The Royals’ Hitting Development Will Be Key to Trade With Braves

It started off as a bit of a somber Monday for Royals fans, as the Royals announced that Whit Merrifield and his consecutive games played streak would officially end today after he suffered a toe injury in Sunday’s contest.

And yet, that news quickly changed to excitement, as Jeff Passan broke hot stove news on Twitter that the Royals and Atlanta Braves completed a trade that would send three prospects to Kansas City in return for their first-round compensation pick, which is 35th overall in this upcoming MLB Draft, which begins on July 17th.

The trade has received a fair amount of mixed excitement and criticism, not just from Royals fans, but prospect experts as well. Thus, did the trade and return make sense for the Royals? And if so, what does that mean for the Royals in this upcoming draft?

In this post, I will do a quick analysis of what the Royals gained from Atlanta in the trade, what the Royals lost, and what it could mean for them going forward, both in this draft as well as for the remainder of the season.

Safe to say, the Royals are pretty much depending on Drew Saylor, Alec Zumwalt, and the Royals hitting development team in order to make this trade beneficial for the Royals both in the short and long-term.

What Did the Royals Gain from the Braves?

The prized piece of the three-player trade package is Drew Waters, an athletic outfield prospect who was Atlanta’s pre-season No. 1 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, going into 2022.

That being said, while many Royals fans and media members will tout Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo acquiring the Braves’ “top prospect”, it was likely that he was going to slide down the Braves’ list according to many mid-season rankings.

Waters’ stock has pretty much fallen due to his struggles at the plate in Triple-A over the past two years.

Last season, Waters only hit .240, and he struck out 30.9 percent of the time in 459 plate appearances with Gwinnett (though he did walk 10.2 percent of the time). He did hit 11 home runs and stole 28 bases in 103 Triple-A games in 2021, so there was some hope among Braves that he could be a 20-20 guy, should he develop some discipline at the plate in 2022.

Unfortunately, that has not quite happened in his second go-around in Gwinnett.

Over 49 games and 141 plate appearances, Waters is hitting .246 with a wRC+ of 84, which is a 10-point decline from his mark a year ago. While he’s lowered his K rate to 27.1 percent, his walk rate has also regressed to 7.6 percent, which dropped his BB/K ratio from 0.33 in 2021 to 0.28 in 2022. Safe to say, Waters’ plate discipline is a serious question mark and a big reason why he lost out to fellow outfield prospect Michael Harris, who currently is playing regularly in Atlanta.

Waters though has some pop when he connects, as he has generated a 12.8 percent HR/FB rate this season in Triple-A and a 21.6 rate last season in Gwinnett. He also possesses a swing that could produce a lot of line-drive extra-base hits in Kauffman Stadium’s spacious grounds (much like Andrew Benintendi), though he needs to hit line drives more consistently if he wants to make that a reality.

Much like Waters, Alexander has many of the same problems, albeit as a much lesser prospect, comparatively.

Alexander is not ranked in any Braves Top-30 list, he’s about to turn 26 years old in less than a week, and he is currently hitting .258 with a wRC+ of 93 in 289 plate appearances in Double-A. He has hit 15 home runs this year, but he has also struck out 21.8 percent of the time in his THIRD go-around in Double-A.

Alexander also showcases a good glove at the hot corner, as evidenced by this sensational play back in late June.

Waters could be the Royals’ centerfield of the future, and Alexander could be a utility infielder in the mold of Emmanuel Rivera. That is why Moore and Picollo made this deal, as those are two positions of high-need currently in the Royals system, especially at the upper levels.

Granted, they will both be big projects for Saylor and Zumwalt both this season and in this upcoming offseason.

If the Royals player development team can help Waters and Alexander cut down on the strikeouts and/or increase the walks, then it is possible that the Royals will have a pair of solid players who could contribute at the Major League level for years to come and as soon as 2023.

In addition to the position player potential of Waters and Alexander, the Royals also got a live arm in Andrew Hoffmann who was drafted in the 12th round by Atlanta in last year’s draft. Hoffmann, who pitched at the University of Illinois, posted a 2.73 ERA in Low-A ball in 2021 and is currently sporting a 2.36 ERA in 80 innings of work in High-A. He also posted K/9 rates of 11.22 and 10.13 in 2021 and 2022, respectively.

