‘Will they ever be Royal?’ (July 21st): Matias wows at Futures; Lee homers; and Starling injured (again)

I hope to post a weekly series called “Will they ever be Royal?” from here on out. The series name is a play on the famous Lorde song that got considerable play in Kansas City during the 2013 season, when they suddenly got competitive again, and set in motion their 2014 and 2015 World Series runs. Basically, these are quick bits on some important stories going on in the Royals system, especially concerning prospects.

These posts won’t be as long as my usual posts, and a lot of them will refer you to links where you can read more about the points I bring up. There are a lot of great sites that provide more in-depth prospects coverage, with “Royals Farm Report” being a prime one (follow their blog and them on Twitter; the writers really run the best Royals prospects site out there), so I want to defer to others when it is necessary. That being said, I will highlight key stories going on in the farm system which I think hardcore Royals fans should know about it. (Non-Hardcore fans probably have stopped caring about the Royals a month ago and are glued to Chiefs coverage.)

So here are some bits on what’s going on in the Royals farm system.


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Seuly Matias turns heads at Futures game

No Royals prospect has been more polarizing than 19-year-old outfielder Seuly Matias, who currently has 27 home runs with the Lexington Legends (he just hit his 27th yesterday), which leads not only the South Atlantic League but the Minors overall (I have written about Matias before on the Roto Royal). Matias has a smooth big swing with oodles of power, but prospect experts have been mixed on his projection. Baseball Prospectus lists him as the top Royals prospect in the system and ranked him 75th overall in their pre-season Top 100. Baseball America ranked him as the 3rd best prospect in the Royals system (behind 1B Nick Pratto and OF Khalil Lee) and graded him a 60 EXTREME (meaning that his future is highly questionable; he could be a superstar or bust). At such a young age, and with such big strikeout numbers (he’s striking out in 36.8 percent of his plate appearances with Lexington this year), it really is difficult to see how Matias will project.

However, Matias showed well in the Futures Game last Sunday, with his prime achievement being a majestic oppo-field home run off of Justus Sheffield, one of the top pitching prospects in the Royals system.

Take a look at the home run, via Twitter:

And if that wasn’t enough, this is what former Red Sox DH and World team manager David Ortiz said about Matias after his 2-for-3 performance in the Futures Game:

That’s some strong praise indeed. Matias has gone under the radar a bit this season because the Royals system is not highly ranked, and he still is a few years away from really having an impact at the Major League level. However, after a great All-Star weekend, the magnifying glass is on the young Dominican outfielder. It will be interesting to see how the kid will not only handle the increase of attention from Royals fans and the media but also opposing pitchers in the second half of the Minor League season.


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Khalil Lee hits first home run in Double-A

The No. 2 prospect in the Royals system according to Baseball America, and the No. 4 prospect according to Fangraphs, Khalil Lee is an outfield prospect who has a big arm, and relies on his speed. According to Fangraphs, his arm rated as a 60 on the 20-80 scale, and his speed currently rated as a 55. Lee has demonstrated a knack to be aggressive on the basepaths, as he stole 20 bases last season in Lexington and has 16 so far between Wilmington (A+) and Northwest Arkansas (AA). Unfortunately, while Lee has the speed, he still has to develop his instinct on the bases as he was caught 18 times in Lexington last season. That being said, he has been much more proficient in 2018, as he has only been caught three total times this year, a significant improvement in success rate from a year ago.

Alex Duvall wrote a great piece on Lee for The Royals Farm Report four days ago, and had this to say about Lee:

Khalil Lee’s elite on-base abilities combined with his speed separate him from plenty of folks at similar levels. He walks like a power hitter and runs like a leadoff hitter. Pretty good combination for a leadoff hitter. Lee has been leading off a lot for the AA Northwest Arkansas Naturals, a position I’d like to see him stay in long-term. He is going to be so much fun to watch when he gets to Kansas City.

