Virtually everything went right in the Kansas City Royals' minor league system in 2021.
Triple-A Omaha, Double-A Northwest Arkansas and High-A Quad Cities finished well over .500, with Northwest Arkansas and Quad Cities winning league championships. Nearly all of the organization's top-ranked prospects, most notably infielder Bobby Witt Jr., performed extremely well. A couple of players who had been top prospects but saw their stock fall after struggling in 2019, Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez, thrived at the plate and shot back up the prospect rankings again. And a handful of former late-round picks, headlined by first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino, emerged and established themselves as legitimate prospects.
All things considered, the system seems to be in a better place than it's been at any point since the Royals started bringing up the core players who helped them reach back-to-back World Series in 2014-15.
These Royals minor leaguers were their clubs' most valuable players in 2021:
Omaha Storm Chasers (Triple-A)
Hitter: SS/3B Bobby Witt Jr. — Witt Jr. is one of the most highly regarded prospects in baseball, ranking third overall on MLB Pipeline's top 100 prospects list. The 21-year-old infielder lived up to the hype in every way this year, hitting .290/.361/.575 in 123 games between Northwest Arkansas and Omaha. He thought he had become a member of the elusive 30-30-30 club on Sept. 30 when he stole his 30th base of the season, but the game went into a rain delay in the middle of the third inning and was ultimately wiped out. Witt Jr. finished the season with 35 doubles, 33 home runs and 29 stolen bases.
While it's not certain that Witt Jr. will be on the Royals' 2022 Opening Day roster, he's widely expected to be a significant part of next season's major league club and should be one of the preseason favorites for AL Rookie of the Year.
Pitcher: RHP Jackson Kowar — Kowar, 25, struggled mightily in MLB stints that comprised nine major league games, but it was a different story in Triple-A, where he got off to a dominant start and struck out hitters with ease. At the time of his initial promotion to Kansas City on June 7, Kowar had a 0.85 ERA in six starts while holding opposing hitters to a .165/.248/.193 slash line. He held his opponent without a run in three of those starts and allowed just one run in the other three.
Kowar wasn't as effective after returning to Triple-A, posting a 5.14 ERA in 10 games before returning to the majors and struggling again. But his final Triple-A numbers still jump off the page — he finished with a 3.46 ERA, a .220 opponent batting average, 115 strikeouts and 34 walks over 80.2 innings.
Kowar has a big year ahead of him and is expected to be part of a spring training rotation battle that could include as many as nine starting pitchers. It will help him quite a bit if he can pitch next spring like he did this year with Omaha.
Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Double-A)
Hitter: C MJ Melendez — Melendez, a second-round pick in 2017, had fallen off the prospect map a bit after he posted a .571 OPS at High-A in 2019. He put himself firmly back on that map, however, with a brilliant 2021 campaign. The 22-year-old catcher led all of the minor leagues with 41 homers between Northwest Arkansas and Omaha and was the only player in Minor League Baseball to hit 40 or more home runs. He began the season in Double-A and slashed .285/.372/.628 over 79 games before being promoted on Aug. 9 to Omaha, where he posted an even better .293/.413/.620 slash line in 44 games. While he made 13 errors behind the plate, he did flash a great arm, throwing out 31% of runners.
Melendez started nine games at third base for Omaha, a possible sign that the Royals could be readying him for a multi-position major league role in which he could serve as Salvador Perez's backup but still remain in the lineup on a near-daily basis. The front office may want to keep him in the minors a little while longer so he can keep increasing his defensive versatility, but he should have a solid opportunity to compete for a spot on Kansas City's Opening Day roster next spring.
Pitcher: LHP Drew Parrish — Parrish, an eighth-round pick out of Florida State in 2019, is somewhat undersized at 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, and he doesn't have elite fastball velocity. However, his plus command, deceptive delivery and effective mix of off-speed pitches enabled him to dominate throughout the 2021 season. The 23-year-old started off at Quad Cities and quickly proved he was overqualified for the level, striking out 23 while allowing just five hits and three walks over 15.1 scoreless innings spanning four appearances. Parrish moved up to Double-A in early June, and though he struggled for about a month following his promotion, he settled into a groove over the final three months and finished with a 3.36 ERA, a .215 opponent batting average, 95 strikeouts and 25 walks over 83 innings with Northwest Arkansas.
The competition for the starting rotations in both Kansas City and Omaha will be stiff in 2022, so despite Parrish's stellar performance this year, the Royals could send him back to Double-A or put him in the Triple-A bullpen to begin next season. Even so, he pitched well enough in 2021 that they shouldn't have trouble trusting him if there's a need in the major league rotation or bullpen at some point next year.
Quad Cities River Bandits (High-A)
Hitter: 1B Vinnie Pasquantino — Pasquantino, an 11th-round pick out of Old Dominion in 2019, went from being a relative unknown to one of the Royals' most intriguing hitting prospects in 2021. The left-handed hitter began the season with Quad Cities and posted a .291/.384/.565 slash line with 20 doubles, 13 homers, 42 RBIs, 38 strikeouts and 33 walks in 61 games. He was promoted to Northwest Arkansas on July 20 and proceeded to put up even better offensive numbers in his first taste of the upper minors, hitting .310/.405/.560 with 17 doubles, 11 home runs, 42 RBIs, 26 strikeouts and 31 walks over 55 games.
