How Can Key Prospects Improve for 2018?

The Kansas City Royals saw a lot of good things from some of their key prospects in 2017. Guys like Jake Junis and Jorge Bonifacio gave massive contributions at the major league level, while guys like Grant Gavin and Richard Lovelady made huge strides down on the farm. With 2017 coming to an end, I’m gonna go through some of KC’s key prospects for 2018 and an area or two in their games in which I’d like to see them improve moving forward.

Rankings will reflect our current rankings of the Royals prospects. An updated version of the rankings will be coming to you soon.

1.) Nick Pratto

Nick Pratto had what I would consider a successful first year of professional baseball. Yes, he only hit .247 over 52 games, but that doesn’t define a successful season in rookie ball. Pratto stayed healthy, he progressed through the summer and had his best month in August, and he slowly cut down on the strike outs. Jumping from high school baseball to the ranks of professional baseball is not easy and Pratto seemed to hold his own for much of the season.

One thing I’d like to see Pratto improve on in 2018 is his contact rate. Only 13 hitters struck out more than Pratto this summer in the Arizona League. To be fair, Pratto’s strike out numbers weren’t much of an issue for 18-year old in his first professional season, but I am definitely curious to see how much he can cut down on his strike out rate in 2018.

2.) Khalil Lee

Khalil Lee had one of the crazier seasons I’ve ever seen from a prospect as highly touted as he is. He lead the South Atlantic League (Low-A) in strikeouts, he was third in walks, he stole 20 bases, was thrown out trying to steal 18 times, and tied for second in the league with 17 HR. Oh, and he didn’t turn 19 until June 26. Lee is just oozing with talent and has plenty of people with the Royals brass drooling at his raw talent.

The problem for Lee is going to be his strike out rate. During a 21 inning game this summer, Lee struck out a ridiculous eight times. Lee has some crazy potential, for sure, I think his ability to use all five tools creates a really high floor for Lee, meaning I don’t expect him to wash out anytime soon. But if he wants to reach his ceiling of potential superstar, a great start for Lee would be to work on making more contact.

7.) Josh Staumont

Dayton Moore and the rest of the Royals front office was so confident in Josh Staumont this spring that they started him out in AAA to begin 2017. It was a power move, of sorts, that screamed, “We want you in KC in September,” in my opinion. Things didn’t work out that way as Staumont actually went backwards, spending the end of 2017 in AA Northwest Arkansas. The move was long over due, as Staumont really struggled with his control for most of 2017.

This is the good news though, control can be taught. It can be fixed. It can be dealt with and managed and pitchers can succeed in spite of SOME bad control. You can’t teach a kid how to throw a 100 mph fastball. You can’t teach a kid a curveball like Staumont’s. NWA Naturals pitching coach Steve Luebber has fixed Staumont before, and I think he can fix him again. Staumont will almost certainly start off 2018 in AAA Omaha, and if he can just learn to command his fastball even a little bit, he’s got the stuff to pitch in KC in 2018. Keep in mind, he’s still 23. There’s still plenty of time for Staumont to make it as a big league starter.

9.) Foster Griffin

Griffin started off the year at High-A Wilmington and earned a quick promotion to AA. In  104.2 IP with the Naturals, Griffin posted an ERA of 3.61 and had a K:BB ratio of 81:34. This will play for the lefty if he can continue to progress through the system. Griffin will almost surely begin 2018 as a 22-year old in AAA, and I think he has the most promise of any SP in the Royals system right now.

The one thing that I noticed when I saw Griffin pitch this season was the lack of ability to get guys out with his fastball when his slider would go missing. Griffin’s changeup looked good in the bullpen, but when his slider went AWOL on him in August against the Springfield Cardinals he was throwing almost 100% fastballs. Pitchers aren’t going to have their best stuff every night, so it’s important to be able to grind through outs on those days. Griffin’s fastball needs a little tick in either, A) velocity, or B) sinking action, in order to get him through those rough starts. Again, as a 22-year old this is nothing that can’t be learned, but if Griffin can figure out how to enhance his fastball in 2018, there’s no reason he can’t find his way to KC before September.

