Despite a smoldering spring performance, Royals top prospect Bobby Witt Jr. will open the 2021 season in the minor leagues, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports. The 20-year-old infielder had raised hopes that he might crack the Opening Day active roster with a .289/.325/.526 slash line in Cactus League play. However, that’s a span of just 40 plate appearances, and per Baseball-Reference estimates those numbers have come against pitchers that average out as being a bit below Double-A in terms of quality.
The Royals’ decision to demote Witt may lead to accusations of service-time manipulation in some quarters, but that’s almost certainly not the case here. The reality is that he’s a 20-year-old whose regular season experience as a pro amounts to 37 games at the rookie-league level in 2019. As well, Witt managed an OPS of just .670 over those 37 games. No prudent organization is going to jump a coveted prospect from rookie ball to the highest level because of a hot spring and positive returns from the alternate site in 2020.
Long-term, however, Witt has impressive potential. Our own R.J. Anderson recently ranked Witt No. 14 on his list of the overall top 50 prospects. Here’s what he wrote about the former No. 2 overall pick:
“There’s no questioning Witt’s physical gifts. He can move and throw well enough to stick on the left side of the infield, and he has the size and strength to project for 20-plus-homers at his peak. If he lives up to his promise, he could well become a star-level producer. Yet there were some valid criticisms that made him a polarizing prospect heading into the 2019 draft. Namely, Witt was older than the average prepster, and he had a history of swinging and missing — a concern because it suggests he might have problems against pro competition. Calling him a boom-or-bust prospect overstates things, but it gets the point across that there’s significant upside and downside present in his game.”
That boom or bust profile means the Royals should proceed cautiously with Witt’s development, and that’s precisely what they’re doing. If Witt continues producing in his first taste of the high minors this season, then it seems likely he’ll be promoted to Kansas City at some point in 2021 — perhaps as their shortstop of the present and future.