When it comes to drafting middle infielders, the Royals have had mixed success under Dayton Moore. Christian Colon and Johnny Giavotella were highly ranked and drafted (Colon went in the first round of the 2010 draft; Giavotella went in the second round of the 2008 draft) middle infield prospects expected to provide “pop” and “defense” up the middle in Kansas City. However both failed to make much of an impact with the Royals, despite solid Minor League campaigns. Granted, Nicky Lopez and Whit Merrifield could be seen as Moore success stories in this category, but Lopez has to prove himself at the plate over a full MLB season first, and Merrifield probably is better suited defensively in the outfield than up the middle.
While there is some buzz that the Royals could take New Mexico State second baseman Chase Gonzales in June’s Rule 4 Amateur Draft, the Royals do have some middle infield options currently in the system that could help provide utility depth in the next 2-3 seasons. Those options are shortstop Brady McConnell, who was the Royals’ 2nd round pick out for Florida in 2019, and second baseman, Gabriel Cancel, a 7th round pick in the 2015 draft out of Puerto Rico. While the jury is still out that they could be big-league regulars, it is not out of the question to think that both infielders could produce value as utility men in Kansas City at the very least, with a possibility for more if they can solve their strikeout issues in the Minors.
McConnell was the Royals’ second pick in the 2019 draft, coming 42 picks after the Royals selected high school shortstop Bobby Witt. Jr with the second overall pick. A two-year player out of Florida, the 22-year-old put up some solid production at the plate in his sophomore year with the Gators, as he put up a slash of .332/.385/.576 with a .961 OPS, 15 HR, and 48 RBI in 59 games and 254 plate appearances. Here’s is what Max Rieper of Royals Review said of McConnell after the Royals drafted him in last June’s amateur draft:
McConnell was ranked as the 59th-best prospect by Baseball America, 56th by Fangraphs, 39th by MLB Pipeline, and 55th on Shaun Newkirk’s aggregate board. McConnell was considered a first-round talent as a prep star out of Merritt Island High School in Florida in 2017. A lackluster spring caused him to fall to the 33rd round, and he passed up a chance to sign with the Reds to head to Gainesville. According to Baseball America, McConnell added 10-15 pounds to his 6’3’’ frame since coming to college to hit for more power. MLB Pipeline writes he has a “knack for barreling up the baseball.”“Royals add another Florida Gator and another college pitcher in day one of the draft” by Max Rieper; Royals Review
McConnell struggled through injury his freshman year and only played in 9 games in his college debut. However, he recovered well in his sophomore year, and put up the kind of production that would turn MLB front office members’ heads from a middle infield prospect, especially one that played in a conference as tough as the SEC (remember, Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar pitched at Florida). Plus, when you watch tape of him (as evidenced below), it’s easy to see McConnell project into perhaps Jed Lowrie or Trevor Story type of player at the Major League level.
However, one issue that dogged McConnell from being a first round pick was his plate discipline and strikeout issues, as he struck out 57 times in 2019 with the Gators, and posted a BB/K ratio of 0.30, an unimpressive mark at the college level. Unfortunately, those issues carried over to McConnell’s first stop in the Advanced Rookie level Pioneer League with the Idaho Falls Chukars. Though he was able to sign and play in 38 games with the Chukars shortly after being drafted, he put up a pretty pedestrian line, as he posted a triple slash of .211/.286/.382 with a .667 OPS, 4 home runs, and 22 RBI in 169 plate appearances. And his whiff issues became more pronounced at the professional level, as he posted a 0.21 BB/K ratio, which included a strikeout rate of 39.1 percent.
Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs rated McConnell as the 14th best prospect in the Royals system, but he did note that McConnell’s contact issues and older age could hold him back from developing into a regular player at the Major League level:
[McConnell’s] got above-average raw power, plus speed, and can play shortstop (he was listed as an outfielder on the instructs roster but did not play), so he can still be a valuable player even if the bat falls short of average and his ceiling is sizable if it gets better than that. If you’ve read the list in order before arriving at McConnell’s blurb, you know this org has had trouble with players who have swing-and-miss issues upon their arrival in the system. I’m not optimistic McConnell hits enough to be a regular, and I think a multi-positional bench role is more likely.Top 43 Prospects: Kansas City Royals: No. 14: Brady McConnell, SS by Eric Longenhagen; Fangraphs.
