Progression or Regression?

Part of covering Minor League Baseball involves an enormous amount of patience while prospects rise through the system.

Delvin Capellan is an 18-year old kid from the Dominican Republic. In 2017 he posted an ERA of 0.48 in 56 innings in the Dominican Summer League. Fans of Royals prospects are ecstatic about the season that Capellan had and the potential that he holds.

But there is a 0% chance that we see Delvin Capellan in Kansas City in the next few years, and it would be unfair to expect him to somehow be better than his 0.48 ERA that he posted in 2017. He’s not the uber prospect that’s going to fly through the system and debut at the age of 20. He’s going to need time to develop and grow as a pitcher. In 2018 he may throw 80 innings. Then in 2019 maybe he builds to 110. Then 130, 160, etc.

Point is, we’re going to have to be patient with Capellan and enjoy watching him progress through the system. Watch him grow just like we watched Hosmer and Moose and Salvy grow. Progression doesn’t always mean better stats, though. Progression can come in the form of plate discipline, or pitch selection, or an up-tick in velocity.

Obviously, we’d like for all of our prospects to progress every season. Unfortunately it just isn’t realistic. Let’s go through some Royals prospects and decide whether we should expect them to progress, or regress in 2018. For the sake of the article, I will put the players in a “progression” or “regression” category in terms of strictly statistical performance, but we’ll talk more in depth about their potential performances as well.

Expected Progression:

Nick Pratto – 1B

Nick Pratto had a very solid rookie season in the Arizona Summer League this year, and may well be the best hitter in the Royals’ system. He flashes quick, strong hands at the plate and showed a ton of promise in his first pro season.

Pratto slashed .247/.330/.414 in his first pro season, adding 4 HR and 10 SB to his season tally. Pratto also showed good plate discipline in Arizona, with a BB% of 10.4%. I expect Pratto’s stats to progress across the board in 2018. Assuming he starts out with the Low-A Lexington Legends, like Khalil Lee did in 2017, I expect Pratto to hit closer to .300 and nearly double his HR tally given a full season’s worth of at bats.

If Pratto can hit around .280 in 2018, maintain his 10.4% BB%, and cut down on his 25.2% K%, Pratto will almost certainly find himself on the MLB Top 100 Prospects list by the end of 2018.

MJ Melendez – C

The Royals 2nd pick in the 2017 MLB Draft may very well be my favorite pick that they’ve made in years. MJ Melendez can flat out play and he actually had a better season, statistically speaking, than Pratto did this year. MJ’s athleticism ought to carry him through the minor leagues somewhat quickly, and I am really excited to watch him grow as a player.

Melendez slashed .262/.374/.417 in 47 games in the Arizona Summer League, adding 4 HR and 4 SB to his tally. His BB% of 13.1% was better even than Pratto’s, but he did strikeout at a rate of 30.3%. Melendez’ bat wore down a tad toward the end of the season, which is somewhat expected from a catcher in his first pro season. That’s a lot of games squatting down behind the plate.

As difficult as it will be for Melendez to improve on his 2017 campaign, I think he’s perfectly capable of it. I think Melendez will find a way to cut down on his K% at Low-A (teamed up with Pratto again) and hit around .270 again. I look for his power numbers to increase just slightly with a full season of at bats, but don’t be surprised if they don’t grow as much as Pratto’s given that Melendez would be catching his first full season of pro ball. If Melendez can maintain that BB%, look for him to jump into MLB’s Top 100 Prospects as well. This kid is a stud.

Khalil Lee – OF

Khalil Lee had a bit of a rough year with the Low-A Lexington Legends. While he flashed some serious potential, he also showed why he hasn’t quite cracked the MLB’s Top 100 yet. Lee has the tools to be an All-Star in the big leagues, but he’ll have to reign them in a little bit in 2018 in order to get back on track as one of KC’s top prospects.

I fully expect Lee to have a bounce back campaign in 2018. Lee saw a fairly significant dip in production at Low-A in 2017, granted he was one of the youngest players in the league and made the jump from rookie ball in 2016. Lee’s batting average decreased by 32 points. His OBP dropped 52 points. His slugging percentage dropped 54 points. His BB% went down, and his K% went up.

