With the Major League Baseball postseason now down to three teams, 27 teams have their sights set on spring training. This is also the time where prospect gurus will begin to release their lists for 2017, but I wanted to get mine out there before everybody else does. I always enjoy putting this together, even though it is not as easy as it used to be with this organization in terms of finding 20 players and balancing upside potential and likelihood of reaching the majors.
This farm system is very much going through a transitional phase. With the Major League team coming off back-to-back American League pennants and their first World Championship in 30 years in 2015, they were .500 (81-81) for the first time in franchise history in 2016. Most of the talent in this system is three-four years away in the form of high risk-high reward players, so this is very much a list based on potential.
Without further ado, here we go.
1. Josh Staumont – RHP: I am all over the Josh Saumont bandwagon, who the Royals selected in the second round in 2015 out of DII Azusa Pacific. Staumont was widely considered to be the hardest thrower in that draft, but struggled big time with command, as shown by his 7.5 BB/9 rate over his first two pro seasons. I am probably in the minority, but I believe he can remain a starter. After struggling to a 5.05 ERA in the pitcher friendly Carolina League in 2016, he flourished in the hitter friendly Texas league to a 3.04 ERA over 11 starts. His fastball-curveball combo would be deadly out of the bullpen if he can harness his command just a little bit, and he began to show signs of that after his promotion. But if he can develop his changeup as well, this is a front of the rotation starter in the making. ETA: 2018
2. Matt Strahm – LHP: Strahm has done nothing but impress since recovering from Tommy John surgery in 2015. He posted a 2.59 ERA and struck out 121 batters in 94 innings over 29 games (11 starts) between Wilmington and Northwest-Arkansas and served primarily as a starter in a return to the Texas League in 2016 before being promoted to KC in July to pitch out of the bullpen. The former Neosho County Community College standout shined in 21 games. He posted a 1.23 ERA and struck out 30 over 22 innings. Strahm has always piled up the strikeouts (he led all JUCO pitchers with 129 in 99 innings in 2012) using a mid-90s fastball with a plus curveball. His changeup has taken significant strides and a lot of people feel that he can start. But the Royals know that he can thrive in a bullpen role and we may see him there again in 2017, at least to start out the season. ETA: 2017
3. Hunter Dozier – 3B: The Royals somewhat surprisingly selected Dozier eighth overall out of Stephen F. Austin in 2013. Part of that strategy was to save enough money to sign Sean Manaea, a top-of-the-draft talent who slid to 34 because of a hip injury during his junior year at Indiana State. Manaea ultimately became a key part of the 2015 trade that netted Ben Zobrist from the Oakland Athletics. Dozier put together a breakout campaign in 2016 that saw him hit .296 with 23 home runs and 75 RBI between Northwest-Arkansas and Omaha before being called up to KC in September. A shortstop in college, Dozier immediately shifted to the hot corner in pro ball, and spent a good amount of time in right field this past season. It will be his bat that gets him to the majors and with Mike Moustakas likely entering his final season in a Royals uniform, that will be sooner rather than later. ETA: 2017
4. Jorge Bonifacio – RF: Primarily known for his pure hitting ability early in his professional career, Bonifacio finally started to tap into his raw power in his first stint of the Pacific Coast League. He hit 19 home runs and drove in 86 runs, while still hitting for a respectable average (.277). The younger brother of Emilio fits the right field profile with solid range and a plus arm. Kansas City has been searching for a long term answer in right field since they traded Wil Myers away in December 2012, and Bonifacio should get an opportunity to prove he is that guy in 2017. ETA: 2017
5. A.J. Puckett – RHP: The Royals did not have a first round pick in 2016 after signing Ian Kennedy to a five-year, $70 million deal, so Puckett was the only day one selection for KC. The Royals nabbed the Pepperdine right-hander with the 67th selection, and he quickly made an impression on his new organization. A former high school quarterback whose career on the gridiron was cut short after suffering an epidural hematoma in a car crash that led to him spending two weeks in a medically induced coma during his sophomore year, Puckett fills the strike zone consistently with his fastball that tops at 94 mph and sits at 90-92. His changeup is an above average pitch, and his curveball shows flashes as well. Puckett probably will not front a rotation, but he should be a quick mover and a safe bet to improve a rotation for an organization that has had only four homegrown pitchers (Danny Duffy, Yordano Ventura, Luke Hochevar, and Everett Teaford) make a start at the Major League Level since 2006. ETA: 2018