It’s been a bit of a mixed bag for Lee since being called up to Northwest Arkansas just three days after his 20th birthday. After posting a .270 average and .808 OPS to go along with four home runs and 14 stolen bases in 301 plate appearances in the Carolina League with Wilmington, Lee is only posting a .224 average and .638 OPS to go along with 1 home run and 2 stolen bases in 80 plate appearances in the Texas League.

However, on July 18th on the road against Springfield, Lee launched his first Double-A home run, which proved to be an absolute bomb as evidenced below:

Much like Matias, opinions differ on Lee’s projections going forward, as he is a strong athlete, but still has to work on a lot of aspects of his game, especially when it comes to making contact. He had a 32.1 percent strikeout rate in Lexington last year, and though his rate has declined, it still has been pretty high as evidenced by 24.9 percent and 23.8 percent K rates in Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas, respectively. However, Patrick Brennan, founder of Royals Farm Report, posted this on Twitter in reference to a 2080 Baseball article that ranked the Top 125 Prospects of the Midseason.

Lee is making good progress in the Royals system, as he is 2.4 years younger than the average player in Double-A. So there isn’t tremendous pressure on him to “produce” right away (development is the main focus for him now). Thus, it will be interesting to see how he continues to develop not just this season in Northwest Arkansas, but this Fall and beyond.


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Bubba Starling out at least six weeks

Things haven’t turned out as expected for Bubba Starling, the 5th overall pick of the 2011 MLB Draft. Despite signing one of the largest signing bonuses in Royals history at the time, the local Gardner, Kansas high school three-sport star has failed to live up to the considerable hype he received when he decided to pursue professional baseball instead of football at Nebraska. Originally ranked as the 24th best prospect in baseball going into 2012 by Baseball America, Starling has only posted a .235 average and .693 OPS in 617 games and 2,483 career plate appearances over seven seasons. Though he certainly has the size at six-feet, four inches, and 215 pounds, the tools never really developed for Starling over the course of his Minor League career.

However, despite his lackluster performance, Starling still is on the Royals’ 40-man roster (as of July 21st) and there was hope that with the Royals tanking and going nowhere, Starling would debut this year with the big league club at some point. However, Rustin Dodd of the Athletic posted this on Twitter on July 19th:

Apparently, Starling suffered the injury while falling out of bed, an injury that will rank up there with Clint Barmes falling down the stairs while carrying deer meat. The setback is just another one of many for Starling this year, as he has only played in 11 games in Omaha this season due to various injuries. With him being shelved for another six weeks, it seems less and less likely that we’ll see Starling up with the Royals club this season…or perhaps ever at all.

Starling will turn 26 in August, and it seems certain that he just doesn’t have the skills or ability to be a Major League player (Age 26 is the prospect peak, meaning they are what they are as a player at this age). I’m sure Starling is a great person, and maybe he could return to football and have a Brandon Weeden-esque quarterback career or something. But after this latest setback, and with the Royals most likely going to add more pieces to their system by the trade deadline, it may be best for both sides if Starling finally steps away from baseball once and for all.

 

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Can the Royals’ youngsters spark this lackluster offense?

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Hunter Dozier (left) and Jorge Bonifacio are two Royals players who can help the offense in the second half.

June was a rough month for the Royals, and that’s putting it lightly. After a respectable May, where they went 13-15, the Royals nosedived the next month, going 5-21 and getting outscored 136-58 during the 26-game span. Yes, you read that right: the Royals only managed a measly 58 runs for the ENTIRE MONTH.

