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Princely trio of sluggers ready to become Royals

Witt, Melendez, Pratto put up dominant numbers at upper levels
MJ Melendez (left) and Bobby Witt Jr. combined for 74 home runs during the 2021 regular season. (Minda Haas Kuhlmann/Omaha Storm Chasers)
@SamDykstraMiLB
November 19, 2021

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 Royals are coming ... the Royals are coming! The backbone of Kansas

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 Royals are coming ... the Royals are coming!

The backbone of Kansas City's previous run at contention -- the one that produced back-to-back World Series appearances and a 2015 title -- was homegrown talent, and it's easy to see something similar being built in the club's farm system now. The Royals claim four of MLB Pipeline's Top 100 prospects -- No. 3 Bobby Witt Jr., No. 65 Nick Pratto, No. 66 Asa Lacy and No. 67 MJ Melendez -- and all of them have the ability to reach the Majors next season. Witt, Pratto and Melendez, in particular, could easily use the momentum established during their massive 2021 seasons to arrive in the first half and contribute to the Major League lineup right away, particularly when it comes to the trio's power potential.

KC's Minor League depth doesn't stop at the Top 100, and that bore out in their full-season team performances. Double-A Northwest Arkansas (64-55) and High-A Quad Cities (77-41) each won their respective league championships, while Triple-A Omaha (73-56) gave the organization three affiliates that finished comfortably above .500. The River Bandits, in particular, were nominated for a Best Team MiLBY and boast six of the 11 Organization All-Stars below.

"Winning accelerates development," said Northwest Arkansas manager Scott Thorman. "Learning how to play in tight games, meaningful games, pressure-cooker situations builds confidence. It puts young players in better positions to step into the big leagues and find success."

The pieces are in place for the Royals to supplement Salvador Perez, Whit Merrifield and Nicky Lopez at the top level, and it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Major League club's next run to contention begin as early as next summer.

Royals Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- MJ Melendez, Double-A Northwest Arkansas (79 games), Triple-A Omaha (44 games): The last time Royals fans saw the 2017 second-rounder, he was hitting .163 with nine homers and a 39.4 percent K rate at Class A Advanced Wilmington back in 2019. It would be a massive understatement to say he turned those numbers around this season. Melendez finished as the Minor League home run leader with 41 blasts at the upper levels. His .625 slugging percentage, 1.011 OPS and 162 wRC+ led Royals full-season qualifiers, while his .386 OBP placed third. Melendez managed the power jump while cutting down his strikeout rate to 21.7 percent, so he wasn't just hacking his way to homers. A revamped approach and a toned-down leg kick fueled the uptick in performance.

"The biggest thing for MJ was his direction and that leg kick," Thorman said. "He's always had the power. It was just a matter of making it all click. That was his timing and working with [hitting instructor] Alec Zumwalt and our development guys. I think the alternate site last year really helped him to take a step back and retool some things, and he flourished this year."

Combine Melendez's offensive improvements with his plus defensive skills -- exhibited by a 31 percent caught-stealing rate -- and you've got one of the best catching prospects in the game.

First baseman -- Nick Pratto, Northwest Arkansas (61 games), Omaha (63 games): Pratto was in a similar boat with Melendez based on his 2019 performance, but the Royals had circled him as a breakout candidate well before Opening Day in May. The 2017 first-rounder focused on pitch selection and an approach aimed at maximizing damage, and the results came quickly. Pratto finished second in the Minors with 36 homers and 71 total extra-base hits and produced a .265/.385/.602 line over 545 plate appearances at the top two levels. That's a far cry from his .191/.278/.310 line and nine homers at Wilmington two years ago.

"It wasn't so much trying to redefine his swing or make over his swing, but more about pitch selection," Royals assistant general manager of player personnel J.J. Picollo told MLB.com. "What am I trying to do with certain pitches? That adjustment has changed his swing to where it looks more like it did in high school. He got a little too inside-out. Balls he hit to left field were lazy flyballs. Now, he drives the ball to left field. He's turning on balls. ... It's a completely different kid."

Pratto's cake of a season got some additional icing last week when he was named a Minor League Gold Glove winner at first base. The award backs up his plus-plus glove tool grade at a position people don't often associate with defense.

