Ask KC Royals fans about the team’s hot young prospects. They’ll instantly mention Triple-A Omaha pitchers Jackson Kowar and Daniel Lynch, Double-A Northwest Arkansas hitters Bobby Witt Jr., Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez, and Low-A Quad Cities pitchers Asa Lacy and Zach Haake, and first baseman Vinnie Pasquantino.
But they aren’t the only top prospects in the Kansas City system worthy of discussion. The Columbia Fireflies, one of the two new members of the Royals’ minor league system (the other is Quad Cities), have their own share of talent.
And they’re taking advantage of it. Through Monday, the Fireflies are 25-19, good for second place in the Low-A East South Division.
Heading Columbia’s list of promising youngsters are four members of MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Kansas City prospects—pitcher Ben Hernandez (No. 14), shortstop Brady McConnell (No. 19), outfielder Darry Collins (No. 22), and catcher Kale Emshoff (No. 30).
Of the four, undrafted free agent signee Collins, 19, is having the best season so far. The left fielder is slashing .288/.386/.409 with four home runs and 23 RBIs in 34 games. Collins, a native of The Netherlands, signed with the KC organization in late summer 2018, then hit .320 with a .401 OBP in the Arizona Rookie League the next year. With the American minor leagues shut down last season, Collins played 16 games with Neptunus in the Dutch Major League and slashed .352/.444/.537 with 12 RBIs.
The KC Royals passed on Emshoff, 23, during last season’s shortened draft, but signed him to a free agent deal soon after. Although he’s hitting only .221 for the Fireflies, his .348 OBP is impressive and he has three homers and 23 RBIs in 27 games.
Unlike free agents Collins and Emshoff, McConnell, 23, is a draft selection—the Royals picked him in the second round of the 2019 draft (he’d been drafted by Cincinnati in 2017 but didn’t sign), and he played that year for Kansas City’s Arizona and Idaho Falls rookie clubs. He hit .213 in 40 games but had five homers and 23 RBIs.
A shortstop and designated hitter, he’s struggling at the plate this season (.198 in 29 games); his 15 homers, 48 RBIs and .332/.385/.576 collegiate line at Florida in 2019, though, give the KC Royals hope he’ll improve. But whether he gets better at the plate or not, his road to Kauffman Stadium will be difficult if shortstop remains his defensive position: Adalberto Mondesi is KC’s shortstop, Bobby Witt Jr. is faring well at Northwest Arkansas, and Nick Loftin has five homers and 23 RBIs in 38 games at Quad Cities.
Righthander Hernandez, 19, is 1-2 with a 4.31 ERA in nine Columbia starts. A second round pick last year, he has 31 strikeouts in 31.1 innings.
KC Royals’ ‘Pipeline’ prospects aren’t the only Fireflies worth watching.
Besides the Fireflies’ four Pipeline prospects, Columbia boasts other players having good seasons.
Shortstop Maikel Garcia, 21, is in his third professional season and is hitting .290 with a stellar .404 OBP. And his 16 stolen bases prove he knows what to do when he gets on base. He’s walked 30 times and driven in 21 runs in 38 games.
Center fielder Diego Hernandez, 20, has a .288 average, .360 OBP, and 11 steals in 31 contests.
Outfielder Juan Carlos Negret leads the club in homers with seven, but his .172 average is troubling.
Lefthanded reliever Walter Pennington, 23, has three saves, a 1.77 ERA, and is 2-1 in 12 games. Bullpen mate Emilio Marquez, also 23, is 2-0 with a save and 1.59 ERA in 11 games. And Luis De Avila, at 20 another reliever, paces the Fireflies with four wins.
The Royals’ Columbia affiliate is having a good season. And several Fireflies are worth keeping an eye on.