The Royals rebuild made some strides at the Major League level this year, as the Royals finished 26-34 during the COVID-shortened season. However, the strength of the Royals as an organization remains in the Minor Leagues, as Dayton Moore and the Royals front office has put together an impressive crop of young talent together in the Royals’ farm system the past few seasons. The Royals recent commitment to building their farm system has been recognized beyond the Kansas City fanbase as well, for MLB Pipeline ranked the Royals as the 10th best system in baseball at Mid-Season point in 2020, an improvement of seven spots from their pre-season rankings.
In a league where every team is doing their best to be “revolutionary”, Moore and the Royals have made player development an emphasis of the organization in a profound way the past couple of years, especially amidst the COVID crisis shutting down Minor League Baseball in 2020. While many teams around the league have been prone to short their Minor League players and organizations to save costs, the Royals have gone the opposite route, seeming to invest even more in their Minor League players and system, with the idea that this method will not just make their system stronger (it has), but would also help build relationships with future prospects and talents (and that showed in the undrafted player signing period too).
And if that wasn’t enough, the Royals have gone all-in on their fall instructional league development, inviting as many players as they could within the Kansas City Royals system, as evidenced below:
Both Kansas City and Surprise camp began this week, and if the video below is any indication, Royals fans should have a lot to look forward to when it comes to the future of this Royals organization. Unlike in years past, where it seemed like Moore was piecing things together at both the Major and Minor League level, it seems like the Royals have a concrete plan in order to be competitive again. They are hoping to achieve lasting success not just through their methods of player scouting and acquisition, but development as well (which seems to be more seeped in analytics and technology than ever before).
Thanks to the expanded 60-man roster pool this past season (due to COVID), many Royals prospects were thrust into the spotlight among Royals fans this Summer. Bobby Witt Jr. became a household name. Kyle Isbel became something of a legend. And while Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar continued to entice Royals fans, 2020 1st round pick Asa Lacy added even more buzz when he arrived at camp, which makes one wonder what Moore will do with this surplus of starting pitching prospects in the next year or so and whether he will explore a trade or two to cash in for a veteran (like he did with James Shields).
That being said, while many of the high profile prospects generated a lot of of talk at the Alternate Site in Wyandotte County, there were some “under-the-radar” players who could be interesting players to follow as the Royals begin development at Kauffman Stadium. Many of those intriguing prospects are eligible for the Rule 5 Draft in December, which could make this Fall camp even more important when it comes to Moore deciding who will be worth adding to the 40-man roster (in order to protect them from the draft), and who will be worth leaving unprotected.
Let’s take a look at three “Rule 5 Eligible” prospects in fall camp that Royals fans should be following closely.
Yefri Del Rosario, RHP
No pitcher suffered more in their development from the COVID shutdown of the Minor League season than Del Rosario, who also missed all of 2019 due to a nerve issue. And hence, Del Rosario hasn’t pitched against opposing hitters in almost two years, which doesn’t necessarily bode well for his prospects as a Major League pitcher, even though he is still only 21-years-old.
Despite losing a year due to COVID and his injury history, Del Rosario seems to have one of the highest ceilings out of any pitcher in the Royals organization. Originally a Braves signing, Del Rosario was signed by the Royals after the 2017 season due to an international rule-breaking scandal committed by the Atlanta organization. In 2018, he performed pretty well in Lexington as an 18-year-old, posting 4.10 ERA, 1.24 WHIP and 2.48 K/BB ratio in 15 starts and 79 IP. Before his injury, many Royals fans were expecting that he would progress to Wilmington in 2019 and perhaps Northwest Arkansas in 2020 (depending on how he did). Thus it was entirely plausible that had COVID not happened or he had not been struck with injury, Del Rosario could have been debuting in Kansas City in 2021 at the age of 21.
Del Rosario is known for a lively fastball (it tops around 96/97) and a solid curve ball, but has been known to demonstrate command and control issues. Here is what Eric Longenhagen of Fangraphs said about Del Rosario, whom he rated as the 33rd best prospect in the Royals system going into 2020:
One of the more talented prospects cut loose by the Braves during their international scandal, Del Rosario’s fastball creeps into the mid-90s, and he has a good curveball and a sturdy build that is admittedly less projectable than is typical for a 19-year-old. His strike-throwing took a step forward in 2018, before he missed all of 2019 with a nerve issue. His profile already included fairly significant relief risk made more likely by the injury and how that compresses his developmental timeline.No. 33: Yefri Del Rosario; “Top 43 Prospects: Kansas City Royals”; by Eric Longenhagen; Fangraphs.com
One would think that most teams would consider Del Rosario too risky for the Rule 5 Draft, especially since he hasn’t pitched in a regular season game in two years. Furthermore, he has yet to compete above low-A ball. However, the Royals were in a similar situation with Carlos Hernandez going into the 2019 Rule 5 Draft, and they decided to protect him and add him to the roster, even though he too had yet to pitch beyond Lexington prior to that point in his career. Del Rosario has some prospect luster stemming from his Braves days, and one could see an organization take a flier on him and perhaps work him sparingly out of the bullpen at the big league level in 2021, with the hope of perhaps developing him back as a starter in the upper minors in 2022. Considering Del Rosario’s youth, this plan doesn’t sound outrageous, as he will be only 23 in 2022.
