Aaron Hicks and being patient with the slow-developing prospect

Aaron Hicks of the New York Yankees is having an interesting season offensively. A former top prospect in the Minnesota Twins system, Hicks is ranked 122nd overall in Yahoo! Fantasy Leagues, as he has hit 17 home runs, scored 51 runs, driven in 47 RBI, and has an OPS of .851. The only blemish on Hicks’ resume is his .256 batting average, but when you take into consideration his sound plate discipline (he has a 13.6 percent walk rate and a 0.69 BB/K ratio), fantasy owners can live with the low average as long as they make it up in other areas on their team (similar to the Pirates’ Gregory Polanco, who is now mashing more than ever, but still has a low average).

What makes Hicks’ season so interesting is that he’s gone under the radar with not only fantasy owners (he’s only owned in 59 percent of leagues) but also in his own organization. After the 2015 season ended, the Twins, to make room for top prospect Byron Buxton, traded Hicks straight up for John Ryan Murphy, a catching prospect in the Yankees’ system. Hicks struggled initially in pinstripes in 2016, as he only hit .217 with a .617 OPS in 361 plate appearances and 121 games. Hicks’ underwhelming campaign in 2016 made room for Aaron Judge to come onto the scene in 2017, as Judge, Brett Gardner, and Jacoby Ellsbury all played 100 plus games in the outfield.

However, despite modest expectations going into 2017, Hicks played the best baseball of his career. Despite struggling with an oblique injury, Hicks hit 15 home runs, drove in 52 RBI, scored 54 runs, had 10 stolen bases, hit .266 and posted an OPS of .847. Unfortunately, he only finished 302nd overall in Yahoo! leagues, mostly due to the fact he only played 88 games and had 301 plate appearances overall in 2017.


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Despite the excellent season, it seemed like Hicks was going to struggle to find a role in 2018, once again. Ellsbury, Judge, and Gardner returned, as well as Clint Frazier, who was rated the 39th best prospect in baseball going into 2017 by Baseball America. And to make things tougher for Hicks, the Yankees also signed Giancarlo Stanton to a massive contract, and it was expected that Stanton would regularly patrol left, while Gardner and Judge, would patrol center, and right, respectively. Hicks seemed to be a fourth outfielder, perhaps an occasional DH player going into 2018.

However, Ellsbury got injured in Spring Training and hasn’t played since. Frazier has struggled with injuries as well, and now Judge has been put on the shelf for three weeks due to a wrist injury? As for Hicks? Well, he continues to mash, his season comparable to 2017 (his 123 wRC+ is only 4 points below his 2017 wRC+), but with more games under his belt (he’s going to pass the games played and plate appearances from all of 2017 in just a matter of days). While Judge and Stanton have stolen all the headlines for Yankees outfielders, Hicks may be the most underrated offensive star in pinstripes in 2018.

If there’s a lesson to be learned about Hicks, it’s the understanding of how some prospects take more time to develop. Hicks was a first-round pick of the Twins in 2008 and was rated as the top prospect in the Twins system in 2009 and 2010 by Baseball America. Hicks profiled very much like Buxton: good speed on the base paths along with good athleticism and a strong hit tool. However, things just never worked out in Minnesota, as he had a .225 average, .655 OPS, and 20 home runs in 247 games overall with the Twins over three seasons. Since coming to New York, Hicks has a .243 average, .759 OPS, and 39 home runs in 294 games.  Hicks’ home run stroke is what has developed the most, as Hicks’ HR/FB ratio has been 15.8 percent and 17.6 percent the past two seasons, respectively. The highest percentage Hicks posted in Minnesota was 11.1 percent, which came in 2015 (his last year in Minnesota).

Now, one can credit Hicks’ move to the lefty-friendly Yankee Stadium as a probable reason for his breakout, and you would have a case if you just judged him from last season, as he hit 12 out of his 15 home runs at Yankee Stadium in 2017. But in 2018, Hicks has been just as effective on the road as he has been back in the Bronx, as he has 9 home runs at home this year, and 8 on the road, a much evener distribution. Furthermore, one could argue that he’s been a better hitter on the road than at home, as he has a higher average (.270 to .241) and OPS (.866 to .834) away from Yankee Stadium in 2018. So, while initially, some people could credit Hicks’ development as a hitter to the “House that Ruth Built” (i.e. the short left field porch), 2018 has shown that Hicks is a strong overall hitter and not just a product of a ballpark.


