The Royals are bad, but the losses wouldn’t be quite so unbearable if many young players were taking a step forward this season. Instead we’ve seen many players stall in their career progression, regress, or suffer frustrating injuries. If there has been a bright spot, however, it has been the season of infielder Maikel Garcia.
Garcia comes from a great baseball family, the cousin of former shortstop Alcides Escobar and part of the same family that produced a number of big leaguers including Kelvim Escobar and Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr. The Royals signed him out of Venezuela for a bonus that was so insignificant, I can’t find any reports on how much it was. His first few years in the lower minors for the Royals, he had a profile that was pretty similar to cousin Alcides - great glove, good speed, little power. But he differed from Esky in one major respect - young Maikel could draw a walk.
Maikel wasn’t the Venezuelan God of Walks or anything, but a 9.5 percent walk rate as a 19-year old in short-season ball is nothing to sneeze at. He improved that to 12.5 percent in his first full season at age 21. Then last year he showed another improvement in his game - power. After earning a promotion to Triple-A Omaha, he smacked seven home runs in just 40 games after hitting 10 in his previous 363 minor league games. And it wasn’t high-altitude environment that were the cause - Omaha was now playing in the International League - he hit home runs in St. Paul, Minnesota; Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Des Moines, Iowa.
Garcia only showed up on one top 100 prospect list, that of ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel, who described Maikel as a “plus hitter with an excellent approach and a steady glove at shortstop, but below-average in-game power.” He began this season in Omaha, but after one month, he was ready for regular big league action. After a hot start, he tapered off in May. But once the calendar turned to June, he has been on fire. This month, the 23-year-old is hitting .318/.370/.455 with a 13.7 percent strikeout rate. His 125 wRC+ in June is 25th among all American League hitters and he has the ninth-most Baserunning Runs among all players this month.
The result is that Garcia has played his way into the American League Rookie of the Year race. Here are your top AL rookie hitters so far:
American League rookies
|Luke Raley, TBR||193||12||8||.276||.354||.582||2.2|
|Josh Jung, TEX||304||15||1||.275||.329||.493||1.9|
|Ryan Noda, OAK||271||8||2||.236||.387||.417||1.8|
|Gunnar Henderson, BAL||239||11||4||.242||.343||.464||1.5|
|Maikel Garcia, KCR||167||2||10||.287||.341||.400||1.5|
|Jose Caballero, SEA||146||2||10||.233||.370||.345||1.3|
|Zach Neto, LAA||199||6||5||.259||.338||.431||1.2|
|Esteury Ruiz, OAK||330||1||39||.266||.323||.343||1.2|
|Masataka Yoshida, BOS||288||8||3||.304||.375||.479||1.2|
|Anthony Volpe, NYY||278||10||15||.196||.273||.364||0.7|
Of the top hitting candidates, Garcia has the best WAR-to-plate appearance ratio of anyone except Luke Raley, a 28-year-old platoon first baseman. Had he played as many games as Bobby Witt Jr. and put up the same WAR ratio, he’d currently be a 2.6 WAR player.
On the pitching side, Seattle’s Bobby Miller, Houston’s Hunter Brown, Tampa Bay’s Taj Bradley, and Cleveland’s Logan Allen and Tanner Bibee have been the cream of the crop, but with pitchers going fewer innings, it seems more likely a hitter will win the award. A true starting pitcher (not Shohei Ohtani) has not won the award since 2016.
Rangers third baseman Josh Jung, Orioles infielder Gunnar Henderson, and Red Sox outfielder Masataka Yoshida have all hit well lately and are the most likely to be at the top of the race. Texas and Baltimore have had remarkable seasons, which will help their cause, and Yoshida was a big Japanese free agent with some name recognition. Garcia’s talents are also a bit less obvious than the others - he’s a terrific fielder and excellent baserunner with good on-base skills. He doesn’t have big power and isn’t a big run producer, but really doesn’t have any big holes to his game either. But we’ve seen how Garcia is capable of improvement. Perhaps he has another gear in him.
In the end, it doesn’t matter much if Garcia wins Rookie of the Year or not, Royals fans are keenly aware of how little the award predicts future success (Angel Berroa anyone?) What is important is that Garcia continues to play well and give the Royals a solid starter they can count on as they try to figure out who will be part of their future.