So far, the Surprise Saguaros have been the class of the Arizona Fall League thus far during the 2021 campaign. A big reason why the Saguaros are in first place in the West division is due to the strong play from two Royals prospects: right-handed pitcher Zach Haake and outfielder Seuly Matias.
Of course, it is only Fall baseball, and most of the players in the league are prospects who still may be a year away from being full-time MLB players at the very least (though there are some Major League-ready guys like Lars Nootbar of the Cardinals). Thus, it may be easy for Royals fans to get over-excited on certain Royals players for the upcoming season. For every Daniel Lynch and Kyle Isbel who has a strong AFL campaign that catapaults a strong Cactus League campaign the following Spring, there are examples like Scott Blewett and Daniel Tillo who don’t quite live up to the hype.
Nonetheless, let’s take a look at why Haake and Matias are not just making noise this Fall, but could make a case as possible candidates to make the Royals’ 40-man roster by the end of Spring Training.
The 25-year-old Haake, a former Kentucky Wildcat, is coming off a strong recent start in the Saguaros’ 11-2 win over the Scottsdale Scorpions which he threw three innings and struck out four while allowing one run, as reported by Jared Perkins of Prospects 1500:
In three total games and two starts in Surprise, Haake has allowed six hits, three runs and four walks while striking out 10 batters in nine innings of work so far this Fall. Haake has been just as competitive this fall as Asa Lacy, the Royals’ top pitching prospect who ranks third overall in the Royals system, according to MLB Pipeline. Lacy and Haake have an identical amount of strikeouts, but while Lacy has struck out more batters in less innings of work (4.2 IP), he has also walked just as many batters as Haake has this Fall (four) despite pitching 4.1 fewer innings.
That isn’t a bad sign for Haake, who ranks 30th in the Royals’ Pipeline prospect ranking, and 46th overall in Fangraphs’ Top-51 prospect list from the 2021 season.
A 6th round pick in the 2018 draft, Haake often gets overlooked by prospect experts mostly due to the pedigree of Royals pitchers drafted earlier in that respective draft, including Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Kris Bubic, and Jon Heasley, who all debuted for the Royals in the past two years.
Granted, the right-hander has struggled with injury over his career, as he only pitched a little over 75 innings in 18 starts in low-A Lexington in 2019, and 45.2 innings with the High-A Quad Cities River Bandits this season. While his ERA this season wasn’t bad by any measure (3.74), he sported an 11.5 percent walk rate and his K rate dropped from 28.6 in Lexington in 2019 to 24.5 percent in the Quad Cities in 2021. Furthermore, his K/BB ratio also decreased from 2.50 with the Legends in 2019 to 2.14 with the River Bandits in 2021.
However, Haake possesses a fastball that can sit in the 95-97 MPH range, and he has a good slider and changeup secondary combination that can complement his fastball well, when he commands them effectively. Below is a highlight compilation of Haake on the mound with the Legends during the 2019 season, and though he makes some mistakes, Royals fans can tell that the stuff is there to be a MLB pitcher in the next year or so, even if it may be ultimately in a relief role:
Haake will be Rule 5 eligible this year, and if he continues to impress this Fall in the AFL, it will be tough for the Royals to leave him unprotected from the Rule 5 Draft.
Dayton Moore has had a tendency in the past few years to add more “under-the-radar” pitching prospects to the 40-man roster to protect them from the December Rule 5 draft. Last year, Angel Zerpa wasn’t high on many “prospect” lists at the conclusion of the 2020 season, and yet, Zerpa was added to the 40-man roster, much to the surprise of many Royals fans at the time. Granted, it turned out to be a good decision in retrospect, especially since Zerpa made his Royals debut this year.
Even though Haake ranks low in the Royals’ prospect lists, he is thriving this Fall, and most certainly will generate more attention if he continues to have a strong AFL campaign with the Saguaros. While he most likely will begin the year in Double-A Northwest Arkansas, according to Fangraphs’ Roster Resource projections, barring a REALLY impressive Spring, I think Moore and JJ Picollo will ultimately add Haake to the 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 draft in December, and move Haake slowly along in the farm system, much like they did with Zerpa in 2021.