At 29 years old, development came slowly for Hicks, whom many Twins fans felt was a bust in Minnesota, as he never lived up to those top prospect expectations while in the Twins system. Eventually, it came to Twins management having to decide between Buxton and Hicks, and they made the decision to go all-in on Buxton (understandable, though that strategy has had mixed results). That being said, Hicks is a prime example that some prospects develop slowly. Yes, there are the Mike Trouts and Aaron Judges who come out gangbusters when they reach the MLB level, but a lot of prospects sometimes take a few seasons at the MLB level to develop and then find success. Charlie Blackmon, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and even to an extent Yankee teammate Didi Gregorius, took a few seasons before they currently found success as Major Leaguers. Consider Hicks another example of such a success story.

And not only is Hicks a success story for the Yankees, but it should also give hope to fans of teams who have prospects that haven’t necessarily hit their “stride” just yet. Some people have already given up on Buxton, Miguel Sano, and Billy Hamilton, to name a few. After all, they were top prospects expected to be perennial All-Stars, and all three listed above have experienced some serious lows this season (Buxton and Sano have seen time in Triple-A). But Sano is only 25, Buxton is 24, and Hamilton is 27. They still have time, and it’s plausible that 2019 may be the season they break out and finally show consistency, much like Hicks.

So, don’t give up on prospects, especially early on in their careers if they are struggling initially at the Major League level. It would be a shame for either a fantasy owner or even a Major League fanbase to miss out on a successful player because they gave up on the prospect too early. Look up north to Minneapolis, as Twins fans are probably kicking themselves in retrospect for parting with Hicks so early, especially considering Murphy is not even in their organization anymore.

 

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What did the Royals gain (and lose) in the Mike Moustakas trade?

The Royals were in the national news on Friday night, and it had nothing to do with their game against the Yankees (it was rained out; they have a doubleheader scheduled for today). Late last night, the Brewers and Royals pulled off a trade, with the Royals posting this on their Twitter:

The trade was expected by Royals fans ever since the season began, really. The Royals expected to sign elsewhere when he became a free agent at the conclusion of the 2017 season along with Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer. However, while Hosmer and Cain signed with the Padres and Brewers, respectively, the market for Moustakas never materialized, and he ended up re-signing with the Royals while in Spring Training for a one-year, $5.5 million deal.

Moose re-signing ended up being a blessing in disguise for both the Royals and Moose. Moose is having another solid year (20 home runs, 107 wRC+), proving that 2017 wasn’t a fluke, and the Royals got to not only keep a fan favorite a little bit longer but also got something in return for his departure. In the end, though it came as a surprise in March, Moose coming back to Kansas City was a win-win for everyone.

So, what did the Royals gain and lose in the deal overall? Let’s take a look.


What the Royals gained in the Moose trade.

The Royals received two prospects in OF Brett Phillips and RHP Jorge Lopez, a pretty good haul considering how close the Royals were to the deadline. To give some context, the Brewers have a pretty deep farm system, as Baseball America ranked them 6th overall in their talent rankings going into 2018


Phillips is the crown jewel of the deal, as he was the 7th rated prospect in the Brewers system and the 80th best prospect in baseball overall by Baseball America going into the 2018 season. Phillips, however, was unable to break into a crowded Brewers outfield (which sports Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich this year), as he has only appeared in 52 games and accumulated 122 plate appearances the past two years in Milwaukee. This year has also been a little slow for Phillips in Triple-A, as Phillips is only posting a slash of .240/.331/.411 with an OPS of .742 and 6 home runs in 299 plate appearances in Colorado Springs. That being said, he has demonstrated success in Colorado Springs before, as he hit 19 home runs and posted an OPS of .944 in 432 plate appearances in 2017.