This does not change a thing in the way that I view Khalil Lee. A former pitcher, the kid has an absolute cannon for an arm and flashes the ability to play great defense as well as hit for power and steal 20 bases/year.

Having now played a full season of professional baseball, I expect Lee to make some improvements at the plate this offseason. I expect Lee to cut down on his K%, and increase his BB% by at least 1.5% in 2018. I’m not certain where he’ll start out the season in 2018, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Royals front office was forced to make a decision about whether or not to promote Lee to Double-A by the end of the 2018 campaign.

Josh Staumont – SP

Staumont had a bit of an up and down year in 2017. He struggled to find his command through most of the season, but seemed to find a little more success in Double-A with pitching coach Steve Luebber.

I expect Josh Staumont to progress a bit in 2018. His career best BB/9 6.29, which came in his time with the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals this season. A BB/9 rate of 6.29 is really, really not good. Much less for a career best. If Staumont has any hope of surviving as a starter, he’s going to have to cut down on his walk rate in the first half of 2018 or he may very well be headed to a permanent spot in the bullpen.

Staumont may have the best stuff of any pitcher in the Royals’ system. His curveball rates as the best in the organization and his fastball is capable of reaching the upper-90’s. I don’t expect Staumont to get his BB/9 down to Foster Griffin’s impressive 2.92 level, but he at least needs to get it down in the 4’s in 2018 if I’m going to buy in on him as a starter long-term.

And I think he will do just that. The Royals have moved on from pitching coach Dave Eiland which leaves some room for organizational advancement for Steve Luebber. I think the Royals will promote Luebber to AAA Omaha so that he can spend another full season with the Royals top starting pitching prospects: Staumont and Griffin. Given a full season to work with Steve Luebber at AAA, I think Staumont gets that BB/9 down to a respectable level and survives for at least one more season as a starter.

Gabriel Cancel – 2B

A 7th round pick back in 2015, Cancel exploded onto the prospect scene in 2016 hitting .291 with 5 HR in 46 games with the rookie league Burlington Royals. For comparison, one of KC’s most highly touted prospects, Seuly Matias, only hit .243 with 7 HR this season with Burlington in 57 games (granted Matias was injured for part of the season, and was a year younger than Cancel, but you get the point).

Cancel didn’t slow down in 2017, hitting .277 with 14 HR with the Low-A Lexington Legends as a 20-year old. I don’t expect him to slow down anytime soon, either. I think Cancel is set to have a monster season with the High-A Wilmington Blue Rocks in 2018, where he will be just 21 for the entire season.

What may be most impressive about Cancel is how well he progressed as the season went on. Cancel’s best two months were the final two months of the season, in which he hit .322 with 7 HR across July and August.

I didn’t know much about Cancel before he burst onto the scene in 2016, but every Royals fan should know about him now. I don’t think there’s any reason that Cancel can’t wind up with Double-A Northwest Arkansas by the end of 2018 if he continues this torrid pace. In any case, don’t be surprised if Cancel has a monster 2018 campaign in Wilmington.

Here’s Cancel hitting a mammoth HR.

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Seuly Matias – OF

Seuly Matias has some of the best hands that I have ever seen on an 19-year old hitter. I mean, watch him get his hands through the hitting zone in this gif.

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This kid is going to hit for some serious power. He gets massive drive out of his hips and then his hands explode through the zone at an elite level. That’s nuts for a kid who just turned 19.

Matias has never been much of a walker, but he has improved his K% at every level since debuting 2016. A reduced K% is a key in identifying a prospect as he progresses, and Matias has been excellent in that category.

Matias has never hit above .250 in any season, but he’s never had much of a favorable BABIP either. That should change as he gets bigger and stronger and starts to make hard contact more consistently.

I imagine Matias will be on the same development path as Khalil Lee, and will start out in Low-A in 2018. If Matias can prove to the Royals front office that he’s too advanced for Low-A in the first half of 2018 (even though he’ll surely be among the youngest players in the league), don’t be surprised if he finds himself in Wilmington before the end of the season. This kid can mash.

Donnie Dewees Jr. – OF

I am not entirely sure what I think of Dewees. On one hand, he’s increased his BB% and OBP from A-ball. He also decreased his K%, but it’s still entirely too high for a guy who projects to be a leadoff type hitter. He just played his first full season at Double-A, but he’s also already 24 years old.

