When the Cleveland Indians signed Nick Swisher, they made room for him on the 40 man roster by designating Thomas Neal for assignment. Neal is now a free agent after clearing waivers. The Royals, with some questions in their major league outfield, should give him a look.
Neal was drafted by the San Francisco Giants out of high school in 36th round of the 2005 draft. In 2007, he suffered a dislocated shoulder and missed most of the season, but returned strong in 2008 to hit .276/.359/.444 with 15 homers and 25 doubles for Augusta in the South Atlantic League. In 2009, he jumped into the prospect picture by hitting 22 homers and 41 doubles in San Jose and putting up a 1.010 OPS in 559 plate appearances.
That prompted him to be ranked as the Giants fourth-best prospect by Baseball America before the 2010 season, behind just Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner and Zack Wheeler. That season, his homers dropped but he still hit doubles and still got on base. In 2011 Baseball America ranked him seventh in the Giants system. He was traded at the deadline to Cleveland for Orlando Cabrera.
His power numbers fell off in 2011 due to some returning shoulder problems and a hand injury early on. He hit more ground balls than usual and seemed to be impatient as his walkrate dropped in Triple A. In 2012, he was designated for assignment during spring training, but was assigned to Double A. There, the power returned and he hit .314/.400/.467 with 24 doubles and 12 homers in 470 at bats. Despite the shoulder injuries, Baseball America’s scouting reports credit him with a strong arm in the corners and that he has a plan at the plate. One comparison made was to Jermaine Dye.
Neal was a September callup last season for Cleveland, hitting .217/.250/.261 in 24 plate appearances.
Why the Royals Should Target Neal
First, it’s a low-risk move. The Royals can offer opportunity to Neal and he can be a young player with some upside to give them another option in right field.
These are the outfielders invited to Royals camp and their age on Opening Day (* denotes on 40 man roster):
- Alex Gordon* (29)
- Lorenzo Cain* (26)
- Jarrod Dyson* (28)
- Jeff Francoeur* (29 – and happy belated)
- David Lough* (27)
- Endy Chavez (35)
- Willy Taveras (31)
- Xavier Nady (34)
- Luis Durango (26)
Neal, at 25 years old, is younger than all of those options and, compared to other non-roster players, has a lot more chance to be productive.
Second, The Royals upper minors aren’t loaded with outfield prospects yet. Jorge Bonifacio, Bubba Starling are a few years away still. Brett Eibner has struggled with the bat. Derrick Robinson was let go and signed with the Reds. Elier Hernandez is only 18 years old and has 60 games under his belt. Brian Fletcher‘s yet to see Triple A. Fred Ford‘s not a bad prospect, but he’s no closer than Starling is.
Third, the Royals have given many the impression that Francoeur is on a short leash. After a tough 2012 season, any early 2013 struggles probably get him benched at least, and a release would be possible if no trade partner emerged. In the event that Francoeur did get cut, the Royals options would come down to using some combination of Lough, Dyson and Cain to fill the center field and right field spots. Neal gives them another option in that regard.
Maybe he never pans out. The shoulder injuries may be a chronic problem that end up taking away more and more of his power away and giving him nothing for an arm in the outfield. He could have a healthy year, figure things out, and start mashing again. We don’t know.
But it’s worth a look to find out.