Patrick Brennan of Royals Farm Report had a pretty good write up on Phillips, and had this to say about the prospect on Twitter:

The other player acquired in the deal is Jorge Lopez, a reliever who has appeared in 10 games this season and has accumulated 19.2 IP and a 2.75 ERA and 1.48 whip this season. Lopez was drafted in the 2nd round in 2011 out of Puerto Rico and originally broke into the Brewers system as a starter. However, he transitioned to the bullpen last year, and so far the results have been mixed. While he has been decent with the big league club, he still struggles with command, as evidenced by 1.15 K/BB ration, and his ERA and WHIP numbers look worse in Triple-A as it was 5.65 and 1.50 respectively in 28.2 IP with Colorado Springs in 2018.

Ironically, much like Goodwin, I wrote a piece featuring Lopez prior to the 2011 MLB Draft. Here’s what I said about Lopez in the post:

“John Sickels has Lopez projected to go at the 49th slot in his latest mock supplemental first round draft. Lopez is a high-ceiling arm, with a nice frame and good stuff according to reports. While Puerto Rican prospects usually don’t have a history of going high in the draft (Luis Atilano was the highest pick from Puerto Rico in the history of the draft, as he went No. 35 in 2003), Lopez seems to be an exception to the rule.

According to a report by Perfect Game USA, Lopez is getting comparisons to Javier Vazquez. He still has a lot of room to develop as a pitcher (he’s six-foot-four inches, and 175 pounds), but already he sports a fastball that goes in the low 90’s and a good spinning curve ball that has gotten good reports from scouts. An excellent athlete (Lopez played volleyball, basketball and ran track in addition to baseball), Lopez used to be a shortstop before he converted to the mound full time.”

The shine of Lopez as a prospect has certainly faded a bit the past couple of seasons, as he was unranked in the Brewers system, a far cry from his days where he rated as the 59th best prospect overall by Baseball America going into 2016. However, Lopez should bring some much-needed depth to the Royals bullpen in the immediate future. It’s definitely possible he could develop into a solid setup man or perhaps a closer in the near future should the Royals part ways with Wily Peralta (also a former Brewers top pitching prospect).


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What did the Royals lose in the deal?

Obviously, the Royals lost Moustakas, which while expected, is still a tough pill to swallow for Royals fans. Moose was one of the first big prospects drafted by Dayton Moore, and from the day he was drafted, it was understood that the Royals’ future success would depend on him. Thankfully, he panned out and became a key cog for the Royals’ success from 2013-2017 along with Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Eric Hosmer.

In 934 games and 3,735 plate appearances over eight seasons with the Royals, Moose hit 139 home runs and had a career OPS+ of 98. However, Moose really developed and hit his stride as a player in 2015, his first All-Star appearance. If you look at his numbers from 2015-2018, Moustakas hit 87 home runs and had an average OPS+ of 114.3 in the four-year span, and he did this despite missing most 2016 due to a knee injury (he only played in 27 games).

With Moustakas gone, the hole at third will most likely be filled by a rotating door of players, with Hunter Dozier and Rosell Herrera being the most logical options to fill in immediately.  This season, Dozier has an OPS+ of 61, and Herrera has an OPS+ of 77, both far cries from Moose’s 111 OPS+ as a Royal this year. It will be interesting to see how Ned Yost will manage the position and who will emerge as the more regular third baseman of the two. Dozier is a former first-round draft pick who has struggled with the bat since getting injured a year ago, and Herrera was a recent waiver wire pickup who used to be a top prospect in the Rockies system but has a tendency to be too free-swinging and lacks power. Both certainly have potential, but they both have a lot to do to make up for Moose’s production at the hot corner.

However, the biggest loss from the Moose trade definitely comes in the clubhouse, as Moose developed as a more vocal leader during the past four years. Royals MLB.com beat writer Jeff Flanagan shared this tweet today about Moose:

There was a lot of great things to remember about Moose: the diving catch in the stands in Game 3 of the 2014 ALCS, the Moose antlers at games and crossing signs, the resting bitch face he seemed to employ 24/7. However, what made Moose great was that he showed that the Royals could draft good players, develop them, and see them win with the Royals, not some other club. The Royals have had a penchant for drafting and developing guys, only to see them win with their next club. Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Carlos Beltran, and Zach Greinke are just a few of the names who performed well with Royals initially, only to find more individual and team success with another club. Moose bucked that trend, and for a little bit, he showed that Dayton Moore wasn’t a complete jackass.

