Following Rob Manfred’s recent shake-ups of the Minor Leagues, the Royals received one of the sickest Minor League brands in America: the Quad Cities River Bandits.
The River Bandits join the Rocky Mountain Vibes and the Rocket City Trash Pandas as some of my favorite MiLB team names (maybe I’ll rank some this offseason), but they aren’t just a funny name. They’re also the most dominant team in High-A, with a record of 63-32.
The Royals’ farm system has been widely praised this season, thanks to top prospects like Witt Jr., Pratto, Melendez, Kowar, and Lynch, but none of those names have played in the “Friendliest Ballpark in America,” Modern Woodmen Park, in 2021. Located on the banks of the Mississippi River, in Davenport, Iowa, the River Bandits have won over two-thirds of their games without most of the names that are brought up when talking about the fifth-best farm system in baseball.
So who’s contributing to it, and how does it affect the Royals’ future?
Let’s start with the “who”. There is absolutely some high-quality talent on the Quad Cities roster, especially on the infield, even if they may not be as well-known to non-diehard Royals fans. If you want to learn more, Royals Farm Report is the place to go. They’re one of my favorite follows on Twitter, and they are passionate about the future of the organization.
First, we should talk about 1B Vinnie Pasquantino. At 23 years old, the lefty stands 6’4″ tall and weighs 245 lbs. He’s a big dude, and he carries a big stick. In 276 plate appearances this year, Pasquantino has raked, to the tune of a .950 OPS (good for fourth in the High-A Central) with 13 homers. Perhaps most impressively, he’s walked 33 times and struck out just 38 – his .868 BB/K ratio is third-best in the division – and his 20 doubles ranks eighth.
Today’s Minor League Minutes from Royals Farm Report also featured this nugget:
“Since 2016, here is a list of every player that has matched Vinnie Pasquantino’s current numbers, consisting of:
- a K% less than 14%
- an ISO over .250
- a wRC+ over 150
- with at least 250 PA in a MiLB season
The list of players:
- Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (19, AAA)
- Jeff McNeil (26, AAA)
- Alex Bregman (22, AAA)”
That’s pretty damn good company!
The problem for Pasquantino is the existence of Nick Pratto. Unless Vinnie (or Pratto, I guess) converts to a corner outfield spot at some point, I don’t see much of a place for him in the Royals future plans, outside of a potential DH role. Plus, being 23 in High-A isn’t bad, but it doesn’t necessarily work in his favor either when you project the Royals’ roster. Regardless, depth is always good for the organization, and Pasquantino certainly figures to provide that if he continues hitting well enough to earn a 158 wRC+.
There’s plenty more to be excited about around the infield. 23 year old 2B Michael Massey has burst onto the scene this year, with an .891 OPS (7th), 25 doubles (2nd), and 18 home runs (4th) in 381 plate appearances. That is excellent pop in the middle infield, which is something the Royals haven’t had since… ever? Maybe Frank White? That bodes well for his future, but like Pasquantino, age and need are a question mark when projecting his Royals potential.
SS Nick Loftin, 22, is a fast, skilled fielder who has hit decently well. His .788 OPS and 116 wRC+ are above average, but not necessarily outstanding. However, Loftin was a 2020 draft pick, making this his first season in professional baseball. There’s no reason to think he won’t continue to develop at the plate as he grows into his game, but again, where could the Royals put him?
The Royals infield seems crowded, at least through 2023, with some combination of Pratto, Dozier, Mondesi, Lopez, Merrifield, and Witt Jr., figuring to make up most lineups. Yes, two (or three?) of those guys can and will also play some outfield, but for now we’ve seen their success come primarily in the infield, which means that those roster and lineup spots will be premium real estate.
The one name every Royals fan probably knows in Davenport is 2020 first-round pick Asa Lacy. 2021 hasn’t been exactly what we hoped for from Lacy – he struggled mightily with his command early in the year, and hasn’t pitched in over a month due to injury. The optimist in me will tell you that it’s entirely possible that the injury was causing some of those command issues, and Lacy definitely shouldn’t be written off because of a rocky first professional season. The Royals high hopes for him as a future big leaguer have not been discouraged.
Will Klein has been great fun out of the bullpen, racking up an absurd 15.67 K/9 to this point. Plus he’s done this in August:
He’s also got a 100 mph fastball to pair with this breaker:
He figures to be part of the MLB bullpen eventually if he can just work his BB rate down. Right now, he’s walking over six batters per nine innings. That’s too much. But whew, the strikeout stuff is there in spades.
So, what does all this mean for the Royals? If there’s a bunch of infielders who seem good, but have a longshot at being regulars in MLB, why should Royals fans care?
Well, for one thing, the Royals don’t have an affiliated club do this very often.
Perhaps you’ve heard of some of those 2010 Naturals: Mike Moustakas, Danny Duffy, Eric Hosmer, and Jarrod Dyson were prominent members of the World Series teams. Paulo Orlando, Johnny Giavotella, Aaron Crow, Josh Fields, and Mike Montgomery all went on to various degrees of MLB success. And John Lamb was part of the trade that brought Johnny Cueto to Kansas City in 2015.
Point is, teams this good usually have guys that will matter down the line, whether that means making an impact for the Royals or helping bring in impact players via trade.
But beyond that, Royals fans should care because, simply, it’s fun to have a winning team to root for. The Royals have been hotter lately, with some pitchers starting to come into their own, and they aren’t flat-out dreadful to watch like they have been at times this year. But they’re still 15 games under .500, playing mostly meaningless baseball, and every win feels more like a nice bonus than something truly worthwhile.
Quad Cities, on the other hand, is dominating, and some of those guys are going to make an impact on the big league club in some form or fashion down the line. Whether it’s an everyday player or a key trade piece, at least one of the names I mentioned are going to be important to the next Royals playoff appearance – I’m sure of it.
I think that’s worth your attention!