Nick Loftin isn't the most discussed right-handed hitting shortstop who was drafted in the first round by the Royals and is playing his first full professional season this year — that honor goes to Bobby Witt Jr. But Loftin, selected 32nd overall out of Baylor in last year's draft, has done a great job of boosting his prospect stock in recent weeks.
While Loftin, 22, hasn't garnered as much attention as Witt — a transcendent prospect who's widely considered the best player to come up through the Royals system in the last decade — he's had a very strong season at High-A Quad Cities, and he's arguably been the hottest hitter in the entire system as of late.
Loftin is in the midst of a 17-game hitting streak that dates to July 14, and he had a game he'll never forget Sunday. Loftin went 5 for 6 with five extra-base hits and hit for the cycle, clinching the feat with a two-run walk-off homer in the bottom of the ninth inning. He posted a .522/.560/.1.087 slash line during the week of July 26-Aug. 1 and was named the High-A Central Player of the Week on Monday.
Loftin didn't achieve this level of offensive dominance until recently, but he's had a productive season overall, providing an impressive mix of gap-to-gap power and patience at the plate. He's posted a .268/.340/.447 slash line with 15 doubles, five triples and seven homers and has mixed in a little bit of speed, stealing seven bases in nine attempts.
While he's considered a plus defender at shortstop, he's also showcased some defensive versatility, playing 11 games at second base and four at third in addition to 42 at short. His experience playing those positions should serve him well in the likely event that he and Witt end up on the same Royals team at some point.
Here are some other players of note around the Royals minor league system:
SS Bobby Witt Jr. (ranked No. 1 in the Royals organization and No. 6 in all of baseball by MLB Pipeline): Witt has continued to rake since being promoted from Double-A Northwest Arkansas to Omaha on July 20. In 14 Triple-A games, he has a .308 batting average with a .948 OPS, four doubles and five homers in 69 plate appearances. Between Northwest Arkansas and Omaha, he now has 21 homers this season, and with 16 stolen bases, he has a great chance to reach the 20-20 mark.
Considering Witt's dominance this year and his importance to the organization's future, the front office surely will discuss the possibility of calling him up when major league rosters expand to 28 players on Sept. 1. But it's more likely that they'll use the final two months to thoroughly evaluate shortstop Adalberto Mondesi, who has been limited to 10 games this year due to injuries but is expected to return soon, and third baseman Emmanuel Rivera, who returned from a broken hamate bone Wednesday night. That way, they'll have a better idea of how those players might factor into their plans for 2022 and can gain some offseason flexibility by waiting to add Witt to the 40-man roster.
LHP Daniel Lynch (No. 2 Royals prospect, No. 20 overall): Lynch was somewhat surprisingly recalled to fill an opening in the Royals' rotation when Danny Duffy and Brady Singer went on the injured list late last month. Though he had a rough first stint in the big leagues and hadn't pitched particularly well in Triple-A, the 24-year-old lefty has been very good since returning to the majors, delivering two straight quality starts. He earned his first major league win while shutting out the Tigers for eight innings on July 25, then allowed three earned runs over six frames at Toronto on July 30.
With Duffy being dealt to the Dodgers prior to last week's trade deadline, Lynch could spend the rest of the season in the Kansas City rotation. Singer made his second rehab start Wednesday night and is likely to return soon, and Kris Bubic and Carlos Hernández have also pitched well recently. But Lynch is the organization's top pitching prospect and seems to be pitching with much more confidence. The front office may be hesitant to disrupt his rhythm with a demotion to the bullpen or Omaha.
LHP Asa Lacy (No. 3 Royals prospect, No. 21 overall): Lacy, the No. 4 overall pick in last year's draft, is on the seven-day injured list and hasn't pitched since leaving his July 21 start against Peoria with an apparent arm injury. He hasn't had the smoothest professional debut — he's posted a 5.19 ERA over 14 starts for Quad Cities while issuing 41 walks and hitting eight batters in 52 innings.
RHP Jackson Kowar (No. 4 Royals prospect, No. 90 overall): After struggling in his first three major league appearances, Kowar has been unable to find his footing since being sent back to Triple-A. He appeared to be turning a corner in mid-July, allowing three earned runs while striking out 20 and walking three in 14.2 innings over a three-start stretch from July 9-23. His command has faded over his last two outings, however. He walked a season-high four while allowing four earned runs July 29, then set another season high Wednesday night, issuing five free passes and giving up two earned runs over four innings in relief of Singer.
Kowar has the stuff to dominate when his mechanics are right, as he proved when he posted a 0.85 ERA over his first six Triple-A starts. He has a 4.23 ERA since returning to Omaha, though, and he clearly needs to make some adjustments to get back to his early-season form.
1B Nick Pratto (No. 5 Royals prospect, No. 98 overall): Pratto, like Witt, has continued to put up spectacular offensive numbers since being promoted from Northwest Arkansas to Omaha in mid-July. He hasn't hit for as much contact at the Triple-A level as he did in Double-A, but his ability to take walks and hit for power has enabled him to post a .245/.349/.585 slash line with six doubles, four homers and 15 RBIs in 14 games with the Storm Chasers. He accomplished an incredible feat late last month, hitting two grand slams in three games, first on July 25 against St. Paul, then on July 28 at Toledo.
