Should the KC Royals try to bring back Khalil Lee?

(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
(Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

Perusing the daily offerings of our sister FanSided sites is as much a morning staple of mine as coffee. Nowhere, in my opinion, can baseball fans find so much information packed into a single network. And on a not too irregular basis, I find interesting news about former KC Royals players.

Such was the case Thursday when I made my daily stop at Rising Apple and read Tim Boyle’s interesting piece about Khalil Lee, who the Royals sent to the Mets last winter as part of the three-team trade that brought Andrew Benintendi to Kansas City.

Lee was a hot KC prospect until the moment the Royals pulled the trigger on the Benintendi deal, so much so that the club included him in its 60-man Player Pool when the pandemic forced cancellation of the 2020 minor league campaign.

The move made perfect sense. Lee was coming off an excellent season at Double-A Northwest Arkansas—although his .264 average didn’t reap any awards, he displayed some power with eight home runs. More importantly, however, he posted a stellar .363 OBP and stole 53 bases.

Coupled with his inclusion in the Player Pool, that effort strongly suggested Lee was on track for a Triple-A spot, and maybe a late-season call-up, in 2021. But Alex Gordon’s retirement left a gaping hole in left field no Kansas City prospects, including Lee, were ready to fill. So, in February the Royals dispatched Lee to the Mets and Franchy Cordero to the Red Sox (others, primarily players to be named later, were also involved), and Boston sent Benintendi to Kansas City where he justified the deal by winning his first Gold Glove.

What, though, of Lee?

Traded by the KC Royals, Khalil Lee got a small taste of the major leagues.

The Mets didn’t wait long to give their new outfielder a shot—he’d played only five times for Triple-A Syracuse when they summoned him to meet them in Atlanta May 17. Lee made his big league debut that night when he pinch ran for Kevin Pillar in the seventh inning and struck out in the ninth.

After starting the next two games in right field and going 0-for-7, Lee collected his first major league hit when he doubled home the eventual winning run in extra innings against Miami:

Unfortunately, Lee went hitless in seven more games. The Mets sent him back to Syracuse, where he ended the season with a 102-game .451 OBP, .274 average and 14 homers.

Where does that leave the formal Royal heading into 2022? In his Rising Apple analysis, Boyle suggests Lee might land the Mets’ center field job in a couple of years, could end up in one of the corner outfield spots, or might become a reserve.

Should the KC Royals try to talk a Khalil Lee trade with New York?

Whether Lee secures a spot in the Mets’ outfield depends on two things—his performance and how much more New York owner Steve Cohen wants to spend. Cohen’s purse strings have been loose this winter—the Mets signed Max Scherzer, Starling Marte, Eduardo Escobar and Starling Marte before the MLB lockout froze offseason major league transactions—and unless a new collective bargaining agreement works significant changes to the economics of free agency, there’s little reason to believe the club won’t pursue more stars, perhaps even another outfielder.

Nothing, then, guarantees Lee a New York job, and the Mets haven’t yet invested heavily in him.

Could the Royals get him back?

It’s an intriguing thought. Parting with Lee had to be painful: after all, he has some power (17 homers at Low-A in 2017 and those 14 at Syracuse last season), and can fly (four double-digit steal seasons), something the Royals love on the basepaths and in the outfield. But getting on base is what Lee does best—why wouldn’t the Royals want to reunite with a player who owns a .382 OBP over five minor league campaigns?

Lee could help fill the club’s understocked outfield cupboard. Yes, they have Gold Glovers Benintendi and Michael A. Taylor, but because the Royals’ team control over Benintendi ends after this season (absent an extension) and Taylor will probably be a trade deadline target despite his new two-year deal, their Kansas City futures are far from certain.

And right field remain an issue. Although the Royals might prefer to move Whit Merrifield there, they won’t unless and until they commit to playing Nicky Lopez or Adalberto Mondesi at second. Hunter Dozier’s glove may be too significant a liability, the club doesn’t seem ready (or willing?) to include Edward Olivares in its long-term plans, and Kyle Isbel, although probably deserving of a longer shot than the Royals gave him last season, might be a half or full season away.

So, maybe the Royals should consider Lee. The price will be pitching if they’re serious, but the organization is hurler-rich and can afford to part with one to forge a reunion with an outfielder who seemed to have a bright future in Kansas City.

Next. Only 7 Royals have done this. dark

Kansas City shouldn’t shy away from the thought of bringing Khalil Lee back.