2019 Season Preview: Omaha Storm Chasers (AAA)

The Omaha Storm Chasers are always a fun team to watch.  Not just do you get to see the team but also players that are very close to the Major League level or who are rehabbing injuries on their way back to the Royals.  Last year Omaha saw at least 13 MLB players rehabbing from the Royals and other MLB teams including Kris Bryant of the Cubs and Clay Buchholz who made a two game stop before being released and signed by the Arizona Diamondbacks.  We saw 40 players on the roster who had been in the major leagues during or before 2018 including at least eight players who made their MLB debut in 2018.  11 players on the roster are on the Royals 40 man and at least six are on various top 30 prospect lists including Royals Farm Reports.

As reported by Royals Farm Report here is the probable Opening Day roster for the Omaha Storm Chasers will consist of:

Catchers: Nick Dini, Xavier Fernandez

Infield: Humberto Arteaga, Cheslor Cuthbert, Jecksson Flores, Kelvin Gutierrez, Nicky Lopez, Erick Mejia, Corey Toups

Outfield: Jorge Bonifacio, Elier Hernandez, Brett Phillips, Bubba Starling

Pitchers: Scott Blewett, Jonathan Dziedzic, Heath Fillmyer, Foster Griffin, Arnaldo Hernandez, Kevin Lenik, Ben Lively, Richard Lovelady, Zach Lovvorn, Andres Machado, Glenn Sparkman, Josh Staumont, Michael Ynoa

The roster is a little bloated so it will be just a tad different when the AAA season actually opens with the Storm Chasers in Memphis on Thursday April 4, 2019.  There are quite a few things to be excited about with the guys on this roster.  Most notably there are at least seven players with MLB experience just last season and quite a few of them had Major League Spring Training as non-roster invites this year.

Catchers:

The catching duties will be shared by Xavier Fernandez and Nick Dini, both of whom finished the 2018 season in AA Northwest Arkansas.  Nick Dini was in Omaha for most of the fist month of the 2018 season while Salvador Perez was recovering from injuries.  In a small sample size he had a much better time in AAA (.333/.350/.667 in 14 games) than then rest of the season he spent in AA (.239/.287/.361 in 80 games).  While Royals Farm Report 35th ranked prospect Fernandez began 2018 with High-A Wilmington Blue Rocks (.252/.292/.393 in 36 games) before getting a promotion to AA NWA and tearing it up (.328/.382/.504) in 36 games to finish off the season.  He threw out 41.4% of runners in the Texas League during his time there and was left unprotected in the 2018 Rule 5 draft.  He is ok defensively but shines with the bat.  I would expect  Fernandez to get most of the catching duties this season with Dini being his back up.  The Royals have three catchers on the 40 man with MLB experience (Maldonado, Gallagher, Viloria) however Fernandez may get the call over Viloria if anything happens to the two MLB guys.

Infield:

First base will be interesting to begin the season as the Storm Chasers do not really have a full time first baseman on the roster.  Ryan O’Hearn and Frank Schwindel are bot in Kansas City along with Lucas Duda.  Chelsor Cuthbert has 20 games experience at first base between the minors and MLB which leads the roster in experience.  They may also see the return of Frank Schwindel or Ryan O’Hearn as players begin to come of the DL and return to the Royals 25 man roster.

Second and third base will be a bit crowded with Humberto Arteaga and Jecksson Flores having had playing time at both positions in 2018 while Erick Mejia having played second and Kelvin Gutierrez playing mainly third base.  Out of all the position players on the roster Arteaga is the most likely to get a call up to the majors and will see more playing time than the others.  He has had a great spring training each of the last two years and had a great season with the bat in 2018 with a slash line of .292/.322/.386.  If he keeps it up and the Royals trade Owings in June or July then he could be the back up infielder in Kansas City.  Flores spent all of 2018 in AA NWA slashing .314/.363/.440 while spending 44 games at second, 40 games at third and 22 at short.  Mejia spent a full 2018 season in AA NWA slashing .263/.318/.367 while spending 63 games at second and 59 at short. Kelvin Gutierrez spent the 2018 season in AA split between the Harrisburg Senators  and NWA coming to the Royals organization in the Kelvin Herrera trade.  He slashed .275/.329/.400 between the two while spending 118 games at third and three games at short.

