Leading up to the 2014 and 2015 World Series runs, the Royals faithful heard a lot about “the process.” It was a way of explaining the slow timeline of a rebuild and eventually, like all things on the Internet, became a joke, a way to poke fun at some of the team’s head scratching decisions.
But, really, the process of a rebuild is an identifiable thing. It’s easy to see what it entails. Through drafting, international signings, and trades, teams accumulate and developed talent, moving players through the farm system and positioning them to help the team during their competitive window. That’s really all “the process” is; it’s all any team’s process is. Rebuilding a baseball team isn’t rocket science.
Ideally, as part of a rebuild, the farm system should begin to exhibit signs that the future could hold more success. One fairly benign example is recognition from the public scouting community. In a recent podcast from Baseball America, Kyle Glazer and Carlos Collazo noted that teams who hold their top organization ranking have a track record of making the playoffs within two or three years, including the Royals of 2011.
But there are other signs, as well, ones I consider more important than media rankings. So, here are a few things I’d like to see from the farm system in 2019 to show me this rebuild is headed in the right direction.
Some of the elite prospects make it to AA
The foundation of this rebuild will probably start the 2019 season at A+ Wilmington. It’s a notoriously tough place for hitters and a notoriously advantageous place for pitchers. The Royals organization likes to move their hitters through Wilmington fairly quickly rather than have them languish, adjust their swing or approach to hit home runs, fall apart, and lose confidence.
The Royals also like to be patient with young prospects like the group of 19 and 20 year-olds they’re banking on (Seuly Matias, Nick Pratto, MJ Melendez, Yefri del Rosario), often giving them entire seasons at a level. We’ll see which instinct wins out.
But some of the players starting in Wilmington need to perform well enough to make the jump to AA in 2019, preferably midseason. I’m thinking specifically about the college guys—Kyle Isbel, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Brady Singer, and Brewer Hicklen.
It’s not that moving quickly is good for its own sake; it’s just that if none of these college guys play well enough to get promoted midseason, serious questions will start to surface about the best players in an already average system, especially the newly found pitching depth.
It’s great to try to keep this talented group together, but in reality the college guys should move faster. They’re a couple years older with the experience that entails. And, honestly, I don’t think the fanbase has the patience to wait while the golden trio of Melendez, Pratto, and Matias goes a level per year (or even slower). Some of these guys will have to switch to a faster track and give this fanbase some hope moving forward.
Emergence of fringe players
Virtually all competitive teams, especially small-market teams, have fringe prospects who emerge as valuable pieces. Last time around, the Royals had Jarrod Dyson, Greg Holland, and even Paulo Orlando (who believe it or not was worth 1 bWAR in 251 PA in 2015).
This time around, they’ll need more of the same. Someone like Blake Perkins, Brewer Hicklen, or Rudy Martin will need to fill a reserve outfielder role and be a 2 WAR player.
Someone like DJ Burt, Jecksson Flores, or Jeison Guzman will need to be a reserve infielder who can play multiple defensive positions well, put together professional at bats, and run the bases well.
And a whole host of pitchers will be needed as spot starters and bullpen help. Arnoldo Hernandez, Austin Cox, Grant Gavin, Janser Lara, Carlos Hernandez, the list of pitchers goes on and on, especially in this era where the risk of pitcher injury is so high. The 2015 Royals used 10 different starting pitchers and 21 different relief pitchers throughout the regular season (this includes relief appearances by pitchers who typically started).
It’s really better to think of major league teams as 40-man rosters with 15 of those players in the minors just chilling until they’re needed. Small-market teams like the Royals have to counter balance their lack of big money stars with quality depth. The Royals fourth and fifth starters need to be better than other teams’ fourth and fifth starters. Their fifth, sixth, and seventh guys out of the bullpen need to be better than the other team’s. The 15 guys they have waiting in Omaha need to be better than the 15 guys other teams have waiting in AAA. In 2019 some of these fringe prospects need to emerge as viable, major league pieces.
Continue competing for minor league championships
Last season, the immensely talented Lexington team won the South Atlantic League championship. Winning throughout a system is usually a sign that your system has the depth of talent necessary to eventually compete in the majors.
Obviously, the Wilmington team has a great opportunity to compete for a Carolina League title with basically the entire Lexington group headed there (and probably the addition of Brady Singer, as well). That lineup is going to shove. To think that Rudy Martin and Sebastian Rivero, both very solid prospects, are going to have trouble cracking that lineup is remarkable. And yet, somehow, the rotation will probably be even better. A rotation of Lynch, Kowar, Singer, Carlos Hernandez, and del Rosario doesn’t even seem fair.
The other levels have enough talent to compete, as well. Northwest Arkansas has a nice looking lineup, lead by Khalil Lee, Kelvin Gutierrez, and Nick Heath. Their rotation has some potential, as well, with Scott Blewett, Gerson Garabito, and Daniel Tillo. Plus, the Naturals will almost certainly get a boost from promotions at some point (though they may also lose players to promotion, tough to predict what a minor league team will look like midseason).
It seems like a basic idea, and it kind of is, but having competitive teams at all levels is a signal that the system has depth. A deep system has a higher probability of producing major league talent.
There is also something to be said for cultivating winners. I often think people put too much stock into the value of having prospects win in the minors, but all things being equal, it’s better to have players winning in the minors than losing. Plenty was made of the last wave of Royals prospects winning throughout the minors before winning back-to-back pennants in 2014 and 2015.
Hit on this number two pick
This is crucial. The Royals’ inability to capitalize on first round picks, especially high first round picks, put them in the position they’re in right now. They must get an impact player with this pick, and it’d be great if they could get a real prospect with their second round pick, as well.
As we saw in 2013, 2014, and 2015, winning a championship is like knocking over a Coke machine, you can’t do it in one push. You’ve got to rock it back and forth a few times and then it goes over. To knock over that Coke machine, they need to take advantage of this opportunity to get premium talent. At number two, they’ll have a chance to draft a true difference maker. If it’s a prep player (like Bobby Witt Jr.), he may reach Kansas City a year or two after Melendez and Pratto, but he may also be the final push. If it’s a college player (like Adley Rutschman or Andrew Vaughn), he may hit Kansas City right alongside the Wilmington wave.
If they miss at number two, the Royals may still be able to compete with the group they’ve already got. They’ll still bring in international talent (like Erick Pena), and they’ll probably find some talent later in the draft. But it’s hard to compete if you’re constantly missing your opportunities to draft the best players.
We may not fully understand these signs until the 2019 season is over, but if these things happen, it would signal to me that the process is headed in the right direction.
Photo Credit: Michael M. Stokes