"He's like a shortstop at first base," Thorman said. "It just happens that he's left-handed. He's light on his feet. He moves well. He has soft hands. He throws well. He does everything well."

Honorable mention: Vinnie Pasquantino likely would have made the first-base spot in the majority of other Organization All-Star lists. He ranked second among all Minor Leaguers with 37 doubles and placed sixth with 64 extra-base hits in 116 games, split almost evenly between Quad Cities and Northwest Arkansas. He hit .300/.394/.563 in 513 plate appearances.

Second baseman -- Michael Massey, Quad Cities (99 games): Speaking of Gold Glove winners, the Royals had a pair of them on the right side of the infield when Massey was rewarded for his work at the keystone. The 2019 fourth-rounder proved he can hit, too. He ranked among the top three High-A Central hitters in batting average (.289), slugging percentage (.531), OPS (.882) and home runs (21) over 439 plate appearances with the River Bandits. He achieved all of that while making a solid amount of contact with a 15.5 percent K rate that ranked sixth-best among Royals qualified full-season Minor Leaguers.

The 23-year-old finished his first full season as Kansas City's No. 28 prospect but put himself in a position for a climb in those rankings come offseason updates.

Third baseman -- Nick Loftin, Quad Cities (90 games): Finding a spot for Loftin was tricky here. He made 47 starts at shortstop, but a certain top prospect was a lock there. He also saw time at second base and third, so here's where he'll slot in. Loftin certainly deserved Org All-Star consideration for his production in his first full season after going 32nd overall in the 2020 Draft. The Baylor product won the High-A East Central batting title with a .289 average (edging Massey) and placed fifth with a .373 OBP and .837 OPS. His 130 wRC+ placed sixth among Royals full-season qualifiers, behind only four other Org All-Stars and Pasquantino.

Finding Loftin a long-term defensive home could be a good challenge for Kansas City brass, given who else already mans the Major and Minor League dirt. The offensive foundation he established in 2021 will only motivate that hunt.

Shortstop -- Bobby Witt Jr., Northwest Arkansas (61 games), Omaha (62 games): There was lots of talk about Witt in the spring when he showed off his sky-high ceiling in the Cactus League, months after the Royals had said he was an alternate-site standout. He matched that hype in almost every way in his first taste of full-season ball. The only thing missing was a Major League debut (OK, and maybe one more stolen base).

Witt was one theft shy of becoming the Minors' only 30-30 player in 2021 and instead finished with 33 homers and 29 steals at the top two levels. His 72 total extra-base hits were most among all Minor Leaguers, just beating out Pratto, while his 286 total bases placed second. He hit .290/.361/.575 over 564 plate appearances -- numbers that jump out even more considering this was just his age-21 season. With ample defensive gifts as well, Witt is in the conversation to be the game's top overall prospect, and he enters 2022 as a big piece of Kansas City's immediate and long-term future.

"I think it's tough describing Bobby. Bobby is Bobby," Thorman said. "There aren't a lot of comparables. He is one of those people that is exceedingly driven to be the best. He works out every day. He comes to play. He gets better in a hurry. He adjusts in at-bats as well as anybody I've ever seen. At such a young age to be as advanced as he is, the sky's the limit."

Outfielders

John Rave, Quad Cities (77 games): The 2019 fifth-rounder was known for his plus speed coming out of Illinois State, and like so many on this list, he was able to surprise with a little bit of pop as well in his first taste of High-A ball. Rave hit 14 homers and stole 13 bags in 77 games with the River Bandits, making him one of five 13-13 players in the system this season. His .805 OPS and 121 wRC+ both ranked 10th among High-A Central qualifiers. Some of that pop could go away against upper-level arms, considering he struck out 28.9 percent of the time this season, but Rave's speed and defensive ability in center could help him carve out a place as a fourth outfielder in the Majors some day.