The likelihood of Haake making the Royals’ 40-man roster appears to be high, especially since he could debut in Kansas City at the end of 2022 if he stays healthy and continues to make gains as a pitcher.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Matias this Winter.
Once a “top prospect” candidate for the Royals back in 2018 (he ranked 3rd in 2018 according to MLB Pipeline), Matias has floundered since, as he is unranked according to MLB Pipeline, and ranks 51st according to Fangraphs Royals prospect rankings.
One problem that has held back Matias as a prospect has been his massive strikeout and contact issues since 2019. He struck out nearly 45 percent of the time in 2019 in Wilmington and he struck out 36.5 percent of the time in High-A Quad Cities and 37.6 percent of the time in Double-A Northwest Arkansas this year as well.
However, his swing and miss tendencies isn’t the only flaw in Matias’ profile, as the former international “bonus baby” has also struggled to stay healthy and on the field throughout his professional career.
Matias has not played 100 or more games in a professional season since debuting professionally as a 17-year-old in 2016. And while he did post an .805 OPS in High-A and .774 OPS in Double-A, he only played in 36 and 23 games at those levels, respectively. Considering the gains that Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez made offensively, both prospects who came up the system at the same time as Matias, the fact that the 23-year-old native of the Dominican Republic only played 64 games total in 2021 was certainly a disappointment for Royals fans hoping that he could take the next step as a prospect, especially at the plate.
That being said, Royals fans continue to see bombs like this in Arizona, and it’s hard not to “dream” about Matias being the next Jorge Soler in Kansas City, albeit younger and perhaps with more defensive upside:
In eight AFL games this Fall, Matias is posting a triple slash of .241/.343/.586 with an OPS of .929, which ranks 25th of all batters currently in the Arizona Fall League. Matias has struck out 10 times in 29 at-bats, but he is posting a BB/K ratio of 0.50, which shows that he is at least showcasing some patience at the plate this Fall. Matias posted BB/K ratios of 0.21 in Quad Cities and 0.23 in Northwest Arkansas, so if he can perhaps get that ratio up to 0.30 or higher in 2022 at the Minor League level, that could be a sign that Matias may have a shot to be MLB-ready soon.
Some gains and development in that plate discipline this Fall in Arizona could go along way for Matias in terms of building momentum for Spring Training in 2022. As of now, the early results are in Matias’ favor.
Furthermore, Matias has filled out a bit since breaking onto the stage at the All Star Futures Game in 2018, where he hit a home run as a pretty lanky teenager. Here is a couple of pictures from his batting practice session before the Futures Game at Nationals Park in Washington DC:
Now, take a look at a recent shot of Matias in a Royals uniform in Surprise, and the size differential is quite noticeable from a few years ago (and in a good way):
Matias has been Rule 5 eligible for a couple of seasons now, and for two years in a row, teams passed on Matias in the Rule 5 draft. However, the success of Akil Baddoo in Detroit last year could convince teams to invest in a “raw” talent in the Rule 5 Draft, even if the Minor League track record isn’t as great (which was the case for Baddoo going into last year’s draft). If Matias continues to mash this Fall, it may be hard for a team to pass up on him in December if he’s unprotected for a third-straight year.
The Royals need to add more power to their roster in the next couple of seasons. While Pratto, Melendez, and Bobby Witt Jr. can add that to the Royals in 2022 or 2023 in the infield, the Royals don’t have a whole lot of “power-hitting” outfield prospects in their system. Matias could buck that trend, and if fully healthy, he could take on the role that Soler had in Royals lineup the past three seasons as a slugging right fielder and designated hitter in Kansas City.
After all, it’s hard to watch Soler in the World Series, and not think about what he could have done, had the Royals decided to invest in an extension for him back in 2019:
Matias won’t be producing “Soler Power” at the Major League level in 2022. But in 2023? If Matias stays healthy and perhaps turns it on like Pratto and Melendez did in 2021?
Well, maybe “Seuly Power” will be a thing in right field or designated hitter sooner than Royals fans think…
And that “outlook” could be a reason for the Royals finally adding to Matias to the 40-man roster this Winter.
Photo Credit: MLB Pipeline/Twitter