The biggest development of the Kansas City Royals' minor league season took place Sunday night, when the organization announced it was promoting its top two hitting prospects, shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. and first baseman Nick Pratto, to Triple-A Omaha.
In terms of both team and individual success, it's been a very successful season around the Royals' minor league system. All four full-season affiliates own records of .500 or better, and Triple-A Omaha and High-A Quad Cities lead their respective divisions. When it comes to individual accomplishments, it's hard to say any Royals minor leaguer has thrived more than Pratto or Witt Jr., both of whom tore the cover off the ball at Double-A Northwest Arkansas before being promoted.
In 61 games with the Naturals, Pratto hit for a .271/.404/.570 slash line with 15 home runs and 43 RBIs. Over the same number of games, Witt posted a .295/.369/.570 line with 16 homers, 51 RBIs and 14 steals. Witt, who is ranked as the Royals' top prospect and the No. 7 prospect in all of baseball by MLB Pipeline, and Pratto, who is ranked fifth in the system and 99th overall, were both invited to the All-Star Futures Game earlier this month in recognition of their success this season and their status as two of the most intriguing minor leaguers in the sport.
Both players could stand to strike out less — Pratto whiffed 80 times in 275 Double-A plate appearances, while Witt was punched out 67 times in 279 PAs — but it's hard to ask for much more offensive production from a pair of prospects in their early 20s.
Witt and Pratto expressed confidence in their ability to thrive at the Triple-A level after the promotions were announced, Both mentioned their close friendship as a factor that would make the adjustment easier.
It's a very small sample size, but both players have gotten off to hot starts with the Storm Chasers. The 21-year-old Witt is 5 for 11 through his first two games, and he quickly made his presence known at the Triple-A level, hitting an inside-the-park homer in the third inning of Wednesday night's game.
Pratto, meanwhile, is 2 for 7 with three walks and one strikeout through two games with Omaha. The 22-year-old first baseman hit a double to the warning track off longtime major leaguer Nick Vincent in the ninth inning of Wednesday night's game.
With neither player on the Royals' 40-man roster and MLB reducing the September active roster limit from 40 to 28 players, it remains unlikely that Pratto or Witt Jr. will reach the majors this season. But the fact that the organization's top two hitting prospects are just one level away from the big leagues is huge, regardless of what happens the rest of this season.
Here are some other players of note around the Royals minor league system:
LHP Daniel Lynch (No. 2 Royals prospect, No. 21 overall): Lynch continues to battle inconsistency at Triple-A, though he has been pretty good over his last two starts. The lefty struck out six on July 15 against Indianapolis, allowing one unearned run on two hits and no walks over 3.2 innings. Then he gave up three earned runs on six hits and no walks against St. Paul on July 20, striking out six and walking none over 5.1 frames. Lynch, who has allowed opponents to bat .318 against him at Omaha this year, is still giving up too much contact — he's surrendered an average of at least one hit per inning in eight of his 12 Triple-A outings, including three of four in July.
Lynch's feel for the strike zone has improved noticeably this month, though. He's issued only three walks in 16.2 innings and hasn't given up any free passes in three of his four starts. His strikeout rate has also jumped to 10.8 per nine innings, compared with 9.9 in May and 8.4 in June. Lynch still needs to figure out how to more effectively miss bats, but he's on the upswing after a rough first few months in Triple-A.
LHP Asa Lacy (No. 3 Royals prospect, No. 22 overall): After a rough start to his professional career, the 22-year-old Lacy appeared to be figuring things out in late June and early July, most notably on July 3, when he allowed just one earned run on four hits while striking out nine and walking one over six innings. His command issues have popped up again over his last three starts for the High-A Quad Cities River Bandits, though. Over 11 innings, Lacy has walked 12 and hit six batters, giving up eight earned runs. In a concerning development, the 2020 first-round pick exited Wednesday night's start against Peoria with an apparent arm injury after walking three, hitting three batters and allowing four hits and four earned runs in 2.2 innings.
RHP Jackson Kowar (No. 4 Royals prospect, No. 91 overall): Kowar was dominant over his first six starts this season, pitching to a 0.85 ERA with 41 strikeouts and 10 walks in 31.2 innings. But after getting called up to the big leagues on June 7 and being roughed up over three outings, Kowar seemed to lack confidence upon his return to Triple-A. He allowed seven earned runs on 10 hits and four walks over 8.2 innings in his first two starts back with the Storm Chasers. Fortunately for Kowar, he seems to have settled back into a rhythm over his last two starts. He yielded just one earned run on five hits and two walks while striking out four over 3.2 frames against Toledo on July 9. Then he threw five shutout innings at Indianapolis on July 17, surrendering only two hits and one walk while striking out eight.
Given Kowar's first big-league stint, the Royals likely will be cautious and make sure he fully regains his confidence before they bring him back to the majors. But if he continues to progress, he could pitch his way back into Kansas City's rotation this season with Danny Duffy (left flexor strain) and Brady Singer (right shoulder fatigue) out for the foreseeable future.
