Revisiting the Royals top prospects: RP

It has been a long time since we’ve had real, actual MiLB to watch. When we released our top 50 Royals prospects list last week, I briefly recapped some of the players on our list, but I wanted to go a little further in-depth and remind everyone how our boys were doing on the farm last time there was MiLB: in the fall of 2019. For the next couple of weeks we’ll take a deeper look at the top prospects at each position for KC, including ETA’s, where we project them to start in 2021, where they are currently ranked on our top 50, where we project them to be ranked before the 2022 season, and their stats from the last season in which they played professional baseball.

We’ve gone through the shortstops, catchers, third base, first base, and second base. We’ll get to the starting pitchers and outfielders later this week and into next week, but for now let’s focus on guys we think are probably* relievers at the big league level. For further clarification, guys like Lynch, Lacy, Kowar, Bowlan, Cox, Klein, Morel, Del Rosario, Marsh, Hernandez, etc., that are obviously still contenders to start at the big league level, won’t be present here. Obviously if we think those guys can start in the big leagues we think they can relieve as well. This is just guys that we like that we don’t think are quite big league starters but can be real contributors in the pen, or guys that are already relievers only.

Additionally, instead of ranking these guys in the same order that they appear on our top 50 list, we’ll be ranking them strictly as we see them as relievers. For example, on our top 50 list, Christian Chamberlain was above Jon Heasley on our top 50 because I like Chamberlain’s ability to start long-term more than Heasley’s. However, when strictly talking about the bullpen, I’d rather have Heasley long-term than Chamberlain. So, anyway, here we go.

#1: Daniel Tillo

  • ETA: 2021
  • Begin 2021: AAA Omaha
  • Current ranking: #16
  • Projected ranking in 2022: Graduated
  • 2019 stats (AA): 23.1 IP, 3.47 ERA, 3.62 FIP, 21.4% K%, 11.2% BB%, .39 HR/9

I am so excited for the arrival of Daniel Tillo in the Royals bullpen. It’s impossible to gauge when that might be due to the fact that he had Tommy John Surgery last year, but he is so good when he’s healthy. He throws these 95 mph turbo sinkers in shorter stints out of the bullpen and is going to be a left-handed weapon for Kansas City. He reminds me a little of Scott Alexander, in that he’s a lefty reliever with a good sinker, but his sinker will run higher up on the radar gun and doesn’t quite get as much sink Alexander. Tillo is also a legitimate 6′ 5″ compared to Alexander’s listed 6′ 2″, so there’s more levers to work with there as well. All in all, I think Royals fans will really enjoy watching Tillo in the big league bullpen whenever he is able to debut later this year.

#2: Jon Heasley

  • ETA: 2021
  • Begin 2021: AA Northwest Arkansas
  • Current ranking: #38
  • Projected ranking in 2022: Graduated
  • 2019 stats (Low-A): 112.2 IP, 3.12 ERA, 3.75 FIP, 25.7% K%, 7.3% BB%, .88 HR/9

I am apparently way too low on Jon Heasley and, admittedly, have even begun to realize that as we’re getting into the spring. I’d bet you anything that I’ll regret this by this time next year. I know there’s a lot of folks that think Heasley is going to be a good big league starter (Keith Law has him as the Royals 9th best prospect and I know Clint Scoles really likes him as well), but I think there’s a very real chance that Heasley turns out to be a very good back end reliever in the big leagues. His fastball/curveball combo are excellent. He doesn’t walk a ton of hitters and he’s done a pretty good job of keeping the ball in the yard so far in pro ball. I’m excited to see him get a shot at AA even though I think his 73.6% LOB% is kind of unsustainable, but I’m still excited to find out. Regardless, I think there’s a really good chance that he’s pitching in the big league bullpen this year.

#3: John McMillon

  • ETA: 2022
  • Begin 2021: Low-A Columbia
  • Current ranking: #42
  • Projected ranking in 2022: 30-35
  • 2020 stats (Texas Tech): 9.1 IP, 3.86 ERA, 19.29 K/9, 7.71 BB/9, 0.00 HR/9

John “The Whammer” McMillon was a really good pickup for Kansas City after the draft ended in 2020. His stuff is absolutely incredible despite the lack of control at the moment, and he could sky-rocket through the minors on his way to the big league bullpen. McMillon has no chance to start and may take him a while to iron out the control issues (Josh Staumont style), but when he does figure it out, his stuff is going to be effective no matter the level. Potential 8th inning or closer type.

#4: Evan Steele

  • ETA: 2022
  • Begin 2021: AA Northwest Arkansas
  • Current ranking: #43
  • Projected ranking in 2022: 35-40
  • 2019 stats (Low-A): 49 IP, 2.39 ERA, 2.84 FIP, 28.4% K%, 7.6% BB%, 0.37 HR/9

It’s never been about the ability with Steele. If the kid is healthy, he’s an electric factory on the mound. IF he’s healthy…he most recently had surgery on his throwing shoulder that has been through hell since his days at Chipola College. If he ever reaches the big leagues, he’ll be a serious late-inning weapon for the Royals. He’s just gotta find a way to Kyle Zimmer himself there first.

