Educate yourself on the lack of talent in the Royals’ farm system.
Short story: This farm system is bad. Almost Angels level bad…okay maybe not that bad. But it’s bad.
Long story: This is a far cry from the best farm system ever that we saw back in 2011 (still feels like yesterday). Trades and underachieving players at the minor league level have thinned out this farm system considerably. While that best farm system ever back in 2011 has delivered two consecutive American League Pennants and a World Championship, the future of the Kansas City Royals does not look so promising, especially when about half of the current team is eligible for free agency after the 2017 season. (If they do go back to perpetual losing, I sure know how it feels like.)
Looking at pure numbers, there is not a lot to like here. But this list will be a combination of upside potential as well as current production, while also taking proximity to the majors into consideration.
1. Kyle Zimmer – RHP: The same question that has been asked since he was drafted is still being asked: will Kyle Zimmer ever stay healthy enough to reach his full potential? He has dealt with injuries again in 2016 and is currently on the disabled list in Double-A with shoulder fatigue. Still has four plus pitches, clean mechanics and good command. Durability is the question. Maybe he needs to move to a bullpen role to even appear in the majors, simply because he won’t be able to handle the rigors of throwing 200+ innings in a season (he has only thrown 232 innings as a pro since being drafted fifth overall in 2012). The Royals still have hope that he will be their ace in the not too distant future, though we were saying the same thing four years ago. ETA: 2017
2. Raul Mondesi – SS: Mondesi’s star took a hit when he was slapped with a 50 game suspension for PED’s that was cut from 80 games when he provided proof that the banned substance that he tested positive for was in a cold medication. Still, the 20-year old who became the first player in baseball history to debut in the World Series in 2015 was hitting .250 with a .304 on base percentage at the time of his suspension. He is still more raw tools and projection than current results, but the Royals made sure not to deal him away at last July’s trade deadline for a reason. He is still by far their top position prospect, and I think they are pushing him a little too hard. Perhaps some time away from the game will ease the grind on his body, and he will be able to perform against competition that is not so advanced for him when he returns to Northwest-Arkansas. ETA: 2017
3. Matt Strahm – LHP: A former JUCO pitcher out of a Kansas community college and a 21st round pick in 2012, Strahm was not on prospect radars at all entering 2015. He underwent Tommy John surgery in 2013 and missed 2014 recovering, but returned to the mound with authority. Strahm’s fastball sits in the low to mid-90s more consistently now than it was prior to the surgery and his curveball has shown the potential to be an above average offering. The southpaw has always missed plenty of bats as shown by his career 11.9 K/9 rate. A reliever to begin his pro career, the Royals began to transition Strahm into the rotation after a promotion to the Carolina League last season, and the early results seem positive.
He has transitioned well to the hitter friendly Texas League in 2016, where he has been one of the few bright spots in this farm system. Strahm has posted a 3.05 ERA in 12 starts and has held opposing batters to a .263 average up to this point. He’s been excellent when healthy as a pro with a career 3.14 ERA and 248 strikeouts in 208 innings. He is not a household name in the prospect world, but he is someone to keep an eye on. ETA: 2017
4. Alec Mills – RHP: Similar to Strahm, Mills was not on the radar entering 2015, as he was also recovering from injury. A former walk-on at Tennessee-Martin and a 22nd round pick in 2012, Mills returned and had a strong 2015 campaign in the Carolina League with a mid-90s fastball and the same advanced command that he had prior to having surgery. He throws a ton of strikes, has a feel for three pitches and has clean mechanics. He made his major league debut earlier this season out of the bullpen, but has since been sent back down to Northwest-Arkansas where he has a 2.67 ERA in 60.2 innings. Another bright spot in a generally bleak farm system as far as performance is concerned. ETA: 2017