Kyle Isbel, Omaha (105 games), Kansas City (28 games): Isbel was a bit of a surprise as the Royals' Opening Day right fielder. He spent 12 games with the big club in April, moved back down to Omaha in May and proceeded to spend roughly an entire full season with the Storm Chasers before heading back to the bigs in September. He was solid at Triple-A, hitting .269/.357/.444 with 15 homers and 22 steals in 105 games. He and Rays prospect Josh Lowe were Triple-A East's only two 15-20 players during the 2021 season. Isbel's .286/.362/.524 line in his 16 September games with the Royals should help his case to play a larger Major League role heading into 2022.

Ryan McBroom, Omaha (115 games), Kansas City (seven games): Sure, McBroom played only 18 games in the corner outfield spots, but that's enough to give him a deserving home on this list. While the prospect-eligible stars grabbed plenty of headlines, McBroom made his own noise with 32 homers in 115 games for the Storm Chasers, which would lead most other systems. (It tied him for fifth-most in the Minors.) With the other firepower in place, it ranked fourth among Royals Minor League sluggers.

The 29-year-old added a .261/.337/.524 line to his Triple-A resume, and his constant production in Omaha earned him two stints in The Show. The Royals released McBroom in early November with the expectation that he'll sign with an Asian team and take his slugging talents abroad.

Right-handed starting pitcher -- Jackson Kowar, Omaha (17 games, 16 starts), Kansas City (nine games, eight starts): The Royals named Kowar their Minor League Pitcher of the Year, and rarely have the words "Minor League" been so important given how his season ultimately played out. The 2018 33rd overall pick was one of Triple-A's most effective pitchers during his stints with Omaha. Kowar led Triple-A pitchers (minimum 80 innings) with a 34 percent strikeout rate and 3.05 FIP in 80 2/3 frames. He posted a 3.46 ERA (eighth-best) and 1.24 WHIP in that same span. The former Florida Gator thrived with a plus fastball and plus-plus changeup at the Minors' top level, ultimately earning his first callup to The Show in June.

“His fastball command has been outstanding,” Picollo said ahead of Kowar's Major League debut. “And that’s really where it starts for every pitcher. His changeup has been dominating at times, like we’ve always known, that’s his go-to pitch. But I think the difference is, there’s been nights where he didn’t have the dominating changeup, but he had a really good curveball.”

Kowar couldn't find the same consistency in the Majors as top-level batters learned to sit on the changeup and forced him to throw strikes with his heater. His 11.29 ERA and 2.08 WHIP in 30 1/3 innings sting for now, but the 25-year-old continued to show enough promise with an improving slider to give Kansas City hope he can contribute more steadily in 2022.

Left-handed starting pitcher -- Drew Parrish, Quad Cities (four games, one start), Northwest Arkansas (18 games, 17 starts): The Royals moved Parrish quickly up the chain after he opened with 15 2/3 scoreless innings (featuring 23 K's and three walks) at Quad Cities. The 5-foot-11 southpaw lasted with Northwest Arkansas the rest of the way and held his own. Parrish led Double-A Central pitchers (minimum 80 innings) with a 1.08 WHIP in the circuit, and his 3.36 ERA placed fifth among the same group. He fanned 95 in his 83 frames.

Though he won't light up a radar gun, the Florida State alum thrives most on the use of his above-average changeup, and his early success helped earn him a spot on Team USA during Olympic qualifiers.

"There's a lot of polish," Thorman said. "Adding, subtracting, going north-south and east-west. He really knows how to pitch. He isn't scared of anything. He wants the ball, and he really did a nice job for us."

Relief pitcher -- Will Klein, Quad Cities (36 games): The 2020 fifth-rounder started and relieved during his college days at Eastern Illinois, and while his placement here would indicate that he did more of the latter this season, his 70 1/3 innings was closer to a starter's workload.

Twenty-four of Klein's 36 appearances for Quad Cities lasted two innings or more, and five reached a minimum of three frames. Klein was effective when working his way through a lineup once. He struck out 40.9 percent of the batters he faced while finishing with a 3.20 ERA, 2.99 FIP and 1.24 WHIP. Opposing High-A hitters batted only .171 against him. Control issues hampered the 6-foot-5 hurler at times with a 14.9 percent walk rate, but the level of swing-and-miss with his plus fastball and decent curveball bring lots of optimism for Klein's future, regardless of precise role.

Sam Dykstra is a reporter for MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @SamDykstraMiLB.