It will be interesting to see how the Royals handle the 24-year-old Pasquantino moving forward. Nick Pratto is widely considered the organization's first baseman of the future, and Carlos Santana is still under contract for 2022. Pasquantino could fit in as a DH, though the Royals probably will want to use that spot to find at-bats for Melendez and Perez as well. In any case, he seems destined for Triple-A to begin next season.
Pitcher: LHP Anthony Veneziano — Veneziano, 24, flashed stellar command while anchoring the River Bandits' rotation all season long. In 22 starts, the 2019 10th-round pick tied for the High-A Central lead with 127 strikeouts in 93.2 innings. The 6-5, 205-pound lefty walked only 37 batters while holding opposing hitters to a .222 average and posting a 3.75 ERA.
Veneziano did a fantastic job as a starter this year, but with the Royals' abundance of young starting pitching depth, the front office may ultimately decide that his high-strikeout stuff plays best in a relief role — a move that could accelerate his ascent of the minor league ladder.
Columbia Fireflies (Low-A)
Hitter: INF/OF Tyler Tolbert — At first glance, it might seem odd to assert that Tolbert was his team's most valuable position player. After all, he posted just a .226 batting average this season. However, he has an attribute that few others in professional baseball have these days — game-changing speed. Tolbert's 55 stolen bases (a total that includes 80 games with Columbia, six at Quad Cities and three in the Arizona Complex League) ranked fourth in Minor League Baseball, and he had a significantly higher success rate (96.5%) than the three players who finished ahead of him, getting caught stealing just twice all year. While his contact-hitting skills left something to be desired, Tolbert did display an ability to get on base at a solid rate, drawing 55 walks for the season and posting a .355 on-base percentage.
Tolbert showcased an impressive amount of defensive versatility, playing 31 games at second base, 16 at shortstop, 10 in left field, 22 in center and nine in right. At the very least, his electrifying speed should give him a chance to play a Terrance Gore-like speed-and-defense role at the major league level. If the 23-year-old can start hitting for more contact, his skill set — similar to those of former Royals Jarrod Dyson and Billy Hamilton — could enable him to have a long big-league career.
Pitcher: LHP Emilio Marquez — Marquez is undersized at 5-8 and 170 pounds, but that didn't stop him from dominating Low-A hitters this season. While 15 of Marquez's 20 appearances for Columbia came out of the bullpen, he was stretched out to throw extended innings, and 18 of those outings were of the multi-inning variety. Marquez posted a 1.86 ERA with a .170 opponent batting average, 87 strikeouts and just 16 walks over 63 innings with Columbia.
He struggled after a late-August promotion to Quad Cities, posting a 10.13 ERA with a .345 opponent batting average in four games, though he did strike out 14 batters in 13.1 innings. Despite his tough luck with the River Bandits, he was promoted to Omaha and threw a perfect inning of relief in his final outing of the season. It remains to be seen whether Marquez will start, pitch out of the bullpen or serve as a swingman again in 2022, but he gave the Royals plenty of reason to be intrigued with his performance this year.
Arizona Complex League (Rookie)
Hitter: OF Jaswel De Los Santos — De Los Santos, a left-handed hitting Dominican native, excelled in his first season in the US. The 19-year-old posted a .267/.355/.452 slash line and tied for seventh in the ACL with six homers while racking up 22 RBIs in 42 games. He'll likely begin next season in Columbia.
Pitcher: LHP Jack Aldrich — From a pitching standpoint, the ACL Royals didn't have a lot of bright spots in 2021. However, Aldrich — the Royals' final pick in this year's draft — did provide reason for optimism. The 20th-rounder out of Tulane posted a 3.60 ERA in nine games (three starts), striking out 14 and walking two while holding opponents to a .250 batting average in 15 innings.
Dominican Summer League (Rookie)
Hitter: OF Junior Marin — Marin, 17, tore the cover off the ball in his first pro season, leading the DSL (min. 100 plate appearances) with a .380 batting average, .696 slugging percentage and 1.164 OPS while ranking sixth with a .468 on-base percentage. He hit seven homers, drove in 32 runs, stole five bases and had nearly as many walks (16) as strikeouts (19) in 32 games. The 6-2, 220-pound outfielder is still very young, but it seems highly likely that the Royals will move him to the United States next year.
Pitcher: LHP Jose Catano — The 20-year-old Catano was virtually unhittable over 12 starts this season, posting a 1.27 ERA with a .135 opponent batting average, 57 strikeouts and 15 walks in 42.2 innings. He didn't allow an earned run in nine of those starts, and he held his opponents hitless in four of them, including three straight to start September. Catano was older (and clearly better) than most of his competition this season, so it's a near certainty that he'll move stateside in 2022.
For the purpose of these rankings, players are listed at the level where they spent the majority of the season.