Bubic, Lee lead prosperous Royals ranks

Four Kansas City affiliates won league championships in 2019

Kris Bubic pitched in the 2019 Futures Game and was named a Carolina League postseason All-Star. (Wilmington Blue Rocks)

By Jordan Wolf / MiLB.com | November 1, 2019 10:00 AM

Each offseason, MiLB.com goes position by position across each system and honors the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. Click here to locate your favorite club.

The last generation of Royals to bring a World Series to Kansas City were no strangers to winning, and winning together. The well-documented wave of highly heralded prospects led by Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and many others collected trophy after trophy during their rise through the Minors, ultimately capturing the biggest one of all in 2015 with the big league club.

Virtually all of that team's core is gone and attention has turned toward the future. But while the faces may be different this time around, the new crop of talent is following a winning trajectory strikingly similar to that of their predecessors. Four Royals affiliates won league titles in 2019, as Class A Advanced Wilmington, Class A Lexington, Rookie Advanced Idaho Falls and one of the club's two Dominican Summer League teams emerged as their circuit's champions.

Moving forward, this winning experience will provide an invaluable boost to a system that could certainly use one. The Royals have just three players on MLB.com's list of Top 100 prospects -- No. 8 Bobby Witt Jr., No. 52 Brady Singer and No. 69 Daniel Lynch -- as they're still trying to rebuild in the aftermath of 2015's all-in push. But the leaders of the current class are captaining the charge to The Show, following the winning blueprint left by those who came before them.

Royals Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Nick DiniOmaha (58 games), Kansas City (20 games): Dini ended the season getting regular reps behind the plate in Kansas City, but that wouldn't have been possible if not for his stellar season in Omaha. The 26-year-old backstop stitched together a line of .296/.370/.565 for the Storm Chasers, homering 13 times and driving in 36 runs over 58 games. He appeared in 20 big league contests over the season's final two months, hitting .196/.270/.357 and going yard twice.

"[He] has slowly but consistently won over the beliefs of the evaluators in our system," said Royals vice president and assistant general manager of player personnel J.J. Picollo. "His year was excellent. He reached the Major Leagues. Last year was a little bit of a regression from an offensive standpoint, just went through a tougher year. And then this year he got back on track and did things that we've seen him do in the past. So Nick had a good year and I think solidified his batting in our system."

Video: O'Hearn, Gutierrez, Dini hit consecutive homers

First baseman -- Vinnie PasquantinoBurlington (57 games): Pasquantino wasted no time making his presence felt after the Royals selected him in the 11th round of this year's Draft. The Old Dominion product mashed 14 homers in 57 games for Burlington, the best mark of anyone in the Appalachian League. He's not just a slugger, though, as he posted a line of .294/.371/.592 with 17 doubles and 53 runs driven in. He rolled that success into the postseason, where he batted .385 with one long ball in six games as Burlington fell to Johnson City in the Appy League championship.

"Excellent first impression ... really happy with what he did," Picollo said. "He does have really impressive power. We don't see any regression in his power against left-handed pitching. That was something we saw in the Draft, our scouts identified in the Draft."

Second baseman -- Gabriel CancelNorthwest Arkansas (123 games): After his homer numbers took a dip last season, Cancel returned to form in 2019 by belting a career-high 18 big flies over a full season with the Naturals that ranked as one of the best in the Texas League. His 18 long balls tied him for third place on the circuit, while he finished knotted for second in doubles with 30 and sixth in RBIs with 69. The power of the Royals' No. 29 prospect may catch the eye, but more than anything, the team is excited about adding his ability to tap into it on a dependable basis to the big league lineup.

"It's always steady numbers," Picollo said. "There's not much variance in what he does night to night. So very consistent. We have moved him around playing different positions, and the only reason we've done that is because we think his bat is going to be ready sooner rather than later. ... We just want to get him exposure so if that opportunity comes at first base or third base or left field, he's played them all, and he's an option for us."

Honorable mention: Jimmy Govern hit .344 over 55 games across three levels after the Royals selected him in the 30th round in June.


