What’s going on with Royals’ future stars?

September 21st, 2022

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.

KANSAS CITY -- The Royals’ Minor League season is nearly over -- Triple-A has eight more games left, while the other levels have all ended -- but the fall season down in Surprise, Ariz., is in full swing. Instructional league begins this week; the Arizona Fall League the first week of October. And throughout the fall months, the Royals will host camps and clinics for their players.

With all that in mind, MLB.com spoke with Royals player development director Mitch Maier about the 2022 Minor League season, prospects at all levels and much more.

Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.

MLB.com: AFL rosters were announced Friday, and the Royals are sending seven players: LHP Christian Chamberlain, RHP Jonah Dipoto, LHP Walter Pennington, LHP T.J. Sikkema, INF Samad Taylor, OF Tyler Gentry and OF John Rave. What goes into the decision to send those players?

MM: We do want to send prospects, and Rave and Gentry both had a full season worth of at-bats, but this is a good opportunity for them to face more competition and better competition. Samad Taylor, we haven’t had a chance to see play yet because of an injury when we acquired him (from the Blue Jays for Whit Merrifield at the Trade Deadline), so it’ll allow Samad to catch up on at-bats and for us to get a chance to see him.

"We wanted to continue to see Sikkema, Pennington, Dipoto and Chamberlain. Just an opportunity to get those guys more innings, better competition. It should be good, and we’ll just adjust as needed."

MLB.com: Gentry had one of the best seasons in your organization this year, with his .965 OPS and 152 wRC+ leading all qualified hitters in the farm system. What have been your impressions of your 2020 third-round Draft pick?

MM: He was having a good season in High-A Quad Cities before he got hurt last year. Knowing he had some injuries and missed some time is what prompted us to send him back to start the season there. And he obviously took care of business, beat the level, and he’s done the same thing in Double-A Northwest Arkansas. Hasn’t missed a beat. It’s a level of consistency with him, to where he knows the zone, he knows who he is, and he stays committed to his plan and his approach. That’s allowed him to really put up the numbers. It’s just a very sound approach. He’s using the entire field with power, and he’s making good swing decisions.

MLB.com: Single-A Columbia was a young team that finished the season strong, narrowly missing the playoffs. What did you make of that team and some of the individual successes like catcher Carter Jensen’s good first year (.745 OPS with 11 homers and a 17.1% walk rate)?

MM: Jensen had an outstanding year. He spent most of the season as an 18-year-old, turned 19 in July. The walks are a product of him knowing the strike zone. To be that disciplined and understanding of the strike zone at a young age is rare. And then you look at some of the other measurables, the hard-hit rate, the chase, and they’re all good. Full season, the most he’d ever caught in his life. And he worked his tail off, every day. It was fun to watch.

Putting together the Columbia roster, we knew they were a young team going there. We didn’t want to leave those guys in Arizona all year. But I look at the way they finished off the season. Every night you’re running out a young kid who’s learning and who is going through something they’ve never gone through.

The young group of pitchers there -- Shane Panzini, Ben Kudrna, Frank Mozzicato, Luinder Avila, Jonatan Bernal -- all got better throughout the season. And seeing some of our Draft picks go there to end the season, like Gavin Cross and Cayden Wallace, was fun. The tools speak for themselves, but they fit right in there and were a big boost to that team.

MLB.com: Nick Loftin spent most of the year in Double-A, where he struck out at just a 13.4% clip and posted a .776 OPS with 12 homers. You had him learn center field this year, but he’s also played more third base in Triple-A than any other position. How would you assess his year?

MM: He’s getting those reps at multiple positions, as he’s obviously a step away being in Omaha. I’m not going to speak for how he’ll be used in the future, because it’s going to be about whatever position is needed. We know he can be a utility player, but where he ends up playing the most games at, time will tell.

Offensively, he understands the zone and uses the whole field. Like Gentry, he’s not a power hitter, but he’s a good hitter that will hit for power. Sticks to his plan, and you’ll see that transition from level to level because he’s been consistent. He’s a player who can help a team win in a lot of different ways.

MLB.com: While several hitting prospects stayed consistent this year, the pitching has certainly struggled. What are the takeaways from that standpoint?

MM: Sometimes, people unfairly put timelines on these kids. There’s no script to it. You can’t rush it. You have to be patient with it and allow guys to develop and get better. It’s going to be different for each pitcher to beat certain levels, to find that consistency. That’s my take on it. We obviously have things that we need to do better on, and we’ll address those to make sure we’re providing the best development opportunities for each pitcher on an individual basis.

MLB.com: Lefty Asa Lacy, the No. 4 overall Draft pick in 2020, was limited to eight innings last year and 20 innings this year. Where is he at from a health standpoint now?

MM: He’s in Arizona right now, is throwing and is in a good spot, and the hope is to get him going this fall and in a good spot for next season. It’s been his back, mostly. It hasn’t allowed him to really stay consistent and be on the mound. But he’s working through it. He’s in the best spot he’s been in a long time in that regard. We’ve got to get that straightened out first before we move forward. Obviously, the stuff is elite. He knows it and we know it. We’ve got to get him healthy.

MLB.com: Right-hander Alec Marsh struck out 147 batters in 114 1/3 innings -- his 27.4% strikeout rate ranked second in all of Double-A. But he also posted a 7.32 ERA across 25 starts. What did you see from him?

MM: I think he falls into the consistency part. Some of it is pitch usage, some of it is repeatability. He’s striking guys out at a high clip, but also needs to understand when he makes certain mistakes in certain counts, he’ll pay for it. That’s part of the learning process. The stuff is there, but the hitters are better. You’re not purely out-stuffing them. It’s been a good learning year for him.

This is his first full season because he was drafted in 2019, the lost year in ’20 and his injuries last year (that limited him to 25 1/3 innings). You put that in perspective and realize he’s going to go through some things. He did get the opportunity to be healthy and endure the ups and downs that come within a season, and he’s going to be better for it.

MLB.com: One pitcher who had a great year was lefty Noah Cameron, a local player from St. Joseph, Mo., who was drafted in the seventh round last year out of Central Arkansas. He was coming off Tommy John surgery when drafted, and then made 19 starts this year with a 3.56 ERA in 65 2/3 innings -- with 99 strikeouts and just 16 walks. Has he exceeded expectations?

MM: He knows how to pitch. Knows how to use his fastball, changeup, breaking ball, so he can keep guys off balance. We knew what we were hoping to get, and he obviously has proven that. There’s a vision there when you select a guy, projection, but obviously you don’t know completely what you’re getting, especially when a guy is injured. But they did the work on him during the Draft and he’s proving to be what we thought he could be. Coming back like that, staying healthy, it’s all encouraging.