2021 Standouts: Northwest Arkansas Naturals (AA)

The Northwest Arkansas Naturals were loaded with talent throughout the year. The likes of Bobby Witt, Jr., MJ Melendez, and Nick Pratto all sported a Naturals jersey before their well-deserved call-ups to Triple-A. The team also had big names like Vinnie Pasquantino and Jon Heasley throughout the year. Outside of those big names, there were a few Naturals that stood out in 2021 that are certainly worth watching as we make our way into the 2022 season.

Alec Marsh – RHP 

Stuff. That is the first thing you think of when you watch Alec Marsh pitch. He is loaded with average or above-average secondaries to go with his close to triple-digit fastball. His slider is downright disgusting. The pitch generates a ton of swing-and-miss. As Alex mentioned in this year’s rankings (and when you watch any video of him), he made Double-A hitters look foolish. He has an excellent third offering in his changeup, and he does a great job getting ground ball contact.

When he is healthy, you can honestly see why this kid has so much excitement around him. His 39.6% strikeout rate in Double-A was fun to see. He has struggled some with throwing strikes and executing his pitches where he wants. Keeping him on the field will be the most significant need for his development in 2022. It was great to see him back healthy this year in the Arizona Fall League. He only pitched one game where he went 1.1 innings while striking out three and giving up two home runs. Regardless, just an excellent first step in getting him back on the mound. There is a good chance Marsh starts in Double-A this year, but if he can keep himself on the field, there is an excellent chance he could make a mid-season debut. 

Drew Parrish – LHP

Drew Parrish is one of the more exciting arms in the Royals farm system that gets overlooked. I wrote about Parrish in an earlier article where I did a deeper dive on what made him an under-the-radar prospect. He broke out in 2021, pitching to the tune of a 2.83 ERA with 188 strikeouts in 98.2 innings pitched between High-A and Double-A. He spent most of his time in Double-A and ended the season with a 3.36 ERA and 1.08 WHIP. When he first got called up to Double-A, his numbers were concerning, but he adjusted quickly and ended the year well. In August, he was awarded the Double-A Central Pitcher of the Month, and there is no guessing as to why. He dominated hitters to the tune of a 1.13 with 27 strikeouts in 24 innings pitched while only walking eight. That led to an insane 0.88 WHIP. 

Parrish has a funky delivery and great mound presence, which has led to his success. His fastball isn’t overpowering and ranges from 91 to 93 mph, but he recently has topped out at 95. He’s got good secondaries with a changeup that induces swing and miss and a curveball that is a work in progress. Parrish will likely start the year with the Royals Triple-A affiliate in Omaha, and there is a slight chance he debuts in 2022. It might be difficult for him to squeeze a spot out in the big leagues with how loaded the Royals are on prospect arms. Just another tremendous late-round pick (8th) by the Royals that seems to have major league potential. 

Clay Dungan – 2B

If the Kansas City Royals weren’t loaded enough at the middle infield, enter Clay Dungan. He seems to fly under the radar for Kansas City, but his numbers at the plate were nearly as impressive as some of his more well-known teammates in 2021. In 108 games, he slashed .288/.357/.405 with eight home runs, 56 RBI, 40 walks, and 28 stolen bases. He has a remarkable ability to pick up pitches and make solid contact, shown by his 14.6% strikeout rate. You would ideally like to see his 8% walk rate go up a bit, but he just flat-out hits.

He doesn’t have many tools that make you go wow, but they are average across the board. He is a contact-oriented hitter first with a good amount of speed. He also is very athletic and could find himself playing all over the field even though his primary position is second base. You are probably reading this and thinking, “hmmm, that sounds familiar.” And you’re right. There are a lot of similarities to Whit Merrifield here. Merrifield possesses more pop, but it is hard not to compare when you compare some of the numbers, it is hard not to compare. Dungan will most likely start the year in Triple-A, and if he can keep molding himself into a super-utility role, he might make his debut in 2022. 

Brewer Hicklen – OF

Leadership is the first thing you think of when you hear Brewer Hicklen speak. We were fortunate enough to interview him in my other role with Major League University. He is just a guy that you want to coach your kids in the future. Alex pointed out that Hicklen has won a championship every year since he was drafted: 2018 in Lexington, 2019 in Wilmington, and 2021 in Northwest Arkansas. That is the kind of guy you want in your clubhouse. He had some ups and downs in 2021 but came on strong to finish the season.

In August, Hicklen slashed .329/.446/.697 with seven home runs, 16 RBI, and 16 stolen bases. I mean… have yourself a month! He rounded out the 2021 season with 40 stolen bases and 16 RBI. He has some attractive in-game power, and it is LOUD when he makes contact sometimes. His speed is his best tool as he shows a remarkable ability to get reads on the base paths. You have to love his strong finish going into the 2022 season. Even with his struggles in May, It was great to see his ability to change his mindset and turn things around to end the season. The NW Arkansas Natural team was loaded with talent, and Hicklen is just another player to add to that list. Chances are he starts in Triple-A, and we could see him possibly debut in 2022.

Photo Credits: Joe Alexander

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