Erick Pena, Khalil Lee, and Kyle Isbel are the No. 5, No. 6, and No. 7 prospects in the “21 in 21” prospect watch.
Right now, the 2021 Royals outfield, according to Roster Resource’s Depth Chart projections, appears to be Franchy Cordero in left field, Michael A. Taylor in center, and Whit Merrifield in right. While Whit will continue to be a key part of the Royals lineup next year, the future seems hazy for both Cordero and Taylor. Both have potential and could break out in a change of scenery in Kansas City. However, they didn’t really light it up at the MLB level in their previous organizations either (Padres and Nationals, respectively).
Nonetheless, the Royals may not need Cordero or Taylor to be long-term options in Kansas City. That is because the Royals could have a future trio of outfielders that may be worth building around in Erick Pena, Khalil Lee, and Kyle Isbel.
Of course, a lot of that depends on how they do in the Minor Leagues in 2021, as the lack of a Minor League season didn’t do them a whole lot of favors in their progression to the Major League level.
Pena, Lee, and Isbel are both at different stages in their development and proximity to the Major Leagues. Pena may be the most heralded of the three, as he signed for $3,897,500 as a part of the 2019 International Class, one of the largest amounts given to a Royals signee out of Latin America. However, the lack of a Minor League season last year hurt Pena the most out of the three, as he was expected to make his professional debut and play at least in rookie ball in Arizona. Unfortunately, COVID kept Pena back in his home country of the Dominican Republic in the summer. A small consolation for Pena and the Royals was that he was able to play in instructional league this Fall.
MLB Pipeline ranked Pena as the 5th best prospect in the Royals system, while Baseball America was a little more conservative, ranking him 7th. Baseball America in their scouting report lauded not only his tools highly, but his intangibles as well. Here is what they said in their most recent Royals Top 30 Rankings:
Peña is a big, physical hitter with excellent balance, strong hands and a level swing. He shows advanced bat-to-ball skills for his age and has a chance to develop plus power as he fills out his 6-foot-3, 180-pound frame. Peña’s offensive ceiling is high, but it’s all projection—he will be 18 years old in 2021, has yet to play a professional game and struggled with swings and misses at instructs. Peña’s lower half has thickened up since he signed, cementing his future as a corner outfielder. He showed improvement defensively this summer with a good feel for reading fly balls and an average arm. Peña has a strong work ethic, is mature for his age and already speaks English fluently.“No.7: Erick Pena; Kansas City Royals Prospects Overivew”; Baseball America
Pipeline also spoke highly of his intangibles, and hinted that Pena could be a “franchise” outfielder, much like Carlos Beltran, whom many scouts compared Pena to when he signed initially with the Royals. Here is what Pipeline said in their scouting report:
Pena also gets high marks for his baseball IQ, solid instincts and plus makeup. If it all clicks for him on the field, he has the potential to be the face of an organization, much like the player he draws comps to was at one point in his career.“No. 5; Royals Top 30 Prospects”; MLB Pipeline
What makes Pena so difficult to project is that there is literally no data on him, as he has not played an inning of professional ball yet due to the pandemic. But when you watch him on tape, his athleticism, both at the plate and on the field, shine through, even if it is only in small snippets. Here is a highlight reel of him below that was published last April:
Pena is not only the most volatile of the three outfielders, but he may be one of the riskiest prospects in the Royals Top 10. It is possible that Pena in the next year or two could not only emerge as one of the best prospects in the Royals system, but perhaps in all of baseball. He is a five-tool talent who could easily be a face of the franchise for the Royals for years to come along with Bobby Witt, Jr., which isn’t easy to say. However, it is totally possible that Pena could fail to live up to that hype, and not measure up to his near $4 million signing bonus that he inked a couple of years ago.
The Royals most likely will be conservative with Pena in 2021, especially after a lost 2020 Minor League season. Roster Resource projects him to begin the year in Rookie League ball in Arizona, where he likely will be sharing the outfield with Danish-born prospect Darryl Collins, who is also a teenager. While it will be a limited stint where development will be the focus, how Pena fares in the Arizona Rookie League will be interesting to watch, as a solid campaign could skyrocket him among prospects experts in 2022.
While Pena is years away from touching Kansas City, the inverse may be true for Lee and Isbel. Both players made the 60-man roster last year, and not only participated in Summer Camp, but the Alternate Site as well, where they impressed Royals brass in a variety of ways. In fact, both were involved in a spectacular moment at the Alternate Site in Wyandotte County, as Lee scorched a ball to Center, and Lee made an incredible play on the ball. Thankfully, Royals Player Development was able to capture and share this moment on Twitter:
The catch was not the lone highlight for Isbel, as he began impressing the Royals brass as early as Spring Training in 2020. Here is Isbel robbing Jurickson Profar in a Spring Training game in March against the Padres:
And Isbel didn’t just impress solely with his glove in Spring Training. Even though he had not played above High-A ball prior to 2020, he ended up ripping this game-tying double in Cactus League play against the Los Angeles Angels:
Isbel didn’t have the best campaign in 2019, as he posted a .216/.282/.361 slash in 52 games and 214 plate appearances with the Wilmington Blue Rocks. However, Isbel was affected by nagging injuries most of the year, and he didn’t fare as poorly as other top prospects in the pitcher-friendly confines of Wilmington, Delaware (like Nick Pratto, Seuly Matias, and MJ Melendez). Furthermore, even despite his “down” season in High-A, Isbel continued to impress Royals scouts and front office members in 2020, as evidenced by a recent roundup of prospects who participated in fall camp by the Athletic’s Alec Lewis. Here’s what Lewis wrote about Isbel in his piece:
Isbel put on a show one day this spring in batting practice. From the left side of the plate, the 23-year-old lofted balls over the fence with ease. After the season, a Royals staffer said, “This guy looks like a big leaguer right now.”
