While the prowess of the pitching prospects in the Kansas City farm system is quite noted entering 2020, the Royals position prospects have been a different story. While the Royals and MLB in general are expecting great things out of former top pick Bobby Witt, Jr. (who is pretty much the consensus top prospect in the Royals system according to most outlets), it is a bit shaky otherwise for position prospects in the Royals system.
Last year, first baseman Nick Pratto, catcher MJ Melendez, and outfielder Seuly Matias were all expected to make progress in their respective stints in Wilmington (which plays in the Carolina League, High-A). However, all three struggled immensely, as only Melendez got an invite to big league camp this Spring. The Royals also gave over-slot money to Florida shortstop and 2019 second-round pick Brady McConnell, but McConnell underwhelmed in his first professional stint in Idaho Falls, posting a .211/.286/.382 slash with 66 strikeouts over 152 at-bats in the Pioneer League.
Safe to say, while pitchers such as Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Kris Bubic thrived in their respective levels (High-A to Double-A), the top Royals position prospects left a lot to be desired, and may have taken some steps back overall as a group in 2019.
Except for outfielder Khalil Lee…the system’s Double-A offensive player of the year who spent the whole year in Northwest Arkansas.
But even with those accolades and status…it’s hard to put a finger on what Lee’s role will be this upcoming season.
In 2019, Lee posted .264/.363/.372 slash with a .735 OPS, eight home runs, and 53 stolen bases over 129 games and 546 plate appearances in the Texas League. Lee flashed some power potential early in the minors, as he hit six home runs with a .484 slugging over 49 games in the Rookie League in Surprise, Arizona back in 2016, and followed that up with 17 home runs and a .430 slugging over 121 games with Single-A Lexington in 2017. However, the power stagnated the past couple of years, as Lee only hit six home runs over 90 games between High-A Wilmington (71 games to be specific) and Double-A Northwest Arkansas (21 games). Granted, Lee has dealt with some nagging injuries the past couple of seasons, so that may be a reason why his power numbers haven’t progressed that much since 2017.
Because if you watch him hit, Lee has a long, looping swing that could develop into a powerful stroke as he gets older and puts on more muscle mass and strength. After all, he’s still only 21 years old, and most likely will be breaking in at Triple-A Omaha, so he still way ahead of the game. Take a look at this home run he had last season with Northwest Arkansas, and it is easy to see why prospect experts are optimistic that Lee’s power could develop as he gets older:
Of course, while the looping swing can produce majestic, Ken Griffey, Jr.-esque long balls, it can also generate its share of empty swings at the plate. Last year, Lee struck out in 28.2 percent of his at-bats, not exactly a great sign that his contact-tool is Major League ready just yet. On a positive note, Lee did post a walk rate of 11.9 percent and a BB/K ratio of 0.46, which is reasonable considering his high strikeout rate. Lee is a patient hitter and works deep into counts, but it will be interesting to see how his contact and strikeout rates develop as he gains more experience as a professional hitter. MLB.com, which ranked him as the Royals’ No. 4 prospect a year ago (they haven’t released the official 2020 club Top 30 on MLB Pipeline just yet), they said this about him in their scouting report regarding his swing and miss tendencies:
“While he cut down his strikeout rate considerably in 2018 and has excellent plate discipline, Lee’s willingness to see pitches can work against him. He’ll often take too many hittable pitches early in counts and then hasn’t altered his two-strike approach at all. If he can learn to be a bit more aggressive early in counts, then pitchers will start trying to expand the zone early, where his advanced eye will come in handy.”MLB Pipeline Scouting Report on Khalil Lee from 2019
Lastly, if you take a look at Fangraphs’ compilation of Arizona Fall League and extended Spring Training clips from a year ago, it’s easy to see making consistent contact is still a work in progress for Lee. While this was two Fall seasons ago, he looks lost at the plate at times, and takes a lot of bad cuts. Hence, it will be interesting to see how the Royals coaching staff will work with him this March so he can improve this Spring with more exposure to Major League pitching.
