With the regular season concluding, we've decided to take a look at each team's future -- not by using a crystal ball or other psychic abilities, but by evaluating their farm systems. Below you'll find our ranking of the top five prospects in the organization -- sorted by perceived future potential -- as well as five other players who fit various categories. Those categories are:
2020 contributor: A player who is likely to play a role for the big-league team next season.
Analyst's pick: A player who is a strong statistical performer and/or whose underlying measures are better than the scouting reports suggest.
Riser: A player on the way up.
Faller: A player on the way down.
One to watch: An interesting player to keep in mind (for whatever reason).
These rankings were compiled after talking with various industry sources about the systems (and players) in question. It should be acknowledged that this process is more art than science, and that there are limits to ordinal rankings. Still, it's an intuitive system, and our hope is that the write-ups will answer any questions by providing additional context and analysis of each player -- such as their pluses and minuses; the risk factors involved; and their estimated arrival date.
One last word on eligibility: we're following MLB's rookie guidelines by disqualifying any player with more than 130 big-league at-bats or 50 innings pitched.
The Kansas City Royals have used a lot of draft capital on college pitching the past couple years. Those arms should start arriving soon, but the Royals are still a ways off from turning things around -- even with a second consecutive top-five pick coming next June.
1. Bobby Witt Jr, SS
Most people reading this are probably familiar with Bobby Witt Jr.'s essential background details -- e.g. him being selected No. 2 in June's draft; his father being a longtime big-league pitcher; and so on. We'll forego the redundancy in favor of saving precious seconds and bandwidth.
Witt's biggest fans point to his broad base of tools. He can throw, he can run, and he's expected to stick at shortstop. What's supposed to separate Witt from the typical six-holer is the well-above-average raw power he generates from his 6-foot-1 frame and simple swing. Dating back to the last round of expansion, there have been only eight shortstops with multiple 20-20 seasons -- Witt may eventually add his name to the list.
Witt's biggest detractors have a few key talking points of their own. Foremost, they point to the swing-and-miss present in his game. As a result, Witt's hit tool may play below-average at the big-league level, potentially hampering his ability to maximize his strength. There's also the matter of his age -- Witt will turn 20 on Flag Day, which is on the older side for a prep draftee.
Disagreements about Witt's ceiling aside, it should be acknowledged that his secondary skills alleviate some pressure from his bat. He may or may not develop into a star-level performer, but he should reach the majors in some capacity -- with a fair chance of being at least a regular.
2. Jackson Kowar, RHP
Here's how it was determined that Jackson Kowar, and not Daniel Lynch, would be ranked No. 2 on this list: Kowar won the spot not by virtue of inspiring better reports, but by having success at a higher level. That's it. That's all. (As fascinating as it is scientific, right?)
Anyhow, Kowar split the season between High- and Double-A, and posted a 3.51 ERA and a 3.71 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 13 starts at the latter. (Lynch, for his part, made 15 starts in High-A.) Kowar is listed at 6-foot-5 and looks like he should be able to handle a 30-start workload. Blah blah. The most interesting thing about Kowar is how he needs to work on a third pitch.
Generally that's scout for "get a better changeup." Not here. Kowar already has a good changeup to go with his above-average fastball. What he needs is a breaking ball, or perhaps a cutter. This is the Edgertronic era, baby, and theoretically he should be able to figure out something bendy to toss at batters to keep them honest. Alternatively, it's become more socially acceptable (and viable) for right-handers to lean heavy on their fastball-changeup combo.
This season, six right-handed starters with 100-plus innings threw at least 80 percent fastballs-plus-changeups, per FanGraphs: Kyle Hendricks, Chris Paddack, Zach Davies, Luis Castillo, Lucas Giolito, and Trevor Richards. Some of those pitchers have better fastballs than Kowar, and some have better changeups. But on the whole, it's a group that bodes well for Kowar.
3. Daniel Lynch, LHP
As for Daniel Lynch, he's a tall southpaw who has gained velocity since his collegiate days. His fastball is his best offering, but he shows average or better potential for a handful of other offerings. Provided he can find more consistency -- with those pitches and his command -- he should become at least a mid-rotation starter in due time.
If Lynch can live up to that promise, he'll likely go down as the most prolific MLB pitcher from the University of Virginia.
Presently, that distinction belongs to Nationals closer Sean Doolittle, who should eclipse 10 career Wins Above Replacement over the next year. The only other Cavalier pitcher with more than five career WAR is longtime left-handed specialist Javier Lopez, per Baseball-Reference.
UVA's lack of success on the mound is odd, but isn't from a lack of opportunity. The Cavaliers have had 11 pitchers selected in the top five rounds of the draft since 2010, including three in the first round. None of them currently hold rotation spots.
4. Khalil Lee, OF
Khalil Lee had himself a bizarre season that's likely to serve as a point of contention between those who look only at the results versus those more interested in their predictive value.
Lee spent the year in Double-A, having first reached the level late in 2018. On the surface, he improved. His batting average and on-base and slugging percentages all increased by at least 15 points. His walk rate and ISO ticked up, too, albeit by just one point in the latter's case. All of that is progress, right? The odd part, though, is that all his underlying metrics went the other direction. His strikeout rate increased by five percentage points; he pulled the ball far less often, going the other way more; and he hit grounders slightly more than he did in his previous cameo.