There’s a lot to like about Dewees. The Royals appear to have fleeced the Cubs when they traded RHP Alec Mills for the former 47th overall pick. But I also just expect him to hit just a bit better given his incredible speed and potential hit tool.

I expect to Dewees to be a bit better with Triple-A Omaha in 2018. The Royals felt comfortable enough with Dewees last offseason to let him start out in Double-A, despite only having 149 career at bats in High-A. I expect the Royals to be just as confident with him next spring and start him out as the CF in Omaha to begin the year.

I saw Dewees play this August, and he reminded me a bit of Billy Burns in CF. There was a ball hit to the gap that I thought was a sure-fire double, maybe even a triple. When I looked down, Dewees was camped underneath it. He flashes signs of offensive and defensive excellence, but also shows why the Cubs may have been willing to move on from him.

If Dewees can continue to work on cutting down that K%, and walk just a bit more, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he slashes .300/.380/.410 with Triple-A Omaha in 2018 and forces his way into a September call-up.

Samir Duenez – 1B

We had Samir Duenez ranked as the Royals 11th best prospect when we released our rankings earlier this summer. Personally, I think Duenez has the tool belt to be a top 7/8 prospect in this organization. His swing is so clean and compact yet so very powerful at the same time. He flashes brilliant gap-to-gap power with the ability to hit the ball out of the park as well.

Duenez slashed .252/.304/.402 with 17 HRs this year at Double-A, and he didn’t turn 21 until June 11 (!!!!!!!!). For reference, Eric Hosmer hit 20 HR in his age 20 season across High-A and Double-A. So, in Duenez’ favor, he actually started out at a higher level than Hosmer did entering their age 20 season.

Samir Duenez is not Eric Hosmer by any stretch of the imagination, but his power numbers are there, and up until this season Duenez flashed an excellent ability to get on base as well. The reason that I believe Duenez is in for some progression is that I think he’s better than his 20.5% K%. When I saw Duenez in August, he showed signs great plate discipline, as well as some serious pitch identification issues. If he can reign in the strike zone just a bit, I think Duenez is putting up some monster numbers in the Texas League.

Duenez will more than likely start the year in Northwest Arkansas again, due to a bit of a logjam at first base with Ryan O’Hearn and Frank Schwindel at Omaha, but don’t be surprised if Duenez forces Dayton Moore’s hand and gets promoted by the All-Star Break. Duenez has much more promise than O’Hearn and Schwindel, and the Royals won’t be able to justify blocking his development path for much longer.

Expected Regression:

Michael Gigliotti – OF

Michael Gigliotti will get a vote from me to be a Top 10 Royals prospect when our rankings come out this offseason. I loved the pick at the time and loved it even more as he made a fool of professional pitching. Gigliotti slashed a ridiculous .329/.442/.447 in 42 games with the Burlington Royals, and proved to be much too advanced for the rookie level.

He was promptly promoted to Low-A where he slashed .302/.378/.419, a very impressive line. The problem was that Gigliotti’s BB% was cut in half during his time at Lexington, and his K% nearly doubled.

I expect Gigliotti to be given the opportunity to start out with High-A Wilmington if he has a strong spring, and I simply don’t think a combined .320/.420/.456 slash line is an attainable goal long-term.

With that being said, that does not mean that he can’t develop as a prospect despite regressing stats. Gigliotti projects as a big league leadoff hitter. Leadoff hitters need to have a good K:BB ratio. Gigliotti had a fantastic K:BB ratio in Burlington, and then had some massive regression in Lexington. I don’t expect Gigliotti to walk 17% of the time next year, but if he can get his BB% back into the double digits, and keep that K% under 8%, I’ll consider it a successful season for the Royals future CF.

Frank Schwindel – 1B

Frank “The Tank” Schwindel had some Royals fans going absolutely bonkers in 2017. The Royals MiLB Player of the Year hit a massive .329 with 23 HR across Double and Triple-A in 2017, catching plenty of people’s attention.

The problem is that the peripherals are completely AWOL on Schwindel. Patrick wrote a great article explaining why Schwindel won’t be cracking any Royals Top 30 lists anytime soon, which you can read to better understand his situation.

