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Making sense of the Royals’ outfield organizational depth

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There are a lot of interesting outfielders in the Royals’ system

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game
Seuly Matias #25 of the Kansas City Royals and the World Team celebrates after scoring a run on a solo home run against the U.S. Team in the second inning during the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game at Nationals Park on July 15, 2018 in Washington, DC
Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

The Kansas City Royals entered 2018 with one of the worst farm systems in baseball, if not the worst one. They didn’t have many top-tier prospects and their depth was thin.

Depending on who you ask, the Royals’ farm system now may not be good per se, but pretty much everyone agrees it is much better. Part of that is the quartet of top picks the Royals had in the draft, yes. But Kansas City has seen a few guys step forward and the system is much better.

Perhaps the most fascinating development this year has been the minor league depth chart. All of a sudden, the organizatin’s outfield depth has made like the Marianas Trench and sunk, er, deepened. You get the metaphor. Anyway, two of Kansas City’s best prospects are outfielders, and surrounding them is a gaggle of very interesting players.

No, the Royals aren’t staffed with a collection of Eloy Jimenez clones (nor do they have someone as good as Jimenez). But they have the next-best thing: a bunch of interesting players and a deep roster.

Let’s take a look.

TIER ONE: MLB Players

  • Alex Gordon
  • Brett Phillips
  • Jorge Soler
  • Jorge Bonifacio

This tier is comprised of players who have either proven themselves to be big leaguers or have a combination of age, upside, and MLB readiness on their side.

Alex Gordon is no longer a fantastic player. He doesn’t hit or run well enough now. But he’s still the best defensive left fielder in baseball, and he’s a perfectly acceptable big league player that’s a borderline league average guy at 34. Independent of his contract, that’s a good result for an old dude (relatively speaking).

Brett Phillips may not ever hit enough to be a good player, and his MLB strikeout rate of 39% in 150 plate appearances is egregiously bad. But there are shades of Lorenzo Cain in him. He’s a great runner, a great defender, can play multiple positions, and has a cannon arm (one thing Cain did not have). Furthermore, he just turned 24, meaning he has age and time on his side.

As for the two Jorges, well, Soler was great this year before breaking his toe, and despite seemingly being around forever he’s just 26. And Bonifacio has been worth 0.9 WAR per Fangraphs in his first 150 games and is 25. Keep an eye on Bonifacio, though. After coming back from a performance enhancing drug suspension this year, he has shown little of last year’s offensive cromulence. Coincidence? We’ll see.

TIER TWO: Borderline MLB Players

  • Rosell Herrera
  • Brian Goodwin
  • Paulo Orlando

This tier is comprised of players who are MLB ready but have limited upsides, are older than your average prospect, or both.

Orlando is what he is at this point, and his career is pretty much stalled at this point. He’s been terribly unlucky at the plate in 2017 and 2018, with very low batting average on balls in play (BABIP) figures considering his speed. If he gets called up again, no one will mind.

Goodwin and Herrera are two sides of the same coin. Goodwin is already 27 and almost 28, so his upside is lower than Bonifacio’s considering their age difference and similar overall production. But he’s skilled and athletic and may yet be a late-bloomer. Herrera is younger—25—but there isn’t much in his performance history to suggest he could be a good player. Still, they are both useful guys and exactly the kind of player you want on a bad team.

TIER THREE, PART A: Center Field Prospects

  • Khalil Lee
  • Michael Gigliotti
  • Kyle Isbel
  • Nick Heath
  • Donnie Dewees
  • Blake Perkins
  • Bubba Starling
  • Rudy Martin

This tier is comprised of prospects in the system who are not yet MLB-ready. They have varying degrees of upside and age. Every player in this group can also play corner outfield.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The Royals have eight guys in the minor leagues right now who are intriguing center field candidates.

Even the ones least likely to become impact players are interesting. Bubba Starling will enter 2019 having only played 95 combined games in 2017 and 2018, but he just turned 26 and could still be a useful fourth outfielder with excellent defense and baserunning. Rudy Martin is following the Jarrod Dyson path to the big leagues, a narrow path made even narrower by Martin’s Jose Altuve-esque size. Still, Martin has increased his walk rate at four consecutive minor league stops (it’s now at 14.9%) and his minor league career stolen base success rate is 83%.

Donnie Dewees and Nick Heath are similar guys, both 24-year-old speedsters in the upper minors with concerns about offensive production. Still, both could make an impact a la Paulo Orlando as the speedy backup outfielder.

The low minors, though, are where it’s at. Blake Perkins was part of the haul for Kelvin Herrera, and all he’s done as a Royal is walk 18.7% of the time and go 12-for-14 in stolen base attempts. Michael Gigliotti and Kyle Isbel are strikingly similar. Both were 21-year-old draftees out of college, and both ripped rookie league and Low-A Lexington to shreds. Gigliotti injured his ACL and will be out for the year, but starting in 2019 both guys should start on High-A Wilmington, ready to tear pitchers a new one.

Then, of course, there’s Khalil Lee. Lee has the highest upside of the bunch. He just turned 20 a month ago and is holding his own in Double-A Northwest Arkansas, where he is almost four years younger than the average player at that level. His lack of power has been troubling, and it’s shown in his overall numbers, but if he turns it around and finishes strong he could be on track to make his big league debut in his age-21 season next year.

TIER THREE, PART B: Corner Outfield Prospects

  • Seuly Matias
  • Elier Hernandez
  • Kort Peterson
  • Brewer Hicklen

This tier is comprised of prospects in the system who are not yet MLB-ready. They have varying degrees of upside and age. All these players are limited to right or left field.

Royals gonna Royal, meaning they value defensive athleticism and versatility, meaning they have fewer pure corner outfielders, but they still have a few.

Leading the way is Seuly Matias, who is hilariously crushing it in Low-A Lexington. Maybe you heard, but the 19-year-old (yes, nineteen) has 30 home runs this year in only 87 games. That Barry Bondsian home run rate is polarizing because it is accompanied by a walk rate of 7% and a strikeout rate of 35%, neither of which are good. But it’s hard not to be excited about a teenager leading all of Minor League Baseball in home runs.

After a breakout 2017, Elier Hernandez struggled a bit in Double-A this year. Kansas City promoted him anyway, to see if a change of pace would help and to see if he was worth a 40-man roster spot in the offseason. It worked. Hernandez is hitting .375 for the Omaha Storm Chasers, and while a .500 BABIP is totally unsustainable you don’t ever accidentally hit .375 over a three-week period.

Rounding out the prospects are Kort Peterson and Brewer Hicklen. Both fit the mold of mid-to-late round picks (Peterson 703rd overall, Hicklen 210th) who have to rake it to make it.

TIER FOUR: Filler, AKA ‘Organizational Depth’

  • Everybody else

These players have limited upside or simply have not played well enough to warrant consideration above others in the system. They tend to be old for their level.

Unfortunately, not everyone makes the big leagues. But you never know—maybe players from this tier could move up. Weirder things have happened.