While any of the above guys could play SS, Nicky Lopez will be the everyday SS with one of them giving him a day off now and then.  By most measurements Nicky is Major League ready however Nicky Lopez will not be playing in KC as a back up player.  The Royals have no plans and are in no hurry to move him to KC.  Lopez does not need to be put on the 40-man until after the 2019 season is over although I see him getting a September call up. There may be a chance he gets a call up sooner if Merrifield or Mondesi get injured but until then if you get the chance to take in an Omaha Storm Chasers game go and watch Nicky Lopez.

Editor’s Note: * The only caveat to this would be if the Royals decide to play Lopez at 2B every day to begin preparing him for his role in Kansas City. Lopez has predominantly been a SS throughout his career, and a good one at that, but SS is firmly locked up for the foreseeable future in KC. Lopez figures to get time at both SS and 2B, potentially splitting up the time with Jecksson Flores. *

Outfield:

The outfield will be fun to watch with all three players Brett Phillips, Jorge Bonifacio, and Bubba Starling all potentially seeing Major League time this season.  Phillips and Bonifacio both saw quite a bit of time with the Royals last year and will be a big part of the Royals outfield in the few seasons.  We all know Bubba Starlings story, and as long as he stays healthy he could make his long awaited debut sometime this year.  Until then this will be your starting outfield for the Storm Chasers. Elier Hernandez will be around to back them up.

Starting Pitching:

The starting rotation will probably consist of Scott Blewett, Jonathan Dziedzic, Heath Fillmyer, Foster Griffin, Arnaldo Hernandez. 

Fillmyer made his MLB debut in 2018 going 4-2 with a 4.26 ERA over 17 games including 13 starts and was competing for the fifth starter spot during Spring Training.  He could be one of the first players called up if their are problems with the starting rotation in Kansas City even with Danny Duffy and Brian Flynn slated to come off the Injured List soon.  Blewett tore up the Arizona Fall League in 2018 with a 2.49 ERA  and struck out 21 hitters in 25 1⁄3 innings with eight walks earning a AFL Player of the Week.  Also in the AFL was Arnaldo Hernandez who led the league in ERA at 1.10 but had an unimpressive eight walks and nine strikeouts in 16 1⁄3 innings. For Jonathan Dziedzic this will be his fifth season through AAA.  Injuries limited him to 25 games last year and nine games in 2017. Foster Griffin spent 2018 in AA NWA going 10-12 with a 5.13 ERA in 28 games including 26 starts.  He will be seeing AAA for the first time.

Bullpen:

Kevin Lenik, Ben Lively, Richard Lovelady, Zach Lovvorn, Andres Machado, Glenn Sparkman, Josh Staumont, Michael Ynoa.

Lively, Machado, Sparkman and Ynoa have all been in the Majors over the last couple seasons but all eyes are on Richard Lovelady, Josh Staumont and Michael Ynoa who could see Major League time this year.  We all know and love Richard Lovelady who was lights out in his first run through AAA in 2018 going 3-3 with a 2.47 ERA in 46 games for the Storm Chasers.  Staumont continues to have control problems but lowered his total walks by nearly 50% from 2017.  He pitched 74.1 innings with 103 strike outs and 52 walks on his way to a 2-5 record with a 3.51 ERA in his 41 games, including five starts.  Ynoa signed a minor league deal with the Royals in November and made a good case to get the final roster spot that ended up going to Chris Ellis.  Ynoa did not play in 2018 but has appeared in 45 games with the Chicago White Sox in 2016 and 2017 going 2-0 with a 4.42 ERA.  Lenik took a step back with his command walking 25 batters ending the season 0-2 with a 4.93 ERA in 34 games.  After making his MLB debut in 2017 Machado’s 2018 was a near disaster 2-7 record with 5.53 ERA in 37 games including 12 starts.  He began the season with Omaha and was quickly demoted back to AA.  Sparkman made stops in AA, AAA and MLB in 2018.  In the minors he finished with an 8-3 record with an 3.65 ERA in 18 Starts.  He did not fare as well in MLB finishing with a 0-3 record and a 4.46 ERA in 15 games including 3 starts. Lively was claimed off waivers from the Phillies in 2018 compiling a record of 0-3  with a 4.46 ERA in 15 games including three starts between the two teams.  He did do much better on his three minor league stops with a combined record of 3-2 with a 2.25 ERA over 14 games including 9 starts.

Photo Credits: Ken Inness – MiLB.com

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