Omaha Storm Chasers (Triple-A): Outfielder Kyle Isbel, the Royals' Opening Day starter in right field, has largely struggled this year at both the major and minor league levels. The left-handed hitter seems to be figuring things out this month, though. He has a .296 batting average with a .955 OPS, four doubles, three homers, 12 RBIs, four steals and more walks (12) than strikeouts (eight) over 16 games in July. While his Triple-A numbers for the season — a .244 batting average and .747 OPS — still aren't particularly impressive, Isbel surely is relieved to finally experience some offensive success after looking lost at the plate with the Royals in April and with the Storm Chasers in May and June.
Isbel's recent progress is extremely encouraging for a Royals organization that visualizes him as a key piece of its future. But even as Kansas City platoons natural first baseman Ryan O'Hearn and primary DH Jorge Soler in right field, it seems unlikely that Isbel will be rushed back to the majors and will instead be allowed to achieve some sustained success in Omaha. Isbel's plus speed, reliable defense and ability to draw a walk should ultimately enable him to stick in the big leagues regardless of how he hits. If he can unlock the power he's flashed this month during his next major league stint, though, he has a chance to be a legitimate difference maker in the Royals' lineup.
Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Double-A): Catcher Freddy Fermin hasn't been dealt the most ideal set of circumstances this year. After playing in four games over the first three weeks of the Triple-A season, he was transferred to Northwest Arkansas on May 25 and given the task of backing up MJ Melendez, who is having a fantastic season and is the Royals' top catching prospect. Fermin has made the most of his opportunity, though, posting a .283 batting average with an .848 OPS, six doubles, five homers, 26 RBIs, 20 strikeouts and 10 walks in 120 Double-A plate appearances. The 26-year-old has arguably been the Naturals' hottest hitter in July, putting together a .383/.431/.660 slash line with three homers and 18 RBIs in 12 games.
With 22-year-old Sebastian Rivero, a legitimate prospect in his own right and a member of the 40-man roster, getting the bulk of the playing time at Omaha, it's unclear whether the Royals will feel comfortable promoting Melendez later this summer. That would reduce the number of available at-bats for both Rivero and Melendez unless an injury or trade occurs. But it would create a bigger opportunity for Fermin at Double-A, and it'd be interesting to see how he'd respond with increased playing time.
Quad Cities River Bandits (High-A): Second baseman Michael Massey, the Royals' fourth-round pick in 2019, has been one of the biggest surprises of the 2021 minor league season, emerging as one of the best all-around hitters in Kansas City's system. The left-handed-hitting Massey has managed to strike an offensive balance that very few hitters can achieve in today's game, combining an old-school approach (.297 batting average, just 36 strikeouts in 236 at-bats) with game-changing power (13 doubles, a triple and 15 homers). The 23-year-old has been virtually unstoppable in July, hitting .397/.429/.826 with eight homers, 25 RBIs, four stolen bases and as many walks as strikeouts (six each).
It was a bit surprising that Massey remained in High-A when Witt was promoted to Omaha; utility infielder Jimmy Govern instead filled the void on Northwest Arkansas' roster. But with Clay Dungan shifting from second base to shortstop for the Naturals upon Witt's departure, there should be enough playing time available for Massey to earn a promotion to Double-A in the near future.
Columbia Fireflies (Low-A): Outfielder Juan Carlos Negret has a ways to go in learning to make consistent contact, as evidenced by his .184 batting average this season. But when the 22-year-old gets his bat on the ball, he does damage. Negret is tied for the lead among all Low-A hitters with 17 homers, and he has an impressive .468 slugging percentage. While he has remained a three-true-outcomes hitter into July, he's been extremely productive for the month, posting a .212/.293/.652 slash line with nine homers and 21 RBIs.
Negret clearly has some holes in his offensive game — besides struggling to hit for average, he's struck out 95 times in 201 at-bats. But he does a solid job of drawing walks (29 this season) and has tantalizing power. If he can start to put the bat on the ball more frequently — a lofty goal, but not impossible for a 22-year-old who's played just 266 professional games — Negret has the upside to develop into a Jorge Soler-like slugger.
Arizona Complex League Royals (Rookie): Isaiah Henry, selected as an outfielder out of Houston's North Shore High School in the 14th round of the 2017 draft, was converted to the mound this spring after posting a .230 batting average and a .665 OPS over three minor league seasons. Through five outings in rookie ball, it seems like that was a smart move. The 6-foot-3, 212-pound right-hander has struck out 10 over 5.1 scoreless innings, giving up just two hits and two walks. Henry is a bit old for the rookie level at 22, but that's an absolutely dominant showing regardless of age. He's still learning how to pitch, and the Royals may prefer to continue his instruction at their Surprise facility. But he's been electric enough that it wouldn't be surprising to see him get an opportunity with a full-season affiliate before the end of the season.
Top photo of Bobby Witt Jr. and Nick Pratto courtesy of the Associated Press, shot by photographer Gabe Christus.