Whatever you make of Lee's year, he's an intriguing prospect. He has the potential to sport five average or better tools when all is said and done, and could offer an intriguing blend of power and speed, the latter evidenced by his 53 steals.
Why isn't Lee higher then? Because there is plenty of room for volatility in the profile. It's possible Lee swings and misses too much, limiting his average; or that his power plays only as the gap variety; or that he ends up in right field rather than center; and so on. As such, there's no telling what exactly he'll look like by the time he settles into the majors later this year.
5. Brady Singer, RHP
What is it about the American League Central and drafting University of Florida arms in the mid-to-late stages of the first round? Brady Singer became the third Gator picked in the 18-to-20 range by an AL Central club in recent years when he was selected 18th by the Royals in 2018, joining Jonathon Crawford (20th, '13) and Alex Faedo (18th, '17), both Tigers picks.
Singer reached Double-A in his first full professional campaign, and pitched well enough in 16 starts there (3.47 ERA, 3.27 strikeout-to-walk ratio) to envision him opening next season in Triple-A -- or, at least, being promoted there early in the year. It's conceivable that Singer will finish 2020 as part of the Royals' rotation, barring an injury or unforeseen circumstances.
Unfortunately, there's ample reason to wonder if Singer will become more than a back-end starter or reliever. He has the body to eat innings, but his unusual arm action is a cause for concern. Singer is a slinger, and he releases the ball from a low three-quarters slot. In theory that makes him vulnerable to left-handed hitters. Singer doesn't have a good enough changeup to keep them honest and counteract the effect, either. Hence his OPS against lefties being 127 points higher than the figure he's posted versus same-handed batters.
To be fair, Singer does have two average or better pitches, his fastball and slider, and he receives high marks for makeup and fighting spirit and all those intangible attributes that could help him perform better than the sum of his parts would indicate. Until he does it at the highest level, it's okay to be skeptical about his chances -- after all, if it were that easy then maybe AL Central teams would use their mid-round picks on something other than pitchers.
2020 contributor: Richard Lovelady, LHP
Tricky southpaw Richard Lovelady debuted this season, gracing 25 games with his presence and posting some poor numbers following a rough finish. (In his final seven appearances he completed 5 ⅓ innings and yielded 10 runs on 13 hits.) Lovelady throws across his body from a sidearm slot, and profiles as at least a left-handed specialist thanks to a pair of average or better pitches: a low-to-mid-90s sinker and a slider. He's on the 40-player roster and already has 70 Triple-A appearances under his belt, so he should crack the Opening Day bullpen.
Analyst's pick: Kelvin Gutierrez, 3B
Two "Kelvins" are likely to appear in the majors in 2019: Herrera and Gutierrez. Oddly, they were included in the same trade at the 2018 deadline involving the Royals and Nationals. Gutierrez appeared in 20 big-league games this season, and would have added to that total were it not for a fractured toe. He's an above-average defender at the hot corner, complete with a strong arm. Offensively, he's a less certain quantity. He has good bat speed and shows a willingness to take a walk, but his swing isn't conducive to slugging. In a small sample at the big-league level, for instance, he averaged a -2-degree launch angle -- the second-lowest figure among the 462 hitters with at least 50 batted balls. Gutierrez is said to have improved his minor-league launch angle in recent years. Some team who believes in his ability to do the same at the big-league level could try to free him from the Royals, who have Hunter Dozier in place.
Riser: Kris Bubic, LHP
The Royals made five of the first 60 selections in the 2018 draft. They used all five of those picks on collegiate pitchers, including Stanford lefty Kris Bubic. Bubic has a delivery that was clearly inspired by Clayton Kershaw, as well as a good changeup and a workhorse's build. He continued to make mincemeat out of the lower-minor hitters this season, striking out 110 batters in 101 innings at High-A while holding them to a .212 average. The rest of Bubic's arsenal isn't as impressive as his cambio, so it's possible he comes up short in his bid to become the next Jason Vargas, Randy Wolf, or [insert your favorite left-handed changeup artist here].
Faller: Seuly Matias, OF
Baseball is supposed to be a simple game. Sometimes it is when it comes to player evaluation. Take Seuly Matias. He's a well-constructed individual with near-elite raw power. It doesn't matter, however, because his bat finds the ball as often as a beachcomber finds gold. Matias fanned in more than 44 percent of his plate appearances at High-A this season, giving him one of the 10 worst strikeout rates in all of the minors (minimum 200 trips to the dish). Teams are more forgiving about strikeouts than in the past, but there's still a limit. Matias far exceeds it. He's unrankable until when or if he can find himself on the right side of the line.
One to watch: Carlos Hernandez, RHP
Carlos Hernandez missed the first couple months of the season recovering from fractured ribs. He wound up making seven starts in A-ball before the year ended, punching out nearly 30 percent of the batters he faced. Hernandez will be Rule 5-eligible this winter, and will turn 23 next March despite having not yet pitched above the South Atlantic League. He has the body and the delivery to start, but it's possible he ends up in the bullpen, where his good fastball could lead him to a high-leverage role.