We have somehow made it to the offseason. I am still shocked that the season flew by this quickly. It feels like just yesterday it was April and I was getting ready to watch the Royals home opener against the Texas Rangers. But all good things come to an end and that just means we get the excitement of the end-of-the-year prospect awards. The Kansas City Royals named Bobby Witt, Jr. (shocking no one) and Jackson Kowar the organization 2021 Minor League Hitter and Pitcher of the year. Both are well-deserving. I will do a deep dive on both of these players as well as highlight some other Royals prospects who are the 2021 Players and Pitchers of the Year for the Minor League Affiliates.
2021 Organizational Player and Pitcher of the Year
Bobby Witt, Jr., SS
I am not sure how much more I can add to the hype already behind Witt, Jr. He has all the tools that you want in a major leaguer. The No. 2 overall pick has more than shown he was worth taking that high in the 2019 MLB Draft. The Royals were aggressive with the 21-year-olds assignments in his first pro season starting him in Double-A. He did nothing but rake there hitting .295 with 16 home runs, 51 RBI, and 14 stolen bases earning himself a promotion to Triple-A where he kept flat out terrorizing the pitchers there too.
— Omaha Storm Chasers (@OMAStormChasers) October 1, 2021
Witt, Jr. finished the year joining the 30-30-30 club in doubles, home runs, and stolen bases. There is only one Royals minor-league player to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bags in a season and that was Alex Gordon in 2006. There were thoughts that he could debut this year, but the Royals ultimately decided to hold off debuting him in 2021. Regardless, Witt, Jr. is going to be the cornerstone for the Royals for years to come and he will most definitely debut in 2022. He is my #1 prospect in all of baseball and the ceiling is through the roof for this kid.
Jackson Kowar, RHP
Kowar’s stuff is absolutely ELECTRIC. The 2018 first-round pick out of the University of Florida and Brady Singer’s college teammate was striking out batters at a 34% clip while posting 3.46 ERA across 80.2 innings. When I watched some videos from his minor league starts, his changeup is unbelievably nasty and had a 70 grade coming out of the draft. He was constantly able to keep hitters off-balance with that pitch.
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) July 4, 2021
Kowar made his debut this year and it was a bit rough. He sported an 11.28 ERA across 26.1 innings with a 6.49 BB/9 in the big leagues. Those numbers let you know he was dealing with a lot of command and control issues. I still believe in the ability of Kowar to stick as a starter. He has improved his curveball a bit and his fastball can overpower hitters if he can spot it up. The start of Kowar’s career reminds me a bit of Lucas Giolito who faced some of the same issues early on in his career. Look for Kowar to improve on his command during the offseason and spring training. Chances are he potentially starts 2022 in the Royals rotation, but he could also get some more seasoning in Triple-A.
2021 Players and Pitchers of the Year for the Minor League Affiliates
Jon Heasley, RHP (Northwest Arkansas Pitcher of the Year)
Heasley also made his debut in 2021. Drafted in the 13th round of the 2018 MLB Draft, the 24-year-old right-hander out of Oklahoma State made the jump from Double-A to the bigs this year. Just add him to the absurd solid arms the Royals drafted that year. Heasley has thrown nine innings in two starts while striking out five this year and carrying a 3.86 ERA in the majors. Before debuting, he allowed three earned runs or less in all of his starts for the Northwest Arkansas Naturals. Heasley doesn’t carry overpowering stuff but can pound the strike zone and shows a good command of his offspeed pitches. He has a shot to stick as a starter but with all of Royals’ prospect arms could find himself in the bullpen.
MJ Melendez, C (Northwest Arkansas Hitter of the Year)
Just another Royals bat who skyrocketed up prospect boards this year. Melendez was your Prospects1500 2021 Minor League Catcher of the Year as well. He led all of the minor leagues with 41 home runs and ranked second in RBI with 99. For the Naturals, he slashed .285/.372/.628 with a .999 OPS. Melendez quickly skyrocketed to #2 on my Royals’ top prospects list sandwiched in between Bobby Witt, Jr. and Nick Pratto. He is another Royals prospect who should make his major league debut in 2022. With Salvador Perez manning the dish there are some questions where he might play but if his bat stays as loud as it has been, it will be very difficult to not find him a spot.
#Royals No. 4 prospect MJ Melendez continues to tack on to his Minor League best tater tally.
— Minor League Baseball (@MiLB) September 26, 2021
Anthony Veneziano, LHP (Quad Cities Pitcher of the Year)
Veneziano was a ton of fun to watch while covering High-A Central this year. For those who threw 70 or more innings in High-A central, Veneziano was ranked #2 in strikeout rate at 32.3% just behind his teammate Will Klein (40.9%). The 2019 tenth overall pick out of Coastal Carolina was tied for the High-A central lead in strikeouts. He has some big velocity with his fastball sitting 95-97 mph but struggles a bit with command and control. Those struggles may keep him from being a starter, but in my eyes, Veneziano has the stuff to be a big reliever and he will be very exciting to watch develop in 2022.
Vinnie Pasquantino, 1B (Quad Cities Hitter of the Year)
I think we can give the most underrated prospect award to Pasquantino this year. I mean the guy just flat-out hits. Opening the year for the River Bandits, he slashed .291/.384/.563 with 13 home runs and 42 RBI earning himself a promotion to Double-A when other Royals’ first base prospect Nick Pratto was sent to Double-A. The left-handed hitter didn’t stop raking there, ending the year hitting .300 with 24 home runs, 84 RBI, and a .957 OPS. The craziest statistic Pasquantino sports was his absurd 12.5% strikeout rate to go along with a 12.5% walk rate. That’s right, he had as many strikeouts (64) as walks (64). With Nick Pratto and all of the other Royals prospect talent, Pasquantino could be slated for a DH role but the bat is too good not to have in a lineup. He most likely starts next year at Triple-A.
Lol…These swings are on three consecutive pitches from Vinnie Pasquantino. Finally straightened the third one out for HR #24. 🤌🏼 pic.twitter.com/8yk9qui9hM
— Royals Farm Report (@RoyalsFarm) September 17, 2021
Emilio Marquez, LHP (Columbia Pitcher of the Year)
Marquez put up some interesting numbers this year going 6-1 with a 1.86 ERA and striking out 87 batters in 63 innings. That led to a 12.43 K/9 and he paired that with a solid 6.3% walk rate. Marquez struggled to adjust to the competition in High-A but he only had four games to try and do so. He has a deceptive delivery, doesn’t carry much velocity behind his fastball, and likely ends up as a reliever. I expect Marquez will start 2022 right where he left off in High-A.
Maikel Garcia, SS (Columbia Hitter of the Year)
Garcia caught me by surprise while covering High-A Central. The shortstop out of Venezuela slashed .291/.380/.405 with 21 doubles, seven triples, four homers, and 35 stolen bases. His hit tool is so much better than advertised as he had a ridiculously low 15.2% strikeout rate between Low-A and High-A. He makes up for his lack of power with his ability to get on base and the great speed he showed off all year long. He should start 2022 in Double-A and has the chance to be just another good middle infield prospect the Royals can add to their list.