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For Kyle Isbel, 2023 is a fork in the road

With a critical campaign looming, can he find his place?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Tampa Bay Rays Dave Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Many of the headlines surrounding the Royals' 2018 draft class have centered around the haul of pitchers the team selected. It seemed like a turning point for a franchise that has struggled to develop homegrown arms for over two decades. Of the 40 players selected, 27 were pitchers, including their first five selections — four first-rounders and one in the second round. That crop of pitchers has already made its own bit of history, becoming the first draft class in history to see at least five pitchers start a game in the Major Leagues in the same season.

However, another key member of the 2023 Royals was the first non-pitcher selected by the team in that year’s draft: Kyle Isbel. Isbel was selected in the third round (94th overall) out of UNLV. He quickly hit the ground running in the minor leagues later that season, playing 64 games between Rookie ball in Idaho Falls and Low-A Lexington. He showed off a well-rounded skill set over four minor league seasons, slashing .277/.352/.452 in the system before making his Major League debut in 2021.

All signs pointed to the young outfielder carving out a consistent role for the Royals. He played sound defense at all three outfield positions, walked often, offered good speed on the basepaths, and hit for a solid average. His rookie debut in 2021 saw him slash .276/.337/.434. He finished the year with a 108 wRC+, good for 0.4 fWAR in just 28 games. It seemed like Kyle Isbel had arrived — until 2022 happened.

Isbel’s sophomore season disappoints

The 2022 season wasn’t pretty for Kyle Isbel. Many fans expected — hoped — that he would get consistent playing time in the outfield. Michael A. Taylor was the incumbent in center field, fresh off a Gold Glove showing in 2021. He had struggled at the plate, however, and a platoon between Isbel and Taylor made an awful lot of sense.

Instead, the Royals played Isbel in just two games between Opening Day and his eventual demotion to Omaha on April 21. The young prospect spent the entire start of his season riding the bench without consistent playing time. He was soon recalled from Triple-A on April 28 and received more consistent playing time, but struggled. He posted a .649 OPS in May, followed by .528 in June and a horrendous .486 OPS in July. Maybe it was riding the bench, or maybe it was a poor approach at the plate but one thing is for certain — Isbel’s 2022 campaign was a major disappointment.

Of 317 hitters last season to reach at least 250 PA, Isbel ranked 291st with a wRC+ of just 67. His walk rate was just 5.8%, down from 8.4% the year prior. At the plate, it wasn’t pretty and although his strong defense helped salvage some value on the season (he was worth 0.7 fWAR), his struggles opened the door for Drew Waters to make his debut in August. Isbel’s struggles — paired with a strong showing in the season’s final month by Waters — positioned Waters as the team’s presumptive starter in center field for 2023 following the Royals' trade of Michael A. Taylor to Minnesota in January.

With prospects on the horizon, it’s now or never for Isbel

With Drew Waters sidelined for at least six weeks with an oblique strain, there’s little doubt that Isbel will figure into the Opening Day lineup. For how long will depend heavily on his performance at the plate. He now profiles as the Royals' best option in center field. They’ve tested some other options, like Maikel Garcia, there in the spring thus far. That trial run seems more like testing the waters than anything. Isbel’s place as the Opening Day center fielder seems all but a certainty.

Beyond Opening Day, however, the future is murky for the 26-year-old outfielder. Waters will hopefully be back before long. Beyond Isbel and Waters, the 40-man crunch for outfielders is very real. MJ Melendez will regularly patrol a corner outfield position this season, after struggling defensively behind the dish in 2022. Edward Olivares, Samad Taylor, and Nate Eaton also figure to get regular looks in the outfield in 2023 as well. All those names in contention for outfield innings leave a lot of possibilities for Matt Quatraro this season, and that’s without mentioning Nick Pratto, who may end up splitting time between 1B, DH, and RF when he reaches the major leagues. That’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen for a young baseball team that will likely be out of contention and looking to the future.

Sadly, the future outlook becomes bleaker for Kyle Isbel when you look beyond the 40-man roster. If you think the outfield roster crunch is tight now, just wait until Tyler Gentry arrives. Gentry was awarded the Royals 2022 Minor League Player of the Year Award after a fantastic campaign that saw him slash .326/.422/.542 between High-A and AA. Fellow minor leaguer Nick Loftin may debut in the major leagues as an infielder. However, with a packed infield likely consisting of Michael Massey, Bobby Witt Jr., Vinnie Pasquantino, and Maikel Garcia, Loftin’s path to the major leagues may be in the outfield. He played nearly 600 outfield innings last season alone.

Gavin Cross and Peyton Wilson factor into the future as well. Cross — the Royals' number one prospect according to MLB Pipeline — could be a fast mover through the system with a debut possible as early as 2024. Wilson split his 2022 season between 2B and CF and likely will play more in the outfield in 2023. All of these names in the outfield mix mean one thing for Isbel’s 2023 season: it’s time to make his mark. Otherwise, unfortunately for Isbel, he may not get another chance in Royal blue.