We’re about a week and a half into Cactus League games, and already there are a lot of things to be excited about as a Royals fan. As of March 10th, the Royals are 7-3, tied for first with the Cubs in Cactus League standings, and they have been one of the most productive offenses thus far in Arizona, as evidenced by this Tweet below (though this was before yesterday’s loss to the Mariners):
It certainly like a different club this Spring in Surprise, and it’s not just the fans that notice it, but even Royals players as well, as Danny Duffy mentioned this yesterday to reporters.
Granted, the Royals have had good Spring Training campaigns before, only to see those hopes get dashed away early in the regular season (2018 and 2019 particularly come to mind). However, there has definitely been a boost in energy in this club, especially at the plate this Spring. Hence, this hot start has Royals fans wondering: could the Royals actually compete for a playoff spot sooner than expected?
Interestingly enough, the Royals have been led by two outfielders: Michael A. Taylor and Kyle Isbel.
Both outfielders have not only mashed at the plate this Spring but also have displayed the kind of defense that the Royals management has championed in the organization during the Dayton Moore era (and even before that, if you really think about it).
If the Royals want to sneak up on teams in the AL Central and go beyond that 71-72 win projection most experts are predicting of the club, then Taylor and Isbel may be the keys to doing so in 2021.
Taylor was signed this off-season early by the Royals and was a peculiar acquisition by Moore and the Royals front office. At the surface level, Taylor appears to be an underwhelming starting center field candidate. Over 1,804 plate appearances with the Nationals, Taylor has a career 80 OPS+ and triple slash of .237/.291/.395, according to Baseball-Reference. Furthermore, Taylor struggled to find consistent playing time in Washington the past two seasons, especially with the emergence of Victor Robles, who is currently slated to be the Nationals’ leadoff man this season, according to Roster Resource’s Nationals Depth Chart. After playing 118 games in 2017 and 134 games in 2018, Taylor only played 53 games in 2019 and 38 games in 2020 in DC. Thus, it’s not a surprise that the Nationals non-tendered him this off-season, even though he had one more arbitration year remaining.
The Royals signed Taylor on a relatively cheap one-year, $1.75 million deal, which really isn’t too bad considering the Royals gave Billy Hamilton a one-year, $5.25 million deal back in 2018 (Hamilton came to KC in a similar situation, as he was non-tendered by the Reds). Even though Taylor has struggled with strikeouts (career 31.4 percent strikeout rate) and making contact (career 69.4 percent contact rate) as a professional, he offers some intriguing power potential, as he has a career exit velocity on batted balls of 88.4 MPH, and last season, he posted a barrel rate of 13.8 percent, a career-high, according to Fangraphs. Comparatively speaking, Hamilton only has a career exit velocity of 81.7 MPH on batted balls, and a career barrel rate of 0.3 percent, according to his Fangraphs data. Therefore, Royals fans thinking that Moore signed another Hamilton-Esque player may be sorely mistaken.
So far in Spring Training, Taylor has proven that he may not only be worth the $1.75 million but may surpass that value in 2021, if he can build on this hot Cactus League campaign. In 5 games and 12 plate appearances, Taylor is posting an insane .545/.583/1.273 slash which includes two home runs four RBI, a walk, and only ONE strikeout. In addition, not only has the new Royals centerfielder hit two home runs, but he has hit them with authority, as evidenced in the video below:
Of course, Cactus League numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt. However, Baseball-Reference does have a metric called “Opponent Quality”, which measures the competition that a particular player went up against in Spring Training play. Here’s a little bit of a primer on what the metric specifically measures:
Baseball Reference’s player pages, which are already indispensable, feature a stat using a point system that assigns a number on a 1-10 scale to the pitcher or batters that a player has faced based on their highest level of play the previous season…Major leaguers are worth 10, Triple-A players eight, Double-A seven, High-A five and Low-A four. Short-season players and rookie-ball players are worth between three and 1.5 points, the site says.
