Something unusual happened to KC Royals pitching prospect Stephen Woods Jr. Tuesday night.
The Northwest Arkansas Naturals, Kansas City’s Double-A affiliate with whom he’s spent all but one week since the Royals chose him in the 2019 Rule 5 draft, gave him a save opportunity. Naturals manager Chris Widger summoned Woods to protect his club’s three-run advantage over Frisco with two outs in the seventh.
What made Widgers’ choice unusual? It gave Woods only his second save chance of the year and just the fourth of his five-season minor league career.
Despite being unaccustomed to the role, Woods came through. He struck out Scott Kapers to end the seventh, then added three more strikeouts over the final two innings to preserve NWA’s win and earn his first save of the year and second since breaking in with the Giants’ organization as an eighth-round pick in the 2016 amateur draft.
The Royals, though, have a decision to make about Woods.
Should the KC Royals keep prospect Stephen Woods Jr. for another season?
This is the question Kansas City must ask itself and answer this offseason. The Royals have long liked Woods—they took him in the 2019 Rule 5 draft and then, because Rule 5 requirements placed them at risk of losing him back to Tampa Bay when he didn’t spend 2020 on KC’s big league roster, swung a clever trade with the Rays to retain his rights. They also named him to their 2020 60-man Player Pool and invited him to spring training as a non-roster player that season and again this year.
What should the club do? On the surface, Woods’ career numbers suggest he’s probably worthy of at least one more campaign with the Royals. He’s 23-19 with a 3.62 ERA in 112 games and has a commendable 9.2 K/9.
A deeper look tells a different story.
Woods’ hasn’t overcome the control problems that haunted him as far back as college; in fact, his minor league career BB/9 is 5.74, and is an unsightly 7.88—49 walks in 56 innings—at NWA this year, which is only slightly better than the 8.56 he posted last season with the Naturals.
Unfortunately, only one of his five years in the minors has been stellar: he went 9-3, 1.88 at High-A Charlotte a year after missing the 2018 season with a shoulder issue, and the 3.44 BB/9 he had remains his only sub-5.00 mark he’s achieved. (He also had a 2.95 ERA at Low-A Augusta the year before but was 6-7).
And Woods’ progress hasn’t been the fastest. This is his second Double-A season (he did spend a week and pitched one inning at Triple-A Omaha in July). The Naturals’ regular season ends Sunday, but a late season call to Kansas City for Woods isn’t likely.
So, what’s the answer to the Woods question?
At 27 with his age-28 season coming up next year, Woods probably doesn’t have many minor league campaigns left. He hasn’t distinguished himself as a top Kansas City prospect and his control issues haven’t been resolved. The Royals already have too many struggling pitchers; giving another a big league chance doesn’t make much sense.
Don’t expect to see Woods at Kauffman Stadium in 2023. And unless the club focuses on him as organizational depth, his chances of staying in the KC system may not be good.
It may be time for the Royals to move on from Stephen Woods Jr.