To say the Kansas City Royals’ outfielder situation is dire is putting it lightly. After all, when Royals fans and bloggers are thinking that Boston Red Sox OF Jackie Bradley would be a considerable upgrade in the Royals OF in 2020, one has to sit back and think about what the future will look like at the position going forward in Kansas City.
Without a doubt, since Lorenzo Cain left town for the Milwaukee Brewers after the 2017 season, the Royals have failed to get much production from the outfield position, specifically center field. In 2018, the Royals struggled to find production from the position, rotating through Abraham Almonte, John Jay, Paulo Orlando, and Brian Goodwin to mediocre results. In 2019, Dayton Moore rolled the dice on former Cincinnati Red Billy Hamilton, only to see that risk cost the Royals dearly: Hamilton posted a .211 average, .544 OPS and 0.3 WAR over 93 games and 305 plate appearances as a Royal, which resulted in him being released by the Royals in August.
Hence, it is understandable why Royals fans are clamoring for a mediocre option like Bradley to patrol center field in 2020. Royals fans are desperate to see SOME kind of production from the center field position, and unfortunately, the Royals options in Omaha haven’t necessarily inspired the Royals faithful that help is on the way.
Brett Phillips is a wizard with the glove and has a “rocket” for an arm (like Jay Buhner!) but his offense has failed to translate at the Major League level (.203 career average; 62 wRC+). It was nice for Royals fans to see Bubba Starling make it to Kansas City, especially when it seemed in 2018 that he would be out of professional baseball in a year, maybe less. But despite both showing flashes of being qualified center field options for the Royals for the next couple of years, it seems like the Royals fanbase seem less confident that either player could be depended on for 2020 and beyond.
While Phillips and Starling may not be the long-term future for the Royals (I beg to differ…but I digress), the Royals should avoid signing Bradley or any other free agent this off-season.
Because center field prospect Kyle Isbel may be the solution in center field for the Royals in the near future.
The 22-year-old outfielder who was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2018 draft out of the University of Las Vegas has climbed up prospect lists quickly in 2019. While other highly-heralded offensive prospects such as OF Seuly Matias, C M.J. Melendez, and 1B Nick Pratto struggled in Wilmington, Isbel got off to a fast start, as he posted a .348/.423/.630 slash and 1.054 OPS in 52 plate appearances in April in a tough hitter’s league in the Carolina League.
However, after a facial injury from a foul ball forced him on the DL, Isbel struggled to regroup when he returned, as he finished the Blue Rocks campaign with a .216 average and .643 OPS over 52 games and 214 plate appearances.
On the surface, one may look at those overall numbers and use it as a reason why Isbel may not be able to contribute at the big league club in 2020. After all, Alex Duvall of “Royals Farm Report” had this to say about Isbel:
Had Isbel not gotten hurt, and kept any kind of pace like he had early on, it wouldn’t be ridiculous to think we could’ve seen him in Omaha at some point this season. That obviously won’t happen now, but I think there’s a real chance that he gets to Omaha by the All-Star Break in 2020. By 2021, the Royals could legitimately be looking at an outfield of Kyle Isbel, Michael Gigliotti, and Khalil Lee from left to right. That, my friends will play. There is some serious defensive potential in that outfield with a ton of on-base ability and raw pop to go with it. That, my friends, is a scenario I can only dream about for now.2019 Royals Farm Report Mid-Season Prospect Rankings: 10-7, Alex Duvall, “Royals Review”
Despite the lack of “eye-popping numbers” in Wilmington (though to be frank, most prospects struggle in their time in Delaware and the Carolina League), Isbel was invited to the Arizona Fall League and the decision to bring the former Rebel to the AFL has paid off. With the Surprise Saguaros this fall, Isbel is posting a .345 average and .922 OPS, a sign that not only she is ahead of schedule in terms of recovery, but also that Isbel is indeed a future option of Dayton Moore and Kansas City. However, while Isbel got a ton of attention this past week, as he ended up not only playing in the Arizona Fall League mid-season classic, he announced it on a big level in the contest, going 2-for-4 with a home run.
While the home run certainly amplified Isbel’s skill set and potential to a larger baseball audience beyond the hardcore Royals fan, the home run is just a tip of the iceberg. Isbel has a compact and quick swing that has solid line drive potential, with some possible power potential down the road. When you watch Isbel at the plate, there are shades of Alex Gordon in his approach. In fact, if Isbel can kind of replicate that Gordo production over his Major League career, or be an “80 percent Gordo”, that could be a big boost for the Royals outfield in the future.
Some may say I’m being overzealous with the Gordo comparisons, but there just is a lot about Isbel’s profile that correlates strongly with the longtime Royal, even though Isbel came in with much less fanfare than Gordo (Gordo was a first round pick in comparison to Isbel, who was a third rounder). His body type, strong defensive ability, and instincts on the basepaths demonstrate shades of Gordo during his productive early 2010’s era seasons. And like I said, even if Isbel can be a “Gordo-lite”, I think Royals fans will be more than satisfied.
The race to be the Royals’ best internal option will be an interesting story line to follow this Spring, especially if Moore decides to roll the dice on his roster, and not sign a center field free agent this Winter. Right now, in addition to Phillips and Starling, the biggest roadblock for Isbel to be the Royals CF of the future is Khalil Lee, who may have a sooner opportunity to debut in the Majors in comparison to Isbel.
Lee was widely considered the Royals’ Offensive Prospect of the Year, and will have an outside shot to make the Active Roster on Opening Day if he can produce a strong spring (though most likely he will start 2020 in Omaha). Lee grades as a solid defensive prospect, with a better arm than Isbel (60 rating to Isbel’s 50, according to Fangraphs), though he may actually be slightly behind when it comes to glove work (Isbel has 55 potential while Lee only has 50). So, while Lee may get first shot to be the CF of the future, maybe as soon as 2019, it is possible that in 2021 or 2022, Lee may get shifted to right or left field, and Isbel may be the man in center in order to maximize the Royals’ defense.
Of course, that’s if Phillips or Starling don’t work out first. Or if Moore doesn’t sign somebody in free agency. While I am not averse to Maverick or Bubba, or a free agent (new ownership proving that they’re willing to spend money is not necessarily a bad thing), Moore doesn’t have a great track record with the latter (Hamilton, Chris Owings Brandon Moss ring any bells?) and the former players have serious holes in their hitting ability that need considerable work. Unfortunately, I’m not sure they are at the point in their careers where management can afford to be more patient with them, especially coming off back to back 100 loss seasons (I’m hoping they turn it around, as I like both players personally and would rather see them get one more shot in 2020, but I have to be realistic as a Royals fan).
Hopefully Isbel will continue to develop this fall and next season in the minors and get his opportunity in Kansas City by 2021. The Royals need a considerable cadre of homegrown players producing at the big league level, for that is what produced pennants in 2014 and 2015, and is typically the formula of success for small market clubs like Kansas City.
Isbel and Lee could be the next Gordo and LoCain both in the field and at the plate starting in 2021…
Royals fans know how well that worked out…