“Opponent quality stat sheds light on competition for Orioles regulars in spring training” by Joe Meoli; Baltimore Sun, 2016.
Currently, Taylor’s opponent quality this year has been 7.9, which would roughly be Triple-A level. However, while Royals fans may be skeptical of that number, it is actually the second-highest metric of Royals outfielders this Spring thus far. The only one with a higher opponent quality is Whit Merrifield, whose opponent quality number is 8.2. Therefore, Taylor hasn’t been feasting on lower-level pitchers but has actually played against more Major League arms, or at the very least, ones that are on the cusp of making a Major League roster.
While Taylor has thrived in the Royals outfield early on in Cactus League play, he is not alone, as another surprise has been Isbel, who made some noise with some solid play at the Alternate Site in 2020. Though Isbel is not on the 40-man roster, he seems to be a quick mover in the Royals system, and his encouraging development over the past year may have been a factor in the Royals trading Khalil Lee to the Mets for Andrew Benintendi this off-season.
Isbel has gotten a lot of playing time thus far in Cactus League play, as he has played in seven games and has accumulated 14 plate appearances, fourth-most of all Royals outfielders, and second-most of non-roster outfielders as well (Bubba Starling has one more plate appearance than him). In this small sample, Isbel has flourished, as he is currently posting a slash of .455/.500/.545 and has one stolen base and one RBI. Granted, his start isn’t as eye-popping as Taylor’s. He only has one extra-base hit, and he has also struck out four times and walked only once. Furthermore, while Taylor has hit against Major League-Esque pitching this Spring, for the most part, Isbel has faced mostly Double-A equivalent pitching, as evidenced from his 6.9 opponent quality score.
That being said, Isbel and Taylor’s strong starts are encouraging signs for the Royals outfield in 2021 and even beyond. The Royals have struggled to find production in center field ever since Lorenzo Cain left for Milwaukee after the 2017 season. In fact, here’s a table from Fangraphs that shows the list of center fielders the Royals have had since 2018 and what the impact has been at the position on a production end.
As Royals fans can see, only one Royals center fielder since 2018 has produced a fWAR over 1 (Jay), and three outfielders (Almonte, Starling, and Orlando) have actually had negative fWAR value at the position. In order for the Royals to be a playoff team, they will need at least 1.5-2.0 fWAR value from either Taylor or the centerfield position as an aggregate (new acquisition Jarrod Dyson could help on a limited basis).
Can Taylor do that in his one year, and can Isbel somehow do that as well, if not next year, but in 2022 and beyond?
Right now, it’s still early this Spring, but the signs are good for both guys. Taylor is most likely a one-year project, but he has had breakout seasons before, as he posted a 3.1 fWAR season in 2017 in only 118 games. Even if Taylor can produce half of that value, the Taylor signing will be a win for the Royals. And though Isbel has feasted on lesser-quality arms in comparison to Taylor, this Spring Isbel has demonstrated that he may be more than ready for Double-A Northwest Arkansas, where he is projected to start out the year, according to Roster Resource’s Royals Depth Chart.
If Isbel can get off to a hot start against Texas League pitching, he could move quicker than expected in the Royals system, and could make a case for not only a spot on the 40-man, but perhaps a spot on the active roster in August and September, especially if the Royals are still in the hunt for a Wild Card position. Isbel’s speed, defense, and hit tool may not be Major League ready just yet, but it could be in a few months. By 2022, it isn’t out of the question to think that Isbel could be the starting center fielder by Opening Day that season.
In order for the Royals to really step out of this shadow of losing, Taylor and Isbel will need to be the Royals’ solutions in center field. Taylor is the short-term solution, and needs to at least be somewhat of that player he was in 2017 in Washington. As for Isbel, he needs to show that he can handle a full-time outfield position in 2022, so the Royals can comfortably move past Taylor after 2021, since it may not be worth it to give Taylor a long-term deal considering his history.
Thankfully for Royals fans, both Taylor and Isbel are off to promising starts this Spring in regard to accomplishing those goals.
(Photo Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)