But to be honest, the Royals are putting up and being patient with Lee for two reasons: his age (still 21) and his ability on the basepaths as well as defense. In many ways, Lee will help Royals fans recall Lorenzo Cain and Jarrod Dyson during those 2013-2017 seasons. Lee may not have Cain’s pure size and athleticism, or Dyson’s raw speed, but he is a combo of both in many ways, which makes him intriguing as a potential staring outfielder for the Royals after this season. If Dyson and Cain could have a love child, it probably would look a lot like Lee.
However, while the defense has gotten some solid reports, with MLB.com grading his arm as a 65 and his fielding a 55 on the traditional 20-80 scouting scale, his speed still gets some mixed reviews. While Lee did steal 53 bases a year ago (which was second in all of Minor League Baseball), he only stole 20 bases two years ago and was caught 18 times. While he improved his success rate in 2018 (he stole 14 on 17 attempts in Wilmington and was two for two in his first stint in Double-A), it still was significantly less than his 2019 totals (he only stole 16 total for the year in 2018).
Here is what Prospects 361 said about Lee, whom they ranked as the 4th best prospect in the Royals system going into 2020:
“I did a double-take when I looked at Khalil Lee’s final stat line in 2019. 53 stolen bases! Wow, seriously? He stole 20 in 2017 with a terrible 52% success rate, 16 in 2018 and then 53 in 2019…I honestly don’t know what to make of the 53 stolen bases and for the moment, I’m going to park it as an outlier until proven otherwise…”Prospects 361 in Scouting Report on Khalil Lee, Nov. 1st 2019.
The consensus therefore is still in the air a bit. Is Lee going to be a burner like Dyson, with some good, but not great defense mixed in? Or is he going to be a more balanced tool guy like Cain, with a little power and a little basestealing sprinkled in (i.e. a 20-20 potential guy). The baserunning came a long way in 2019, while the power did not. It will be interesting to see if that latter category can catch up a little in 2020, even if it comes at the expense of his stolen base totals.
Lee is an interesting combo of speed, defense and power potential. But as of now, it looks like his path to the Major League is blocked for now. Lee was not added to the 40-man roster this past winter, with the Royals opting instead for Nick Heath, whom the Royals needed to add in order to protect him from being selected in the Rule 5 Draft. Heath has a similar profile to Lee: he is fast (60 stolen bases total a year ago between Double-A and Triple-A), displays good defense in the outfield (though it seems like his glove is further along than his arm, the opposite of Lee), and he strikes out a lot as well (30.9 strikeout rate in NWA; 27.8 strikeout rate in Omaha in 2019).
Hence with Heath already in the mix this Spring and on the 40-man roster, and Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips also competing for time and spots on the active roster this Spring, it seems like development is the primary goal for Lee this Spring. Yes, it would be awesome to see Lee debut with the Royals in 2020 at some point. However, it seems like a lot of chips have to fall just right roster-wise, and considering Lee’s youth, the Royals probably want to ease him along and not jack with his confidence in any way. After all, they rushed Adalberto Mondesi to the Majors in 2016 in the wake of the World Series title, and it jacked with his development big time. It wasn’t until 2018 Mondesi was ready and was able to produce like they expected, and those games in 2016 and 2017 just ended up being lost and wasted service time.
The Royals do not want to make the same mistake with Lee. Beyond Lee, Witt, and Kyle Isbel, there still is a lot of developing to do for position prospects in the Royals system. And with an outfield of Gordo, Whit, and Dozier entrenched for at least 2020, there really isn’t a need for the Royals to push any of their young outfielders quickly anyways. That being said, Lee will be worth following this Spring, especially after early video leaks of his BP sessions have surfaced, getting Royals fans all hot and bothered about his potential:
However, while Lee will be up in Kansas City in good time, it is likely it won’t be this year. Dayton Moore and the Royals are going to be patient with him and his development. It is important than as Royals fans we do the same, even if it may be hard to do once the losses start (eventually) piling up in 2020.