So the Caribbean Winter Leagues have begun and already some Royals players are attraction attention. While the leagues are a little different this Winter without the rowdy crowds in attendance, it has not stopped teams from making Winter League baseball in Latin America something to truly be cherished, as evidenced in this tweet below from Tigres de Licey:
If anyone tells you baseball can’t be fun, well…just show them the video above and that will help change their mind. Hopefully, trends like this will start to seep more into the MLB locker rooms, which could use a jolt of energy and personality at times (I think things like this do exist, but MLB teams are too self-conscious to post it).
Anyways, even though the pandemic has changed Caribbean Winter Leagues and what they look like at the surface level in comparison to past seasons, one thing that has remained the same is that many players within the Royals organization are participating in Winter baseball this year. The experience is always a great one for both current Royals players as well as prospects, as it gives them an opportunity to not just improve against live competition, but it also gives many of them an opportunity to play in their home countries (or play in a different country, as Tyler Zuber and Nick Heath gained valuable experiences from playing with Licey a Winter ago).
This year familiar Royals players such as Erick Mejia (who should be back in the organization, even though he was non-tendered), Franchy Cordero, and Kelvin Gutierrez are playing in the Dominican Winter League. However, there are a slew of Royals prospects who are playing in the Winter Leagues as well, which is a valuable experience considering there was no Minor League Baseball season in 2020. With that being said, let’s take a look at three Royals prospects who are having solid Winter campaigns thus far, which should give hope to Royals fans that these players may take the next step in 2021.
(All stats come from Playidx, which has all stats from all Winter Leagues this year; if you want to see what players are playing in the Winter Leagues, and how they are doing, then this site should be in your bookmarks.)
Seuly Matias, OF, Gigantes del Cibao (LIDOM, i.e. Dominican Winter League)
I talked about how the Royals dodged a bullet in the Rule 5 draft with outfield prospect Seuly Matias not being selected. Matias had a rough 2019 in Wilmington, as he posted a .148/.259/.307 and .566 OPS in 57 games and 221 plate appearances with the Blue Rocks. However, he was mostly dealing with a wrist injury, and many credited his offensive struggles to him not being fully healthy. Considering he was coming off a 31-home campaign in 94 games in Lexington in 2108, one could see how that may have affected him and does give some credence to the point that his 2019 should be taken with a grain of salt. However, his strikeout issues (98 strikeouts a year ago; 387 career strikeouts in 261 professional games) still remain a concern and could prevent him from living up to his previous prospect hype (Baseball Prospectus had him as a Top-100 prospect going into 2019).
That being said, Matias is off to a good start in his first four games, as he is 3-for-8 with two doubles and a massive home run that was parked to deep center, as evidenced in the video below:
Matias may still be a couple of years away from making his Royals debut (it will be interesting to see if they will start him in High-A Quad Cities or Double-A Northwest Arkansas). However, if he can continue to hit with power, and make further strides with his plate discipline and batting eye this Winter and Spring (he has one walk and two strikeouts in 10 plate appearances), it is possible that Matias could be added to the Royals 40-man by the end of 2021.
Khalil Lee, OF, Indios de Mayagüez (LBPRC, i.e. Puerto Rican Winter League)
The No. 8 prospect in the Royals system, according to MLB Pipeline, the Royals added Lee to the 40-Man roster this year in order to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. Lee is a special player who has a patient approach, a great glove, and some excellent baserunning tools, as he stole 53 bags with the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals in 2019. Lee posted a .264/.363/.372 slash with the Naturals in 129 games and 546 plate appearances, and he played pretty much all of 2020 at the Alternate Site in Wyandotte County. However, one knock on him is his ability to make consistent contact as well as a tendency to rack up strikeouts, a downside of his overly selective approach. He has struck out over 100 times each season from 2017-2019, which included a 154 total in 2019, which makes some experts concerned about how his contact skills and approach will transition at the Major League level.
However, playing for the Indios for the second straight Winter, Lee has showed that his work at the Alternate Site this past summer has yielded some early fruit. In four games and 19 plate appearances, he has four hits, which include a double, and a home run. In fact, his double capped off a big comeback for the Indios, as evidenced from this tweet below:
The Royals did acquire Michael A. Taylor to perhaps be the starting center fielder in 2021. However, if Lee can have a strong Winter and Spring, he could make the center field discussion a lot more interesting, especially if Taylor struggles at the plate next season.
Maikel Garcia, SS, Tiburones de la Guiara (LVBP, i.e. Venezuelan Winter League)
All the talk has been on Maikel Franco not being tendered a contract this Winter. However, it is possible that Royals fans are overlooking another “Maikel” in their system, specifically, Maikel Garcia, a shortstop prospect out of Venezuela who is cousins with former Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar. Garcia is not on any major prospect rankings, but he is a favorite of Royals prospect expert Clint Scoles, who runs Royals Academy, and rated him as the Royals’ 28th best prospect in their system, as evidenced below:
The full report from Scoles requires a subscription (which, if you are a Royals fan, need to get, pronto). However, here is an interesting snippet from Scoles’ scouting report:
If you stack up the Royals shortstops organizationally Garcia is going to find himself well down the chart around the interwebs with Mondesi, Bobby Witt Jr., Brady McConnell, Jeison Guzman and some places having Wilmin Candelario rated ahead of him. That doesn’t matter though and despite his unheralded nature, Garcia may have the best combination of athleticism and body for the position outside of Mondesi for the future.“No. 28: Maikel Garcia-Royals Prospect Rankings” by Clint Scoles; Royals Academy
Garcia has moved a little slowly in the Royals system, as he has not advanced past rookie ball yet. In 2019, he mostly played in Burlington, as he played in 55 games for the Royals in what would ultimately be their last season of Royals affiliation. In 263 plate appearances, he posted a .284/.349/.367 slash with a .716 OPS, and he also stole 19 bases on 28 attempts. Garcia showed a decent eye and contact skills at the plate against Appalachian League pitching, as he walked 25 times and only struck out 40 times. However, he is mostly known for his defense, and he may be the most underrated infield defender in the Royals system, which says something considering this system has Bobby Witt Jr.
So far in the LVBP, he’s been one of this top performers this Winter, as he is actually tied for the lead league in hits with 15, according to Playidx stats. Currently he is posting a .326/.415/.435 slash and has 7 walks and only 8 strikeouts in 53 plate appearances. It is likely that Garcia will probably start the year in Single-A Columbia (which replaces Lexington as the Low A affiliate), which will be interesting since he most likely will battle with 2020 1st Round pick Nick Loftin for the position, at least according to Roster Resource depth chart projections. However, Garcia should not be slept on, and he could be a prospect that could make some considerable gains in 2021, if his Winter League stats are any indication.