And Moose represented a lot of what Kansas City was about. He probably was the most relatable out of the Royals stars. He isn’t the happy go lucky guy like Salvy. He isn’t an incredible athlete like Cain. He isn’t a hunk like Hosmer. And he isn’t a local Midwest boy like Gordon. Moose is just…Moose, and I know I appreciated him for his no-nonsense, laid back personality.

And he was a Cali guy who embraced Kansas City, much like me. Maybe that’s another reason why I like him so much.

Anyways, Moose will be missed, both on and off the field. At least he will be back in the lineup with another former Royal in Cain. True Royals fans will appreciate seeing something familiar in October should the Brewers hold on and make the playoffs.

Who is Heath Fillmyer? And can he help this Royals rotation?

The dreams of an undefeated second half came to an abrupt end four games after the All-Star break (I know I’m kidding), as the Royals wasted a 3-0 lead in the seventh and 4-2 lead in the ninth to lose 5-4 to the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium Monday night. (This Reddit thread will let you know who fans feel is responsible for the loss.) However, there were a few bright spots in the loss: the Royals had 13 hits, a sign that their offense is coming around; Brian Goodwin, acquired in a trade with Washington over the weekend, was 2-for-2 in his Royals debut (albeit as a pinch hitter); and rookie Heath Fillmyer, making his second big league start, was superb, going 6 2/3 innings, with six strikeouts and only 3 hits and 1 ER allowed.

Fillmyer’s performance has been the second-most-talked-about story from yesterday’s loss (as Brandon Maurer and his 14.25 ERA, unfortunately, has usurped all the Royals fan comment headlines). And it’s easy to see why, especially when one checks out the highlights from his start.

There’s been no question that the Royals starting pitching has been an Achilles heel for the club this season. While Danny Duffy has started to turn a corner after a rough start, the Royals staff has struggled to not only stay healthy but also consistently effective as well this year. Ian Kennedy, Jakob Junis, Erik Skoglund, and Jason Hammel are all examples of starters who have flashed some solid starts but have either failed to string effective ones together or stay off the disabled list. So, to see Fillmyer, recently acquired this past Winter in a trade with the A’s, to demonstrate promise in only his second Major League start is definitely cause for excitement amongst Royals fans, especially as Dayton Moore, Ned Yost, and the Royals organization try to figure out who will be part of their rotation plans in the near future.


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Who is Fillmyer and what has he done so far as a pitcher?

As stated before, Fillmyer, who originally played shortstop in junior college his freshman year, came over in a deal this winter along Jesse Hahn from Oakland for Ryan Buchter, Brandon Moss, and $3.25 million in cash. The deal was a bit of a dump for the Royals, who wanted to shed Moss after a disappointing 2017 campaign in Kansas City. Hahn was expected to be the prize of the deal and would booster the Royals rotation, as Hahn experienced some success with the San Diego Padres and A’s rotations in the past.

Unfortunately, Hahn hasn’t done literally anything yet as a Royal, as he was shelved on the disabled list early in Spring Training due to UCL discomfort (he recently has just begun a rehab assignment in Surprise, Arizona, the Royals Training facility). Thus with Hahn not pitching until just recently, the spotlight from this trade has been squarely put on Fillmyer, the 18th rated prospect in the A’s system according to Baseball America going into 2018.

