clay-dungan-1-kansas-city-royals-032722

Mar 27, 2022; Mesa, Arizona, USA; Kansas City Royals infielder Clay Dungan (90) at bat in the second inning during a spring training game against the Chicago Cubs at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

Six years ago, a former ninth-round pick used a combination of contact hitting skills, speed and defensive versatility to overcome a lack of prospect hype and reach the big leagues with the Kansas City Royals.

Things have worked out pretty well for two-time All-Star Whit Merrifield, and now Clay Dungan — a 2019 ninth-rounder out of Indiana State who is a year younger than Merrifield was when he debuted with the Royals at 27 in 2016 — is hoping he can take a similar path to the majors.

Dungan put himself on the map shortly after being drafted, hitting .357/.427/.494 over 65 games in rookie ball in 2019. Though his 2020 season was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic, he picked up right where he left off at Double-A Northwest Arkansas last year, posting a .288/.357/.405 line with nine homers and 28 stolen bases.

Dungan, who has received Cactus League at-bats in each of the last three seasons, earned his most extensive opportunity yet with the big league club this spring. He acquitted himself well, hitting .318 with two doubles, a homer and an .863 OPS in 22 plate appearances. His strong exhibition performance likely solidified the front office's decision to bump him up to Triple-A Omaha, but he was unable to carry those positive results into the regular season. Dungan experienced the first real struggles of his professional career over the first two months of the 2022 campaign, slashing .205/.318/.277 with only seven extra-base hits (four doubles, a triple and two homers) through the end of May. Despite his tough luck at the plate, Dungan's disciplined approach was still evidenced by his 22 walks among 30 strikeouts over the first two months.

It wasn't too surprising, then, when the 6-foot-1, 190-pound left-handed hitter started to look more like his old self as the calendar flipped to June. He's arguably been Omaha's most productive hitter this month, posting a .282/.356/.538 slash line with eight doubles, four homers and 18 RBIs. He's been at his best as the month has drawn to a close, going 8 for his last 13 with three doubles, three homers and eight runs driven in over the Storm Chasers' last three games.

The Royals already have a crowded infield situation, and prospect Michael Massey — Dungan's teammate in Omaha — also profiles as an everyday starter in the majors. With that in mind, Dungan likely fits in as a bench player at the next level, and the Royals have been preparing him for that role by expanding his versatility this season. He primarily played shortstop in college, and the Royals thought enough of his defense at that position that they gave him an extended run there last summer after Bobby Witt Jr. was promoted to Triple-A. He also played plenty of second base last year before Witt's promotion, and he's continued to receive lots of reps there this year. In addition, he's spent more time at the hot corner (22 games, including 21 starts) than ever before and has made seven starts in the outfield — five in left and one each in center and right.

In a Royals organization that has a lot of young offensive talent, Dungan will continue to face plenty of competition for a major league opportunity. But with his ability to get on base, make a difference with his speed and play solid defense at multiple positions, he has what it takes to carve out a long-term role as a major league utility player.

STANDOUT PERFORMERS

Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Double-A): Right-handed reliever Jonah Dipoto, the son of longtime major league reliever and current Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, has been electric in his first season at the Double-A level. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound righty, who throws a mid-90s fastball with a deceptive delivery, has a 1.95 ERA with a .161 opponent batting average and 47 strikeouts over 34 frames. June has arguably been his best month yet — he's thrown for a 1.32 ERA while holding opponents to a .167 average in 13.2 innings.

Dipoto has flashed incredible swing-and-miss stuff throughout his professional career, averaging 11.5 strikeouts per nine innings with a .155 opponent average over three seasons. He's been living a bit dangerously this season, though, and has already issued 27 walks. While Dipoto issued just 11 free passes over 29.2 innings in rookie ball in 2019, this is the second straight season that he's been wild, having walked 23 batters in 31 innings last year. He certainly has the repertoire necessary to be a real weapon out of a major league bullpen, but he'll have to harness his command a bit before he can be trusted with that type of opportunity.