6. Alec Mills – RHP: A former walk-on at Tennessee-Martin and a 22nd round pick in 2012, Mills returned from Tommy John surgery and had a strong 2015 campaign in the Carolina League with a mid-90s fastball that put him on the prospect radar. He throws a ton of strikes, has a feel for three pitches and has clean mechanics. He made his major league debut out of the bullpen in 2016, but spent the majority of the season between Northwest-Arkansas and Omaha, where he had a combined 3.22 ERA in 125.2 innings. He was one of the relatively few bright spots for this system as far as performance is concerned, and he will likely be in the mix for a spot on the pitching staff out of spring training. ETA: 2017
7. Ryan O’Hearn – 1B: O’Hearn hit just 11 homers in three seasons at Sam Houston State, but Kansas City liked his offensive potential enough to draft him in the eighth round in 2014. Since then, he has hit 62 home runs over four professional seasons. He has posted a slash line of .288/.366/.501 in his pro career, and it will be his bat that gets O’Hearn to the big leagues. He has played some right field, but his best position is first base which should be opening up relatively soon in Kansas City. ETA: 2017
8. Chase Vallot – C: Vallot was one of the youngest players in the 2014 draft when Kansas City selected him 40th overall. He stood out for his plus raw power from the right side and his strong arm behind the plate. He showed glimpses of excellence in Lexington in 2016, but he was slowed by various injuries in the second half and finished with a .235 average and 15 home runs in 302 at bats. The Louisiana native will be 20 for most of 2017, and he will need to make adjustments to his approach to make more consistent contact to tap into his full potential. Even if he has to move from behind the plate, his bat should play at first base or right field, but he could be an All-Star caliber player if he can stay behind the plate. ETA: 2019
9. Kyle Zimmer – RHP: If the Royals were going to win the American League pennant in 2014 and 2015 and bring a World Series title back to Kansas City for the first time in 30 years, most would have figured that Zimmer would have been a prominent factor. But the fifth overall pick in 2012 out of the University of San Francisco threw a grand total of 5.2 innings in 2016, enduring yet another injury plagued season. Zimmer flashes four plus pitches and good command when he is healthy, but he has only threw 222.1 innings in five professional seasons, with only 67.2 of those coming in Double-A. Now 25, the clock is ticking on Zimmer as a prospect and he is difficult to rank because of that. He could be number one on this list, but he also would have graduated years ago if he stayed healthy. ETA: who knows?
10. Seuly Matias – OF: The Royals have struck gold through international signings recently, with Salvador Perez, Yordano Ventura and Kelvin Herrera being some notable names. Matias was one of the top talents in the July 2015 international signing period, when Kansas City signed him for $2.25 million. The 18-year old has a lightening quick bat that generates a ton of power during batting practice, but he will have to adjust to more advanced pitching as he continues to climb the system. He should stick in center field, but has a plus arm should he need to move to right. He has one of the highest ceilings in the system, and perhaps Matias can become the player Kansas City thought they were getting when they selected Bubba Starling fifth overall in 2011: a superstar player with all five tools. ETA: 2020
11. 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 low-90s fastball and a curveball that shows signs of becoming a plus pitch, but he needs to work on his changeup. He had an up and down season with Lexington in Low-A, posting an 8-11 record with a 4.31 ERA and struck out 121 batters over 129.1 innings in 2016. 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. He finished strong and could be in line for a breakthrough season in 2017. ETA: 2019
12. Meibrys Viloria – C: Viloria went the entire 2015 campaign without an extra-base hit, then he won the Pioneer League MVP in 2016 after leading the league in hitting (.376), doubles (28), and RBI (55) while homering six times in 58 games. Kansas City signed him out of Columbia in 2013 as a shortstop, but they liked his offensive potential. He has a nice approach at the plate and only struck out 36 times in 226 at bats in 2016. He is still developing behind the plate, but he has a good arm and will have plenty of time to develop back there. He is one to watch as a breakout candidate as he will likely enter full season ball at age 20 in 2017. ETA: 2020
13. Nolan Watson – RHP: Kansas City used their second first round pick in 2015 (compensation for James Shields signing with the San Diego Padres) on a high school rival of their first selection. Watson and Ashe Russell attended high school in the same town in Indiana – Russell attending Cathedral High School and Watson attending Lawrence North High School. Watson was part of a strong Vanderbilt recruiting class, but his stuff improved enough during his senior year that KC took him 33rd overall and gave him a $1,825,200 bonus to lure him away from one of college baseball’s top programs. He struggled mightily in his first full season as a pro, finishing 3-11 with a 7.57 ERA in the South Atlantic League, allowing 125 hits in 96.1 innings. He throws a mid-90s fastball with a curveball and changeup, throws strikes, has smooth mechanics on the mound and repeats his delivery well. Watson will be 20 for all of 2017, so he has plenty of time to reach his ceiling as a mid-rotation starter. ETA: 2019