Royals Farm Report had a pretty good little scouting report on Fillmyer shortly after the trade, which can be found here. Here’s a couple of key bullet points that Patrick Brennan wrote up on Fillmyer in the piece:

“Fillmyer works with a pretty slow, straight-forward, over-the-top delivery. Doesn’t feature a lot of moving parts and it seems easy to repeat. The arm speed looks really good, allowing for a sneaky mid-90s fastball that holds some good sinking action. From what I’ve seen, he commands this pitch really well, having a good feel for both sides of the plate…

“I like the chances that he ends up as a 4/5 starter in the major leagues. If not, I think his sinker along with his plus-secondaries can probably play in the bullpen…

“The Royals landed themselves a pitcher that will already rank high among the other arms in the organization. As mentioned above, Fillmyer was ranked the #18 prospect in a deeper Oakland Athletics farm system, so if we had to pin an early ranking on him post-trade, he’d probably find himself in the 10-15 range.”

So far this year, the results have been a little mixed in Omaha. In 13 starts with the Storm Chasers this year, he posted a 5.75 ERA, 4.64 FIP, 0.67 HR/FB ratio, and a K/BB ratio of 1.68. Those really aren’t great numbers, especially for someone in Triple-A. That being said, one could contribute his inflated numbers to his first experience beyond Double-A (he’s 2.6 years younger than the average Triple-A player), and the hitter-friendly environments of the Pacific Coast League. This is further evidenced in the high BABIP (.342) and abnormally low strand rate (62.5 percent). With more time, it may have been possible that Fillmyer’s numbers would’ve evened out a bit, especially considering the outings he’s showed before, as evidenced by his six-inning performance against Memphis earlier this year in the video below:

At the Major League level, some numbers look a lot nicer: six games total, two starts, 22.1 IP, 2.50 ERA, 0.81 HR/FB ratio. However, the advanced numbers aren’t so generous: 4.50 FIP, 1.30 K/BB ratio, .246 BABIP. If Fillmyer could credit inflated numbers due to high BABIP and hitter-friendly conditions, then the inverse could be true of Fillmyer’s performance thus far in Kansas City. Of course, Fillmyer’s sample is so small that it’s really hard to make any credible judgment of him as a pitcher just yet. We’ll need 2-3 starts before we can really make a solid, practical analysis of Fillmyer’s performance and outlook as a pitcher at the Major League level.


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What can we say about Fillmyer going forward?

There’s a lot to like about Fillmyer’s performance last night. It wasn’t exactly the best lineup hitting behind him, or defense (the Royals had Hunter Dozier at 3rd instead of Mike Moustakas; Drew Butera behind the plate; and Salvador Perez playing first). And yet, Fillmyer didn’t need much help as he pretty much cruised until he allowed two runners on in the seventh (and then promptly witness the bullpen tear his win to shreds). In the Royals sweep over the Twins, we have seen Duffy, Junis, and Keller all pitch well this season at some point, so while their wins and strong performances were nice, they didn’t shock Royals fans at all (it’s just surprising that they all came at once). Fillmyer’s, on the other hand, came a bit unexpectedly, especially considering the Tigers had a more established starter going against him in Francisco Liriano.

Fillmyer’s next few starts will be interesting to track. In addition to Hahn, Skoglund has begun his own rehab, and Kennedy may come back to the rotation at some point when he recovers. But, as evidenced by tonight, Fillmyer deserves an extended shot in the rotation for the time being, even with those other options available in the near future. As we have seen before in Omaha, Fillmyer has been a bit up and down with his starts, and no question his BABIP will rise in future starts, which will undoubtedly damper the ERA a bit. The only question will be how much will it rise?

It’s hard to trust Fillmyer because he’s not really an “elite” prospect by any means (BA graded him a 45 with High Risk). The K numbers don’t wow you, and he gives up too many walks, based on his numbers in the minors and even with the Royals. But, he definitely showed some confidence and poise in Monday’s start, and his moxie to convince Yost to keep him in shows that the kid at the very least is a competitor (even though it didn’t work; he gave up a hit the next batter and Yost promptly too him out on the second visit). Maybe Fillmyer’s future will be in the bullpen eventually (I could see those K numbers improving in fewer innings), but for the remainder of this season, I would rather see the Royals take a chance on a young prospect than take another look at Kennedy or Hammel at this point in the season (and I think many Royals fans would agree with me on this).

‘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.

 

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.

Who is Seuly Matias? (And is he legit?)