Quad Cities River Bandits (High-A): Catcher Kale Emshoff, who joined the Royals organization as an undrafted free agent in 2020, had a stellar pro debut last year, hitting .267/.378/.480 while playing mostly at Low-A Columbia before receiving a late-season promotion to Quad Cities. Emshoff returned to the High-A level to begin the 2022 campaign, and while he got off to a slow start, he's gradually recaptured his 2021 form.

The 6-foot-2, 228-pound backstop has had a torrid month, hitting .304/.402/.609 with five homers. That's good for a 1.011 OPS that ranks fourth in the Midwest League in June. He's up to a .246/.331/.469 slash line for the season and is tied for the team lead with 11 home runs. To put it lightly, he could stand to develop more patience at the plate; he leads River Bandits hitters with 81 strikeouts and has just 19 walks, but he clearly has game-changing power.

Emshoff, who had Tommy John surgery in college, has struggled to shut down the running game and has thrown out only five of 39 attempted base stealers this season. But he is sturdy behind the plate and has just one error and four passed balls in 227 innings. Since the Royals have an exceptionally deep crop of catching prospects, Emshoff might be a candidate to move to another position at some point. But considering that he doesn't seem totally lost as a catcher and has been a major offensive force for the first season and a half of his pro career, he's shaping up to be a very valuable prospect.

Columbia Fireflies (Low-A): Right-handed starter Ben Hernandez, the Royals' second-round pick in 2020, got off to a rough start this season, posting a 5.66 ERA while allowing an .887 OPS through June 1. The 20-year-old has turned things around this month, though, throwing for a 3.45 ERA with a .259 opponent batting average, 17 strikeouts and seven walks in 15.2 innings spanning five starts. He was at his best this season in his most recent outing, striking out seven and walking none while allowing six hits over five scoreless frames.

The 6-foot-2, 205-pound righty, ranked 12th among Royals prospects by MLB Pipeline, has allowed a lot of contact and has struggled with his command since breaking into the professional ranks. Still, he's young enough and has an intriguing enough repertoire — a mid-90s fastball, a devastating changeup and a developing curveball — that he has a decent chance of developing into a valuable rotation piece at some point. His recent performance is a step in that direction.

Arizona Complex League Royals (Rookie): Roger Leyton, a highly regarded outfielder from Managua, Nicaragua, signed with the Royals as a 16-year-old in July 2019 but didn't make his pro debut until last summer due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Leyton began his career in the ACL, and while he was clearly far from a finished product, he flashed some solid doubles power and an impressive amount of patience for a player his age, slashing .209/.338/.400 over 36 games.

The 19-year-old outfielder is repeating rookie ball this summer and appears to have taken his game to the next level. Through 11 games, he has a sensational .341/.370/.636 slash line with an ACL-leading eight doubles, along with a triple and a homer. Leyton's walk rate isn't nearly as high as the 14.3% clip he posted last year — he's drawn only two free passes so far while striking out nine times — but that's excusable for a guy who's batting well over .300. If Leyton continues to dominate and most of the hitters in Columbia continue to struggle, it'd be nice to see him get an opportunity with the Royals' Low-A affiliate before the end of the season.

Dominican Summer League Royals (Rookie): Left-hander Oscar Rayo, who hails from the same hometown as Leyton, has an unusual but very intriguing profile. He turned pro later than a typical international signee and didn't receive much hype when he joined the Royals organization just after his 19th birthday in January 2021. The 6-foot-1, 180-pound southpaw posted solid numbers in his pro debut last summer, throwing for a 3.92 ERA with a .234 opponent batting average, 25 strikeouts and three walks over 20.2 DSL innings. Rayo is repeating the level during his age-20 season, and he's now older than most of his competition. He's made the best of his situation, though, and has been consistently dominant this year. Over four starts, Rayo has a 0.64 ERA with a .216 opponent average, 20 punchouts and three walks through 14 innings. He's held opponents off the board for his last three outings and 11 innings, and he didn't allow a hit through four frames in his most recent start.

It will be hard to get a good read on Rayo until he comes to the U.S. and faces tougher competition, but he's certainly worth keeping an eye on as the DSL season progresses.