MiLB.com Organization All-Stars: Team by Team


Third baseman -- Kelvin GutierrezOmaha (75 games), Kansas City (20 games): Gutierrez impressed late last year after being acquired from the Nationals in the Kelvin Herrera trade and kept the ball rolling into 2019. The Royals' No. 17 prospect finished the season with the Storm Chasers with a slash line of .287/.367/.427, going yard nine times with 43 RBIs and 41 runs. He had two separate stints in Kansas City early in the summer, posting a .260/.304/.356 line with the first homer of his Major League career. In the eyes of Picollo, it likely won't be his last.

"He's a big guy," Picollo said. "He can run, he's got power. He's an excellent defender, he can really throw. And I still think there's some room for growth for him. I don't think he's quite done yet, even though he's 24 going on 25. I still think there's some things he's got to do that really will allow him to make that last jump and make him an everyday player in the big leagues."

Video: Storm Chasers' Gutierrez makes terrific play

Shortstop -- Clay DunganIdaho Falls (65 games): The Royals couldn't have asked for a better rookie campaign from Dungan -- literally. He led the entire organization with a .357 average for the Chukars after his selection in the ninth round of this year's Draft out of Indiana State. He ended up second in the Pioneer League in that category and in doubles with 19. Dungan finished the year out red-hot, logging a hit in 19 of his final 20 regular-season contests. He batted .217 and drove in four runs over six postseason games to help lead the Chukars' championship run.

"A very, very consistent performer," Picollo said. "I felt like, every night, it was two to three hits for him. Hit in the middle of the lineup. His approach is very advanced, his knowledge of the strike zone, his at-bats. His knowledge of what his strengths are is advanced. So I think that's why he went out and played as well as he did ... really everything and probably a little bit more than we expected in that first summer."

Outfielders

Khalil LeeNorthwest Arkansas (129 games): Lee's batting numbers stayed mostly the same as last year, but he took a tremendous leap on the basepaths to establish himself as one of the game's brightest young speedsters. Kansas City's fourth-ranked prospect swiped a career-high 53 bags for the Naturals, finishing third in all of the Minor Leagues and just seven shy of the top spot held by teammate Nick Heath, who spent much of the season one spot in front of him in the order.

Lee's raw speed had been undeniable to anyone who'd seen him play over his first three professional seasons, but he had never racked up more than 20 bases in a single year coming into 2019. The uptick in production, according to Picollo, came from a concerted effort to further weaponize his most valuable asset.

"He spent a lot of time in the offseason addressing running form and doing things that would allow him one to stay healthy, but two to maximize his speed and three how to apply it," Picollo said. "But he did all of those things. He worked hard in the offseason. He went in with a goal of 50 bags and he got it. ... He's a pretty dynamic player and can affect the game offensively in the batter's box, on the basepaths, and then defensively in the outfield with how he can go get a ball and his arm strength."

Video: Naturals' Lee's 50th steal

Michael GigliottiLexington (59 games), Wilmington (24 games), AZL Royals (four games): On the heels of a 2018 season in which he missed all but six games with an ACL injury, Gigliotti turned in a strong bounceback performance before his year once again was cut short. The club's No. 12 prospect batted .309/.394/.411 and stole 29 bases with the Legends to prompt a promotion to the Blue Rocks, where he hit .203 over 19 games. But he wound up on the injured list, not returning to Wilmington for more than a month for the final five games and the postseason.

The Royals were frustrated by the lost development time, but when Gigliotti was able to play, they loved what they saw -- both on the field and in the clubhouse.

"He brought sort of as much as you can have like a veteran type of presence," Picollo said. "He brought that just because he's always been a really mature kid. ... Guys going through Lexington for the first time, he became the guy that they were leaning on for some direction."

Brewer HicklenWilmington (125 games): Hicklen possesses the rare combination of promising power and speed, and he put it on display for all to see in 2019. The Royals' No. 15 prospect belted 14 homers and stole 39 bases with the Blue Rocks, logging a line of .263/.363/.427 with 70 runs and 51 RBIs. He posted a .105 average in the playoffs, but used his crafty skill set when the team needed it most to keep its championship aspirations alive.

"You look for speed/power combos, there's really not a lot of those guys walking the earth," Picollo joked. "And he does have some power, and he does have some speed. ... In very much a pitcher-friendly park this year, there were some good things that we saw out of him. He was able to hit some home runs. I think his home run numbers will go up in the next ballparks he plays in. But he does know how to steal a base, he does know when to use his speed. He can go play center field if you need him to. He's a well-rounded player."

