Why the KC Royals should leave 2 hot stars in Omaha

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

Imagine spending a cool September evening at Kauffman Stadium, a baseball night made promising for the KC Royals by the presence of two keys to the franchise’s future.

See in your mind’s eye Bobby Witt Jr. and Nick Pratto making their major league debuts when the club gets to enlarge its active roster to 28 players (from 26) next Wednesday.

Watching Witt and Pratto help wind down the 2021 campaign would indeed be special. But what fans yearn to see, and what’s best for Witt, Pratto, and the Royals aren’t necessarily the same thing. General Manager Dayton Moore, with whom the decision whether to promote the two hot prospects—or anyone else, for that matter—presumably rests, may choose to leave Witt and Pratto right where they are. And that’s at Triple-A Omaha.

It would be a good choice. There is no need to promote them this season. For Witt and Pratto, who MLB Pipeline ranks as the club’s first and fourth top prospects, coming to the big leagues should wait until next year.

Here’s why.

The KC Royals need to devote time to determining the fate of other players.

Witt and Pratto have bright, secure futures with the KC Royals. Witt’s is the most obvious case given his extraordinary five-tool talent and his utter dominance of Double-A and Triple-A pitching in just his second professional season. After hitting .262 in Rookie ball two years ago, Witt’s 16 homers, 51 RBIs, and .295/.369/.570 line at Northwest Arkansas warranted a July promotion to Omaha, where he’s already hit 11 homers and driven in 29 runs in 33 games. And his Triple-A line so far? Stellar at .298/.353/.617.

Pratto’s numbers aren’t far behind Witt’s, a good thing considering the harm a miserable 2019 season did to the former first-round draft pick’s (2017) progress. But he’s back in the hunt for a big league job after smashing 15 homers with a .271/.404/.570 line at Northwest Arkansas to start this season, and then clubbing 12 homers, driving in 32 runs, and slashing .280/.359/.680 through Thursday at Omaha.

Unless they slump horribly between now and when the Storm Chasers’ season ends in October, Witt and Pratto seem destined for the majors no later than next year. Witt will probably start the season at shortstop or third base; Pratto could, considering Carlos Santana’s three-month long tailspin (.220 in June, .211 with a .297 OBP in July, and .210 and .281 so far in August) and age (36 next April), be a strong candidate to displace the veteran at first base.

But none of that means Manager Mike Matheny plans to pencil Witt and Pratto into his Opening Day lineup and be done with it. The Royals need to refine now their picture of who among other players will return in 2022 and where they might play, and playing them regularly the rest of this season is part of the process.

That Kansas City is currently doing just that seems clear from Matheny’s lineups. Emmanuel Rivera is getting an extended look at third. Despite a .224 average and .258 OBP this year, and batting .195 each of the last two seasons, Ryan O’Hearn finds consistent action at DH, first, or in the outfield, suggesting he isn’t quite out of the Royals’ plans but they’re not quite sure where he might fit in.

Similarly, Kansas City constantly moves Hunter Dozier around the diamond—whether he’ll DH, or play third, first, or in the outfield on any given night is anyone’s guess. Santana’s poor bat isn’t keeping him out of the lineup; Hanser Alberto still appears occasionally.

Scrutinizing these players until the season ends is important; what the KC brain trust doesn’t need now is to complicate the process by playing Witt and Pratto, two players of known value. As much as fans want to see them now, the Royals have other priorities. Witt and Pratto can, and should, wait, especially when the club won’t be playing postseason ball and has other players to evaluate.

Spending all season on the KC Royals’ farm could be good for Witt and Pratto.

The 2020 season sized up as important for Witt and Pratto. Witt, Kansas City’s first round pick in the 2019 draft (second overall), signed in time to play 37 Rookie ball games before the baseball year ended, but needed to get a longer season under his belt; Pratto desperately needed a bounce-back campaign after his miserable 2019.

But the pandemic forced a season-long 2020 minor league shutdown. Working and playing intrasquad games at the Royals’ Alternate Training Site helped both players, but wasn’t a completely satisfying substitute for a full slate of regular contests.

So it is that Pratto and Witt could benefit from a full season down on the Kansas City farm, especially Witt with his relative inexperience. Each can concentrate on refining and fine-tuning their games free from the pressures and distractions attendant to first tastes of major league life.

Staying in Omaha will also benefit the Storm Chasers, whose 3-2 Thursday victory over Iowa left them with Triple-A’s seventh-best winning percentage, the key component in determining the championship in this season’s new format. Omaha isn’t out of the race by any means, and a second title is awarded for the best winning percentage in the 10-game extension to the regular campaign.

And a winning season and championship race is good for young players before they get to the big leagues, something to which Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas, who played portions of their minor league careers together on championship clubs, can probably attest.

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Bobby Witt Jr. and Nick Pratto may be ready to join the KC Royals, but the club should wait until next year to bring them up.