The putrid month warranted a piece from Fangraphs from Jeff Sullivan on July 3rd, who analyzed the Royals’ historically bad offensive month. Sullivan had this to say about the Royals’ lack of production over the last 30 days:

The Royals are in last, having managed a team wRC+ of 48. To be more precise, 47.6. The nearest team is the Tigers, with a wRC+ of 72. Over this span, the Royals are the only team to have batted under .200. They’re the only team with an OBP under .250, and they’re the only team with a slugging percentage under .300, and so they’re the only team with an OPS under .550. The Royals have been caught in an offensive tailspin, and the only thing that’s allowed them to avoid too much attention is the fact they were expected to be bad in the first place

I don’t think there’s much I can say that Sullivan has not said already about the Royals’ offense, so if you want to read about it more (because you’re a masochistic SOB), check out Sullivan’s piece, especially worthwhile thanks to the data graph he provides of team hitting wRC+ for all 30 teams (surprisingly, Cincinnati ranks third; goes to show how bad their pitching has been). That being said, as an optimistic Royals fan, I would like to think that Royals can’t possibly duplicate their horrid numbers for the rest of the year (though fingers crossed; this year has been bad enough). But let’s face it: the Royals are not going to turn it around in the second half without some change in the lineup.

With a 25-60 record as of July 4th, the Royals have already begun the rebuilding process thanks to some trades last month (Jon Jay to the Diamondbacks and Kelvin Herrera to the Nationals), resulting in some of the younger Royals’ younger players cracking the lineup. However, with the trade deadline looming on July 31st, it’s only a matter of time before some veterans are traded for assets (Mike Moustakas and Whit Merrifield are prime candidates), meaning the youth movement in the Kansas City will most likely be in full force by August.

So, which Royals younger players can have an impact on this club during these last few months? Which ones can help make the Royals’ offense respectable again?

Let’s take a look at youngsters on the Royals’ 40-man roster who are likely to make an impact, and which ones may leave some left to be desired during the second half of the Major League season.

Don’t expect all that much

Abraham Almonte, OF; Ramon Torres, 2B/SS; Bubba Starling, OF

Almonte is nearly 30 and hasn’t really done all that much at the Major League level, as he is posting an awful slash of .186/.264/.295 in 47 games and 145 plate appearances this year. Considering his age and his lackluster production at the Major League level, Almonte is most likely a “Four-A” player at best who’s probably too good for Triple-A, but not good enough for the Majors.

Torres is a bit younger at 25 years old, and has the versatility to play second and short (much needed should the Royals bite the bullet and designate Alcides Escobar for assignment so Ned Yost can’t play him; I think Dayton Moore’s loyalty will get in the way of this happening), but in 42 career games and 108 plate appearances, Torres hasn’t provided much with the bat as evidenced by a career .229/.269/.265 slash and 43 wRC+. Even in Triple-A, Torres isn’t showing much promise in Omaha, with a slash of only .226/.281/.332 and a .613 OPS in 53 games and 208 AB this season in the PCL.

As for Starling, the former Gardner, Kansas high school sports star and bonus baby has failed to resemble a Major League player at any point in the Minors since he was drafted and received the largest draft signing bonus in team history in 2011 (it was $7.5 million). The best campaign he had was in 2015 in Double-A in Northwest Arkansas where in 366 plate appearances he hit 10 home runs and posted a slash of .254/.318/.426 and an OPS of .744 as a 22-year old. That being said, due to the combination of injury and ineffectiveness, Starling really hasn’t built on that campaign nearly three seasons ago. This past season in Omaha, in 303 plate appearances, he hit only .248 with a .685 OPS and only added 7 home runs and 21 RBI. While Starling will get a chance to get some playing time when the roster expands in September (hopefully he will be healthy by then), it is unlikely that former first-round pick will have much impact at the MLB level this season.

Not totally sure…but some upside

Cheslor Cuthbert, 3B; Adalberto Mondesi, 2B/SS; Rosell Herrera, 2B/OF

Cuthbert is a former top prospect who has yet to capitalize on his “prospect hype” at the big league level. His career slash is .252/.303/.378 with a .681 OPS. That’s fine for a middle fielder with good speed and a good glove, perhaps, but not for a corner infielder. His wRC+ this season before he went to the DL with injury this year is 62, barely an upgrade over the 59 he posted a season ago in 153 plate appearances and 58 games at the big league level (he struggled with injuries as well a season ago). I’m not totally giving up on Cuthbert. With Moustakas holding down third, it’s been hard for Cuthbert to get an extended chance when Moose was healthy. He actually did okay when Moose struggled with injuries in 2016, as Cuthbert hit 12 home runs, posted a .731 OPS and a wRC+ of 95 over 510 plate appearances. It’s not great by any means, but it shows that he can be an average hitter in the lineup (when healthy), something the Royals have been sorely missing this year. Should (or perhaps when) Moose gets traded, and when Cuthbert is healthy (he is raking so far on a rehab assignment in Omaha), it’s possible that he may be able to rebound at the plate with regular playing time.

