After a brutal 2019, 2020 needs to become the season where some of the future KC Royals’ hitting prospects begin to figure out how to hit.
The KC Royals have been very quick to tout their young pitching prospects in the minors, and rightfully so. Although I still tend to think many of us are counting chickens that have not yet hatched, I am more than willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. It is reasonable to assume that the Royals should be able to fill in much of their rotation with homegrown young arms in a couple of years. Where the offense is going to come from is a different story altogether.
The two most exciting bats in the Royals minor league system are Bobby Witt, Jr. and Erick Pena, two teenagers. Even if both prospects become cornerstone players, a development that would be awesome but unlikely, it will not be any time soon. I would consider it very unlikely that either of these hitters are able to contribute much before 2022 at the earliest. If we want to compete before then, we will have to develop other hitters.
In the outfield there are several Royals prospects I think can make it as big leaguers. Kyle Isbel came back from his injury and showed he can still hit and get on base in the minor leagues. Getting on base has also never been a problem for Khalil Lee. But neither of these young men have shown much home run power. Lee started out his career with the kind of pop that great corner outfielders are made of, but his slugging has plummeted since. Isbel has the makings of a doubles machine, but still not sure he ever becomes a big-league home run threat.
MJ Melendez was once considered a catching prodigy that could mash. Seuly Matias was once considered a power-hitting prodigy himself. Last season they both struck out in 40 percent of their plate appearances. And that is in A ball. No matter how hard you can hit the ball it does not do you any good if you are whiffing constantly.
Nick Pratto is our best corner infield prospect. He is also another prospect that struggled in high A ball in 2019. His strikeout rate spiked to almost 35 percent. His batting average fell below .200. It is very difficult to assume any big-league future for hitters that struggle consistently with pitching at the A-ball level.
These players are young, but they need to develop in 2020. To be even more clear, the Royals need to show that they can develop some of these players. We need to see that we can develop a corner outfielder. The last one we developed has now reached retirement age.
Isbel and Lee both look like major leaguers to me. But if they are both only guys who can get on base at an average rate and play some decent defense in the outfield, we already have that guy in Nick Heath. And while it is impressive that we appear poised to corner the market on the production of fourth outfielders, we need someone out there who can hit in the middle of a lineup. We need some young hitters that pitchers are afraid to challenge. We need some cornerstone pieces.
Our infield situation seems even more desperate than our outfield. Pratto and Melendez are both big concerns after 2019. And, frankly, there is not much else when it comes to infielders in our current system to get excited about before 2023.
I have not even mentioned the prospects that made it to the big leagues last season. Nicky Lopez, Bubba Starling, and Meibrys Viloria all struggled to even compete offensively in the big leagues. And while I expect Lopez to improve, we need to see more from the players this organization has developed. Much more.
Identifying talent is only the first step in building and maintaining a competitive ballclub. Developing that talent to become above-average big leaguers is what separates consistently good teams from teams that only compete for a year or two every couple of decades or so.
We need these players to begin to improve upon their weaknesses. We need to see these prospects begin to improve their strikeout rates, their groundball rates, their walk rates, their slugging percentages. Almost every day in 2019 we sent out barely half of a real major league lineup. No matter how good our pitching staff is in 2023 or 2025 we will still not win ballgames without a real major league offense to score runs. The improvement, or lack thereof, of these players in 2020 may be the true test for how far along Dayton Moore is on his second rebuild.