13.) Jakob Junis

Junis has been a bit of a God-send for the KC Royals this season, who have had a really rough time getting quality starts out of their rotation. Junis posted a 2.96 ERA over 5 appearances in August, and has really been the Royals best starter while Duffy has struggled with elbow issues. Junis struggled with his command early on in 2017, but has been rock solid since coming back from AAA Omaha. His fastball/slider combination has been absolutely filthy, and he’s been able to post a K:BB ratio of 19:2 since the beginning of August.

One thing I think that will take Junis to the next level as a starter is his changeup. His changeup has looked really good at times this season but he doesn’t throw it quite as often as I would personally like. The ability to feature a third pitch in his arsenal would have hitters guessing at the plate instead of sitting either fastball or slider. In my opinion, the further development of Junis’ changeup can make him a legitimate number 3 in the Royals rotation.

16.) Nicky Lopez

Nicky Lopez came charging onto the prospect scene in 2017 with a monster first half. At High-A Wilmington, Lopez hit .295 and stole 14 bases in 285 AB. He was then promoted to AA where he hit .259 down the stretch.

What I want to see from Lopez in 2018 is a really good campaign in AA. Lopez isn’t going to be a Raul Mondesi type guy where he can make an impact with the big league club at the age of 23, but I do think he has Whit Merrifield type value in his future. Sometimes college guys take just a bit longer to develop and Lopez seems to be on the right track. He has a nice hit tool, he fields the ball well, and he can run. That will play in KC. If Lopez can put together a campaign in AA in which he consistently hits around the .290-.300 mark, he may very well find himself in Omaha to end the season and continue to climb up our prospect board.

29.) Gerson Garabito

Gerson Garabito is a guy who appeared on the scene this season and really made a name for himself as a prospect for Kansas City. To be 100% honest with you, I wasn’t very familiar with Garabito before June of this year, but he’s made himself impossible to ignore with his performance at Low-A. Garabito posted an ERA of 2.81 in 15 starts for the Low-A Lexington Legends, spanning 77 IP. His K:BB ratio was an impressive 72:19, but what I find to be more encouraging was his 41% ground ball percentage (GB%).

What I want to see Garabito do in 2018 is put together a full season between High and Double-A. Garabito missed some time this year with an injury and has never thrown more than 80.2 IP in one season. He just turned 22 in August, but if he can stay healthy he has a chance to be a really effective starter someday. Any pitcher who can put up a strike outs per nine innings (K/9) of 8.42 and a GB% of 41 has a bright future ahead of them in my book.

30.) MJ Melendez

MJ Melendez moved into our rankings when the Royals shipped AJ Puckett to Chicago in July. Melendez was my favorite pick in the 2017 draft, and his performance in the Arizona League has me really excited for his future. Melendez put up an OPS of .790 in his first professional season, and added 4 HRs to his impressive stat line.

Much like Pratto, I’d like to see Melendez cut down on the strikeouts just a bit in 2018. Also like Pratto, Melendez put up a very respectable walk rate in the Arizona League and appears to have decent plate discipline. A little increase in his contact rate, and you may see a monster year out of MJ Melendez in 2018.

Not Ranked: Raul Mondesi

Raul Mondesi lost his “prospect” status last year when he crossed the 100 AB threshold. He was then rushed into the Opening Day 2B job for the Royals this season. A lot of people are down on Mondesi after his abysmal April, but I’m here to tell you to relax. From our very own Patrick Brennan, here’s a list of 21-year olds since 2006 to post an OPS above .850 in AAA:

  • Adam Jones
  • Freddie Freeman
  • Anthony Rizzo
  • Wil Myers
  • Raul Mondesi

That is some elite company that Mondesi finds himself in. I know people were concerned about that start in April, but he was no where near ready for big league action yet. The one thing I want to see Mondi improve on for 2018 is playing to his strengths. I felt that, in April, he tried to do too much to help out a struggling lineup. He tried to muscle up and slug his way to the top of the lineup and was simply over matched. Mondi’s game is slashing line drives to both gaps and running like hell. If Raul Mondesi plays Raul Mondesi’s game in 2018, we’re going to have a star in the making in KC.

