When the Royals decided to trade the 35th pick in the MLB Draft to the Atlanta Braves for a trio of minor leaguers last month, outfielder Drew Waters and right-hander Andrew Hoffman received the vast majority of the attention from prospect hounds — perhaps rightfully so, as both players are now ranked as top-20 prospects in Kansas City's system by both MLB Pipeline and Baseball America. Infielder CJ Alexander, however, is determined to prove that he was more than just a throw-in.
The left-handed hitting 26-year-old was batting .258/.294/.465 with 11 doubles, 15 homers and 43 RBIs for the Mississippi Braves, Atlanta's Double-A affiliate, when the Royals acquired him on July 11. He took a while to find his footing after joining Kansas City's Double-A squad, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, but something clicked for him once the calendar flipped to August.
In 12 games this month, Alexander has a .300/.321/.740 slash line with seven home runs and 18 RBIs. He's tied with White Sox prospect Jose Rodriguez and Rays farmhand Heriberto Hernandez for the most homers in August of any player in the minors, and he leads the Texas League in runs batted in over the same stretch.
It's shaping up to be a breakthrough season for Alexander, who was selected by the Braves out of State College of Florida in the 20th round of the 2018 draft. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound infielder, who is a natural third baseman but has added first base to his positional toolbelt over the last two seasons, got off to a great start in professional ball — albeit with a drastically different offensive profile — batting .352/.429/.495 across three different levels and finishing the season in High-A. He endured three subsequent rough seasons, though — he posted a .425 OPS over 43 games during an injury-ravaged 2019 season, was not invited to the Braves' alternate training site in 2020 and spent the full season away from baseball, then struggled to a .197/.258/.378 slash line as he returned to action last year. Now in his third season where he's spent time at the Double-A level, Alexander is putting it all together and seems to have unlocked the power-hitting potential that one would expect a player with his size and strength to possess.
If there's been one negative through Alexander's five weeks in the Royals organization, is that he's reverted back to his free-swinging tendencies of years past. Alexander hasn't drawn many free passes since he reached the upper minors — he has a 6.1% walk rate over three Double-A seasons. But after striking out more than 30% of the time in each of his first two seasons in Double-A, he had reduced his strikeout rate to 21.8% in 68 games with Mississippi. In 25 games with Northwest Arkansas, though, he's punched out 32 times in 108 plate appearances — 29.6% of the time. He'll need to recover some of the discipline he displayed early this season if he's going to succeed against more advanced pitching.
It's true that Alexander is old for Double-A — he was born before every player in the Royals' starting lineup on Monday night except Salvador Perez and Nicky Lopez — and since he's at least spent parts of three seasons at the level now, he's meeting expectations more than he's opening eyes with his mastery of opposing pitchers. He's been dealt obstacle after obstacle since his pro career began, though, whether it's been injuries, a season lost to a pandemic or a midseason trade. If he can steer clear of more unfortunate circumstances moving forward, he still has the chance to be a late-blooming success story. With the incredible power that he's flashed lately, there's absolutely reason to be intrigued.
Omaha Storm Chasers (Triple-A): Catcher Freddy Fermin is 27 years old and is probably pretty close to being a finished product. That close-to-finished product appears to be major league worthy.
Fermin, a right-handed hitter from Venezuela who joined the organization in 2015, finally got his big league debut out of the way last month when vaccination issues required the Royals to call up a flurry of minor leaguers for a four-game series in Toronto. He more than earned that opportunity, as he's had a very strong season in all facets for the Storm Chasers, and now he's looking to prove that he deserves to stick in the majors on a long-term basis.
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound catcher is batting .257/.363/.417 with six home runs, 32 RBIs and nearly as many walks (32) as strikeouts (39) in 223 plate appearances. He's arguably been Omaha's hottest hitter this month, posting a .333/.429/.500 slash line while drawing seven free passes and striking out seven times over 12 games in August.
Fermin, who's widely regarded as a plus defender, has lived up to his reputation this year and has only three passed balls and four errors in 413 innings behind the plate. He's thrown out 30.5% of attempted base stealers.
While Fermin hasn't appeared on top prospect lists over the years, it's clear that the Royals like him quite a bit. During the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, he was part of a select group of prospects that was invited to work out at the Royals' alternate training site. This year, he was given a promotion to Omaha to begin the season while Sebastian Rivero — a 23-year-old defensive whiz who is a member of the 40-man roster and was perfectly solid in Triple-A last year — was assigned to Northwest Arkansas. It initially seemed like that move might've been made so Rivero and MJ Melendez, the Opening Day starting catcher in Omaha, could both receive near-everyday at-bats. But the arrangement remained the same when Melendez was called up to the majors, never to return, on May 2. Even as Logan Porter — another 27-year-old catcher who has been one of the top offensive performers in the organization this year — has arrived in Omaha, Fermin has continued to receive the bulk of the starts behind the plate with Porter shifting over to first base.
