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A word with a Royals prospect: Javier Vaz, Tennis, and Mookie

How a kid from Huntsville became a Royals top prospect

2021 NCAA Division I Men’s Baseball Championship Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

At a young age, Javier Vaz — Javy for short — played just about any sport you could think of. His father, Roberto, was a star for the Alabama Crimson Tide. He was a two-way star and became a Golden Spikes finalist before eventually being drafted in the 7th round by the Oakland Athletics. His mother, Stephanie, knew very little about baseball before she met Roberto.

Vaz was born in Huntsville, Alabama on September 22, 2000. He attended Huntsville High School, followed by two years at junior college LSU Eunice. He transferred after his sophomore year to Vanderbilt where he finished out his NCAA career and went on to be drafted in the 15th round of the 2022 draft by the Kansas City Royals. Long before his days as a Bengal or a Commodore, however, Vaz played basketball and football. He gave up both before his freshman year of high school to focus on baseball. He wished, however, that maybe he’d have pursued both a little longer.

“My head baseball coach put me on varsity as a freshman,” Vaz recalls. “I felt like I should play varsity at all sports if I’m on one. So I stuck to baseball since that was the one I was on varsity on.” He wishes he’d have pursued the others, however. At a much younger age, Vaz even played tennis. “I played tennis too, but my mom took me out of that because I was trying to hit it over the wrong fence the whole time. That’s when she got an idea that baseball was probably going to be the sport [for me].”

So far, that looks to be the case for Vaz, who has made a name for himself as one of the most promising prospects in the Royals' minor league system this season. His professional debut in 2022 with the Low-A Columbia Fireflies was a pretty good one. He slashed .260/.388/.370 over 27 games with 20 walks and just 14 strikeouts. This season, he’s been great again with a .267/.364/.399 slash line. He’s hit six home runs this season with an impressive 42 walks against just 25 strikeouts.

Vaz has shown an impressive ability to play all over the field. He can play second base, shortstop, left field, and even center field and can impact the game from all four positions. When asked about baseball influences growing up, Vaz brought up one of the all-time greats. “My favorite player of all time that I’ve always loved growing up was Ken Griffey Jr.” Vaz looked up to “The Kid” thanks to his swagger and the way he held himself on the field. “He’s the first baseball player to invent swag and showing your confidence on the field, you know? And also, Ken Griffey is one of the best African-American Players to ever play the game.”

Junior, of course, was truly a legend. He played in 22 major league seasons for the Mariners and Reds, ultimately ending up in Cooperstown as one of the best players ever. As far as current players are concerned, Vaz calls Tony Kemp his mentor and he has his eyes set on becoming an impact player on the level of Mookie Betts. “He can do it all. He can split the gap, he can hit it over the fence, he steals bags, he plays outfield but he definitely could play infield.” Vaz listed off some “short ballers” that he looks up to in today’s Major Leagues.

Players like Betts, Jose Ramirez, Luis Arraez, and Alex Bregman have all become modern-day superstars in the major leagues despite their shorter statures. Vaz hopes to one day do the same. Betts, Royals fans may remember, dominated the Royals earlier this season in a series against the Dodgers. In one game in particular — Alec Marsh’s big-league debut — he went 4-for-6 with two home runs and four RBI.

“Javy” has been a player under the radar for most of his young professional career thus far. This year, that’s started to change. FanGraphs released their updated Royals top prospects list earlier this summer and on it, Vaz can be found all the way up at number four. That is ahead of recent first-round selections, Frank Mozzicato and Gavin Cross.

Vaz only played a season and a half at Vanderbilt and may have been hidden under a bushel for even longer than that had 2021 starting left fielder Cooper Davis not gotten injured. Had he played all three seasons at Vandy (he was a community college transfer) and played often, he likely would have been picked much higher than the 15th round. Vaz is the second coming of Tony Kemp, an undersized Vandy Boy bat-to-ball maven who does all the little things well and can play a 2B/LF combo.

For Vaz, it’s nice to see his name up there but it’s not really something he looks for or puts a lot of stock into. “Rankings never matter to me. I’ve, honestly, never been ranked my whole life. Going through high school and those Perfect Game events [and I’ve] never been ranked.” The under-the-radar nature of his game is something that fuels him. “I feel like I’m still getting overlooked as well and all I can do is just prove them wrong. Someone’s going to be right in this situation, right? And I plan it to be me.”

Vaz had an impressive debut and showed off some of the very best bat-to-ball skills, not just in the Royals system, but in the entire Minor Leagues. He’s walked more than he’s struck out now in both seasons. His swinging strike rate is among the very best in the entire minor leagues, ranking second this season at just 2.8%. “For the people that always overlooked me and continue to overlook me, my favorite phrase is ‘Just Watch.’”

Vaz lets that doubt impact his game. “I wouldn’t want it any other way, honestly. It just fuels me that there are still people out there that doubt my ability.” It used to be about his size, but now there’s no doubt about his size. Javy has shown he’s more than just a High-A baller. He’s shown he can play and impact the game despite his size, much like Mookie Betts before him. He plans to let that chip on his shoulder carry him. “I’m gonna ball in Double-A, and I’m gonna ball in Triple-A, and I’m gonna get to the big leagues one day and I’m going to always have that chip on my shoulder.”

For the rest of this season, Vaz hopes to continue refining his approach at the plate. He’s done a great job limiting strikeouts and hitting the baseball but hopes to actually focus a little less on that batted ball skill as the year goes on. “I would love to trade out a little bit of swing-and-miss — when I swing more than likely I’m going to put it in play. And sometimes I get weak contact from that and I wish I got my ‘A-Swing’ off more.” He’s been working with Royals’ Director of Hitting Performance, Drew Saylor, and the rest of the coaching staff to fine-tune some of that approach and sacrifice some of that swinging strike rate for some power to hit even better.

The rest of this season, he has his eyes set on 40 stolen bags, being a good teammate, and hopefully helping his team make their way into the playoffs. “I want to finish the season strong and finish the season as a good leader, a good teammate for sure,” Vaz said. “I would love to have more extra-base hits than strikeouts in a season. I want to get to 40 bags, at least 30 bags, and the race is still pretty close I’d like to make a push to the playoffs as well.”

For the Quad Cities River Bandits — a roster currently featuring a number of Royals top prospects including Vaz, Carter Jensen, Gavin Cross, and Cayden Wallace — the record currently sits at 9-15 in the second half. They’re 7.0 games back of Cedar Rapids for first place in the Midwest League West. With 42 games left this season, it’s certainly not out of reach. The same team went on an impressive 12-game winning streak in May and hopes to turn it on again, starting this week as they kick off a series against the Lansing Lugnuts.

For Vaz, it’s possible he finishes out the season with High-A Quad Cities, although he’s more than earned a promotion to Double-A Northwest Arkansas. Even if he finishes the year with the River Bandits, he will certainly start next season with the Naturals and will likely make the trip to Surprise for next year’s Spring Training games. At 22 years old, Vaz is already making a name for himself and Royals fans should be excited to one day see him in Kansas City playing for the Royals.