I have already talked about Mondesi before on this blog, who oozes with potential, but still hasn’t realized it at the Major League Level. Mondesi is still young (he’s about to turn 23 in less than a month), but he’s already shown some progress in his Major League call-up this year, which is 42 plate appearances and 13 games. His strikeout rate is down (from 36.7 percent to 25.5 percent) and he is showing more power as well (his .143 ISO is a career high thus far). Granted, his numbers aren’t pretty by any means: 55 wRC+ (actually the highest mark as a Royal thus far) and .214/.233/.357 slash with a .590 OPS. But, he is a middle infielder, he is showing progress and he’s still over three years away from the “plateau” mark for prospects (age 26 is considered the point where prospects are what they are). With Escobar not being much better (37 wRC+), it may be worth it for Yost to see if Mondesi could handle an extended look at SS in the second half (or at least splitting duties with Escobar).

Herrera has always had a soft spot with me as a prospect, as I was a big fan of him when I was covering the Giants and prospects more closely in my Optioned to Fresno days. I wrote a couple of pieces for Seedlings 2 Stars (now called Call to the Pen), including a piece profiling the top Latin American prospects in the NL West back in 2012, which listed Herrera as a top SS prospect in the Rockies system. (It looks bad now, as I said I liked Herrera more than Trevor Story, who is now the Rockies starting SS; can’t win them all I guess). While Herrera hasn’t turned into the stud I foresaw him as during his NL West days, I felt the Royals getting Herrera off waivers was a low-risk, high-reward move. Herrera isn’t killing it at the MLB level, but he’s doing much better in his limited 15 game stint with the Royals than his 11 game-13 plate appearance stint with the Reds (who designated him for assignment). As a Royal, his slash is .271/.279/.407 and his wRC+ is 80 (much better than the -25 mark with the Reds). This is Herrera’s first year playing at the Major League level, so some growing pains are to be expected, but right now Herrera is a nice utility type player who could help the Royals down the stretch, especially if he gets his base-stealing together (he stole 36 bags in Double-A in 2016; he’s 1 for 3 this year with the Royals). His plate discipline still needs major work (only 1 walk in 72 plate appearances at the Major League level), but he could fill the Merrifield role nicely should Merrifield get dealt by the deadline. He’s mostly risk and upside, like Mondesi, but unlike Mondesi, he doesn’t have age on his side (he’s 25). However, he could provide some decent production from multiple positions if given an extended chance in the Big Leagues.

For sure worth giving a look to

Hunter Dozier, 1B/3B/OF; Jorge Bonifacio, OF; Jorge Soler, OF

Dozier, the Royals’ 2013 first round pick (and 8th pick overall) is finally getting an extended look thanks to injuries to other players (first to Lucas Duda and now to Soler) and the team currently in “rebuilding” mode. Dozier’s an interesting player because he played shortstop in college and really doesn’t have a “position” yet, but he’s a polished player who flashes a lot of tools and really has nothing left to prove in the minor leagues. The KC Star also recognized that this may be a chance for Dozier to “prove himself” considering the circumstances of this season, as evidenced in this quote from writer Vahe Gregorian:

With the Royals losing routinely, with their more-established players being subject to trade as the franchise seeks to replenish its farm system, Dozier’s audition is one of the more compelling tales to follow this season.