An injury-plagued 2019 season led to a performance in the Arizona Fall League that made Isbel an All-Star. This spring, he had picked up right where he left off, and that ability only carried into the summer training camp and then alternate site work.
“This man comes to the field every day and is the same guy whether he’s 0-for-4 or 4-for-4,” [Alec] Zumwalt said.“Royals prospect checkup: What officials are saying about hitters in fall camp” by Alec Lewis; The Athletic
There is a special swagger and bravado to Isbel both on and off the field that is almost Nick Swisher-ish. To see that kind of confidence in a guy’s first major exposure to the big league roster could be a promising sign for the future of the Royals outfield. It is not just having the skills to succeed at the MLB level. One also has to have the confidence and attitude to succeed as well, and thankfully, Isbel seems to be faring well already in that category.
That was further on display in this “Day in the Life” video that he participated in and was produced by the Royals social media team:
While Isbel displays plenty of swagger for a player his age, Lee is a bit more mellow and laid back. Lee has actually progressed further in the Royals system than Isbel, as he played a full season in Double-A Northwest Arkansas in 2019, and actually was added to the Royals’ 40-Man roster this past Winter. It’s really interesting to see the difference in Lee and Isbel’s interviews, as Lee definitely seems more formal on camera than Isbel, as evidenced in this interview below from a couple of seasons ago:
Lee was added to the 40-man roster for good reason: had there been a full Major League season last year, he probably would’ve played in Triple-A Omaha and would’ve earned a call up when rosters expanded in September. Lee didn’t earn a call up last season in the abbreviated campaign, but it feels like that was more due to Dayton Moore and the Royals wanting him to focus more on his development rather than just playing for a week or two at the MLB level, which could have hurt his momentum, had it gone south.
A former 3rd round pick in 2016, the 22-year-old Lee is one of the best athletes currently in the Royals system. Baseball America ranked him not only as the 9th best prospect in the Royals system, but also as the best defensive outfielder in the Royals system as well. MLB Pipeline ranked him as the 8th best prospect in the Royals system and had this to say about Lee’s outlook in Kansas City:
Lee’s on-base skills and above-average speed make him a threat to run whenever he reaches, and he finished third in the Minors with 53 steals in 2019. He can handle playing center field, but he likely fits better as a right fielder, profiling as an above-average defender with a plus arm. Lee could develop into an everyday player if he can clean up his approach and tap into more of his raw power, but he does enough things well in all facets of the game to offer floor value as a fourth outfielder“No. 8: Khalil Lee; Royals Top 30 Prospects”; MLB Pipeline
One of the biggest drawbacks to Lee’s game is his propensity to swing and miss…often. Last year with the Naturals, Lee posted a strikeout rate of 28.2 percent in 546 plate appearances. Granted, Lee does post a patient approach and batting eye, as he did post an 11.9 percent walk rate and 0.42 BB/K ratio with the Naturals in 2019. However, Lee’s strikeout rates in the minors (he has never had a strikeout rate lower than 23.7 percent) make some scouts and prospect experts concerned that he may not make enough contact to be a regular starting outfielder in Kansas City.
And honestly, when one watches Lee hit, it just seems that he’s overly patient, and he often gets himself behind in the count early, which in turn, leads to those inflated strikeout numbers. Here is a highlight film of him from 2019, which also contains some clips of him playing in the Arizona Rookie League:
Lee and Isbel could make their way to Kansas City in 2021 if the chips fall right for them, which in turn would meant the chips fell poorly for the Royals at the MLB level. Lee is the most likely of the three to be in Kansas City, barring injury, as he is currently on the 40-man roster, and would be up with the Major League team in September. Isbel on the other hand, who most likely will begin in Double-A Northwest Arkansas, could also challenge for a September call up. That being said, he would have to tear it up not only in Double-A, but also Triple-A as well to garner consideration for a spot on the 40-man (as well as the decline of another outfielder like Taylor or Cordero).
The Royals outfield could be in good hands in the near future, and could have even more upside and potential if Pena develops as expected. Alex Gordon may no longer be in left field for Kansas City in 2021 and beyond, but he gave the Royals a model for the Royals front office to shoot for: a two-way outfielder who cares passionately about playing and winning in Kansas City for the long-term.
Let’s hope that Lee, Isbel, and maybe Pena can follow in Gordo’s foot steps.