The MLB Draft is about three weeks away, and we see more and more mock drafts land on reader’s laptops. A few of the latest give the impression that the Royals at number seven will choose whatever two or three players fall to their slot. Currently, Kumar Rocker is the current flavor of the week for the Royals in mock drafts at The Athletic and Baseball America. I believe most Royals fans would be pleased with that selection given Rocker’s history at Vanderbilt and where most assumed he’d go two years ago. However, with a tier of seven or eight players, it isn’t a given that Rocker will be there or that the Royals will choose him if they have a couple of choices available.
If we believe the mock drafts have good intel, I think we can make a decent assumption that Marcelo Mayer and Jack Leiter will be off the board before the Royals pick. I don’t find it likely that Henry Davis or Jordan Lawlar will be available to them. Still, agents could make those players available should teams not want to meet their asking price while choosing one of the other players, given the talent bunched at the top of the draft. As it stands currently, there seems to be a likelihood that the Royals will choose between Rocker and North Carolina prep shortstop Khalil Watson. There is at least a decent chance that these players could be on the board for the Royals, so let’s look at Watson.
The state of North Carolina produces a decent number of draft prospects each year. Much of that is due to the universities in the state producing many high-level prospects each season. In the past four drafts, the state has produced at least two first-round picks, most of which come from the college ranks but not all with four prep first-rounders, including the 2017 class, which included #3 overall pick MacKenzie Gore and #6 selection Austin Beck. The most successful prep selection from the Tar Heel state has been Royals nemesis Madison Bumgarner, the tenth overall pick in the 2007 draft for the Giants.
The Royals have signed 53 draft picks from North Carolina, with the most successful centered around their two playoff runs. Short right-hander Greg Holland from Western Carolina University became one of their most successful relief pitchers after being taken in 2007. Just two years later, the Royals chose Wil Myers with a 3rd round selection. The state’s top current prep draft pick is Corey Seager, a shortstop the Dodgers selected with the 18th overall pick. Seager’s size at 6’4 isn’t very similar to Watson, but the state’s all-time leading rWAR from a position player, Ray Durham, isn’t all that dissimilar. Durham’s game had a little more speed involved than Watson’s, but his 5’8 170 lbs strong frame isn’t all that different than Watson’s current stature. Despite that smallish frame, Durham had strength with 192 career home runs among his more than 2000 career hits. A career similar to Durham’s would certainly not disappoint for Watson or many players taken in this draft.
Height: Listed between 5’9-5’11 Weight 178 lbs
Baseball America Grades: Hit: 60 Power: 50 Run: 60 Field: 55 Arm: 55
MLB Pipeline Grades: - Hit: 55 Power: 55 Run: 65 Field: 55 Arm: 55
Speed: 6.5 60 yard dash
In the future, Watson is likely to thicken up his current body, especially in the legs, where he started to add muscle to his thighs already. It seems likely he would carry 190-200 pounds on his frame in the future. His arms are short, leading to his ability to keep them tucked and bring inside for pitches on the inner half while staying quick to the ball. His bat speed is above average, and despite a smaller frame, he shows a lot of strength at the plate, allowing that bat speed to create loud contact. The intelligent side of his play at the plate is a patient approach and the appearance of above-average pitch recognition skills at the dish in the summer outings. On the summer circuit there weren’t many problems with recognizing spin or making contact with velocity. I would put both of those abilities alongside Mayer’s as the top ability in the prep class. His explosive style at the dish is a fun part of his game to go alongside some swagger.
Currently, he’s an above-average runner, and while some think he may thicken up quite a bit, I wouldn’t be surprised if only the thighs and arms thicken up slightly, and he maintains that 60-grade running speed. The intelligence in his game should make him a double-digit steal threat on the bases. While the approach is fun, his tendency to unload his uppercut swing and breakdown mechanics in his excitement to uncork on a pitch gives me some pause in the future hit tool, even with his approach. Will the power backup when he has to cut back the swing against the more advanced competition? His lack of size leans back to 45 to 50-grade power if that is the case. In today’s game, a player isn’t likely to cut back the swing and lessen his power for more contact. If that’s the case, Watson could see more swing and miss leaving behind a Rickie Weeks-style game with some explosive skills, power, and some swing and miss.
According to both BA and MLBP, Watson has above-average grades across the board. He creates velocity (upper-80s) across the diamond, but in today’s game, there are questions shorter-statured shortstops have to answer about sticking at the position. The range one can create with longer legs and the arm speed from a longer armed shortstop are well known. Some think he may have to move to second base or third base in the future if he has trouble maintaining the defensive consistency.
If you’re projecting a future team, then Watson’s selection fits in the major leagues in three to four years as a fast-moving prep player, landing in KC sometime in 2025-2026. His selection would give the feeling of a front office that is quite secure in their current team and farm system to add a prospect that will take some seasoning and stumbles along the way as most prep players do. If he can maintain the contact skills and power perhaps he arrives in the major leagues with a similar skill set to current Tar Heel stater Cedric Mullins, a shorter-statured centerfielder with a spectacular season for Baltimore drafted out of Campbell University. With the changes they have made in hitting development this type of player could thrive in the system and be an answer in the big leagues or a trade chip like a previous player taken from the state.