Without a doubt, Del Rosario will be an interesting one to follow during instructional league in KC this fall. If he succeeds and shows flashes of that 2018 self, that could sway Moore to add him to the 40-man roster and protect him, even if it may be a couple of years before Del Rosario makes his debut in Kansas City.
Seuly Matias, OF
Much like Del Rosario, injury and a lost Minor League season didn’t help Matias. That being said, unlike Del Rosario, Matias had the benefit of being added to the 60-man roster this season and was able to workout with other players in the Royals organization as well as the Royals development staff at T-Bones stadium. The fact that Matias was there along with other top prospects such as Bobby Witt, Jr., Kyle Isbel, and Khalil Lee shows how much faith the Royals still have in Matias, even though he is coming off a rough 2019 in Wilmington where he posted a .148/.259/.307 slash and a strikeout rate of 44.3 percent in 57 games and 221 plate appearances.
However, reports surfaced that Matias played through most of 2019 with a wrist injury (which is why he played in only 57 games), and in camp, he proved that he was not only healthy, but he could still crush the baseball as well, as evidenced in the video below from Summer Camp:
Matias is still such a raw project. However, he has incredible power and a rocket arm, and it’s not out of the question to think that Matias could develop into a “Jorge Soler-esque” player at the big league level. Even though Matias wasn’t protected in the Rule 5 Draft this past winter, he went undrafted, much to the Royals’ relief. However, with him getting much needed development and publicity at the Royals site this past season, one has to wonder if a team would pick him up and perhaps try him out in a utility role in 2021, with the hope that he can get development through at-bats. Hitters with Matias’ power tool don’t come around often, and for a team that is expected to be around the bottom of the standings anyways (like the Pirates or Tigers for example), Matias could be a valuable asset who may not have much immediate value, but could produce long-term benefits should an organization be patient and develop him properly.
It seems like the Royals front office likes what Matias can offer, and he could be a valuable DH replacement for Soler in 2-3 seasons. That being said, the Royals will need to make a decision soon on whether Matias is worth adding to the 40-man this off-season, and it’s likely that a lot of that could hinge on how he fares in the fall instructional camp at Kauffman.
Khalil Lee, OF
Royals fans heard a lot about Isbel this summer, and rightfully so. Other than Witt, no position prospect turned heads or generated as much discussion among Royals brass and media members than the outfielder out of UNLV. Isbel also was not known just for his play, but his personality as well, as he was the “star” of a Royals video that profiled a day in the life at the Alternate Site in KCK.
However, even though Isbel is generating more buzz, Lee actually may be closer to debuting in Kansas City. Lee played all of 2019 in Northwest Arkansas while Isbel only played in High-A Wilmington. Furthermore, Lee is coming off a promising campaign with the Naturals, as he posted a slash of .264/.363/.372 in 129 games and 546 plate appearances.
What makes Lee so promising as a prospect is that he offers some patience at the plate, and has a keen ability to swipe bags. Last year, he posted a walk rate of almost 12 percent, and he also stole 53 bases a year ago, which was second-most in the Royals farm system (behind only teammate Nick Heath). However, while Lee walks a lot, he also struggles with strikeouts, as he struck out in 28.2 percent of his at-bats with the Naturals last year, which negated his BB/K ratio to a 0.42 mark. Furthermore, his strikeout issues seemed to carry over to Summer Camp, for in the scrimmages, he looked overwhelmed at the plate. While Lee is still incredibly young (he just turned 22), one has to wonder what Lee’s future will be as a Royal, as his “Brett Phillips-esque” batting approach may not be as valued or celebrated by either the Royals management or fan base.
Even though it’s hard to get a feel of how players did exactly in Summer Camp and at the Alternate Site, Lee’s name was not one that popped up often in reports. This is unfortunate because if COVID had not derailed the season, it seemed possible that Lee could have earned a call up in September, as he was expected to play in Omaha in 2020. While that doesn’t mean a “death knell” for Lee’s chances of being added to the 40-man roster this Winter, the lack of buzz around Lee, and the acquisition of Franchy Cordero, Edward Olivares, and Lucius Fox, athletic types who offer the same kinds of skill sets that Lee possesses, don’t bode well for his future as a Royal.
At this point, it seems difficult to imagine the Royals letting Lee get away through the Rule 5 Draft, especially since he has been a Top-10 prospect in the Royals system that past three years. And unlike a prospect who is mostly “tools and projection” like Matias, Lee has at least showed decent production over his Minor League career, not to mention decent production in Double-A. And thus, while Lee being added to the 40-man is highly likely, one has to wonder what could happen if Lee’s stock continue to plummet during Instructional Camp this fall.
Because if it does…well…that discussion of “not” adding him to the 40-man roster may get a whole lot more interesting, especially since it is for certain he would be drafted if he were available.