5. Jorge Bonifacio – OF: The younger brother of speedster Emilio, Jorge Bonifacio is more known for his offensive potential. He has generally been a solid contact hitter throughout his career up until he hit .230 and .240 in Double-A over the past two seasons. But in his first stint in Triple-A, Bonifacio is hitting .304 with 10 home runs and 41 RBI, which is ninth in the Pacific Coast League, and a .366 on base percentage. He just turned 23 in early June and fits the profile for right field well with his strong throwing arm. There is still reason to believe that Bonifacio can become the everyday right fielder in Kansas City, and he may get a chance to prove that this season. ETA: 2016
6. A.J. Puckett – RHP: Thanks to the signing of Ian Kennedy, the Royals did not have a first round pick in this year’s First-Year Player Draft. Their first selection was No. 67 overall where they selected Puckett, a remarkable story of a former high school football player who spent two weeks in a coma that he suffered in a car accident. This alerted him to focus on baseball, and that decision paid off. His fastball was in the low 90s early in his college career but has spiked up to 94 in his junior year. His change-up is his best offering and that two pitch mix has drawn some James Shields comparisons. He also throws a curveball that has shown flashes of being average. Royals scouting director Lonnie Goldberg views Puckett as a “mixture” of Kyle Zimmer and Alec Mills, two pitchers that are ranked ahead of him on this list. Puckett has good size at 6’4”, 200 and good command of the strike zone, making him a safe bet to reach his ceiling as a mid rotation starter. ETA: 2018
7. Ryan O’Hearn – 1B: 2014 eighth round pick out of Sam Houston State is perhaps the most advanced bat the Royals have in their system. While he only hit 11 home runs in three colligate seasons, O’Hearn has developed plus power in pro ball, as he has a total of 40 long balls between his first two pro seasons and has ten so far in 2016. He is strictly a first baseman, though the Royals have played him some in right field to increase his versatility. Wherever he plays, it will be the bat that gets O’Hearn to the majors in the relatively near future. ETA: 2017
8. Miguel Almonte – RHP: Almonte appeared in the All-Star Futures Game at Citi Field in 2013 because of his advanced fastball-change-up combination. His fastball has been clocked into the mid-90s, but he still tends to fall in love with his change-up a little too much at times. Scouts feel that for Almonte to develop into the mid rotation starter that he can become, he needs to use his fastball more and develop his curveball while throwing strikes more consistently. He earned a September call-up in 2015 and pitched in nine games out of the bullpen, where some feel he may be better suited if he continues to have control problems. He is currently struggling in the Pacific Coast League, with an ERA of 4.42 and 22 walks in 36.2 innings. ETA: 2016
9. Chase Vallot – C: When the Royals drafted Vallot in the second round in 2014, he was one of the youngest players in the draft class. He also had some of the biggest power potential, and he has begun to show signs of taping into that power in a repeat of the South Atlantic League while hitting for a higher average and increasing his on base percentage by 70 points. The Louisiana high school product strikes out a fair amount but at age 19, there is plenty of time for him to make adjustments at the plate and cut his strikeout rate. He has a good arm behind the plate and with Salvador Perez manning the position in Kansas City for the foreseeable future, the Royals can let Vallot develop at his own pace. Upside ranking. ETA: 2019
10. Josh Staumont – RHP: The Royals second round selection in 2015 out of DII Azusa Pacific was the hardest thrower in that draft class, as the right hander consistently brings upper 90s heat from a loose and easy arm action. Staumont has hit triple digits numerous times and shows signs of having a plus curveball, but his Achilles heel has always been a lack of command. He is nowhere near the zone at times and his change-up is a long way off. If he can even get his command to a 45, or below average (it is probably a 35 right now on the 20-80 scouting scale), that fastball-curveball combination could ascend him to the back end of the Royals bullpen, but it will take some time. Upside ranking. ETA: 2018
11. Ashe Russell – RHP: The Royals 2015 first round pick out of the Indiana high school ranks has yet to throw a pitch this season. Russell will likely head back to short season Burlington later this month for a second trial of the Appalachian League, where he had a 4.21 ERA in 36.1 innings a season ago. Russell features a mid-90s fastball and a slider that many scouts consider to be a plus offering, and that two pitch mix was plenty to dominate in high school. Some scouts feel that he can thrive in the bullpen with those two pitches, but the Royals will give him every chance to start and he will need to work on his change-up if he wants to stick in a rotation. Upside ranking. ETA: 2019