To put it simply, Schwindel benefitted greatly from a right-handed hitters paradise in Omaha, and doesn’t walk…at all. His BB% was 2.5% during his time with Omaha, which does not bode well for a player trying to get to the major leagues. MLB pitchers would have a field day with Schwindel, having him chase sliders out of the zone and what ever else they threw up there. It’s hard to ignore the season that Schwindel had in 2017, but it is simply unsustainable moving forward. Add to that the fact that Schwindel is already 25 years old and you get a recipe for almost guaranteed regression.

Travis Jones – OF

I wrote an article earlier this summer in which I discussed the Royals odd luck with 29th round draft picks. Travis Jones certainly fit that bill as he slashed .364/.445/.541 and stole 24 bases across three levels. Jones’ draft stock fell after a bit of a rough year at the University of Texas, but he proved to everyone that he certainly was undervalued during the 2017 MLB Draft.

It will not only be fairly impossible for Travis to hit .364 again, but I worry about the amount of regression that we’ll see from Jones in 2018. He was propped up a bit by a ridiculous BABIP, and may have just been too advanced for the rookie level right out of college.

Jones is certainly a great athlete who is capable of sustaining success in the minors, but I don’t think there is any chance that he is able to duplicate his 2017 performance in A-ball in 2018.

Richard Lovelady – RP

Before you rip my head off, relax and read the rest of what I have to say.

Richard Lovelady flat out dominated everyone who stepped into the batters box in 2017. His combined 0.95 WHIP and .192 BAA across High-A and Double-A had fans of KC drooling at the mouth and even calling for him to debut in September. The Royals never did call him up, but the reason that Lovelady finds himself in the “regression” column is actually a bit of a compliment.

I think that if Richard Lovelady has a good spring, he ought to break camp with the big league club. The Royals could use some electricity in their bullpen and that’s exactly what Lovelady can provide. The problem is though, that there’s a very small chance that Lovelady can dominate major league hitters like that should he get the opportunity in 2018. If he somehow did, the Royals would have one of the best relievers in all of baseball on their hands. In any case, I expect Lovelady to continue developing his slider and fastball command, and I think he may have played himself out of statistical progression next season.

Nick Dini – C

Nick Dini is a bit of a weird case as a minor league catcher. He has hit at every level he’s been in. Since he debuted in 2015, the worst season batting average that he’s posted is .302 (2017). The worst OBP he’s posted any given season is .364 (also 2017). This sounds like exactly what you’d be looking for in the 14th round of the draft: a catcher who can hit.

The problem with Nick Dini is that his ability to get on base is about where the positives end for him. He’s a very average to below average catcher (6 errors in 58 games behind the plate at Double-A). He doesn’t hit for hardly any power (.403 SLG% with NWA). His career high for home runs in a season is 4. He does run a bit, as he stole 10 bases with Northwest Arkansas this year, but catchers legs tend to ware on them over the course of a season which doesn’t bode well for any catcher’s base running.

The point is, Dini probably doesn’t do enough things well to ever become a starter at the major league level. Dini’s ability to get on base could land him in a backup role similar to Drew Butera someday, but most teams prefer that their backup catcher be defensive minded, so Dini will have to improve behind the plate to continue to moving through the system.

Dini may very well continue to hit across Double and Triple-A next season, but I think his value will continue to regress unless he starts getting significantly better behind the plate. Already 24 years old, Dini is running out of time to show he can play with the big league club someday.

Gerson Garabito – SP

Garabito made a name for himself by jumping onto the prospect scene in 2017. Spending most of the year as a 21-year old with the Low-A Lexington Legends, Garabito found a ton of success in his 5th professional season. One may argue that he actually found a little bit of luck mixed in with his success.

Garabito is an interesting pitcher. He has never thrown as many as 81 innings in any season, and he somehow got significantly better by advancing leagues. You could point to the fact that his K:BB ratio was nearly 4:1, but he’s always been good about being in the zone.

One thing that concerns me about Garabito heading into next season is his ridiculously low BABIP. He seemed to have a ton of success letting hitters put the ball in play which typically doesn’t bode well for guys who don’t get a ton of K’s. I’m not saying that Garabito CAN’T continue this success, but to expect him to improve on his 2017 campaign in 2018 would simply be unfair, unless he can somehow put together a full season for the first time in his professional career.

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