There are a lot of things that can polarize the Kansas City Royals fanbase, especially on Twitter.
And it seems like a story that has been captivating this Royals fanbase early this season has been the lack of playing time for outfielder Kyle Isbel this season.
When the Royals announced their starting lineup for Saturday’s game, all kinds of Tweets broke out that expressed Royals fans’ disappointment with Isbel not being in the lineup, even though the Royals will be facing a right-handed starter.
Here’s one from Inside the Royals:
And here’s another one from Royals Weekly that also posts the same image, while mentioning Isbel’s absence:
It’s hard to understand why the Royals are not playing Isbel regularly, especially with Edward Olivares on the IL.
In his rookie season with the Royals in 2021, Isbel posted a slash of .276/.337/.434 with a .771 OPS in 28 games and 83 plate appearances. He also looked really strong after being called up in September, as he posted a .286 average and .886 OPS in 47 plate appearances in September and October. Hence, the combination of a strong end to 2021, as well as a solid showing in Cactus League play, seemed to bode well for Isbel’s chance of playing more regularly in the Royals outfield in 2022, even with Whit Merrifield’s move to right field.
Unfortunately, that’s been far from the case for Isbel and frustrated Royals fans. As of May 14th, Isbel has only played in 12 games and accumulated 27 plate appearances.
Now to be fair, his metrics are not good. The 25-year-old former third-round draft pick is putting up a triple slash of .192/.222/.231 with an OPS of .453 and wRC+ of 31. That being said, while the Royals could justify Isbel’s lack of playing time as “performance-based”, there are many other Royals hitters who are doing just as, if not more, poorly than Isbel at the plate this season.
Maybe Isbel is the struggling hitter that he’s demonstrating at this moment. But the Royals will never know for sure unless Mike Matheny and the Royals staff give him a larger opportunity to prove himself at the Major League level.
And still, Isbel continues to sit on the bench.
So, why is Isbel not getting a chance at the Major League level, while other struggling hitters are getting more opportunities?
I take a look at three reasons why in order to understand the Royals’ processing of this issue at this time (even if I may not agree with it).
The Royals Are Trying to Build Up Trade Value of Other Hitters
While things are bleak now, I do not believe that this Royals roster is the same one that we will see after the All-Star break in July. The Royals know that their future is in their young players, especially hitters like Vinnie Pasquantino, who is absolutely mashing in Triple-A Omaha as of this moment:
Unfortunately, the Royals roster is chock-full of veterans who are at a crossroads with this Kansas City organization.
Carlos Santana is in the last year of his two-year, $17.5 million that he signed prior to last season. While the Royals do not see Santana as a long-term option, I imagine that they do not want to totally eat his $10.5 million contract this year unless it’s absolutely crucial to do so. The Mets can afford to designate players like Robinson Cano for assignment because they are flush with cash. It’s a bigger challenge for smaller market clubs like the Royals to do so, especially since they do not have a whole lot of money in the first place.
Granted, that point with Santana probably has not been totally reached (I think June 1st will be that moment). Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see if Santana can build up his value somewhat so a trade can be maneuvered in the next two to three weeks, even if it may not net the Royals a whole lot in return.
The other elephant in the room is Ryan O’Hearn, who actually has accumulated MORE plate appearances than Isbel this season, even though O’Hearn has not done much to prove that he’s more than a “Four-A” player (i.e. a player who’s too good for Triple-A, but not good enough for the Majors).
On the other hand, going into today, it’s interesting to see how O’Hearn and Isbel compare statistically so far this season, going into Saturday’s game.
Here’s a look at how they compare metrically, via Fangraphs:
While Isbel is besting O’Hearn in batting average and fWAR (barely), he lags behind the 28-year-old first-baseman in BB rate, K rate, and wRC+. Additionally, O’Hearn has been hurt by rough batted ball luck (.158 BABIP), and that shows in O’Hearn’s xwOBA, which is not only 119 points higher than his wOBA, but also 85 points higher than Isbel’s xwOBA.
Now, I am not saying O’Hearn is a better option than Isbel. And I will justify that by also sharing the same metrics, but looking at it over a two-year period.
