Kansas City Royals: Royals on the Farm – My Night at Werner Park

KC Royals (Photo by Brian Davidson/Getty Images)
KC Royals (Photo by Brian Davidson/Getty Images) /

The Kansas City Royals season is an interesting one. Sometimes instead of looking at who is at the big league level and potentially leaving, it’s nice to look at the lower levels and see who could be joining the big league roster soon.

This past Sunday, I caught an Omaha Storm Chasers home game. For the unfamiliar, the Omaha Storm Chasers have been the Kansas City Royals top minor league team for the organization’s entire existence. They were once the Omaha Royals, then the Golden Spikes before being the Storm Chasers now.

Like the Royals, the Chasers are also celebrating their 50th anniversary this year. MiLB has more or less set up the system so that every major city without an MLB team. They achieve this by having an MLB team represented by a Double or Triple-A ball club. It just so happens that the Royals’ bridesmaids are, and always have been, a 2 ½ hour drive north on I-29.

A little bit about myself…

I am a native of the Chicago suburbs. My father’s side of the family is from Kansas City, and in the 1990s and early 2000s we used to take family trips every summer to eastern Kansas. It was almost by osmosis that I became a Royals fan. This was an unlikely and bewildering phenomenon:

I settled on my fan-hood a year or two after George Brett retired, a decade removed from their previous playoff run and two decades before their next October appearance. My father was a St. Louis Browns fan who begrudgingly started rooting for the Cards in the mid-1950s, and almost everyone else in my family is a Cubs fan.

Around these parts, I’ve earned some notoriety for recapping every Royals’ draft from 1968 to the near-present. It’s kind of my calling card, but blogging for Kings of Kauffman is just one of my many varied interests. I do improv, and I’m also an autograph hound.

This year, my improv duo Flower Shop Bangers was invited to play the Omaha Improv Festival for the third year in a row. Each year, my aspiration was to finish the trip with a Storm Chasers game.

In 2016, the Chasers were on a west coast road trip the weekend we were in town. In 2017, they were hosting the Round Rock Express (Rangers AAA affiliate). Unfortunately, a family health emergency forced my partner and me to go back to Illinois a day early. This year, I wasn’t going to let the opportunity slip through my fingers.

By happenstance, I was already acquainted with both ballclubs. During a film shoot last March, I took a day trip to Round Rock to see the ballpark. The season hadn’t started yet, so I hung out in the Dell Diamond gift shop for an hour.

Additionally, I found it amusing that both teams’ names are somewhat misleading. The Chasers play in nearby Papillion, Nebraska, whereas Round Rock is an affluent and burgeoning suburb of Austin, Texas. Where the Chasers name is derived from being in “tornado alley,” the Express is owned by Nolan Ryan’s son Reid.

At the moment…

Your 2018 Storm Chasers feature three players that were on the 2015 World Champs: Adalberto “Junior” Mondesi, Terrance Gore, and Paulo Orlando. Several other players on the roster, like reliever Justin Grimm and center fielder Billy Burns, are major league veterans either with limited options or are recuperating from injuries.

The Express has not one but two former All-Star pitchers. Yovani Gallardo is coming off two bad years, one in Baltimore and another in Seattle. Tim Lincecum, a folk hero in San Francisco, is reinventing himself as a relief pitcher. Considering my box seat was $21, that’s a good deal to see a substantial number of onetime major leaguers.

I’m also an autograph hound, so my improv partner and I arrived at Werner fairly early. Upon walking in, I asked an usher which side of the dugout would be easier for player interaction. He then directed me to Autograph Alley, a concourse near left field built specifically for the hounds.

Where most stadiums have clubhouses built under the lower deck seats, the Chasers and visitors’ locker rooms were up a ramp in left field. The players cannot get on or off the field without interacting with the hounds.

I don’t know if that’s a blessing or a bane. However, I was able to nab six autographs of Express players and coaches (including Lincecum) and four Chasers. Most of the players and coaches were friendly and made small talk. Others, like Rangers prospect Willie Calhoun, flat-out ignored us.

As for the game itself, the Chasers broke a five-game winning streak to lose 8-3.  It was a hitter’s feast early on, then morphed into a pitchers’ duel from the fourth inning on. Chasers starter Heath Fillmyer gave up three runs (including a gopher ball) in the first, an additional run in the second, then four runs off six hits in the third.

It seemed oddly generous that he pitched into the fifth but the damage was done. Gallardo had a bad second inning three ER, five hits. However, for the rest of the game Yovani and two relievers combined for a two-hitter.

Some observations about the 2018 Chasers

Heath Fillmyer is not major league material.

I want to like Fillmyer, I really do. There’s something scrappy, earnest, and understated about him. At the same time, he has been thoroughly mediocre in his first year in Triple-A. The Oakland A’s might have had a justifiable cause for dropping the former fifth-round pick. I hardly saw anything about Fillmyer that made him seem exceptional. Dishing up seven earned runs in his first three innings of work did not help his case.

The Royals are wasting Cam Gallagher

Going into Sunday night, Cam Gallagher was arguably the best hitting catcher in the PCL, posting a slash of .326/.376/.446 with two homeruns and 15 RBI over 23 games. Last year, Cam hit .292/.336/.400 with five homeruns and 37 RBI in his first full year in the Big O. Gallagher has been unexceptional in limited major league action, but he’s only 25 and the sky’s the limit.

The problem is, barring a serious injury, Salvador Perez is going to be the Royals’ starting catcher for the foreseeable future. Rather than let him keep feasting on PCL pitching, Gallagher would be reasonable trade bait come late July. I can already picture a package deal for him and Mike Moustakas in exchange for minor league pitching. The Astros’ sole weak spot is at the backstop. Just saying.

When the parent club struggles, the whole organization gets bogged down, too

If the season ended today, the Royals would have the #5 pick in the 2019 MLB Amateur Draft. Kansas City is going to be a seller at the trade deadline, not a buyer. Our boys in blue are having a down year, and the negative vibes are trickling down the farm system. As I write this, the Chasers are nine games under .500 and the A-Advanced Wilmington Blue Rocks are eight games below .500. On the flip side, the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals have lost as many games as they’ve won so far this season, but their play has been inconsistent.

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Final Thoughts

Getting back to my original point: if you’re ever out in Omaha during the spring or summer, or you’re too far away from Kauffman, I recommend driving out to Werner Park. With a capacity just over 9,000, it’s a little cozy but there isn’t a bad seat in the house. There’s a play area on the right-field concourse in case your kid gets bored easily. As a Royals fan that has always been geographically displaced, I felt right at home. In short, my trip to Werner was worth the wait, and I look forward to heading back in 2019.

What do you think Royals fans? Have you been to Werner Park? What are your feelings towards the lower levels? Let us know below!