In addition to posting a mediocre rookie campaign, McConnell also suffered a concussion during his first professional stint, which sent him to rehab at the Royals facility in Surprise (where he also saw a couple of appearances in the Arizona Rookie League). Furthermore, in February, McConnell posted a note on Twitter talking about him suffering from severe anxiety during his rookie season, and how he has been taking steps to work through these issues in preparation for 2020. The act was definitely courageous, as people admitting mental health struggles (let alone a male professional athlete where that can be seen as weakness from ignorant sports fans) is not common or expected, even in this day and age of more information and empathy for those suffering from those issues.
McConnell was expected to begin the year in low-A Lexington, with a possible call up to Wilmington if he produced with the Legends. However, with the Minor League season in question, it will be interesting to see what the Royals will do with McConnell in 2021, especially since he will be 23 years old, which seems a bit old for the Sally. However, considering his struggles in the Pioneer League, and possibly a missed season of play, it seems likely that McConnell will still start in Lexington in 2021, though the Royals may look to move him up to Wilmington faster than expected.
While McConnell may be 2-3 years away from making an appearance in Kansas City, Cancel may be knocking on the door, especially since he was expected to begin the year in Triple-A Omaha. Furthermore, Cancel also saw some decent time at the plate in Cactus League play this Spring, as he posted a .278/.278/.500 slash with a .778 OPS, 1 home run and 1 RBI in 11 games and 18 plate appearances with the Royals before play was stopped due to COVID.
However, Cancel has been a polarizing Royals prospect in the “prospecting” community. Traditional scouts don’t seem to think too highly of him, as he was not ranked in the Royals’ Top 30 prospect in Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook from 2019, and MLB Pipeline left him off their Top 30 list for this upcoming season as well. On the other end though, more analytically-based prospect experts seem to like Cancel’s outlook, as Royals Review’s Shaun Newkirk rated Cancel as the Royals’ 7th best prospect in 2020, ahead of left-handed pitcher Kris Bubic. Here’s what Newkirk said about Cancel’s outlook for 2020:
I still remain on the high side of Cancel (maybe my take here needs to be CANCEL-led itself). He outhit Khalil Lee for most of the season before a colder August swapped the two. I’m a bit more comfortable in Cancel’s ability to make contact than Lee but Lee has the much better pitch recognition.
Still, Cancel is speedier than he looks, can play an okay second, has above average power, and lifts the ball well. I think Lee and Cancel are essentially equal but Lee gets the nod because of his defensive superiority and plate discipline.“The top 20 Royals prospects for 2020”; No. 7: Gabriel Cancel by Shaun Newkirk; Royals Review
Production-wise, Cancel has yo-yo’d throughout his Minor League career, showing flashes of brilliance, and following it up with slumps that have ended up killing his overall line. For example, in Double-A Northwest Arkansas, Cancel lit it up at the start of the year, as he posted a .925 OPS and hit 6 home runs and 24 RBI in 101 plate appearances in April. However, he regressed over the course of the year, as he posted OPS numbers of .731, .739, and .728 in May-July before hitting that wall in August with a .580 OPS, as Newkirk alluded to above. Cancel may not be a .925 OPS hitter at the MLB level, but he’s not the August version either. Most likely, Cancel is that .730-.740 hitter that he displayed during those few months, which may make him utility material in Kansas City in the next year or two.
Much like McConnell, Cancel strikes out a good amount, and doesn’t really walk a whole lot either, as he posted a strikeout rate of 28.1 percent and BB/K ratio of 0.24 in 513 plate appearances with the Naturals a year ago. However, two seasons ago in the Carolina League in Wilmington, which profiles much tougher for hitters, he only posted a strikeout rate of 17.9 percent, and a BB/K ratio of 0.38 in 507 plate appearances. So it’s not unreasonable to think that Cancel will profile somewhere in the middle in Omaha or as a Royal, which could make him a valuable utility infielder off the bench.
When watching Cancel on tape, he may remind some Royals fans of a poor man’s Jose Altuve or perhaps a Mike Aviles-esque middle infielder. Saying he’ll be either of course may be a stretch, but he shows flashes of those types, especially when he is at the plate and grooves into one, as evidenced below:
Cancel may be a beneficiary of the rosters expanding to 50 should play resume in June. He was already with the Major League club in Spring Training as a Non-Roster Invitee, and with perhaps no Pacific Coast League season, it would be nice for Cancel’s development to give him some at-bats during the abbreviated season. Furthermore, Cancel has the potential to fill in nicely off the bench, as the Royals currently don’t have many options on the 40-man currently to fill in as a backup infielder to Adalberto Mondesi or Nicky Lopez. Thus, it’ll be interesting to see in June what the Royals do with Cancel, and how he responds to the challenge of MLB pitching, should he get that opportunity when play (hopefully) resumes in July.