Nick Heath: A voice and player the Royals may need the most in 2020

Part of the African-American Royals Project series.

As I have talked about before on this blog, there is no question there is a severe lack of representation of African-American athletes at the Major League level. Last year on Opening Day, only 68 of the 882 players on Major League rosters were African-American (7.7 percent), according to USA Today. While the game has seen a rise in Latino representation, it has gone in the opposite direction for African-Americans, and things continue to look bleak, as baseball in the urban core continues to go through its own share of challenges (though, to be fair, there are some success stories, as Ed Howard, a first round draft pick of the Cubs, was developed in the Chicago White Sox Urban Academy).

Kansas City is not immune to the lack of African-American representation throughout their organization, which is sad considering the Royals’ success with African-American players such as Frank White, Willie Wilson, Hal McRae, and Bo Jackson, just to name a few. Currently, there is only one African-American player on the Royals’ 40-man roster: outfielder Nick Heath, who just made the 40-man this past Winter.

While top prospect Khalil Lee could make his Major League debut during what is expected to be a “50ish” game season, Heath most likely will be the only black player on the 40-man roster when baseball resumes. Unfortunately, with a glut of outfielders currently on the roster (and without options) such as Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips, it is unlikely that Heath will be on the active roster come Opening Day, even if rosters should expand to 30 as rumored.

Whether Heath makes the active roster or not to start this season, he undoubtedly will make his debut at some point for the Royals, especially in a truncated season with no “official” Minor League play going on. But while his debut will be a momentous occasion for his family and friends, it should also be a widely celebrated moment for Royals fans in general, as Heath has been one of the most outspoken Royals players in regard to many of the racial issues not just going on in baseball, but in society in general. And not only is Heath outspoken, but he has been a poignant, sharp, and inspirational voice who is targeting not just baseball fans, but young athletes and people of all colors.

Heath may not be a top prospect in the Royals system, as he currently ranks as the Royals 26th best prospect according to MLB Pipeline. However, Heath has been one of the most important Royals voices during this challenging time, and he could also be a valuable asset on the field for the Royals should he be given an opportunity.

Royals fans on Twitter have long known about Heath, who charms followers with his infectious smile, hard-nosed play, and engaging personality. With the exception of Salvy and Brett Phillips, the Royals roster can be a pretty “vanilla” bunch. They are hard-working and classy, but they’re not going to win any personality contests anytime soon, especially in comparison to other organizations with more dynamic players like the White Sox (though I hate them), Nationals, Dodgers and Braves. Heath has been the exception, as he is frequently engaging with other players and fans on Twitter, and gained some popularity during his time and antics in the Dominican Winter League this past Winter.

Building on that popularity gained from Winter League (as well as a solid Minor League campaign in 2019 where he held his own in both Double-A Northwest Arkansas and Triple-A Omaha), Heath not only made the 40-man roster this off-season (which protected him from the Rule 5 Draft), but he also got to be part of frequent segments on Momentum, a YouTube channel dedicated to profiling baseball players in different lights (i.e. make the game cooler for a change). Here’s a segment that he did where he and roommate Heath Fillmyer played a little “Roommate Game” for the channel, and it provides some good laughs and introspective on their relationship:

However, Heath has gone from a Royals fan-favorite to a more pronounced figure in the national media, especially when it comes to baseball players speaking out on racial injustice in the game and country in general. Heath was a guest on two podcasts recently where he shared his experiences and thoughts about the current state of racial inequality in the game today: the “Baseball BBQ” from the Ringer (hosted by the team that created the Cespedes Family BBQ blog originally) and “The Show Before the Show” podcast hosted by Minor League Baseball. Both links to the podcast are listed below:

What stands out the most from Heath’s podcasts is not only his energy, but how articulate and earnest he is in terms of the challenges African-Americans face when it comes to finding a spot in the game of baseball. What makes Heath unique is that he didn’t grow up in a heavily populated African-American area, but rather in Junction City, Kansas, which is as white, rural Kansas as you can get (Junction City is not far from Manhattan, which is where K-State is located for those who aren’t familiar with Kansas geography). Heath is honest about how he felt pressured to perhaps quit baseball and just focus on track in high school, mostly because he felt that was what African-American athletes were expected to do in the Spring. Furthermore, he also discussed how challenging the dynamics can be in the locker room when it comes to integration, and described how it is common for players to stick with their own “racial” background, even if it is not based out of racism or maliciousness. Furthermore, he did mention that this schism provides a challenge when it comes to creating dialogue about issues in the clubhouse, and often times not only does he have to initiate these conversations, but also bear some difficult, and sometimes ignorant, perspectives from white teammates.

