marsh said. “I had to watch everyone else play. It gets overbearing. But sometimes you have to know what it’s like to be at the lowest of the low to come back. I think it helped me out in the long run for sure.”
Marsh is entering the spring healthy and on the same schedule as other pitchers in Surprise. He also mentioned how the injury taught him how to approach his time in the weight room, making sure he takes his recovery days and knowing when to back off, especially this early in camp.
“I think just showing that I’m healthy again and ready to go,” Marsh said. “I learned from last Spring Training coming out 110 percent isn’t the way to go. I need to be able to be available in June, July, August, September. That was a big learning point for me. I feel amazing. I’m ready to go.”
RHP Ben Hernandez, No. 15
Hernandez finally made his debut after being selected in the second round of the 2020 MLB Draft and tossed 31 1/3 innings in Low-A Columbia, striking out 31 batters with 17 walks. He felt some arm fatigue midseason, so the Royals shut him down. He was able to return for three starts in Rookie ball before the season ended, so he went into the offseason back at full strength.
Hernandez’s calling card is his devastating changeup, and his fastball sits 90-95 mph with sink and good command. He worked hard on his curveball in '21, which may have led to some of the results against him. The 20-year-old has one of the more effortless deliveries in the Royals' system, as well as good mound presence. If he’s able to stay on the field for a full year, he has the chance to move quickly.
RHP Noah Murdock, No. 16
Like Marsh, Murdock was primed for a huge year on the mound after showcasing elite stuff during instructional league in 2020. But a series of injuries, including to his right shoulder, limited him to just 22 2/3 innings in High-A Quad Cities last season. The 23-year-old has yet to pitch more than 37 1/3 innings in a Minor League season because of no games in '20 and his injury last year.
The 6-foot-8 righty isn’t in camp yet, but he’s healthy and throwing at a performance facility near his home. The Royals still view him as a starter, one who possesses an upper-90s fastball and what one scout called a “phenomenal” curveball, but his health will dictate his role going forward.
LHP Christian Chamberlain
For three consecutive years at Oregon State, Chamberlain would open the college baseball season at Surprise Stadium during the College Baseball Classic. This weekend, while the Beavers faced New Mexico State and Gonzaga, Chamberlain was throwing a side session on the backfields of the Royals’ facility. Kansas City drafted the lefty in the fourth round of the 2020 MLB Draft and are ecstatic about his ceiling as a power reliever in the big leagues.
“Never thought I’d be on this side of the facility,” Chamberlain said. “Obviously it was a dream. But you don’t know who’s picking you up, who’s going to give you an opportunity. I was fortunate the Royals were the ones to take a chance on me.”
Chamberlain’s first full season, though, was limited to just 3 2/3 innings in High-A. He pulled a hamstring coming in Spring Training and experienced shoulder tightness that shut him down the rest of the season.
The 5-foot-10 Chamberlain pitched in instructional league and gave the Royals even more to be excited about. He saw a velocity increase, running up to 95 mph, and possesses one of the best breaking balls in the system. He mixes in an average changeup, so there’s debate whether he will be a starter or reliever. The Royals will likely let him get innings under his belt, either as a starter or a multi-inning reliever, but it wouldn’t be shocking if he moves quickly because of his bullpen possibilities -- and he fits the bill of a high-leverage reliever with his aggressive nature on the mound.
“I grew a lot as a person and as a player,” Chamberlain said. “Body feels better than ever. Injuries are a part of the game, but it’s how you push through them. I was amped up coming into my first pro season. Once you see yourself one time, it’s like, ‘Oh, I actually have that in me.’”