With the start of the Major League season still in question, I wanted to continue looking at Spring Training and which Royals players did well, and which ones well…did not. I have already look at pitchers (both ones who had good and bad springs) and position players (focused on the good). However, I wanted to in this post focus on non-roster position player prospects who probably won’t play at the Major League level this year, but certainly improved their stock as Royals prospects for the upcoming season.
So let’s take a look at three position prospects who had promising Springs, and what that could mean for the upcoming 2020 season.
Kyle Isbel, OF
I have talked about Isbel before on this blog, but other than Khalil Lee, he may be one of the most intriguing outfield prospects in the Royals system. Isbel is a multi-tool outfielder who sports a solid glove, good speed, and some pretty good hit and power potential. While he most likely won’t see Kansas City for at least another year, he could be the heir apparent to Alex Gordon in left field when the legendary outfielder retires or leaves Kansas City after this season.
Last season, Isbel struggled with injury in the Carolina League with the Wilmington Blue Rocks. While he got off to a good start, a wrist injury derailed his progress, and he ended up posting a .216/.282/.361 and .643 OPS in 52 games and 214 plate appearances with the Blue Rocks. While those numbers aren’t impressive, it was in the Carolina League, which drains hitters’ power, and he performed better than other top Royals prospects such as MJ Melendez (.571 OPS), Nick Pratto (.588 OPS), and Seuly Matias (.566 OPS). Thus, many felt that a healthy Isbel could break out in 2020, especially in the Double-A Texas League, which profiles as a more hitter-friendly league.
Since the 2019 season ended, Isbel has made his case that his injury issues in Wilmington are behind him. He was the Royals’ best position player in the Arizona Fall League, as he posted a .315/.429/.438 slash with an .867 OPS in 21 games and 91 plate appearances. He also accumulated 17 walks to only 20 strikeouts in AFL play, which showed that his plate approach was a lot more refined than other “whiffers” whom he played with in Wilmington a year ago, such as the three listed above.
His strong AFL performance earned Isbel the No. 7 spot on MLB Pipeline’s Royals Top 30 list, as well as an invitation to Royals Spring Training in Surprise. And Isbel showed well in his short stint in Major League camp, posting a .241/.267/.586 slash with an .853 OPS and two home runs, which included a dramatic inside-the-park home run, as seen below:
It is likely that Isbel will probably play most of the year in Double-A Northwest Arkansas. Furthermore, with a crowded outfield of Gordo, Whit, and Doz, as well as Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips on the bench, and Lee waiting in the wings in Triple-A, it doesn’t seem likely that Isbel will see Kansas City and Kauffman Stadium until 2021 at the soonest. However, Isbel has done everything this Fall and Spring to prove that he can be a cornerstone outfielder for this Royals organization for years to come, and it will be exciting to follow his progress in 2020 to see how he continues to develop as a hitter and overall player over the course of the season.
Jeison Guzman, SS/INF
Guzman is the classic “all glove, little bat” infield prospect. Guzman has not really showed much with the bat over his professional career, as he has only posted a .245/.305/.345 slash and .675 OPS over 314 games and 1,320 plate appearances at the Minor League level. He is also 21 years old and has not played over Single-A Lexington, which is a bit concerning and a sign that Guzman may be taking longer to develop than Royals management would have hoped.
However, there seems to be hope that Guzman may be on the rise and starting to live up to the lofty reputation he built after the Royals signed him to a $1.5 million signing bonus during the 2015-2016 International signing period. Here’s what MLB Pipeline said about Guzman, who ranked him 17th in the Royals system:
“If you remove Guzman’s unproductive April from his final .253/.296/.373 batting line, he was a .273/.313/.404 hitter as a 20-year-old in his first full-season campaign. He’s begun to grow into his projectable frame and was a noticeably stronger player in 2019…he drove the ball more consistently as the 2019 season unfolded. He’s also running better than he has in the past, adding speed and being more aggressive on the basepaths…Even if the bat doesn’t come to fruition, Guzman’s glove could carry him up the ladder. He’s capable of making spectacular plays at shortstop thanks to outstanding lateral range and arm strength that’s up there with best in the Royals’ system.”MLB Pipeline Royals Top 30 Prospects; No. 17 Jeison Guzman
The Royals added Guzman to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft (something they didn’t do for fellow countryman, Matias), and Guzman earned a spot consequently in Royals big league camp this Spring. And Guzman held his own in Surprise, posting a .235/.316/.412 slash with a .728 OPS in 19 plate appearances. He also hit a home run, showing that he indeed had been getting stronger body-wise from over a season ago, as prospect experts had noted in his scouting report.
Guzman is a long way from Kansas City, as he most likely will play in High-A Wilmington, and could struggle in the tough-hitting conditions, much like other Royals prospects a year ago. But, Guzman showed that he was worth keeping from the Rule 5 Draft this Spring, and considering he was named the Legends’ Player of the Year a season ago, this Spring Training performance shows that Guzman may be more ready for the Carolina League than people initially thought prior to the start of camp in Surprise. If Guzman can turn into an infielder type like Alcides Escobar, that could be a big win, especially considering Escobar’s durability, baserunning, and defense as the Royals shortstop from 2011-2018.
Gabe Cancel, 2B/INF
It’s hard to determine what Cancel is in the Royals system. Is he a prospect or not? After cracking the Royals Top 30 as the Royals’ 29th best prospect a year ago, according to MLB Pipeline, he was absent from the list in 2020. And it’s understandable: Cancel’s defense nor baserunning tools are highly regarded, and he only posted a .246/.308/.427 slash and .735 OPS in 123 games and 516 plate appearances in Northwest Arkansas a season ago. While Cancel did hit 18 home runs and drove in 69 in the hitter-friendly Texas League, he also struck out 144 times and only walked 34 times, good for a BB/K ratio of 0.24, a pretty mediocre number.
Despite his questionable prospect status and numbers over his minor league career (career .259/.316/.426 slash and .741 OPS in 426 games and 1,792 plate appearances), Cancel got the invite to Royals big league camp. And though he got off to a slow start (pretty sure he didn’t get a hit until halfway through Spring Training), he did end the year strong, eventually posting a .278/.278/.500 slash with a .778 OPS in 18 plate appearances. He also hit a double and a home run in Cactus League play, though as expected, he continued to show his free-swinging approach, as he struck out five times and didn’t walk a single time with the Royals this Spring.
While it seems unlikely that Cancel may develop into a regular player in Kansas City, his unique power at the middle infield position makes him an intriguing, lower-end prospect to follow in 2020, as he most likely will play in Omaha. The hitter-friendly confines of the PCL should play into his strengths, and it’s possible that he could hit for 20-plus home runs with the Storm Chasers (of course, that all depends on how long PCL play is after we come back from this Coronavirus crisis). Just look at his power stroke below, and you can see why people see potential in Cancel:
If anything, this Spring perhaps showed that Cancel could develop into a utility infielder type in the mold of a Mike Aviles or Christian Colon, but with more power, which would not be a bad thing to have off the bench in Kansas City. Yes, Cancel’s stock as a prospect is low now, but if he can transition this decent Major League Spring camp to a solid year in Triple-A, it’s not out of the question that Cancel may earn a spot on the 40-man and a callup to Kansas City toward the end of the 2020 season.