The Royals do not have a great track record with Minor League pitching prospects finding success at the MLB level as of late, especially prospects who come over in trades. Jorge Lopez is a prime example of this, who failed to do much in Kansas City after coming over in the Mike Moustakas trade in 2018 (though Lopez ended up being an All-Star with Baltimore this year).

On the other hand, Hoffmann is someone who could be in Triple-A sooner rather than later and could be a dark horse to compete for a rotation spot in Spring Training in 2023. Hoffmann gives the Royals some rotation depth and insurance for next season, especially with Zack Greinke likely being gone and Brad Keller entering his last year of arbitration.

What Did the Royals Give Up to the Braves?

By trading their compensation round pick, the Royals give up some early-round flexibility in the draft.

Baseball Trade Values on Twitter mentioned that the deal is a fair one, according to their value generator, but did note that the Braves gain some significant potential surplus value in this upcoming draft with the acquisition of the Royals’ 35th overall pick.

The Royals have long employed a draft strategy of going under-slot with their first-round selection in order to go over-slot with later picks, including ones in the compensation round. Last year, they went under-slot with Frank Mozzicato, only to go over-slot later with Ben Kudrna and Shane Panzini. Famously in the 2013 draft, Moore went over-slot with Hunter Dozier in order to go over-slot with Sean Manaea (who they eventually traded away for Ben Zobrist in 2015).

This strategy has its share of supporters and detractors. On one end, it gives a team more ability to sign more of their picks, which can’t be taken for granted. On the other hand, it prevents clubs from losing out on top talent at the top of the draft, as they will often require at-slot or over-slot deals to sign (i.e. take a look at Kumar Rocker and the Mets last year).

By trading away their compensation round pick, the Royals pretty much have said goodbye to the draft strategy this year (or at least in the early rounds).

What Can We Take Away From This Deal?

First off, this deal shows the confidence that the Royals have in their hitting development, which is overseen by Saylor and Zumwalt.

While Waters and Alexander are pretty typical “Dayton Moore” kind of prospects (i.e loud tools but questionable approaches at the plate), I also don’t think the Royals make this move if they do not think these three can “develop” into Major League players by next year. Moore and the Royals value their draft picks, so to just “trade away” this kind of capital is a particular sign of the confidence this organization has in Saylor.

Ironically, in addition to talking about the trade, Alex Duvall of Royals Farm Report also wrote about the success of hitting prospects under Saylor, which further gives hope that this deal could give the Royals at least an outfielder who can roam Kansas City for a good while.

Of course, Saylor and his team need to make this deal work, or else Waters becomes another Brett Phillips-type. Moore and Picollo have too much riding on the next year or two to have another trade like this blow up in their faces.

To be fair though, Waters will have his share of opportunities, as there aren’t a lot of CF prospects in Omaha blocking Waters (Dairon Blanco and Brewer Hicklen both have their share of flaws), which wasn’t quite the case for Phillips (he was battling it out with Bubba Starling and Billy Hamilton).

Additionally, this deal also could be the first step in a series of moves, with Michael A. Taylor looking more expendable after the acquisition of Waters. As I wrote about in my last post, Taylor has been a pleasant surprise in Kansas City, but I feel like offensively this year has been his peak, and the Royals would be better off getting something for him now while his value is at his highest.

With a Taylor move looming, that puts more pressure on Kyle Isbel to perform, though he could find a spot in the corners once Benintendi and maybe Whit are moved. However, it feels like Isbel has lost a lot of steam within the organization, and if Waters shows signs of turning it around in Omaha this year, that could present an interesting outfield battle in Spring Training in 2023 between Waters, Isbel, Edward Olivares, and maybe Nick Pratto, who could debut later this season.

Lastly, this trade also makes this draft a lot more interesting for Kansas City, especially in regard to their No. 9 overall pick.

As I stated before in the previous section, the Royals won’t be able to employ the “under-slot, over-slot” strategy they utilized a year ago, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This is a deep draft and the Royals could get a premiere offensive talent who could move quickly in the system.

One popular name is Texas Tech’s Jace Jung, who may be one of the most polished college hitters in the draft.

This trade definitely puts a more “high-end” talent pick in play, especially since their first round money won’t have to be spread around as much as before when they had the competitive round pick.

Granted, while the upside of their No. 9 pick could be higher after this trade, the pressure will be even greater for Moore, Picollo and the Royals front office.

Bottom line: they can’t screw this No. 9 pick and still expect to have front office jobs in a couple of years.

Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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