#5: Angel Zerpa

  • ETA: 2022
  • Begin 2021: High-A Quad Cities
  • Current ranking: #30
  • Projected ranking in 2022: 20-25
  • 2019 stats (Rookie): 51.1 IP, 3.33 ERA, 4.19 FIP, 25.1% K%, 6.4% BB%, 1.05 HR/

I think we were all a little surprised when the Royals chose to add Angel Zerpa to the 40-man roster this offseason in order to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. Zerpa is good. Don’t let anything else I’m about to say distract from the fact that anyone would take a 22-year old LHP of this kid’s caliber. I just don’t think he warranted the roster protection per se and I am really curious as to why the Royals have mentioned him among the likes of Kowar, Bowlan, Lynch, etc. He’s a good prospect. That’s why we have him in the top 30 of our list. I just don’t see it like THAT. The reason that Zerpa is ahead of Heasley and McMillon on our top 50 list is due to his potential to start in the long run, but as a reliever he slots in just behind them. He doesn’t have a huge fastball and there’s little to no deception involved with his delivery, but his pitchability is certainly a lot more advanced than McMillon at the moment. I can see Zerpa getting some starts in the big leagues, but more as a (much better) Brian Flynn type. Swing man that can start in a pinch and still be effective 2-3 innings at a time out of the pen. Hopefully I’m wrong and the Royals are right, because if they have ANOTHER young lefty starter the caliber of their 2018 draft class, goodness gracious they are beyond loaded.

#6: Ismael Aquino

  • ETA: 2024
  • Begin 2021: Low-A Columbia
  • Current ranking: #41
  • Projected ranking in 2022: 25-30
  • 2019 stats (Rookie): 28.2 IP, 7.22 ERA, 4.90 FIP, 25% K%, 13.2% BB%, .63 HR/9

Ismael Aquino, the pitcher the Royals acquired from Oakland for Jake Diekman, is a big kid with a bigger arm who is still very raw as a pitcher. He flashes upper-90’s with consistency on the radar gun, and shows promise of a good changeup, but it’s been a while since we’ve seen him in live action. If he can learn to throw strikes with any kind of consistency, he’s got the type of stuff that will play at any level.

#7: Christian Chamberlain

  • ETA: 2023
  • Begin 2021: Low-A Columbia
  • Current ranking: #34
  • Projected ranking in 2022: 25-30
  • 2020 stats (Oregon State): 22 IP, 0.82 ERA, 13.91 K/9, 4.50 BB/9, 0.00 HR/9

Chamberlain was a reliever for much of his first two years at Oregon State and excelled in that role. He finally got a chance to prove that he could start in 2020 and was dominant in his first 4 outings before the season was cancelled. I think Chamberlain will get every opportunity to start in the minors, but he’s a guy, much like Angel Zerpa, whose stuff I could see playing up in a shorter, Brian Flynn type of role. He has the type of deception in his delivery that you just can’t teach or hardly explain. His fastball only sits 91-93, though he can touch 95 mph in shorter stints, but he still is able to blow it by guys with incredible offspeed stuff that he sequences well. I can’t wait to see what this kid can do in the professional ranks.

#8: Grant Gavin

  • ETA: 2021
  • Begin 2021: AAA Omaha
  • Current ranking: HR
  • Projected ranking in 2022: #40-UR
  • 2019 stats (AA): 52.1 IP, 3.61 ERA, 4.04 FIP, 31.6% K%, 10.8% BB%, 1.03 HR/9

There were only 4 pitches in the Texas League back in 2019 with a higher K% than Gavin’s mark of 31.6% (min. 50 IP), and only one of those guys is a full year younger than Gavin (Houston’s Cristian Javier). Gavin still walks a few too many hitters, but he ranked 7th in the TXL in SwStr% as well, and there aren’t many arms in the system better at missing bats. He’s purely a reliever at this point, and he probably won’t find himself in a closing role for any reason in the big leagues, but he’s certainly got the stuff necessary to make it as a Jake Newberry type of guy pitching meaningful innings in the 6th or 7th inning of games for a big league club. If he can reign it in and throw a few more strikes, I could see him contributing in the big league bullpen as early as 2021 for Kansas City if they needed it.

#9: Grant Gambrell

  • ETA: 2023
  • Begin 2021: Low-A Columbia
  • Current ranking: #45
  • Projected ranking in 2022: #35-45
  • 2019 stats (Rookie): 27 IP, 6.67 ERA, 5.83 FIP, 21.2% K%, 8.3% BB%, 1.67 HR/9

It’s been a while since I’ve seen or heard much about Gambrell, but I’m assuming his curveball is still as nasty as it used to be. Gambrell has an off chance to start if he can continue to develop his changeup, but I kind of think he’ll be a really good reliever in the long run if he can add a couple ticks to his fastball. He should get his first shot at full season ball in May when the lower levels of the minors get going for the 2021 season.

#10: Jake Brentz

  • ETA: 2021
  • Begin 2021: AAA Omaha
  • Current ranking: UR
  • Projected ranking in 2022: UR
  • 2019 stats (AAA): 35.2 IP, 5.55 ERA, 4.89 FIP, 24.4% K%, 13.7% BB%, 1.01 HR/9

Jake Brentz is lefty and throws really damn hard. He’s been playing professional baseball since 2013 and while any chance of him being some kind of blue chip prospect is gone, you always like to have lefties that throw really damn hard sitting around. Brentz strikes a lot of dudes out and walks a lot as well, but the strikeouts from the left side should give him some kind of a shot at pitching in a big league bullpen at some point. How well he does from there is yet to be seen.

Photo Credits: Kiyoshi Ota – Getty Images

4 thoughts on “Revisiting the Royals top prospects: RP

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