12. Nolan Watson – RHP: 2015 first round pick as compensation for James Shields signing with the Padres and fellow Indiana high schooler, scouts feel that Watson is more advanced than Russell and began the 2016 campaign in the Low Class-A South Atlantic League. So far, Watson has gone 2-6 with an 8.37 ERA in his first full season of pro ball. But Watson has four pitches and has shown signs of a plus fastball, curveball and slider with an average change-up. Upside ranking. ETA: 2019
13. Foster Griffin – LHP: Kansas City had two first round picks in 2014 and used both to select left-handed pitchers. Brandon Finnegan starred in the bullpen in the 2014 postseason and was subsequently traded to the Reds in the Johnny Cueto trade, where he is now a mainstay in their rotation. Griffin hails from Orlando and entered the draft as a high school southpaw who had an advanced feel for a change-up to go with a good fastball. Griffin was a two-way player and scouts felt that he would begin to develop rapidly when he began to focus solely on pitching in pro ball. But he struggled in his first full year in 2015 and was solid in a return to the South Atlantic League in 2015 (3.38 ERA in 37.1 innings), but has been disastrous (7.59 ERA in 21.1 innings) since being moved up to the generally pitcher friendly Carolina League, especially Frawley Stadium in Wilmington. Griffin’s best offerings are his fastball and change-up, while his curveball is a work in progress. He is only 20-years old and is just two years removed from high school, so patience is necessary. Upside ranking. ETA: 2018
14. Scott Blewett – RHP: The Royals selected Blewett in the second round of the 2014 draft out of the New York high school ranks. Many considered Blewett to be a first round talent, but a shoulder strain during his senior year caused him to slide to the 56th pick. Kansas City gave him the largest second round signing bonus at $1.8 million, which shows how highly they think of him. Blewett has good mechanics on the mound and features a mid-90s fastball and a curveball that shows signs of becoming a plus pitch, but he needs to work on his change-up. He stands at 6’6”, 210, so he certainly looks like a frontline starter. Like with most high schoolers relatively early into their pro careers, it will take time for Blewett to reach his full potential. Upside ranking. ETA: 2018
15. Marten Gasparini – SS: The Royals love those athletic up-the-middle players and they signed Gasparini for $1.3 million in 2013 out if Italy, setting the record for the largest bonus for an amateur to come out of Europe (the Twins signed Max Kepler out of Germany for $800,000 in 2009). Still just 19, the Italian showed signs in the Pioneer League in in 2015. He hit .259/.341/.411 in 197 at bats and stole 26 bases, which was second in the league. But he also struck out 80 times, which was the third most.
He made his full season debut in the South Atlantic League in 2016, and is currently batting .162 with 71 strikeouts in 167 at bats (good for a 42.5% clip). Gasparini is understandably very raw as a baseball player, but he has good speed and a strong arm. He is still learning the game and there is plenty of time for him to develop his bat and his glove. His ceiling is as high as anybody in the system. Upside ranking. ETA: 2020
16. Pedro Fernandez – RHP: Following in the footsteps of Salvador Perez, Kelvin Herrera and Yordano Ventura, the Royals signed Fernandez for $45,000 out of the Dominican Republic in 2011. The 22-year old Fernandez made strides in Low-A ball in 2015 where he posted a 3.12 ERA in 78 innings but struggled when he was promoted to the Carolina League (0-6, 8.82 ERA). Fernandez returned to the Carolina League in 2016 and thrived there in six starts, going 3-1 with a 2.14 ERA while holding opponents to a .207 batting average in 33.2 innings. He has been coming out of the bullpen more often since he was called up to the Texas League, and has held his own so far in the hitter friendly environment. His fastball sits in the mid-90s and has touched 97 at times while his slider and change-up have shown improvement. If he is unable to remain a starter, the Royals would love to have another power arm coming out of their bullpen. ETA: 2017
