Welcome back to Kings of Kauffman's continuing series of stories profiling some of the KC Royals organization's top prospects. Up today is pitcher Will Klein.
No proven closer was waiting in the bullpen wings when the Royals traded Scott Barlow to San Diego last summer. The move created a gaping hole in an already questionable pen that only rookie James McArthur, who saved four games during a dominant final-month performance, came close to plugging. So good was McArthur during that stretch that he seemed well-positioned to open the 2024 season with Barlow's old job in hand.
Things change quickly in baseball, though, and they did for the Kansas City bullpen in December when the Royals landed free agent Will Smith for a second tour of duty with the veteran reliever's first major league club. That Smith saved 22 games for World Champion Texas last year, and boasts a pair of 30-plus save big league campaigns, makes him the odds-on favorite to replace Barlow.
But don't exclude McArthur from the equation — Smith turns 35 in July, his 4.40 ERA last season is a concern, and, as we observed when he signed, his one-year contract suggests he'll likely be on the market when the July 30 trade deadline nears.
McArthur, however, probably won't be the only candidate to replace Smith when the time inevitably comes. The Royals clearly haven't given up on Carlos Hernández, Jake Brentz is set to return soon from Tommy John Surgery, and 40-man roster members John McMillon and Steven Cruz have minor league closing experience and pitched briefly for the Royals last season.
Then there's Will Klein.
Will Klein may be a closer candidate for the KC Royals
Klein's closer potential arises from more than just the four games he saved for High-A Quad Cities during his first professional season in 2021, and the four he saved last year between Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha. Klein has a couple of good closer attributes — his daunting 6-feet-5, 230-pound size, and a smoker of a fastball with which he occasionally tops 100 mph.
He can also pitch, and pitch well. Picked by the Royals in the fifth round of the 2020 amateur draft but unable to pitch professionally that year because the pandemic canceled the entire minor league season, Klein debuted at Quad Cities in 2021 and went 7-1 with a 3.20 ERA ... and those four saves. He also struck out 40.9% of the batters he faced (121 in 70.1 innings) and fanned 44 in 35 frames and posted a 3.38 ERA at Northwest Arkansas last year before his promotion to Triple-A where, despite going 1-3 with a 5.66 ERA, he struck out 49 over another 35 innings.
But he has work to do if he's to become a closer. As his three-season minor league 5.50 ERA and 6.76 BB/9 prove, opponents walk too much and score too often when Klein is on the mound; without significant improvement, those faults should keep him out of a closer's role, not to mention the major leagues themselves.
Predicting Will Klein's 2024 season with the Kansas City organization
Expect Klein, the Royals' 26th-best prospect per MLB Pipeline and their lone representative in last summer's Futures Game, to open the season back at Omaha; his need for more pre-major leagues work and seasoning is obvious. Pitching for the Storm Chasers will give him ample opportunity to fix his control issue and limit the hefty number of runs he presently tends to yield.
Don't, then, anticipate an early-season promotion to Kansas City. He's full of potential, but Klein's pitching demands more work than a short time at Omaha can provide. A call-up late in the campaign, however, isn't out of the question.