Not Ranked: Jorge Soler

Ahh, Jorge Soler. The prize of the Wade Davis trade. The monster RHH that was supposed to slot nicely between Hosmer and Moose in the lineup. Instead we got a AAAA bench player. Right?

NO. 1,000,000 TIMES NO.

Let me give you my theory on Jorge Soler because I truly believe it to be at least somewhat accurate and want as many people to understand me as possible.

I think Jorge Soler has been given an unfair shake in the MLB. Yep, I said it. He’s always destroyed MiLB pitching but as struggled to put it together at the major league level. He’s also never gotten consistent at bats to prove his worth. This year, the Royals gave him 55 AB in May to prove himself, after a lengthy DL stint, and then sent him back to Omaha to rot. 55 AB is not a “fair shake” to adjust to major league pitching. As a 23-year old in Chicago, Soler posted a .723 OPS and admittedly struggled some overall. Then in 2016, as a 24-year old, he had arguably his best season as his OPS went up to .769 and he hit 12 HR in 227 AB. That’s a HR every 18.9 AB. That’s roughly a 32 HR pace for a full season. Alex Gordon has 7……..The problem I think we see with Soler is that he is so physically imposing, so mature looking for his age, that we forget that he’s 25. We see him strikeout 3 times in a game and think, “Well he’s still not good,” and I think the Royals have fallen into that trap too.

I’m not in the clubhouse. I have no idea what Soler’s attitude or clubhouse presence is like. So just because Soler may have gotten a bad shake does not give him the right to act like it. This is a “prove it” league (unless you sign a 4 year/$72M contract) and Jorge Soler needs to prove he deserves playing time. So what do I want Jorge Soler to work on for 2018? HAVING FUN. I want Soler to remember how much fun he had playing baseball in Cuba growing up. Or how much fun it was to destroy baseballs in the minor leagues before he ever put on a Cubs jersey. I truly believe that if Jorge Soler can just get back to enjoying the game of baseball, we’re going to see a ton of success from him in 2018.

Not Ranked: Brewer Hicklen

Brewer Hicklen came bursting onto the scene after being drafted in the 7th round this year out of Alabama-Birmingham. Hicklen, an OF, destroyed the pitching in the Arizona League and was promptly to Royals Rookie Team Idaho Falls where he put up an OPS of .855. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hicklen starts 2018 in High-A Wilmington, but look for him to more likely be in Low-A with the Lexington Legends.

One thing I’d like to see from Hicklen in 2018 is to continue dominating hitters like they don’t belong on the field with him, and to stay HEALTHY. So often we see guys like Hicklen have a monster year, get hurt, and then never get back to that level. If Hicklen keeps hitting like he did in 2017, and stays healthy all year, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he found himself in AA before the season ends in 2018. Also, look for him on our next Top 30.

Not Ranked: Logan Moon

Logan Moon is a local kid who the Royals drafted in the 6th in 2014 out of MSSU in Joplin. After scuffling a bit through a couple seasons at AA, Moon was promoted to AAA to fill in for Bubba Starling when he went on the DL. All Moon did as Bubba’s replacement was hit .336 with 4 HR in 107 AB at AAA. He simplified his swing with the Storm Chasers and found immediate success at the plate. He’s always been a really good OF, with the ability to play all three OF positions, but now the bat has come around as well.

What I want to see from Moon in 2018 is to see his hit tool continue to develop. To reach the big leagues, you have to be elite at SOMETHING. Often times, guys like Whit Merrifield and Logan Moon get over looked for so long because, even though they’re really good at everything, they don’t really stand out in any one category. I think, in addition to his fantastic defense, Moon’s ticket to the big leagues will be to consistently hit and be on base. If he can hit .300 with AAA Omaha in 2018, and take a few more walks, Moon definitely has a shot to fill out a 25-man roster in the MLB one day.

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