That's what speed do--especially elite speed.
It has not been a banner year for the top Royals prospects. Though the farm system is an above-average one, it lacks the depth or quality of the system just a few short years ago. There's not a single guy that you can point to and say, "yep, he's going to make a big impact" like you could for like Stephen Strasburg in 2010, Eric Hosmer in 2011, Wil Myers in 2013, or Kris Bryant in 2014. Plus, the AAA Omaha Storm Chasers don't have much in the way of upside. Here's a summary of where the Royals top prospects have done so far this year:
Previously or currently injured: Sean Manaea, Raul Mondesi, Kyle Zimmer, Bubba Starling
Performing poorly: Hunter Dozier, Christian Binford, Scott Blewett, Foster Griffin
Performing well: Chase Vallot, Miguel Almonte
Brandon Finnegan: Brandon Finnegan
Of these top 11 prospects, four have served or are serving multi-week stints on the disabled list, four are performing poorly outright, and only two are really succeeding at any level. Finnegan gets his own class because the Royals organization is treating him like you might handle a duck-billed platypus waddling into your kitchen: with total confusion and zero idea where to put him.
The system isn't a complete wreck, though. Mondesi only turns 20 in August, and is showing arguably his best hitting yet in AA. Starling's offense clicked this year, and he's showing intriguing power at both levels; meanwhile, his injury is only a pulled hamstring and won't hurt him long-term. And though Zimmer's arm and Derrick Rose's knees should definitely get together and have a cocktail party sometime, Zimmer made his 2015 debut just a few days ago with trademark upper-90s velocity.
There's another man we should be considering, though. That man is Terrance Gore. Gore flew under the radar on every single possible prospect list; our own Shaun Newkirk decided against putting him on his top 30 Royals prospect list this past offseason. I don't blame him, as Gore was basically an intriguing and exciting nobody.
Intriguing and exciting because of what he did for Kansas City down the stretch. Including the playoffs, Gore participated in 17 games, doing things like this:
Gore scored 7 runs and stole 8 bases. He was not caught stolen. Just look at those videos--Gore is fast with a capital f, a, s, and t. Terrance Gore once raced a Randy Johnson fastball to the plate and won. Apollo 13 was powered by thirteen clones of Terrance Gore. Tweeting is merely using Terrance Gore to carry data instantaneously to others. On the scouting scale, Gore is only an 80 because that's where the scale ends.
Despite his total brilliance as a pinch-runner, Gore's status as an actual prospect was less than stellar. Gore posted a wOBA of .260 and .290 in A+ and A ball, respectively, in 2014 and 2013. Gore turns 24 in about a week, so he's not exactly super young with lots of untapped upside (though he's far from an old prospect, either). He was a nobody going into this year because he possessed no power and hadn't shown any indication that his other offensive components were good enough either. As a very small player (5'7" and 165 lbs), he is physically overmatched by almost all of his peers and faces an upward battle for that alone.
Still, his speed is an unteachable skill, and Gore is possibly the fastest individual playing professionally organized baseball right now. You would think that raw speed shows in stolen base statistics, and that would be true.
But Gore does not only have elite speed; he appears to possess an uncanny skill in the art of basestealing. In the minors, majors, and playoffs combined, Gore has stolen 187 bases out of 206 attempts for a 91% success rate. For comparison, our resident speedster in Kansas City, Jarrod Dyson, owns an 85% success rate between his minor and major careers over 362 attempts. Billy Hamilton, the fastest man in Major League Baseball right now, owns an 81% success rate over his major and minor league careers over 595 attempts. Casting the net further to historically successful basestealers, Gore's success rate still stands alone. Ricky Henderson's success rate in the majors was a shade below 81%, and Kenny Lofton's was 79.5%.
By all accounts, Gore is a very good defender as well. As you might guess, Gore's elite speed allows him to get to more balls than others. But, as we've seen with Lorenzo Cain, instincts and a respectable arm can combine with speed to make a near-perfect defender. Gore has a reportedly unimpressive arm, which makes sense considering his size. With Bubba Starling in centerfield for the Wilmington Blue Rocks, Gore played mostly left field. Obviously, Gore's speed allows him to cover center as well, though right wouldn't be ideal due to the arm. Still, Gore is almost certain to be a decidedly above average defender.
And yet none of this matters with Gore's previous offensive performance. Chris Mitchell previewed Gore's ceiling on Fangraphs before the season, and he had this to say about the young speed racer:
More likely than not, Gore’s reached his ceiling. He will never be anything more than he already is: An excellent pinch-runner. Gore does one thing well, and he does it really well; but it takes more than 80-grade speed to be a big league asset. Even players who primarily rely on their non-hitting skills — like speed and defense — need to clear a certain offensive threshold, and Gore falls well short of this threshold. To be worthy of even a fourth or fifth outfield spot, he’d need to significantly improve his offensive game. Incremental improvements would do very little to move the needle on his big league utility.
We may need to reevaluate this, because Gore's performance is rightfully raising eyebrows.
Those are his numbers for AA Northwest Arkansas. Note the two most important numbers: walk rate and on base percentage. Gore knows he's not a strong guy. He knows he's fast. That important self-awareness, to avoid Willie Mays Hayes' Major League 2 flyball approach like the plague, is working. For a player like Gore, slugging just doesn't matter, as Gore can take second and third at will.
The display of plate discipline is most important and it seems to be becoming a trend with Gore. Gore posted walk rates of at least 11.5% in 2011, 2012, 2013, and now 2015. Three of those seasons, his walk rate was at least 13%. Usually, players with little power don't end up drawing that many walks as they go up the minor league ladder and into the majors, but most players aren't 67" tall.
Gore's line of .291/.400/.318 is somewhere between Dyson's AA line of .256/.336/.311 and Hamilton's line of .286/.406/.383. If Gore can maintain his plate discipline and continue to hone his defensive skills, he might just have a chance of becoming a pleasant surprise. Consider that Gore is a better basestealer than both Dyson and Hamilton, and that Dyson and Hamilton have combined for 13.6 WAR in ~1900 plate appearances.
This is an especially important development, as the Royals' outfield will soon be an issue. Alex Gordon and Alex Rios will both become free agents next year, and Cain and Dyson will become more expensive (as will Gordon if KC manages to resign him). At the very least, it might mean that Dyson will become available as a trade piece in the winter or next summer. At the best, it might mean a Gordon/Cain/Starling/Gore outfield next season (an absolute best-case scenario to be sure, but one that would be AMAZING).
Gore might not be the best Royals prospect, but he's certainly the most interesting. His path to be a consistent figure in a major-league clubhouse will be fraught with difficulty. Still, Gore might make it there before we though he would. As the case with everything involving his legs.