The next wave: As club looks forward, a glance at the next generation of Royals

Catcher Chase Vallot battled injuries in 2016 but is a highly-regarded prospect in Class A.
Catcher Chase Vallot battled injuries in 2016 but is a highly-regarded prospect in Class A.

Six years ago, the Royals had the best farm system in baseball. Nine of the club’s players ranked among the top 100 prospects in the game, according to Baseball America, the gold standard for prospect evaluations. Five ranked in the top 20, a record at the time.

At the forefront of the wave was a first baseman named Eric Hosmer, a third baseman named Mike Moustakas, an outfielder named Wil Myers and pitchers Danny Duffy, Mike Montgomery and John Lamb.

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The Royals would use the wealth of young talent and assets to appear in the World Series in 2014 and win a world championship in 2015. Some of those prospects, such as Hosmer, Moustakas and Duffy, would be on the field, while others, such as Myers, Montgomery and Lamb, would be used in trades for other players. The process was a success.

In 2017, the Royals do not have the best farm system in baseball. After stripping the system in trades, missing on first-round picks and winning at the big-league level — which has forced the club to pick lower in the draft — the Royals’ minor-league system ranks somewhere in the bottom third of baseball.

While acknowledging that the talent pool is smaller, club officials remain bullish about the future and confident in the processes that brought a championship to Kansas City.

They point to a strong scouting department and international program. They point to the fact that some young talent is often overlooked. For instance: catcher Salvador Perez, reliever Kelvin Herrera and starter Yordano Ventura — who died in an auto accident in January — weren’t even included in that 2011 rankings list, and prospect evaluators often tend to miss low draft picks and cheaper international signings.

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“I like the hunger of our players,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said. “I like the hunger in them. I like their desire to compete. We’ve got guys that have upside.”

The Royals’ farm system is in a different place now. But the reality remains: If the franchise seeks to sustain success and remain a playoff contender after the possible departure of some core players next offseason, it will do so by developing and churning out homegrown talent.

The following list is a glance at the next wave of talent, the players who might be part of that future. The list is based on conversations with Royals officials and other industry experts. It is divided into those players close to the big leagues and some who are three, four and even five years away.

It also includes reliever Matt Strahm and infielder Raul Mondesi, two players who debuted in recent seasons but could help the Royals for years to come.

Finally, it is not comprehensive, nor is it perfect. The beauty of baseball is that a hidden talent always emerges. But here it is, the next wave, coming soon to Kauffman Stadium.

On the cusp of the majors

1. Raul Mondesi, 21, INF, 6-1, 185: Still the highest-ceiling talent in the organization, Mondesi debuted in the 2015 World Series and, after a suspension related to performance-enhancing drugs, played in 47 games for the Royals last year, batting .185 with a .231 on-base percentage. He will be the starting second baseman on Opening Day. The Royals believe Mondesi is a true five-tool talent. But the offensive production has never quite materialized, even in the minors. Before he reached the majors, Mondesi had a reputation for believing he could hit anything. Club officials are hopeful that better pitch recognition and pitch selection will unleash the talent in what could be the franchise’s shortstop of the future.

2. Josh Staumont, 23, RHP, 6-3, 200: A second-round pick in 2015, Staumont possesses a fastball that can touch 100 mph, a plus curveball and an emerging change-up. A total lack of command made him available in the second round. But to this point, he’s beaten internal projections and will begin 2017 at Class AA Northwest Arkansas or Class AAA Omaha. Staumont has the pure stuff of a frontline starting pitcher — if he can harness his command. But for now, he could be used as a flame-throwing reliever in 2017.

Kansas City Royals prospect Josh Staumont got a chance to see what big league spring training is all about, in hopes of one day having his number called up to the majors.

3. Matt Strahm, 25, LHP, 6-3, 185: By now, Strahm is no secret. A former late-round pick who underwent Tommy John surgery early in his career, Strahm debuted in the majors last season and dominated as a reliever. He added a slider this spring, and club officials believe he could still return to a starting role at some point.

4. Eric Skoglund, 24, LHP, 6-7, 200: Skoglund, a third-round pick out of Central Florida in 2014, has been a fast-mover despite battling injuries. In his first full season in 2015, he was nearly promoted to Class AA Northwest Arkansas but strained an oblique and missed the second half of the season. Last year, he posted a 3.45 ERA in 27 starts at Northwest Arkansas. He came to big-league camp, but a minor back strain kept him out of games. The Royals believe he would’ve opened eyes. He will pitch this season at Class AAA Omaha and is getting close.

5. Hunter Dozier, 25, 3B/OF, 6-4, 220: A first-round pick in 2009, Dozier posted a strong season at Northwest Arkansas and Omaha last season before receiving a September call-up. A third baseman, Dozier has also worked in the outfield to add to his versatility. But for now, he lacks an opportunity at the big-league level.

6. Jorge Bonifacio, 23, OF, 6-1, 220: Bonifacio is set for a return trip to Omaha after batting .277 with a .351 on-base percentage and 19 homers for the Storm Chasers last season. He struggled in winter ball, but Royals officials liked the development he gained there. He impressed again during his stay at big-league camp. A corner outfielder, he remains blocked by the presence of Alex Gordon and Jorge Soler. But he could be positioned for a promotion if there is an injury in the outfield.

