KC Royals: Nate Eaton is more than a blip on club’s radar

(Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
(Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images) /

What does a big league club do with a minor leaguer whose bat was generally quiet until he moved up to Double-A, and then Triple-A, this season? Keep a close eye on him, of course, and that’s just what the KC Royals are unquestionably doing now with Nate Eaton.

Consider him under the franchise microscope. He’s hitting well, something Kansas City definitely needs, and he can play third base, a current club sore spot with no immediate solution in sight. Yes, Michael Massey recently popped up at third for Triple-A Omaha, and Storm Chaser Clay Dungan has hot corner potential, but Massey is for now a better fit at second and Dungan projects more as a utility man than an everyday player.

And while Massey, like Eaton a recent promotee to Omaha, draws the lion’s share of attention there, Eaton is increasingly registering as more than just a blip on Kansas City’s radar.

Justifiably so.

KC Royals prospect Nate Eaton is becoming a legitimate big league candidate.

That Eaton is suddenly more visible may surprise some, if not most, Kansas City franchise followers, none of whom can be faulted if they missed the Royals taking him in the 2018 amateur draft. He was, after all, a 21st-rounder lost in the commotion of the club winning that draft’s pitching sweepstakes.

Although he certainly made a splash that summer in rookie ball, slashing .354/.427/.581 in 66 games at Idaho Falls, Eaton struggled at Low-A Lexington in 2019. His average and OBP both plummeted over 120 points to .233 and .305, and his OPS plunged from 1.008 to .641.

He recovered a bit, but not significantly, at High-A Quad Cities last season—playing all but a handful of his games for the River Bandits (he appeared in five in the Arizona Complex League on injury rehab assignment), Eaton improved his average slightly to .243. But he also stole 23 bases.

The Royals decided he was ready for Double-A and moved him to Northwest Arkansas to start this season. He took well to the change—after 37 games, Eaton was hitting .271, had 12 steals, and his four home runs equaled one-fourth of the homers he’d collected since beginning his professional career.

All that was enough for the organization to bump Eaton up to Omaha May 27, and he hasn’t missed a beat against better pitching. He went 3-for-4 with three RBIs for the Storm Chasers Friday night and is slashing .333/.405/.577 with five homers and 20 RBIs in the 30 games he’s played after being promoted. Add in his Double-A numbers and Eaton has a season line of .299/.364/.478, nine homers, 39 RBIs and 18 stolen bases.

So where does he stand with Kansas City? In pretty good stead, it would seem.

The Royals need consistency at third base. Emmanuel Rivera isn’t hitting well enough to play there every day and, although Nicky Lopez is suddenly getting hot corner time, his current .218 pales in comparison to the .300 he hit last season and won’t support assigning him to third on a daily basis. Hunter Dozier has plenty of experience at the position but his inadequate defense renders him a long shot to return there regularly.

Eaton could be an answer, at least until the club can sort out and finalize its options—he’s spent more time at third base than anywhere else in the minors (203 appearances in 334 games), but also has a disconcerting .923 fielding percentage at the position.

He’s versatile, however, as his time at third, second, shortstop, and every outfield position suggests.

Are Eaton’s bat and versatility enough to encourage Kansas City to call him up despite his questionable third base defense? It could be, especially considering Rivera’s shortcomings at the plate and Lopez’s season-long slump. And it’s hard to say how much longer Whit Merrifield might be around.

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Perhaps, then, the club will take a chance on this emerging prospect. He likely needs more time at Omaha, but the Royals, who started Bobby Witt Jr. at third base this year but now seem far more content with him at shortstop, are running out of viable third base options.

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Will Nate Eaton make it to Kansas City this season? We shall see.