A young KC Royals outfielder is demonstrating his potential in spring training. And he can look a lot like Alex Gordon.
Just as it does for the KC Royals, spring training allows me to ease back into the business of baseball, a sport I follow and study closely. My writing requires close attention to the games; I try to watch them all in real-time or via DVR.
But on Wednesday, an incoming call distracted me from live scrutiny of KC’s exhibition game. I moved about 15 feet away from the TV to take the call and, keeping my eyes and an ear on the screen, saw the Royals’ left fielder dive and snare a sinking liner destined just a split-second before to go all the way to the wall. “Wow,” I said to myself, impressed, “Alex Gordon can still make big plays.”
As if he’d immediately detected my mistake, the TV announcer praised the catch by young Royals outfielder Kyle Isbel. I’d been fooled–from my vantage point, it appeared Gordon made the stretch-out catch. It was left field, after all, Gordon’s private Gold Glove domain, and the play bore the semblance of ease that is Gordon’s tough play trademark. For this moment, at least, Isbel was a reasonable facsimile of Gordon.
My mistake was reasonable–Isbel made the play exactly how Alex would have made it. I don’t require volumes of modern metric data to know potential when I see it–while I don’t claim to have the knowledge of a seasoned professional scout, I’ve been watching and studying ballplayers for decades (and even coached some a long time ago) and my eyes tell me what I need to know at this early point in Isbel’s career. The kid is good.
Isbel has the potential to be a really, really fine outfielder. He’s smooth, seems to have the angles down, and gets to the ball well. Just like Gordon, he makes outfield defense look easy, as if he could make plays with his eyes closed.
I haven’t seen much of his arm, but what I have seen suggests it isn’t as good as Gordon’s, but who in the organization–other than Gordon–possesses such a cannon? Just getting to balls is half the battle, and Isbel gets to balls. And he can play all three outfield positions.
It’s Isbel’s inconsistent offense, if anything, that’s problematic at this point. Although his pro career started well–he began playing soon after signing his first contract and hit .381 with four home runs, 18 RBI and a 1.063 OPS in 25 rookie-level games, and .289 with three homers and 14 RBI in 39 A games in 2018–he slumped to .233 in 59 games across Rookie and High A in 2019. He bounced back, however, with a .315 Arizona Fall League average, but stands now at .200 with a 33% strikeout rate in 11 exhibition games.
Isbel isn’t in the KC Royals’ spring camp because the club expects him to make the Opening Day roster; he’s there to get exposure to the big league atmosphere, players and competition. That, together with the new rule limiting September roster expansion to two additional players, means he won’t see Kansas City this season. But he should be good whenever he makes his Kauffman Stadium debut.
I’m not saying Kyle Isbel will be another Alex Gordon; he probably won’t, because players like Alex Gordon don’t come along often. But he will likely be good in his own right, a player for the KC Royals to nurture and keep for a long time.