KC Royals: Baseball now complicated for Brady McConnell

The KC Royals made a young shortstop a millionaire when they drafted him in 2019. Now, baseball has become a complicated game for him.

In a perfect baseball world, Brady McConnell would be comfortable, secured financially by his multi-million dollar deal with the KC Royals and talented enough to make the major leagues all but a sure thing.

But for McConnell, baseball is not what it was a year ago when the Royals made him their second-round amateur draft pick and signed him for a reported $2,222,500. Now, it’s a game McConnell and countless others may not play this year–the minor leagues, where McConnell would play, face a pandemic-shortened season at best and cancellation at worst.

But other factors also complicate McConnell’s baseball life. He didn’t hit well or play good defense in the minors after he signed, then suffered a season-ending concussion and missed Fall League work, and another top prospect may block his path to Kauffman Stadium. The risk of becoming a forgotten man in the Royals’ organization is low, but it’s a risk nevertheless. And it starts with a poor rookie campaign.

To appreciate McConnell’s final college season is to understand why his 2019 pro debut was disappointing. He hit 15 home runs, drove in 48 and slashed .332/.385/.576 with a .961 OPS in 59 games for Florida, making him more attractive for the 2019 draft than he was in 2017 when the Reds picked him in the 33rd round but failed to sign him. The Royals found McConnell so appealing that they took him in last year’s second round after already grabbing another highly-touted shortstop–Bobby Witt Jr.–in the first.

McConnell reported to Kansas City’s Arizona Rookie League team the day after he signed and he collected two hits in two games before moving to Idaho Falls, another KC Rookie team, where he struggled with just four home runs and a feeble .211 average in 38 games.

More concerning than his average, however, is one of its root causes: McConnell struck out 66 times in 152 at-bats, an alarming strikeout rate (39.02%) warranting far more concern than his first-year failure to hit for much power. (Comparatively, Adalberto Mondesi had the highest 2019 strikeout rate among KC Royals regulars–29.80 in 102 games–and Jorge Soler fanned 26.33 percent of the time while playing every KC game).

Then there was McConnell’s defense at Idaho Falls. He made 16 errors in 24 games, a stunningly deficient .849 fielding percentage.

And if problematic hitting, strikeouts, and defense weren’t enough, a throw concussed McConnell, cut his season short, and prevented him from playing in the Arizona Fall League where he could have worked on plate discipline and his glove work.

Because the Royals have much invested in McConnell and don’t want a second round pick to wind up wasted, he’ll get sufficient attention to all aspects of his game. But improvement may not guarantee McConnell a ticket to Kansas City. In his path lie significant obstacles.

McConnell, remember, is a shortstop. So is Adalberto Mondesi, a key to the anticipated Royal renaissance; so, too, is Witt, to whom Mondesi presents a challenge that may well force Witt to change positions.

The Royals’ stock of fine shortstops (Nicky Lopez can also play there) is a good thing for the organization but may leave McConnell the odd man out. Fortunately, his athleticism and build (6-3, 195) render him suitable for a position change; in fact, he worked on outfield technique at Idaho Falls and was slated to continue that work in the AFL before he was hurt, so the organization is already thinking, and perhaps planning, ahead.

It remains to be seen whether McConnell’s college success arose from talent disparity–after all, good college hitters often feast on less-talented pitching, then struggle against better pro hurlers. McConnell, though, played in the talent-rich SEC, and professional scouts and front offices don’t base decisions solely on college performance. The KC Royals saw more than just excellent college stats in McConnell.

It also remains to be seen whether McConnel’s immediate move from college to pro ball caused, or contributed significantly to, his 2019 troubles. Even if it did, McConnell, presently ranked by mlb.com as the organization’s 15th best prospect, needs refinement. Fortunately, plate discipline and adequate defense can be learned and the Royals clearly believe he can hit, and hit with power; time and work will tell.

And a position change might help. Getting to The Show is hard enough without having to beat out talents like Mondesi and Witt. If not shortstop or the outfield, first base might be an option if the Ryan O’Hearn vs. Ryan McBroom competition doesn’t resolve questions there, if Nick Pratto doesn’t recapture the form that made him the KC Royals’ 2017 first round pick, or Travis Jones doesn’t pan out. McConnell certainly has the size for the position.

For now, McConnell remains highly visible on the Royals’ radar. That won’t change even if the minor leagues play a short season or sit this year out; although a short campaign could hurt some KC major leaguers, expect the team to find effective ways to keep prospects sharp and working to improve. McConnell appears too good to get lost in the muddle of a lost season, but it will take work to avoid becoming forgotten, or an odd man out, down the road.

Brady McConnell struggled in his first season in the KC Royals organization. With work, he should improve his chances to play in the big leagues.