14. Khalil Lee – OF: Many scouts felt that Lee would have a future on the mound as a left-hander with a mid-90s fastball and above average slider, but the Royals selected the Virginia high school product in the third round in 2016 as an outfielder. Lee has the potential for at least average tools across the board, and he showed flashes in a brief stint in the Arizona Rookie League. He slashed .269/.396/.484 over 182 at bats and had 21 extra base hits, while drawing 33 walks. The Royals pride themselves in developing players with high character, and Lee has a good head on his shoulders. Still just 18, it will take time for Lee to develop. But he has a higher floor than most high schoolers do, making him a safe bet to one day be a big league regular. ETA: 2020
15. Jake Junis – RHP: The former 29th round pick in 2011 out of the Illinois high school ranks had a big year in 2016. He posted a 3.25 ERA over 119 innings over 21 games in Double-A before struggling through six starts in Triple-A. Junis’ fastball sits in the mid-90s and locates it well, and his curveball and changeup have improved to the point that he shows three plus pitches when everything is working. The right-hander will be 24 for most of 2017, and he has the makeup to become a solid mid-rotation starter. He will likely head back to Omaha in 2017, but he should be one of the first players to get a look if Kansas City needs to add another starter. ETA: 2017
16. Garrett Davila – LHP: Davila was considered to be one of the more polished high school southpaws in the 2015 draft and the Royals selected him in the fourth round out of South Point High School in North Carolina. He did not pitch in any games that year, but excelled in the Appalachian League back home in North Carolina in 2016, pitching for the Burlington Royals. He went 7-0 with a 2.77 ERA over 65 innings in 12 starts. Davila’s fastball sits in the low 90s and commands it well. He also has a curveball and changeup that have also shown flashes of becoming average offerings. He is more of a high floor-low ceiling prospect than most high schoolers, and should be a safe bet to become at least a back-end starter. The former Tennessee commit should embark in full season ball in 2017 with the Lexington Legends of the South Atlantic League. ETA: 2019
17. 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 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 finished with a .196 average with 134 strikeouts in 382 at bats. 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. He is basically all projection at this point, and his ceiling is as high as anybody in the system. ETA: 2019
18. Ricky Aracena – SS: Kansas City spent $850,000 to sign Aracena out of the Dominican Republic in 2014, and he is another athletic up-the-middle player that the Royals covet. Aracena hit .251 in the Pioneer League and stole 17 bases in 61 games. He is a switch hitter who hits well from both sides of the plate, has a strong arm and can run. He has drawn comparisons to Rafael Furcal and Jose Altuve in the past and earns praise for his baseball instincts and makeup. This is another exciting young shortstop that the Royals have, but it will take some time for him to develop. ETA: 2019
19. Jeison Guzman – SS: A year after signing Aracena, the Royals went back out and signed another top shortstop on the international market in Guzman. The Dominican native received $1.5 million and has a higher floor than most of the teenage international signings. He is also a switch hitter who shows an advanced approach at the plate, using the entire field with a line drive approach. He is sound defensively at shortstop but will likely see more time at second base if he comes up through the system with Aracena. That may ultimately be his home long-term since the Royals have not had an answer at the keystone position in years. ETA: 2020
20. Ashe Russell – RHP: It’s hard to make any assessments on a player who only throws two innings all season. Russell spent the majority of the 2016 campaign in Surprise, Arizona working on mechanics in hope that he will be ready to take on a full season in 2017. We can really only go based on the scouting reports that were on Russell coming out of Cathedral High School in Indiana when the Royals selected him 21st overall in 2015: a plus fastball with a wipe-out slider and a developing changeup. Hopefully, we will be able to see more of Russell in 2017 and be able to make more of a judgment based on more professional repetitions. ETA: 2020
Honorable mention: Miguel Almonte: Not too long ago, Almonte found himself near the top of this list. He appeared in the Futures Game as a 20-year old in 2013 and seemed destined to be a part of the Royals’ future rotation. But his stuff backed up in 2016, leading to demotions from Omaha to Northwest Arkansas and from the rotation to the bullpen, where he posted a 7.31 ERA in 11 relief outings. He still has a good fastball and changeup, but his once strong command has taken a few steps back, which has dropped his prospect stock. Still just 23, Almonte still has time to get back to the pitcher he once was and if he can improve his curveball, he has a chance to be a mid-rotation starter. If not, he can be a short reliever, but he will need to get his command back. Either way, 2017 will be a big year in determining the right-hander’s future. ETA: 2017