7. Kyle Zimmer, 25, RHP, 6-3, 230: The question: Can Zimmer, a first-round pick in 2012, remain healthy? After surgery last summer to address thoracic outlet syndrome — a nerve issue in his shoulder — Zimmer returned to big-league camp. If he can retain his velocity, the Royals believe he has the stuff to contribute this season. A role in Kansas City would likely come in the bullpen. But club officials are hoping he can remain a starter for now.

Royals Kyle Zimmer says pain is gone 

8. Donnie Dewees, 23, OF, 5-11, 180: Acquired from the Cubs in the offseason for right-hander Alec Mills, Dewees was drafted in the second round in 2015 out of North Florida. The Royals say he opened eyes during the early days of minor-league camp with his ability to play center field and his two-strike approach. He posted a .338 on-base percentage with 31 stolen bases at two A-ball levels last season. He will open the season at Northwest Arkansas.

9. Ryan O’Hearn, 23, 1B, 6-3, 200: One of the best offensive prospects in the KC system, O’Hearn is a career .288 hitter with an .867 on-base-plus-slugging percentage during four seasons in the minor leagues. Drafted in the eighth round out of Sam Houston State, O’Hearn has developed his power since he joined the organization. Club officials believe he has a future in the big leagues.

10. Cameron Gallagher, 24, C, 6-3, 230: Gallagher has slowly moved up the minor-league ladder since being selected as a high school catcher in the second round of the 2011 draft. He batted .259 with a .348 on-base percentage in 91 games last season at Northwest Arkansas, but club officials remain high on his potential. Royals manager Ned Yost also praised his performance during this year’s spring training camp.

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11. Jake Junis, 24, RHP, 6-2, 225: The Royals believe Junis, a 29th-round pick who signed for over-slot money in 2011, can someday help the club as a starting pitcher or long man in the bullpen. His velocity maxes out in the low 90s, but his pitches have solid movement and action. He will likely pitch at Class AAA Omaha this season.

12. Bubba Starling, 24, OF, 6-5, 210: The wait has been long, but the Royals still express confidence that Starling can be a valuable big-league player based on his defense alone. The catch: Club officials concede that he has to hit. The No. 5 overall pick in 2011, Starling batted .183 with 145 strikeouts at Northwest Arkansas and Omaha last season.

Still a few years away from the bigs

1. Samir Duenez, 20, 1B, 6-1, 195: Duenez, a native of Venezuela, is young (20) and has shown great potential with the bat. He advanced to Class AA Northwest Arkansas last season and held his own at the plate. He will likely return to Northwest Arkansas this year.

2. A.J. Puckett, 21, RHP, 6-4, 200: Without a first-round selection last year, the Royals selected Puckett in the second round, their highest pick in the draft. He signed quickly and finished the season at Low-A Lexington, posting a 3.66 ERA in 11 starts. He remains a few years away from the big leagues and will start this season at Class A Wilmington.

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3. Chase Vallot, 20, C, 6-0, 215: Selected in the competitive-balance round in 2014, Vallot was a high school catching prospect with advanced skills at the plate. The Royals believe Vallot will hit. And he displayed some of those gifts during a stint in big-league camp. There are more questions about his defense. And he’s young. It could be another three to four years before he is ready for the big leagues.

4. Scott Blewett, 20, RHP, 6-6, 210: A big right-hander, Blewett possesses high upside, but much of that potential is a projection for now. A second-round pick in 2014, he’s struggled with walks in the low minors, issuing 51 in 129  1/3 innings at Class A Lexington. But he also struck out 121 and is well thought of inside the organization.

5. Nicky Lopez, 22, SS, 5-11, 175: Drafted in the fifth round out of Creighton last summer, Lopez has been “phenomenal,” in the words of one club official. He batted .281 with a .393 on-base percentage and six homers in 62 games at rookie-league Burlington. He will begin this season at Class A Wilmington and could be three years away from the big leagues. His bat could need more seasoning and development. But he’s drawn high marks for his defense at shortstop.

6. Khalil Lee, 18, CF, 5-10, 170: Here’s a long-distance flier: Lee was just 17 when he was drafted in the third round last year out of Virginia. He spent 49 games in the Arizona Rookie League and posted a .396 on-base percentage and .880 OPS. The Royals are still trying to decide whether to send him to a full-season affiliate this year. But he has displayed great hitting tools and characteristics.

7. Foster Griffin, 21, LHP, 6-3, 200: Similar to Blewett, Griffin is another high-upside arm still working on getting results at the minor-league level. A first-round pick in 2014, Griffin posted solid numbers at Lexington before struggling at Class A Wilmington last year.

8. Meibrys Viloria, 20, C, 5-11, 175: Signed out of Cartagena, Colombia, for $400,000 in 2013, Viloria spent part of 2014 playing in the Dominican Summer League before graduating to Rookie League Burlington (N.C.) for portions of 2014 and 2015. His offensive game took off last season at Rookie League Idaho Falls. Viloria hit .376 with a .436 on-base percentage and .606 slugging percentage. The Royals believe he has the capacity to hit in the long term.