There hasn’t been much to cheer or be hopeful about this season for the Royals. They currently are trying to avoid the worst record in baseball, they can’t score runs for the life of them, and their farm system is currently in rebuilding mode (hence the Kelvin Herrera trade). Yes, the Royals are a small market franchise, and winning a World Series title three seasons ago should be enough to satiate the local fanbase for a least another few years. But in this day and age of “what have you done for me lately?” in sports, the Royals need to bring something to the table to help salvage not only this season somewhat, but also in the years to come as they go begin rebuilding their system both at the minor and major league level.

Seuly Matias may be that player that can get Royals fans (and potential fantasy owners) pumped again (or at least a little bit pumped).

Now, by no means is Matias the kind of blue-chip prospect that Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon or even Mike Moustakas was less than a decade ago. However, he is a heralded prospect who without a doubt is the crown jewel of the Royals system currently. According to Baseball Prospectus, he was ranked as the #75th Best Prospect going into 2018, and in Fangraphs’ updated Top 131 prospect list (as of June 11th), Matias ranks 88th overall (he’s the only prospect listed from Kansas City).

Matias has burst onto the national scene as of late for one reason: dingers. Matias, who currently plays for the Lexington Legends (the Royals’ Single-A affiliate), leads not only the South Atlantic League but the minor leagues overall, with 24 home runs through June 26th.  In the video below (courtesy of Royals Review’s weekly post on the minor leagues), the Legends coaching staff is pretty impressed with Matias’ display of not just power, but hitting ability for his age (he’s only 19 years old).

Matias is playing his first full season outside of Rookie ball this year and is a long way away from breaking into the Major Leagues. That being said, while he can’t even buy a drink in a bar yet,  he seems like he possesses the purest power out of anyone in the Royals system from top to bottom. Furthermore, at 6’3, 200 pounds, Matias has the frame and strength to be a solid power-hitting outfielder as he transitions through the Royals system over the next few seasons.

However, though the power may be “Trout-esque”, his other skills are far from that comparison. As you will see in the scouting video below from a series against the Rome Braves (Atlanta’s Sally affiliate), his plate discipline needs a lot of work. He is over-aggressive and he swings at a lot of pitches out of the zone, which either results in a lot of swings and misses or bad contact that results in easy outs. That poor plate approach is evident this year in his low batting average (.238 average) as well as high strikeout rate (37.1 percent) and low BB/K ratio (0.21). To make matters worse, these trends were also common during his tenure in the Rookie Leagues the past couple of seasons, as his strikeout rates hovered around the 30 percent mark at each level, and he has never hit higher than .250 in his short career thus far.

At his age, while these numbers are a bit alarming, they’re not damning. When it comes to evaluating prospects, it’s always important to see if a player has one Major League-level “skill” and Matias has that in his power as well as arm, which also was rated a 70 on a 20-80 scale, according to Fangraphs. To have two highly-rated skills from Matias is promising, and if he can become even a “mediocre” hitter for average that can hit annually in the .240 to .260 range, he could be a valuable producer for the Royals lineup in the future, especially if he can transition that 30-40 home run power to the Major League level. Of course, that’s always easier said than done. Plenty of prospects have displayed Matias’ skill set before in the minors (especially lower levels), only to flame out as they face better pitching up the Minor League ladder. So, it’ll be interesting to see if Matias’ approach will improve as he matures as a player.

For fantasy players looking to get a head start on future keepers, Matias may be a valuable pickup…but probably not for another two-three years, minimum. He’s still only 19 years old, and the Sally is still too low a level for potential fantasy owners to make a solid judgment and projection on his future ability at the Major League level. Furthermore, Matias’ home run power hasn’t exploded until this year so it may be prudent to see if he can produce something similar in either High-A or Double-A first.

Matias has a long ways to go. But for a Royals system that’s dearth of top-end prospects, and for fantasy owners who are looking for a breakout player who could provide them pop for years to come, Matias certainly is an enticing and exciting prospect.

But let’s take his success with a grain of salt. He’s still just a teenager in Single-A, and he has a long way to go before he makes it to the show.