Every season a handful of prospects within a system put together breakout performances that force fans and commentators to sit up, take notice, and start dreaming dreams that will some day be crushed. It’s a circle of life type thing.
In 2018, Daniel Lynch, Seuly Matias, and Nicky Lopez were among the group of Royals prospects who planted their names squarely in the minds of those waiting for the next competitive Royals team.
So, who’s it gonna be this season? I have some thoughts.
Nick Heath (24 years old, CF)
Heath turned heads in the Arizona Fall League this year, and his ability to make hard contact coupled with his elite speed give hope to those already looking for the heir apparent to Billy Hamilton.
The key for Heath will be his strikeout rate. At just over 27 percent across A+ and AA last season, Heath struck out far too often for a speed merchant. He needs that number to be no higher than 20 percent or he’ll need insane BABIP numbers to remain offensively viable. He has higher than typical BABIP numbers because he hits the ball hard and has speed, but he won’t be able to sustain BABIP numbers above .350 in AAA and the majors.
Fortunately, Heath showed some signs of adjusting in the AFL where his strikeout rate (in a small sample size of 21 games and 77 at bats) was down to roughly 22 percent. Consequently, he put up a slash line of .338/.427/.442. If he puts the ball in play in 2019, we may see him roaming center field in Kansas City some time soon.
Nick Pratto (20 years old, 1B)
Pratto’s a big-name prospect, but it seems like commentators and the Royals faithful soured on him a little over the course of last season. Pratto struggled for the first three-quarters of the year as he experimented with his approach to get more aggressive and tap into his power.
The results were ugly. It was hard to watch at times. From opening day to July 15, Pratto hit .248/.297/.361 with a 6.5 percent walk rate and a 29.5 percent strikeout rate. Pratto was trying to trade patience for power but ended up with neither. His ISO was an unimpressive .113.
This rough stretch caused Pratto to slip in prospect rankings, but what he did in the last quarter of the season is what Royals fans should focus on. When Pratto went back to his patient approach at the plate, he caught fire. From July 16 to September 3, Pratto hit .348/.429/.614 with a 12 percent walk rate and 25 percent strikeout rate. His ISO more than doubled to .266. His strikeout rate is still a little higher than ideal, but from watching the games, it was clear that Pratto found a happy medium between being disciplined and letting it rip when useful. He hit 17 doubles, two triples, and seven home runs during that stretch and carried Lexington to a Sally League championship.
Hitting for power will be tougher for Pratto in Wilmington because it’s such a big park. But if he keeps the approach he had during the last two months in Lexington, he’ll have a big 2019.
Austin Cox (21 years old, LHP)
The top three pitchers from the 2018 draft class get plenty of press, but Cox is worth some serious attention too. He was a favorite of the RFR team after being drafted in the fifth round out of Mercer last year. He was assigned to Burlington and because Burlington doesn’t receive as much attention as Lexington or even Idaho Falls, Cox sort of fell off the radar a little.
But in 33.1 innings across nine starts at Burlington, he put up some eye popping numbers, like a 13.77 K/9 rate and a 2.76 FIP. He ran into some bad fortune, as well, with a BABIP of .373, which will revert to the mean. His primary goal moving forward should be developing his changeup and sharpening his command.
I hope Cox is assigned to Lexington where he’ll be challenged more and receive a little more attention. Don’t be surprised if he works his way to Wilmington with the big three either.
Tyler James (22 years old, 2B/CF)
I’m a sucker for little, fast guys, and James is basically Nick Heath two years younger. He’ll probably start 2019, his age 22 season, in Lexington after hitting .312/.409/.402 last season at Idaho Falls in 2018. What’s really fun about James, though, is his blazing speed. He stole 38 bases in 47 games last season (caught eight times). Recently, he was named the Royals’ fastest prospect by the team at MLB.com
But unlike Terrance Gore, James has the frame and strength to potentially hit the ball as he moves up (Gore always lacked the strength necessary to hit in any significant way). James is 5’10”, 165 pounds. He hit a couple of home runs last year. If he can keep his strikeout numbers down (much like Heath) and keep stealing bases, he might start to look like the next Jarrod Dyson.
Kelvin Gutierrez (24 years old, 3B)
I’ve written about Gutierrez in the past, and his late-season turn around in 2018 is reason to hope that 2019 might be the year he finds his power and puts it all together.
After the Royals traded for Gutierrez, he struggled with the same issues he had in the Nationals’ organization. He played solid defense but couldn’t find any power at the plate. His swing was a line drive swing, and he didn’t make enough contact or run well enough to be that kind of hitter. From opening day to July 17, he hit a paltry .259/.304/.372 in AA.
Around that time, word started circulating that Gutierrez was adjusting his swing in an attempt to add more loft, and he started hitting. After July 17, Gutierrez hit .307/.376/.454 with a 9.4 percent walk rate and a 17.1 percent strikeout rate (both improvements). His power numbers were up; his on-base numbers were up. After his adjustment, Gutierrez started hitting like the legitimate prospect he is.
It will be interesting to see if Gutierrez can continue his ability to hit for power in 2019. It’s his age 24 season, and many are hoping he can pressure Hunter Dozier at third base.
We’ll see. I’m ready for baseball.
Photo Credit: Milb.com, Justin Gallanty