KANSAS CITY -- There’s little left for Bobby Witt Jr. to prove in the Minor Leagues. He’s succeeded at every level, he’s overcome any hurdles thrown his way, and he’s done both of those things with tremendous results in every facet of the game -- heck, he became the first Royals prospect to post a 20-20 season since Alex Gordon, and it’s still only August.
But despite Witt seemingly checking every box thus far, he’s still somehow finding ways to improve.
Kansas City's top prospect jumped up to No. 3 on MLB Pipeline’s updated list of Top 100 Prospects released on Thursday, one of six Royals on the list -- the second most of any club. He’s joined by current big leaguer Daniel Lynch (No. 59), Nick Pratto (No. 71), Asa Lacy (No. 72), MJ Melendez (No. 73) and Jackson Kowar (No. 93).
Pratto’s inclusion on the Top 100 list is especially noteworthy for a couple reasons; certainly by his own growth as a prospect, but also by his close association with Witt. Since the pair joined Double-A Northwest Arkansas at the start of this season, they experienced an almost symmetrical ascent toward the Majors, highlighted by simultaneous promotions to Triple-A Omaha last month.
“It’s been a blast to do it beside [Pratto],” Witt told reporters at the time of the promotion. “He’s been there like an older brother I never had. It’s been really good, and I really look forward to the future and what we can bring.”
The 2021 season has been huge for Pratto beyond just friendship, though. The 2017 first-round Draft pick has made major strides, both as a whole and in the context of his career. Pratto, ranked as the club's No. 4 prospect, saw his average plummet nearly 100 points from 2018 to '19, as he hit .191/.278/.310 with then-Class A Advanced Wilmington in '19 and then saw zero game action outside of the alternate training site in '20.
Pratto has been reaping the benefits of the things he picked up along the way in 2021, as he’s put together a .263/.384/.565 line between Northwest Arkansas and Omaha. He’s also crushed a career-high 21 homers and sits two shy of his personal benchmark in RBIs at 60.
Experiencing a similar jump -- statistically and in terms of Minor League affiliate -- is catcher Melendez, who joined Witt and Pratto in Omaha last week. Melendez is also having a career year after slumping in 2019, batting .285/.367/.626 between Northwest Arkansas and Omaha, while slugging a career-high 31 homers.
Melendez’s surging performance naturally is turning heads in Kansas City, and even though All-Star backstop Salvador Perez isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, you have to figure Melendez will play into the big league picture sooner rather than later.
“Thinking about the future, given MJ’s athleticism, you start looking at other positions, just to get him on the field more,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said prior to Melendez’s promotion. “So whenever his bat’s ready for the Major Leagues, we feel it’s our job to have him play wherever he’s going to play. … MJ is good enough to do it."
It’s been a tale of two halves for Lynch thus far. Through eight MLB starts, he owns a 5.12 ERA -- although that number is deceiving. His second career outing was derailed by eight earned runs in less than an inning, ballooning his ERA to 18.56. He made one more start before being sent back to Triple-A Omaha to recalibrate.
Since rejoining the Royals on July 25, however, Lynch has looked like a whole new pitcher. He tossed eight scoreless frames in that return outing, and has kept the ball rolling ever since; over five starts in his second MLB stint, Lynch has put together a 2.35 ERA, including a one-run, four-hit outing over seven innings against the Astros on Tuesday.
Lynch’s ability to turn things around so dramatically is certainly at least partially a result of adjustments made during his retreat to Omaha, but Royals manager Mike Matheny explained before Thursday’s game that it’s also a product of his hungry, dedicated mindset -- something he believes is an organization-wide trait.
"His main motivator was to get back to the Major Leagues, and beyond that, was to stay in the Major Leagues by performing like Daniel Lynch knew he could perform,” Matheny said. “... It's been pretty impressive to watch a couple of our young guys this year take a blow, take a shot to their pride and really challenged with, 'How are you going to respond to this?' And they've all come back better.”
Fellow southpaw Lacy dipped to No. 72 in the rankings after opening the season at No. 30. He owns a 5.19 ERA over 14 starts with High-A Quad Cities this season, but he currently sits on the injured list. Lacy has struck out a blustering 79 batters over 52 innings, but he has also stacked up a troubling 41 walks in that time, uncharacteristic of the pitcher he was at Texas A&M.
Kowar, meanwhile, has been his steady self. He’s compiled a 3.75 ERA over 15 outings (14 starts) with Omaha, striking out 99 over 69 2/3 frames while walking 32. Part of the pitching-rich 2018 Draft class, Kowar struggled in his MLB debut earlier this season.
The Royals’ first-round pick in the 2021 Draft, Frank Mozzicato, sits at No. 9 in the club’s new Top 30. The high school southpaw was an under slot value pick by Kansas City, and is a ways away from contributing at the big league level. He’s trailed by second-round pick Ben Kudrna at No. 10; the local product out of Blue Valley Southwest High School in Overland Park, Kan.