17. Reymond Fuentes – OF: Formerly a first round pick by the Red Sox in 2009, Fuentes was later shipped to the Padres in the trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez to Boston. The Royals acquired Fuentes in November 2014, and the cousin of former Royal Carlos Beltran fits what the Royals look for in their outfielders. Fuentes’ top tools are his speed and defense, and he also shows a consistent ability to make contact and put the ball in play. Fuentes has a below average arm, which may limit him to left field in the long run, but he is capable of playing all three outfield positions as a fourth outfielder. He finally cracked the Royals roster in 2016 as their Opening Day right fielder, and is now back with the big league club after a brief stint in Omaha. ETA: 2016
18. Hunter Dozier – 3B: The surprise eighth overall selection in 2013, the Stephen F. Austin product was drafted for his bat, which took a big step backward in a lackluster 2015 campaign that saw him hit .213 with 151 strikeouts in the hitter friendly Texas League. Dozier simplified his swing in 2016 and stopped trying to hit for power and the results have paid off to this point. Dozier raked in his return to the Texas league with a .305 average and an on base percentage of .400, leading to a promotion to Triple-A Omaha. A shortstop in college, Dozier transitioned to the hot corner once he entered pro ball and has become a good defender there with a strong arm. With Mike Moustakas out for the season, there is a decent chance that Dozier can get his first big league look at some point in 2016. ETA: 2016
19. Brett Eibner – OF: The second round pick in 2010 has dealt with various injuries throughout his pro career that have plagued his development, but the former two-way Arkansas Razorback star finally cracked the big leagues in 2016 as a 27-year old. While many scouts envisioned Eibner as a pitcher at the next level, his preference was to stay in the outfield, and that’s where the Royals have played him. He has shown flashes of four average or better tools in his power, his strong arm, his speed and his defense. His arm that fired mid to upper 90s in college as a member of a Razorbacks rotation that included Dallas Keuchel and Drew Smyly enables him to stay in center field, but he is capable of playing all three outfield positions. Eibner got the walk-off hit against the White Sox on May 28 in what was the greatest ninth inning comeback in franchise history, coming back from a 7-1 deficit and scoring seven runs in the ninth to win 8-7. But he has since spent time on the DL with an ankle injury. Eibner provided a nice spark when he came up, and the Royals hope he can provide more of the same when he returns from the disabled list. ETA: 2016
20. Bubba Starling – OF: In a loaded 2011 draft class, the Royals selected Starling fifth overall and paid him the largest signing bonus in franchise history for an amateur player at $7.5 million. They gambled on a local player with an enormous ceiling, but also a player that came with a high bust potential. It appears that they got the later, as Starling has simply not be able to hit in professional baseball. He is currently hitting below .200 in Double-A and the best case scenario here is likely a defensive reserve outfielder. ETA: 2017
Honorable mentions: Whit Merrifield – UTIL: The hero of the 2010 South Carolina national championship team who capped the College World Series with a walk-off hit, the Royals’ ninth round selection in 2010 has spent a long, successful minor league career playing many different positions. The 27-year old Merrifield has been contributing in Triple-A Omaha since 2014, and he is finally getting a chance at the big league level. He can hit, he can run, and he can play anywhere on the diamond. He is a Royals kind of player and while he was never a top prospect, I have been wanting to see him get a shot for a number of years because I knew that he would be able to contribute. He was inserted into the number two spot in the lineup and is now leading off most games for a team that has World Series aspirations. That should say a lot about what the Royals think of him. ETA: 2016
Walker Sheller – RHP: I met a scout from a major league team at a college game of mine this past season against Stetson. He was there to see the Hatters’ closer, who did not pitch because Stetson lost that particular game. That pitcher turned out to be Sheller and I find it ironic that out of all 30 teams, it is the Royals who ended up drafting the one player that brought a scout to my school on the same day I happened to be there in the ninth round of this year’s draft.
This is more than a feel good story, however, as Sheller posted excellent numbers in his junior campaign (1.38 ERA with 12 saves and 44 strikeouts in 45.2 innings). Stetson is also known to develop solid major league arms (Jacob deGrom, Corey Kluber) and the Royals have a strong reputation in developing relievers. It will be interesting to keep an eye on Sheller as he embarks on his professional career. ETA: 2019