As Royals fans can see, Isbel has been a MUCH better hitter than O’Hearn when compared to a larger sample.
However, I am bringing up the numbers because maybe the Royals are giving O’Hearn that one last chance to prove that he belongs and if he can hit through his rough batted ball luck.
If he does see some batted ball correction, the Royals may utilize him as trade fodder to see if they can acquire a prospect chip on the cheap. After all, due to injuries to various key players and a deadened ball, there are many teams looking for help offensively, and O’Hearn won’t cost a lot salary-wise as well to a potential team.
On the other end, if O’Hearn continues to post paltry numbers by the start of June, the Royals may designate O’Hearn for assignment.
And if that happens, that will not only open up opportunities for Pasquantino and Nick Pratto but Isbel as well.
He is Just There to Be An Emergency Backup For Now
Another reason Isbel may be up is not necessarily that the Royals want him to play regularly, but they just need him off the bench as an emergency backup outfielder, especially in the wake of Olivares’ injury.
Isbel is an athletic defensive outfielder, and the Royals lack that on the bench as of this moment. Sure, O’Hearn can play the outfield, but I am not sure the Royals want him there on any kind of basis, especially with how the club “values” defense.
Should an injury happen to Michael A. Taylor or Andrew Benintendi, the Royals would be extremely short-handed on a defensive end in the outfield. And they would need someone to not just hold down the center or left field position offensively, but defensively as well, especially at the K.
That’s why Isbel remains up in Kansas City, even though it’s obvious that he would benefit more playing every day in Omaha.
It’s not the greatest reason, but it could make sense considering how sparingly they have played Isbel so far this year. If Olivares was healthy, it’s probably likely that Isbel would have been sent down to Triple-A when the Royals activated Carlos Santana off the IL.
Isbel Has Lost Favor With the Organization
There’s nothing that seems to hint that Dayton Moore, JJ Picollo, or the Royals front office in general likes Isbel any less than they did a couple of seasons ago when he seemed to be the Royals’ biggest breakout player at the Alternate Site (beyond Bobby Witt, Jr. of course).
Heck, they would not have had him do a special “web series” if they didn’t believe in his long-term potential as a Royals outfielder.
That being said, his current standing seems eerily similar to other Royals outfielders like Brian Goodwin and Brett Phillips, who were perfectly serviceable, but struggled to get consistent backing or support from management as well as the organization as a whole.
Unfortunately for the Royals, Goodwin and Phillips both thrived AFTER they left Kansas City, as Goodwin did pretty well with the Angels for a couple of seasons after being released by the Royals in Spring Training of 2019, and Phillips has become a fan favorite in Tampa Bay.
Typically, the Royals do not tend to act this way with prospects they have drafted and developed. After all, Goodwin and Phillips were developed outside of the organization, and the Royals seemed to prefer in-house options like Bubba Starling, even though Starling was a far less accomplished professional outfielder than those two.
As for Isbel, he was drafted by the Royals in 2018, so it would be surprising to see him lose so much trust with the organization, especially after they started him on Opening Day in 2021.
However, it’s hard to explain why Isbel doesn’t play currently and seems to toil in Triple-A Omaha, even though he could be a good long-term option for the Royals in the outfield. Isbel should be the kind of player that the Royals would WANT to play every day: he’s personable, he’s hard-nosed, he plays good defense, and he puts the ball in play.
These are all characteristics of a player who embodies the “Royals Way.”
Now, Isbel has a free-swinging approach, and I get that Matheny may want to have more patient hitters in the lineup to supplement more aggressive hitters like Whit, Salvy, and Hunter Dozier. And I know Isbel can be streaky, and he’s in the middle of a tough stretch in the past couple of games.
And yet, it just seems like he’s been buried longer than he needs to be, much like Phillips in 2019 and 2020.
For Royals fans, it would be devastating to see Isbel thrive in a place outside of Kansas City in the near future, mostly because the Royals were not “enamored” with a particular trait or rough stretch of his this season…
Especially since he was drafted and developed by this Royals organization.
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