If you have not heard the podcasts, you should listen to them immediately, especially the “Baseball BBQ” one where Heath really goes into some great depths about the locker room dynamics. Not only does Heath come out as a great player worth rooting for this Spring, but he also puts the notion into the heads of passionate Royals fans that he should continue to be a spokesman for this Royals team in 2020 and perhaps beyond.

Of course, Heath being bestowed such a role may be a difficult challenge, especially on a roster filled with veterans such as Alex Gordon, Whit Merrifield, Salvador Perez, Jorge Soler, and Hunter Dozier, just to name a few. Even though Heath’s stock has risen as a prospect over the past year (he was not ranked in the 2019 Baseball America Prospect handbook), his projection as a prospect is mixed, as many don’t project Heath to be more than a platoon outfielder. In fact, the most common comp Heath gets is to Jarrod Dyson, a fellow athletic, but under-heralded outfielder (he was drafted in the 50th round) who ended up becoming a fan favorite in Kansas City. Alex Duvall of Royals Farm Report, while writing for Royals Review, said this in his prospect report on Heath:

Heath is a year older than Dyson in this seasonal comparison, but he also made it to AA while Dyson spent the entire 2018 campaign in High-A. He also hit pretty substantially better than Dyson did at the same level. Nick Heath may never play as good of defense in CF as Dyson did (though I wouldn’t completely rule that out), but his bat should serve as a great equalizer between the two.

Nick Heath and Jarrod Dyson are not the same player, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Heath could offer some similar value to the next competitive Royals team as a fourth outfielder off the bench that plays semi-regularly against right-handed pitchers and is a menace on the basepaths in late innings. Heath knows that speed will be his meal ticket to the big leagues.

“Better Know a Prospect: Nick Heath” by Alex Duvall; Royals Review

Much like Dyson, Heath is a strong runner and fielder, as MLB pipeline graded his speed tool as a 70 and his defense as a 55 on the scale. This is what Pipeline said in their report:

Heath boasts an elite combination of athleticism and speed. The latter is least a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, and it enables him to impact games on both sides of the ball. Beyond the perennially high stolen base totals, Heath is an efficient basestealer who has been successful on 80 percent (160 of 200) of his attempts. He’s a natural in center field, with long, graceful strides that gives him range for days, and throws well enough to play all three outfield spots.

“No. 26: Nick Heath” by MLB Pipeline; Royals Top 30 Prospects; MLB Pipeline

The big factor that could make or break Heath at the Major League level will be his ability to make contact and how often he gets on base. While Heath has a Minor League career OPS of .709 and OBP of .348 in 323 games and 1,362 plate appearances, he also has struck out 364 times, roughly a 26.7 percent rate. While he does counter that by walking a fair amount (his BB/K ratio is 0.40, which is just slightly below average), it will be interesting to see how his plate discipline and ability to make contact transitions to the Major League level. He has the patience and baserunning ability to be a great leadoff hitter, but he has to seem some stabilization in those strikeout rates, for even Dyson didn’t strike out at those kinds of rates with the Royals (Dyson has a career strikeout rate of 16.5 over 10 MLB seasons).

Whether Heath becomes a regular or backup outfielder down the road with the Royals or any other organization beyond 2020, Royals fans should be paying attention and rooting for Heath when baseball resumes. Heath is a great “Kansas” story as he grew up in the heart of the state, and he also is the son of Kimberly Milleson, a former Kansas State track star and U.S. Olympic trials participant. Add that with an incredible personality, and there is no reason to think that Heath, a former 16th round draft pick, could be a player that Royals fans can not only rally behind, but also listen and learn from too. Kansas City sports fans listen to when their favorite athletes speak. Patrick Mahomes has already changed the minds of many KC sports fans in ways recently that would have been unthinkable after Marcus Peters and other Chiefs knelt for the anthem just as recently as 2017. Heath is a likable enough player that he has gotten a lot of younger Royals fans to listen to his story and cause. If he gets the opportunity with the Royals in 2020 and is a productive player, his voice will only grow and impact not just Royals fans, but the Kansas City community as a whole.

And wouldn’t that be a great story? An African-American Royals player from Junction City, Kansas who enlightened Kansas City sports fans off the field, and excited us on it?

The Royals have been waiting for a player like Nick Heath for years…let’s hope he gets and makes the most of his opportunity at the Major League level.

Personally, I cannot wait to see him at the K, and especially for his first postgame Joel Goldberg interview…with that inevitable Salvy Gatorade bucket bath.

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