The Kansas City Royals found some success in the trade market in 2023, illustrated best by the work of lefty starter Cole Ragans down the stretch after he was acquired from the Rangers. Ragans became one of the American League’s very best starters after joining the Royals rotation. The trade success didn’t stop with Ragans, however. Nelson Velázquez was acquired from the Cubs in a trade that sent reliever Jose Cuas to Chicago. For Velázquez, it was the next stop in what has become a long trek to the Major Leagues.
He was drafted by the Cubs in the fifth round of the 2017 MLB draft as a prep prospect from Puerto Rico. 2023 was his sixth season in the minor leagues and his second season with major league service time. When the trade was made, Royals general manager J.J. Picollo praised his newest outfielder's power potential.
“We like his power potential... By our count, he hits the ball hard and drives the ball. There’s very little chase. There’s some swing-and-miss that we think we need to address, but again, just trying to add depth and options for us at the right-hand side of the plate in the outfield. We thought it was a good fit.”
That power potential showed itself early and often after a promotion in early August. In just 40 games with the Royals this season, Velázquez launched 14 home runs and slugged .579. The advanced metrics loved what he was doing at the plate as well. Per Baseball Savant, Velázquez finished his season with a .378 wOBA. His average exit velocity was 91 mph, and his hard-hit rate was 49.1%. All of those metrics — had he compiled enough plate appearances to qualify — would have ranked in the top 20% of major league hitters.
On the entire season, Velázquez finished 2023 slashing .235/.302/.586. That showing was good for a 132 wRC+ and 0.7 fWAR through just 53 games. Over the course of a full 162-game season, that pace would be worth nearly 3 fWAR — the same value that the team received from Kyle Isbel, Drew Waters, and Dairon Blanco combined. Thanks to his prodigious power output, it looks as if a spot in the 2024 Opening Day lineup is his to lose.
As good as it looked at the plate, there are still some concerns about whether the Royals can expect a repeat performance from Velázquez. Sure, he hit a ton of home runs and hit the ball hard, but he only hit .233 as a member of the Royals. His on-base percentage was under .300, and his strikeout rate was 29.2% post-trade. On the season, his whiff rate was all the way up at 33.7% — good enough for the bottom 20% of all MLB hitters had he qualified. Putting all of these concerns in a blender makes it a bit easier to see why the future may not be as pretty as some would have you believe.
There’s certainly a chance that Velázquez can be an above-average hitter for the Royals, but the chance that he falls back down to earth seems just as plausible. It might even be more likely, based on his limited defensive value. In the field, he was worth -3 outs above average (OAA) and -1 defensive runs saved (DRS). His arm strength was average at best, meaning the majority of his value must come from offensive production. If he’s striking out nearly 30% of the time and relying solely on home runs to carry his value, then it’s hard to see a clear path where that value will come from over a much larger sample size.
Despite all the concerns, the trade looks like a fantastic value for Kansas City. They traded a volatile reliever in Jose Cuas to acquire a 24-year-old outfielder with team control and upside. That’s exactly the type of move a rebuilding organization needs to make. Next up for Velázquez will be developing his approach at the plate to limit swing-and-miss and get on base a bit more. If he can do those things, the future looks pretty good for Nelson Velázquez.
How would you grade Nelson Velázquez’s 2023 season?
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