One of the unique parts about Spring Training is that teams get to bring in their young prospects for Major League camp, giving them the experience of competing around big league players and in big league Spring Training games.
The Royals put an emphasis on bringing in veteran players this offseason, but they still had a young core immersed in the Major League atmosphere this year. Most won’t make the Opening Day roster, but the experience they got and what they showed throughout the spring gave the Royals even more confidence for their future.
1. Bobby Witt Jr., SS
For most of camp, Witt was forcing the question of if he should make the roster. He was showing everything the Royals wanted to see offensively and defensively, hitting .289/.325/.526 across 40 plate appearances. He launched a 484-foot home run. He flashed his speed. He showcased his skill at shortstop and showed he could learn quickly at second base. Having only played 37 professional games after being drafted No. 2 overall in 2019, the Royals thought it was best for Witt to start the season in the Minor Leagues — either at Double-A or Triple-A — and allow him to hit his way to the Majors, likely at some point in 2021.
What he showed this spring, though, proved that the Royals’ faith in him is well-placed.
“Just getting the opportunity to play and be in big league camp is truly just an honor and I’m truly grateful for it,” Witt said early in camp. “I’m trying not to take [for granted] any of it.”
2. Daniel Lynch, LHP
Lynch made his final Cactus League start on Wednesday, allowing one run in two innings with one strikeout. The tall lefty had a high ERA (7.71 across 11 2/3 innings) but went up against Major League hitters and saw some innings get away from him due to pitch selection or location. The pitch he showed the most improvement with was his changeup — the same pitch he focused on the most at the alternate training site. It’s a weapon that will help him out long-term, and Lynch will continue to get stretched out for when the Royals need him this year.
3. Asa Lacy, LHP
The Royals’ first-round Draft pick last year, Lacy was invited to his first Major League camp for the atmosphere, getting him in the clubhouse with other prospects, Major League players the Royals coaching staff. The Royals were intentionally slow with him because of the gap between big league camp and the Minor League season, so Lacy has been limited to bullpen sessions for the last few weeks. The 21-year-old will begin his progression in the next week or so, with facing hitters in live batting practice the next step for him.
4. Jackson Kowar, RHP
Kowar put together his best start on Sunday, throwing three scoreless innings with two strikeouts. He’ll get one more Cactus League start on Friday, further building him up to be ready to help the Royals at some point in 2021. Kowar has allowed eight runs in 10 1/3 innings, and he’s shown this spring that when his two offspeed pitches are on, he can be dangerous. He’ll continue to focus on his curveball and fastball command to make sure he’s ready when the Royals need him.
“He’s had a couple outings now where he’s just showing who he can be,” manager Mike Matheny said Sunday. “You have that kind of velocity and that kind of changeup, if you’re controlling the strike zone at all with your fastball, you’re going to have success. [The curveball] has come a long way, especially in a year’s time.”
5. Kyle Isbel, OF
Isbel has gained the trust of the Royals’ coaching staff to cover any outfield spot, which is high praise for when he gets to Kauffman Stadium’s expansive outfield. The 24-year-old takes quality at-bats, with hard-hit balls and improving plate discipline. Before Wednesday’s start in right field, Isbel posted a 1.049 OPS across 29 at-bats, showcasing his power and speed. The Royals have been impressed with the way he’s matured as a well-rounded player, and he could be used as a depth piece this season when needed.
6. Erick Pena, OF
A late non-roster invitee to Royals big league camp, Pena has been used mainly in B games and as a late-inning replacement. The 18-year-old has yet to get a hit in seven Cactus League at-bats, striking out five times, but he’s been soaking up the big league experience after the Royals signed him during the 2019-20 international signing period. He still has a long way to go but is someone to keep an eye on over the next few years.
7. Nick Loftin, SS
Loftin had one of the highest floors in the 2020 college Draft class, and he’s shown that this spring. He’s only seen 13 at-bats in Cactus League play, but the 22-year-old flashed some solid instincts at shortstop and received praise from the coaching staff about his ability to take feedback and apply it quickly.
“He just looks like a shortstop,” Matheny said. “Threw him into some games that he had tough plays out of the gate and did a nice job. Excited to watch him to continue to show his visibility.”
8. Jonathan Bowlan, RHP
One of the pitchers in the vaunted 2018 Draft class, Bowlan made strides on par with Lynch and Kowar last season and could see his debut come this year, too. The big right-hander got most of his work in on the backfields at the Royals’ Spring Training complex, but he pitched an inning on Wednesday against the Angels, giving up a three-run home run to Justin Upton but then settling down to get Albert Pujols to ground out to end the inning. Bowlan has flashed an improving changeup that was a major focus of his work in 2020. Given his command, durability and makeup, Bowlan figures to be a workhorse starter in the future. But his physicality and fastball-slider combination would fit well in a big league bullpen, too. If the Royals need more arms sometime this season, Bowlan could be one to turn to.
9. Nick Pratto, 1B
As someone who Matheny recently called “the most improved player in camp,” Pratto just looks comfortable in the box — and the results prove it. Pratto has swatted four home runs this spring, hitting .360/.429/.960 across 25 at-bats. The 22-year-old still needs some more time to develop in the Minors — and the Royals are covered at first base for the next two years with Carlos Santana — but Pratto’s bat is starting to match his defense as the Royals continue to view him as their future first baseman.
10. Austin Cox, LHP
Another pitcher in the 2018 Draft, Cox struggled at the alternate training site in 2020 but came into Spring Training back on track. In 4 1/3 Cactus League innings, Cox struck out six without allowing a run. He’s on the same path as Bowlan; Cox is being stretched out as a starter, but his big arm wouldn’t be out of place in the back end of the bullpen, especially if he’s needed this year.
“You watch him pitch, and you watch his repertoire as far as an explosive fastball, and he does a real nice job at the bottom of the zone,” Matheny said. “Good changeup, control of the breaking ball, and just a good rhythm and good disposition. Everything that you’re kind of looking for. … He’s in that conversation as we start talking about what we’re going to need for this season. I think Austin Cox is going to have to be in that conversation of some potential help at some particular point.”