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Friday Notes - March 6, 2020

The monotony of spring training is upon us. But it’s at least better than being in last place by Memorial Day.

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MLB: Spring Training-Kansas City Royals at Chicago Cubs
Feb 26, 2020; Mesa, Arizona, USA; Kansas City Royals left fielder Khalil Lee (24) singles in the first inning against the Chicago Cubs at Sloan Park. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian
Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks of games down, another couple to go and then it’s on to Chicago to start the regular season in less than three weeks. This, friends, is the grind of spring training. The novelty of baseball being back has worn off and now we’re just ready for the show to start. Luckily, there’s some fun coming as starters will begin to last deeper into games, there’ll be fewer and fewer pitchers each game and every day will feel much more like the baseball we grow accustomed to in the season. Roster decisions will begin soon as minor league spring games get started, so the numbers in camp will dwindle and we’ll soon long for the days where you could set forth a completely unreasonable scenario that the Royals could maybe compete that you somehow allow yourself to believe. Eat the Arby’s while the Arby’s is good. Or something.

  • Khalil Lee is getting quite a bit of opportunity this spring. He’s been okay, though has slumped as of late, but he does have two extra base hits and a stolen base. He’s looked solid defensively and like maybe he’s actually close to knocking on the door of his first taste of regular season big league action this year. He’s not going to make the team, but based on all the articles about him, he knows what his mission is in order to get there. His profile simply needs to change. I looked at qualified players in the big leagues over the last 10 seasons who have had a strikeout rate of 25 percent or higher and a ground ball rate of 50 percent or higher. Just nine players have done that and only three have a wRC+ of 100 or higher. And only two have posted an fWAR of 2.0 or higher, which is typically the threshold you want to cross as a player. The best comp of those players is Jonathan Villar who strikes out a lot, walks a fair amount and hits a lot of grounders. If that’s who Lee becomes, it’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s not the best. Villar is a career .261/.328/.408 hitter, which would be a line that could carry Lee just fine with his defense, but because of all the swinging and missing and all the ground balls, there’s a lot of volatility in his seasons. So far this spring (again, it’s such a small sample, but it’s also all we have to go by), he’s posted a 41.2 percent ground ball rate, 35.3 percent fly ball rate and a 23.5 percent line drive rate. He’s also struck out in just 21.7 percent of his plate appearances. His opponent quality, according to Baseball Reference through Wednesday’s action, is just 6.4 which is considered just a touch below AA competition, so obvious grains of salt are required here, but at least the data we have is good. Now we’ll see if he can continue that wherever he starts the season.
  • I put this on Twitter, but it was too good to leave there and not talk about it for a second in this spot. A scout told me on Tuesday night that the best comp he sees for Kyle Isbel is Andrew Benintendi. I don’t know how that hadn’t occurred to me before, but I think that’s a fantastic one. They’re both small-ish outfielders who bat lefty who have some pop and can run a bit. And if Isbel reaches the Benintendi comp as a big leaguer, I think everyone in the world would absolutely take that. Even in a down year in 2019, Benintendi hit .266/.343/.431 with solid enough defense in left field (though left field in Fenway is so hard to quantify). Like Lee, Isbel has impressed this spring. The numbers aren’t huge for him, but he has multiple extra base hits in his first ever big league camp and has made some dazzling defensive plays in left field so far. It’s got the attention of the front office and the coaching staff. I don’t think he’s going to find his way to the big leagues this year, especially with the logjam the team has in the outfield, but I think he’s given himself a great shot to start the year in Northwest Arkansas and to see how fast he can rise. The swing is pretty and if he’s over the injury issues that plagued him in 2019, I’m expecting a really good season out of him in 2020.
  • That same scout also gave me a pretty glowing report about the Royals minor league bats, saying they look entirely different than a year ago. And that’s a great thing because they looked like a disaster a year ago. He specifically mentioned MJ Melendez as a player who looked like a minor leaguer trying to figure everything out last year and like a soon-to-be big league hitter this year. We’ve talked a bit about the overhaul of the development system, and I think from what I’m hearing and seeing that the results will be there when the bright lights come on in a few weeks. Alec Lewis went in depth about this at the start of the offseason if you want to refresh your memory about it all, but if things go as they appear to be starting to go, this farm system will turn some heads in 2020. We all know about the pitching and the pitching depth. Ask four people and you might get four different answers about who the best pitching prospect is, and I mean that in a good way. And all four of those people could actually be wrong because there are four or five more guys beyond the four we talk about all the time who could end up as impact big league arms. If a few of the guys like Nick Pratto, MJ Melendez, Seuly Matias, Isbel, Lee , Brewer Hicklen and Brady McConnell can put up some numbers and Bobby Witt, Jr. and Erick Pena can do what we all hope they can do and the Royals add someone like Nick Gonzales of New Mexico State, a player they’ve been connected to for awhile who has just hit .500/.652/1.354 with 12 home runs in his first 13 games, this is a system that absolutely could turn some heads and skyrocket up the rankings maybe even by midseason. There’s a lot of ifs and obviously no guarantees, but after hearing some of these comments from scouts over the last few weeks, I’m a lot more optimistic about this system than I was just a few months ago.
  • It hasn’t happened yet and rightfully so, but at some point, Tim Hill is going to need to have a good outing. He’s made three appearances and allowed eight runs on seven hits in 2.1 innings in those three. More alarming than the runs and hits is that he’s walked four batters. He was demoted last year after just four regular season innings with four walks wand three strikeouts. He was obviously one of the most consistent relievers after his return from the minors, but at some point, he’s going to have to perform. Especially with actually quite a few pitchers showing well. Doing the bullpen math again, I see Ian Kennedy (also struggling, yes, but obviously different for reasons you all know) and Scott Barlow as still 100 percent locks assuming health. Trevor Rosenthal has basically already pitched himself on the team. Greg Holland is probably pretty close. The Royals are enamored with Glenn Sparkman and he’s looked sharp. Josh Staumont looks like he’s going to make the club (and I totally whiffed on putting him in my projections, that’s my fault). Richard Lovelady has looked good. Chance Adams has looked good. The math still works for Hill to make the team and I don’t want to imply that he’s on the outside looking in, but I think with so many guys pitching well who could come out of that bullpen that at some point, if the results don’t start, he might very well be a guy who loses his spot. If there was a betting line for this, I’d still bet hard that he’s on the Opening Day roster in a high leverage role, but I’m less certain of that today than I was two weeks ago.

Just a programming note. There’ll be no Friday Notes next week. After 16 and a half months of marriage, my wife and I are finally going on our honeymoon, so I’m taking a week or so off of talking baseball to hit the beach and eat a lot of really, really good food.