In regard to a potential September call-up, Pratto's situation is a bit different than Witt's. The Royals need to add him to the 40-man roster this offseason to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, so if he continues to hit well at Omaha over the next month, they may choose to do so a little early and get him some big-league experience in the process. With Jorge Soler having been dealt to Atlanta and the DH spot now available for either Pratto or Carlos Santana, the chances of Pratto making his major league debut in 2021 seem higher than they did a week ago.
Omaha Storm Chasers (Triple-A): In a somewhat puzzling move, the Blue Jays dealt 27-year-old right-hander Joel Payamps to the Royals for cash last month, despite the fact that the reliever had been very good in 22 major league appearances this season. Payamps had a 2.70 ERA with a .196 opponent batting average, 22 strikeouts and 11 walks in 30 innings with Toronto, and he's continued to impress since joining the Royals organization and being assigned to Omaha. Payamps has thrown five scoreless innings with the Storm Chasers, allowing four hits while striking out nine and walking two in 5.1 frames.
Payamps will be out of minor league options next spring, so the Royals will almost certainly give him a look in the major league bullpen before the end of this season. If he isn't recalled before the end of the month, he seems like a strong candidate to take one of the two spots that will open up when rosters expand Sept. 1.
Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Double-A): With all the highly regarded starting pitching prospects in the Royals system, left-hander Austin Cox is overlooked at times. The 2018 fifth-rounder is enjoying a fantastic season at Northwest Arkansas, though, and he looks to have legitimate major league potential. Cox, ranked as the No. 10 prospect in the Royals organization by MLB Pipeline, hasn't allowed more than one run in any of his last four outings and hasn't given up more than two runs in a start since June 17. He threw a seven-inning complete game against Arkansas on Wednesday night, holding the Travelers to one earned run while striking out six and allowing four hits and one walk.
The 24-year-old lefty is craftier than most of Kansas City's top pitching prospects. He makes heavy use of his curveball and is averaging less than a strikeout per inning (48 in 57.1 frames). His old-school approach is getting the job done in Double-A, though, as he owns a 2.98 ERA through 12 starts. After getting a late start to the season due to a minor injury, Cox might spend the rest of the season with Northwest Arkansas. Even if he does, it seems likely that he'll begin next year in Triple-A and serve as an intriguing depth option if help is needed in the major league rotation.
Quad Cities River Bandits (High-A): Center fielder John Rave, a fifth-round pick out of Illinois State in 2019, has thrived when healthy this year. Though he missed over a month due to an injury, the left-handed hitter has a .293 batting average with an .858 OPS, eight homers and 28 runs batted in through 43 games this season. A large chunk of that production has come in the last two weeks, when he's posted a .429/.467/.905 slash line with three doubles, a triple, five home runs and 17 RBIs in 12 games.
Rave, 23, will need to stay healthy and prove he can sustain this offensive production over a larger sample size. But considering that he already has a pretty high floor due to his plus speed and defense in center field, Rave's offensive production this year provides plenty of reason for optimism.
Columbia Fireflies (Low-A): The Royals may have more quality catching depth in their system than any other organization in baseball, and after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Arkansas-Little Rock last summer, Kale Emshoff has been a quality addition to that collection of depth. The 23-year-old backstop has been Columbia's most consistent hitter this season, posting a .270 batting average with an .856 OPS, 13 doubles, a triple and eight homers in 49 games. He's been particularly good recently and has a .550 batting average with a 1.441 OPS and two homers over the last week. He has a prototypical catcher's build at 6-foot-2 and 228 pounds, and he's been solid defensively, making just two errors in 30 games behind the plate while throwing out a respectable 25.9% of attempted base stealers.
Emshoff may have trouble moving up in a system that features a lot of intriguing young catchers, including Sebastian Rivero, Meibrys Viloria, MJ Melendez, Freddy Fermin and Carter Jensen, among others. If he keeps playing like he has this season, though, Emshoff could force the issue.
Arizona Complex League Royals (Rookie): Left-handed-hitting infielder Enrique Valdez didn't make much of an impact during his first two professional seasons — he posted a .673 OPS as a 17-year-old in the Dominican Summer League in 2018, then was brought stateside in 2019 and hit for a .562 OPS in rookie ball. Something seemingly clicked for him between the end of the 2019 season and the start of this year's Arizona Complex League campaign, though. Valdez, 20, has demonstrated improved power and patience at the plate while posting a .299/.415/.552 slash line with two doubles, three triples, three homers and 10 walks in 83 plate appearances. He's also showcased impressive defensive versatility, seeing time at second base, third base and shortstop. Valdez has made a strong case to move up to a full-season team next spring — or perhaps even down the stretch this year if a spot opens up.
Dominican Summer League Royals (Rookie): Right-hander Weskendry Espinoza, 19, has been very good in his first four professional starts. He's provided relatively impressive length for a teenager in rookie ball, going at least three innings in each of his outings and topping out at five on July 19. Espinoza has a stellar 1.76 ERA, has held opponents to a .170 batting average and has flashed very impressive command, striking out 11 and walking just two in 15.1 innings. Espinoza, who joined the Royals organization in January, wasn't a high-profile international signing, and he's older than a typical first-year Dominican pro. But through the early going, he's doing a good job of establishing himself and putting himself into consideration to be brought over to the United States at some point.
Top photo of Nick Loftin from Imagn Content Services, photographer Dan Powers, Syndication: The Post-Crescent.