Owning probably the best rotation in the Royals minor league system, there are an array of players to watch for the AA affiliate.
Team, Level: Northwest Arkansas Naturals, AA
Ballpark: Arvest Ballpark
2017 Record: 67-73
Manager: Mike Rojas
Because of the way the schedule works in the Texas League, the Naturals will play a division heavy schedule. This means most of their games will be players against the Springfield Cardinals, Tulsa Drillers, and Arkansas Travelers. Those teams would be affiliates the Cardinals, Dodgers, and Mariners. They will make two trips to San Antonio, Midland, Corpus Christi, and San Antonio during the 2018 season, one during each half of the season. In turn, each team will make two trips to Arvest Ballpark, one during each half of the season. So if you want to see those Astros or Padres prospects like Kyle Tucker or Fernando Tatis, you better go opening week because they won’t be back in town until late June or early July and that is usually after the first round of promotions. And you better not miss the A’s and Rangers prospects because they won’t be back until after the trading deadline and you never know what could happen at that point. The Texas League features an All Star Game between the North Division and the South Division each year. This year it is being held on June 26th in Midland, Texas.
Let’s start with the coaching staff for the Naturals. Mike Rojas is the new man in charge for 2018. Former manager Vance Wilson accepted the promotion to be the bullpen coach in Kansas City. Rojas is the son of Cookie Rojas, Royals Hall of Fame member. Rojas will be joined by pitching coach Steve Luebber who will begin his third year with the Naturals and Leon Roberts will be the hitting coach after joining the staff last year.
The Naturals rotation will be a pretty solid group of guys. Foster Griffin (#6 Royals Farm Report prospect), Scott Blewett (#14), Zach Lovvorn (#41), Glenn Sparkman (#57), and Emilio Ogando (#73) will be the rotation. Corey Ray (#62) and Jake Kalish (#90) have a chance to get some starts throughout the year as well. The talent in this group is pretty high. I really like Blewett and think he will have a breakout year. Foster Griffin pitched for the Royals in the Futures Game last year and broke out and will probably be in Springdale for a short time. Sparkman has already spent some time in the majors with the Blue Jays in 2017 and should be able to get there with the Royals at some point as well. Ogando made 23 starts at NWA last year and has had some success. Corey Ray has a low to mid 90s arm with a big 12-6 curve and we’ve theorized for some time that he is more suited for the bullpen because I think his stuff should play up. This group should give Rojas and Luebber some good starts and eat a lot of innings.
That leaves the bullpen as Ray and Kalish as the swing guys, Jason Adam, Jacob Bodner (70), Pedro Fernandez (50), Yunior Marte (38), Jake Newberry (69), Sam Selman, and Franco Terrero. Adam was a solid prospect coming through the system before being moved to Minnesota in the trade for Josh Willingham. But Adam has dealt with elbow issues and hopes to regain the status he had before the injury. Bodner spent time in the Arizona Fall League last year for the Royals and Fernandez will repeat AA after a solid 2017. Marte struggled with his control a little last year and will look for a bounce back season. Newberry has a solid arm and is a potential big league bullpen piece as he continues to pitch and get better. Selman will be back at NWA after struggling with his control in Omaha. He probably won’t spend much time in NWA if he shows he can get ahead and stay ahead of hitters this spring. Terrero had a really good season at Wilmington last year and should be a good addition to the NWA bullpen.
Nathan Esposito and Luis Villegas are the two catchers on the roster. Chances are that one of them will go back to Wilmington when Salvador Perez comes off the DL and the Royals send Cam Gallagher back to Omaha which in turn will probably send Nick Dini back to NWA. Of course, last year Dini was an injury fill in who just took advantage of his opportunity and never looked back so who knows what will happen. Esposito is a defensive first catcher while Villegas has been in the minors since 2010.
The infield will be made up of John Brontsema (56), Samir Duenez (20), Jecksson Flores, Alex Liddi, Nicky Lopez (8), Erick Mejia (39), and Corey Toups (66). Duenez and Lopez are the headliners of this group. Lopez had a tremendous Arizona Fall League in the offseason, which garnered him some attention and Duenez is currently on the Royals 40-man roster. Mejia was a piece acquired in the Joakim Soria/Scott Alexander trade. He had a great spring training with the big league club before being reassigned to NWA. We are guessing that Lopez and Mejia will be the starters at second and short. Lopez will get the nod at SS on opening night but could get some time at second as the season progresses as well. Toups started last year as a Natural before a promotion but a slow period with his bat has him back at Northwest Arkansas. He will likely spend time at third base although he can play short and second. Brontsema is a 2016 draft pick who has moved through the system quickly. He will probably be a backup infielder with this group. Flores has moved one level at a time for the last three years and this year is seems like it will be no different. Flores has some speed and is a solid defender in the middle of the field. Liddi is the only Italian born player to have made it to the major leagues when he did that in 2011 as a Mariner. Liddi is a depth piece and could move up if an opportunity presents itself and he hits.
The outfield will be made up of Donnie Dewees (7), Brandon Downes (86), Alfredo Escalara, Elier Hernandez (25), and Anderson Miller (45). Dewees is the headliner of this group and probably the best player. Hernandez was a big international signing for KC several years ago but has battled injuries recently. Hernandez participated in the Arizona Fall League this last year as well. Downes will make his debut at NWA after spending time at Wilmington the past two years and a little time in Omaha as a fill in. Downes has some power and speed that should play well in the big outfield at Arvest Park. Escalara and Miller both spent time in Springdale last year. Miller is a solid all around player and could be poised for a breakout this year. Escalara had a decent season last year and needs to continue to hit to move his way forward after spending the entire last year with NWA.
The strength of this team should be their pitching staff. The starting rotation is very good and the bullpen as a lot of high potential guys. The infield is built more on defense but has some guys that have swung it well recently and should continue down that path. The outfield is built more around speed and defense, but it does have some power potential. This isn’t the team that was built around Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Clint Robinson, but should still be competitive in a good Texas League. Look for the Naturals to contend in the first half of the Texas League before a wave of promotions after the All Star game. This team should win a lot of games early and be a lot of fun to watch.
Photo Credits: John Owen—MiLB.com