If he's not added to the Royals' 40-man roster this offseason, Fermin will be eligible for minor league free agency. It could be in his best interest to hit the open market since he's unlikely to receive much of a major league opportunity as long as Perez and Melendez are in Kansas City and the organization has a flurry of other talented backstops coming up through the pipeline. He's a high quality depth piece behind the plate if the Royals decide to keep him around, though.
Quad Cities River Bandits (High-A): The Royals have had quite a bit of success with undrafted free agents since the draft was condensed in 2020, and first baseman Dillan Shrum is no exception. The right-handed hitting 24-year-old joined the organization last July after completing a five-season career at the University of Nevada, and he's shown himself to be an impressive find in 2022.
While Shrum is a "three true outcomes" type of hitter, he's arguably been Quad Cities' most consistent offensive performer this year, posting a .235/.367/.446 slash line with 18 doubles, a triple, 11 homers and 41 RBIs in 79 games. He has an extremely high 34.1% strikeout rate that he'll need to reduce if he wants to succeed at higher levels, but he also walks a lot and has drawn free passes 14.3% of the time this year.
Shrum has been very good in August, hitting two homers — including a game-tying shot in the ninth inning of a 6-5 victory over Cedar Rapids on Aug. 14 — while posting an .881 OPS. He also stretched out to make an impressive play at first base during the River Bandits' nationally televised game at the Field of Dreams on Aug. 9.
There are reasons to be skeptical about Shrum's upside — he's old for his level, strikes out a lot and doesn't make a ton of contact. He has a good eye and a lot of power, though, and he's already provided more value to the organization than a typical undrafted free agent.
Columbia Fireflies (Low-A): Third baseman Cayden Wallace, the Royals' second-round pick in this year's draft, is off to a hot start since turning pro. In seven games — three with the Royals' Arizona Complex League team and four with Columbia — the right-handed hitter is batting .364/.517/.545 with two doubles, a triple, six RBIs, six walks and four strikeouts. That's an impressive adjustment for a hitter who was swinging a metal bat a couple months ago.
Wallace, who entered the draft after his sophomore season at the University of Arkansas, played mostly in the outfield as a freshman before shifting exclusively to third base this year. It remains to be seen where the 21-year-old will end up defensively in the long term, but it could be in his best interest to move off third base if that ends up being Bobby Witt Jr.'s position moving forward. The Royals are giving him a shot to stick at the hot corner as his professional career begins and figure to be patient with him since he doesn't have a whole lot of recent experience at the position. He's struggled a bit on defense during the early going, making two errors in his first six games at third.
Wallace, ranked fifth among the organization's prospects by MLB Pipeline, is a strong candidate to skyrocket up the minor league ladder, and it should be interesting to see how the Royals handle him over the final month of the season. In all likelihood, he'll stay in Columbia for the duration of the schedule — after all, it was already rather aggressive for the front office to place him in a full-season league after just three games in rookie ball. If he dominates the Carolina League for the next couple weeks, though, it might be fun to get a small taste for what he can do in Quad Cities before the end of the season.
Arizona Complex League Royals (Rookie): The Royals may have more quality catching depth in their system than any other organization in baseball. That collection of catchers has gotten even deeper this summer with the emergence of 20-year-old Dionmy Salon.
Among ACL Royals players with at least 70 plate appearances, the right-handed hitting catcher (wearing No. 23 in the clip below) ranks second in batting average (.338), on-base percentage (.427) and OPS (.904) and fourth in slugging percentage (.477). He's also provided plenty of reason for intrigue behind the plate, throwing out 10 of 26 (38.5%) attempted base stealers.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound backstop's offensive breakout has come over a rather small sample size — 19 games and 75 plate appearances — so it's hard to know whether this is the real Salon, or whether it's the player who posted .200/.329/.223 and .211/.366/.316 slash lines over two seasons in the Dominican Summer League. The Barquisimeto, Venezuela native's total turnaround at the plate has included his walk rate dropping off a cliff — it's gone from 15.0% over two seasons in the DSL to 8.0% this year. It's hard to ask for more from Salon than he's provided this summer, but rediscovering some of that patience over the remainder of the schedule would be a nice plus.
Dominican Summer League Royals (Rookie): Left-hander Victor Peña was solid in his pro debut last summer, posting a 3.74 ERA over 21.2 innings in the DSL. The 19-year-old pitcher has taken his game to the next level this year and has taken the league by storm.
Peña has a 7-0 record over 12 appearances (all but one of which have come in relief). He's posted a 1.04 ERA with 38 strikeouts and just four walks in 26 innings while holding opponents to a .144 batting average.
Peña doesn't have great size at 5-foot-11 and 165 pounds, but there's reason to be intrigued by the way he's absolutely dominated the DSL this summer. He's likely to move stateside next year, so we'll see whether he can keep opening eyes against tougher competition.