KC Royals Prospects: Who gets to the majors first?

(Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images) /

Both are remarkable baseball talents, these two young KC Royals minor leaguers who are tantalizingly close to reaching the major leagues. One is, according to MLB Pipeline, the organizations No. 1 prospect, the other is close behind at No.4. The first is a five-tool infielder, the other a pitcher with an excellent fastball and probably better changeup.

Who—Bobby Witt Jr. or Jackson Kowar—will make his way onto the Royals’ big league roster first is an intriguing question, the kind Las Vegas might take off its boards.

Some will say Witt, and they may not be wrong. His 2021 Cactus League performance proved his baseball savvy, poise, presence and demeanor exceed his experience and his years, and he slashed .289/.325/.526 with three home runs. Whether they’ll admit it or not, the Royals had to be tempted to open the season with him at shortstop, especially after Adalberto Mondesi went on the Injured List just before the campaign started.

Others will say Kowar and cite the starting rotation’s inconsistency and uncertainty as reasons, although he had a spring far different than Witt’s. (More on that in a moment).

In the end, talent, potential and Cactus League stats won’t determine if Witt beats Kowar to the majors, or Kowar beats Witt. Performance and circumstances will.

Is Bobby Witt Jr.’s 2021 performance worthy of a KC Royals’ roster spot?

Despite his talent, spring training numbers, and baseball intangibles, Kansas City remains committed to developing Witt deliberately and carefully. The franchise isn’t taking any chances with the player many believe is its future; that and Witt’s inexperience clearly drove the decision to make Double-A Northwest Arkansas his first 2021 stop.

What he hasn’t done yet with the Naturals tends to vindicate the KC Royals’ choice. Simply put, Witt isn’t hitting. Including his three at-bats in the Naturals’ suspended Wednesday night game, Witt’s slash is .173/.271/.231, a line that will hold him back if he doesn’t improve it soon. Last week’s home run is his only extra-base hit of the campaign; Witt has only one multi-hit game and is in a 1-for-18 slump.

On the bright side, he’s stolen six bases in the 16 times he’s reached base (he has nine hits, six walks and one HBP).

Witt will eventually give the Royals more than an adequate return on the first-round (second overall) pick it spent to get him in the 2019 draft. For now, though, he’s right where he should be, adapting to professional pitching and growing more accustomed to the grind of the game. And the fact the club didn’t give him a taste of the big leagues when Hunter Dozier went on the IL a few days ago suggests the brass won’t alter its plans for Witt.

When he is ready, the KC Royals may have to shoehorn Witt into their lineup. Shortstop is his natural position, but they’re not going to displace Mondesi unless he can’t stay healthy. Witt’s played some third base (that’s why he could have filled in there temporarily for Dozier had KC been of such a mind), and could find a home at second if Nicky Lopez’s hitting gets worse. An outfield spot is possible. But one thing is certain—KC will find an everyday spot for him.

Could Jackson Kowar be the next starter the KC Royals try in their rotation?

The differences between Witt’s spring and Kowar’s couldn’t be much greater. While Witt did everything well, Kowar struggled—opponents hit .373 against him, which helps explain why they battered him for 14 runs (10.80 ERA) and 19 hits in 11.2 innings.

Though reversed, the contrast between the two top prospects’ regular season is just as stark. Witt’s troubles are obvious; Kowar’s success is clear.

The righthander is 3-0 in three starts at Triple-A Omaha. Because he’s surrendered only two runs in 15.2 innings, his ERA is an exceptional and stingy 1.15. And he’s fanned 22 batters. So far, it’s Kowar’s best season since Kansas City included him in their pitching-rich 2018 draft haul. (He was 7-11 over three previous minor league campaigns).

Brady Singer, Kris Bubic, and Daniel Lynch, also members of that 2018 draft class, all beat Kowar to the majors. Singer’s spot in the rotation is solid and Bubic is making a good case to regain his; Lynch’s struggles this season forced him back to Omaha, probably leaving Kowar the next in line for a shot at the big league rota.

Circumstances will have a lot to do with who the KC Royals promote first.

So, who makes it to Kauffman Stadium first? Witt of Bubic? Performance always figures heavily in promotion decisions, but circumstances will be especially determinative here.

The Royals will be hard-pressed to advance Witt until they believe he’s absolutely ready, but injuries might compel them to move him up before then. Long-term injuries to Mondesi or Dozier, especially if they coincide with injuries to others (Lopez, Hanser Alberto, Kelvin Gutierrez) could force the club’s hand.

Injuries might also affect Kowar. Tuesday’s news that Danny Duffy’s left forearm flexor strain is apparently just that, and nothing more serious, was good, but when he’ll return remains uncertain. That, and the rotation’s frustrating inconsistency, could pave Kowar’s road to Kansas City.

For now, no one knows who between Witt and Kowar will get to the majors first. But considering their performances in this young season, the cautious approach they’re taking with Witt, and what may prove to be a more immediate need for starting pitching, Kowar probably has the edge.

Josh Staumont owns the closer's role. dark. Next

Bobby Witt Jr. and Jackson Kowar are closing in on the major leagues. As it stands now, Kowar may join the KC Royals first.