Another in the long line of young, speedy outfielders awaits his chance with the KC Royals. The club may be compelled to give him his shot this season.
The KC Royals, a team transformed by the ripple sent through its lineup by the recent signing of third baseman Maikel Franco, has as much of an outfield puzzle than it had before Franco joined the club. While the deal’s most immediate consequence firms up two outfield slots, it lends little clarity to an otherwise muddled outfield picture.
Before Franco signed, Hunter Dozier appeared established at third base after an excellent 2019 season and jack-of-all-trades Whit Merrifield seemed the best bet to play right field regularly. Bubba Starling and Brett Phillips were expected to contest center and Alex Gordon to play left if he doesn’t retire; if he does, Merrifield was expected to claim center or right, leaving the other two spots up for grabs between Starling, Phillips, a possible free agent or trade acquisition, or Ryan McBroom.
But Franco’s signing significantly altered the outfield outlook–Dozier leaves third for right field and Merrifield moves to center. With Gordon, the KC outfield is set with him in left, Merrifield in center and Dozier in right; the impending expansion of major league rosters to 26 players and a 13-pitcher limit leave room for Phillips and Starling to both spell starters from the bench. Without Gordon or the addition of new outfielders, Starling and Phillips will presumably fight over left field, or center if Merrifield moves to left.
Simply put, the question of outfield starters is answered if Gordon doesn’t retire and isn’t if he does. Enter Nick Heath, an up-and-coming outfielder waiting for a crack at the major leagues, a debut that could be forced upon the Royals.
Heath fits the classic Royals outfielder profile: fast afoot with range, decent defense, and an adequate bat, much like Willie Wilson, Jarrod Dyson, Lorenzo Cain, and others. Although he probably won’t hit as well as some of his predecessors, he gets on base and his penchant for base-stealing is disruptive.
In fact, Heath led the minor leagues–all the minor leagues–in steals last year with 60 and stole successfully 78% of the time. He stole 50 at AA Northwest Arkansas, added 10 after earning a promotion to AAA Omaha, and has averaged 40 with a 75% success rate over four minor league seasons.
Obviously, it’s Heath’s ability to get on base that makes his steals plentiful. His .266 career minor league average isn’t eye-popping, but his career .348 OBP is more than adequate–his single-season OBP in campaigns of significant playing time has been as high as .376 (between Northwest Arkansas and High A Wilmington in 2018).
Although his power rarely shows itself–he hit a total of eight homers in three collegiate and three minor league seasons–he equaled that total in the minors in 2019. Heath credited a swing change for the power increase in a recent interview with this site.
Whether Heath’s homers continue to increase remains to be seen; more important to the KC Royals are his speed, knack for getting on base and prolific base stealing. Today, he’s faster than Phillips and Starling and his hitting, while not All-Star caliber, is more consistent. He should be the top organization candidate to replace them if they don’t measure up in 2020.
Starling has been disappointing. Besides the financial security it brought him, he has yet to prove his choice of baseball over football was a good one. He was a highly ranked high school quarterback and had already signed to play football and baseball at Nebraska when the Royals picked him in the first round of the 2011 draft and signed him for $7.5 million. Slowed by occasional injuries, Starling took almost eight years to make the majors: the Royals called him up from Omaha last season in the midst of his best minor league season.
Unfortunately, Starling slashed only .215/.255/.317 with four home runs and 12 RBI’s in 56 games, numbers that, combined with his career minor league .244/.317/.393 slash, suggest his Kansas City future may not be bright. Two stolen bases with KC and 10.1 steals per season in the minors (skewed by 22 in 2013 and 17 in ’14) prove it’s hard to steal when you don’t get on base.
Phillips, like Starling, began his pro career in 2012 but has never distinguished himself–he owns a .203/.280/.339 slash in 118 games with Milwaukee and KC and, although he has 92 home runs in eight minor league seasons, he’s managed only eight in the majors. He stole successfully in the minors but his nine major league steals reflect his inability to get on base at the big league level.
Their career performances suggest Starling and Phillips may not be outfield solutions for KC. Their defense is adequate, but they haven’t fared well against major league pitching and can’t get aboard enough to steal bases.
Although he hasn’t faced major league pitching, Heath may be an answer. He’s fast, has a disruptive knack for getting on base and steals when he gets aboard, and is good with the glove. Unless the KC Royals sign or trade for a better outfielder, the auditions of Starling and Phillips will continue for at least part of 2020–should either struggle or fail, Heath may force the Royals to make room for him. Budding star Khalil Lee is probably a year away from the majors, making Heath the best intra-organization choice.
Heath shouldn’t be promoted for promotion’s sake, however. Another partial or whole AAA season won’t hurt and he shouldn’t be called to Kansas City absent a chance to play often, whether it be starting every day or consistently spelling others. Starling or Phillips–or both–could give Heath that chance. It could come sooner if Gordon retires.
The KC Royals have a confusing and complicated outfield situation. Should the continuing auditions of Bubba Starling or Brett Phillips fail, Nick Heath‘s speed and ability to get on base and steal bases may make him a solution. Time will tell.