Dozier has certainly got an extended chance, as evidenced by his 156 plate appearances and 43 games played thus far. Unfortunately, the numbers don’t look impressive, as he is only posting a .222/.282/.354 slash with a 73 wRC+ and four home runs and 11 RBI. That being said, Dozier has the size (6’4, 220) and the power potential (graded a 60 for raw power from scouts) to be successful, and he has proven at the minor league level that his power is for real (.238 ISO in Omaha last season). The big question for him will be plate discipline, as his strikeout rate is over 30 percent and hovered around 38 percent in Omaha a season ago. If he can lessen than K’s, up the walks, and turn some of his groundballs (41.2 percent) to line drives and fly balls, then it is possible that Dozier can live up to his first-round pick status as soon as this season at the MLB level.

Bonifacio is a polarizing outfielder in the Royals system. The younger brother of Emilio Bonifacio, and a top prospect in the Royals system just a couple of seasons ago (he rated as the 10th best prospect in the Royals system by Fangraphs as of 2016), Bonifacio looked like he was on his way to being something special, as evidenced by his stint with the big league club where he posted a slash of .255/.320/.432 with 17 home runs, 55 runs scored, an OPS of .752 and a wRC+ of 99 in 113 games and 422 plate appearances last season. In fact, it looked likely that Bonifacio would be a shoe-in for a starting outfield spot out of Spring Training, especially considering Soler’s troubles at the plate in 2017, and Lorenzo Cain leaving in free agency. However, in March during Spring Training, Major League Baseball suspended Bonifacio 80 games for testing positive for PEDs and either he became forgotten by fans or an object of vitriol for trying to “cheat” and “deflower” the game.

However, recently Bonifacio’s suspension finally came to an end, and his presence has been made known early on. While it’s only five games and 18 plate appearances, Bonifacio is posting a slash of .313/.389/.375. In his rehab assignment in Omaha, the Dominican outfielder hit .392 with a .442 wOBA and a 167 wRC+. Considering how lackluster the Royals’ bats have been this summer (especially in June), Bonifacio is a welcome surprise who may be the centerpiece of this Royals offense if/once Merrifield and Moustakas are traded. Granted, it’s a small sample size, and Bonifacio has a long way to go to endear himself to Royals fans after the suspension (if there’s one thing KC sports fans don’t like its players with controversy; though they get over it if the players produce; hence Tyreek Hill of the Chiefs), but Bonifacio getting to a hot start is a good sign for a player who’s looking to build upon a promising campaign in 2017.

Soler is an interesting player because he won’t be back for a while. As of June 15th, doctors said he’d probably be out for at least another six weeks due to a broken foot. At this point, the Royals most likely will only get a month and a half of Soler in the lineup at best. That being said, this is less about Soler’s production now, and more what he means to this Royals roster in the future. A former Cubs top prospect who came over in the Wade Davis trade, Soler shut up his critics somewhat early on in the year with a strong start to 2018 to make up for a disappointing Royals career leading up to this season. In 257 plate appearances, Soler was posting a slash of .265/.354/.466 with a wRC+ of 125 to go along with 9 home runs and 28 RBI. Considering his wRC+ was 32 a year ago, many Royals fans reconsidered the Cuban prospect whom they figured to be a bust at the conclusion of the 2017 season. The nice thing about Soler is he has two years left on his deal after this year, and he comes relatively cheap at $4.667 million per year. While it’s unlikely that Soler will have a major effect on the Royals in the W-L column in 2018, if he can come back from injury and finish the year strong, it could have a beneficial effect not only for him personally going into next year but also the Royals organization as a whole, as the club can depend on him being a starting OF in Kauffman for 2019 and 2020 at the very least.

At 26 years old, and only 307 MLB games under his belt, there is a lot of upside to Soler as an athletic, strong-hitting outfielder (though he does have some lapses on the fielding end). A solid finish on what has been his best MLB season so far would be a nice cap to a surprising and reaffirming season not just for the outfielder, but Royals fans overall who are looking for hope on the offensive end of things for the future. This year showed that Soler has potential to live up to his ballyhooed Cubs prospect hype in the near future in the KC blue and white.

As long as he stays healthy of course.