Honorable mention: Nick Heath led the Minors with 60 stolen bases between Northwest Arkansas and Omaha, posting a line of .255/.345/.387.

Offseason MiLB include

Utility player: Erick MejiaOmaha (128 games), Kansas City (nine games): Mejia was a Swiss army knife with the glove, appearing at five different positions in the Minors and three over his nine games in the Majors. He spent almost equal time at each spot, playing between 20 and 40 games at second base, third, shortstop and in the outfield. He was no slouch with the bat either with a slash line of .271/.339/.382, seven homers, 83 runs and 63 RBIs.

"He's probably our most versatile player when you look at it," Picollo said. "He can play shortstop, center field, obviously go to third and second that's easy for him, left and right, easy for him. And he's got a speed component and he's a switch hitter. So everything you would look for in a utility player, he possesses those skills."

Right-handed starter: Brady SingerNorthwest Arkansas (16 games), Wilmington (10 games): After being shut down for all of last season following the Draft, Singer finally made his long-awaited debut in 2019 and lived up to the hype. Kansas City's second-ranked prospect posted a 1.87 ERA over his first 10 starts with Wilmington, ending his time with the Blue Rocks with three straight scoreless outings. He then jumped to the Naturals, where he logged a 3.47 ERA over his final 16 starts, and after some early struggles, established himself as one of the best hurlers in the Texas League.

"He did exactly what you would hope he would do," Picollo said. "Once he settled in at both [levels], it was pretty much dominant performances on a nightly basis."

Singer's rise could certainly be categorized as meteoric, but it definitely didn't come as a surprise to the club.

"I don't think we were real surprised that he moved quickly ... nothing felt like, 'Wow, this is happening fast,'" Picollo said. "It felt like it was happening at the right time."

Video: Naturals' Singer fans Taylor

Left-handed starter: Kris BubicWilmington (17 games), Lexington (nine games): Bubic may not have gotten as much buzz as Singer, but he proved he's just as formidable of an arm by leading all of the Minors in strikeouts with 185. The club's No. 6 prospect split time between two levels, starting off with Lexington, where he logged a 4-1 record with a 2.08 ERA in nine starts -- whiffing 75 batters over 47 2/3 frames. That spurred the promotion to Wilmington, and he went 7-4 mark with a 2.30 ERA over his last 17 outings -- fanning 110 batters over 101 2/3 innings.

It was a significant statistical improvement for Bubic, who logged a 4.03 ERA as a rookie with Idaho Falls in 2018. But once again, Kansas City was expecting the leap to come.

"He was outstanding," Picollo said. "He's very mature, very smart. When guys come to us with very good self evaluation and awareness, they tend to move faster. And he knew what he did well, he knew what he didn't do well. ... He's pretty advanced."

Video: Legends' Bubic's 12th K

Relief pitcher: Brandon MarklundLexington (24 games): Marklund's path to the Organization All-Stars was vastly different than that of anyone else selected across the Minors. After growing up in Canada, the right-hander ended up nearly 40 hours southeast at Bryan College, a small private school in Tennessee. He went undrafted after spending four seasons with the Lions, eventually leading him to the Australian Baseball League, where he joined the Auckland Tuatara for their inaugural season. Marklund dazzled in his time down under, posting a 2.29 ERA over 14 relief appearances to catch the eyes of a handful of Major League clubs, including the Royals.

"Our scouts saw him and said, 'Hey, we've got to sign this kid,'" Picollo said.

That proved to be a wise decision. Marklund was even better in his first season in the Minors than in Australia, finishing with a microscopic 0.46 ERA over 24 appearances with Lexington. He went with six saves in seven opportunities, striking out 44 over 39 1/3 innings. Once the Royals saw their rookie throw, they knew they had stumbled upon a tremendous talent.

"Spring Training, we had seen him through four or five innings, you don't really have a great understanding of how he stacks up against the other competition," Picollo said. "But once he got into extended spring and we started seeing him a lot, our coaches said, 'Hey, this guy is really good.'"

Jordan Wolf is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter: @byjordanwolf. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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