Lower-level Prospects to Watch in 2019

Baseball is almost here, and I desperately wish I had plans to attend spring training, camp out near the backfields, and watch the next wave of Royals talent emerge. Alas, I have a job … and responsibilities … and no money.

So, I’ll have to wait for the minor league seasons to officially start before I get to see the players on this list. Previously, I put out a list of players I suspect might have breakout campaigns in 2019. And we all know the big names in the system—Singer, Kowar, Lee, Matias, Lynch, etc. RFR has done and will do plenty on each of them (like our prospect rankings, get caught up here).

What follows is a list of players who might be just behind that group. Each of these guys has a ton of potential, but I need to see more before getting my hopes too high.

Rylan Kaufman (19, LHP, anticipated assignment: Burlington)

Kaufman was still only 18 when the Royals drafted him out of San Jacinto College (a junior college). So, after throwing 53.2 IP there, the Royals didn’t push him in his pro debut. He only started four games and only threw a total of seven innings in those games.

In those 53.2 IP at San Jacinto, Kaufman dominated with a 2.18 ERA and 59 strikeouts. He’s a tall, lanky lefty who sits 91-93 with a good changeup. What makes Kaufman so interesting is he has a lot of projection left in him. He’s still only 19 and starting his second professional season. His 6’4”, 180 pound frame suggests he may be able to add some velocity. Imagine a left hander named Kaufman throwing 95 in Kauffman. That’s the dream.

I imagine he’ll start at extended spring training before moving to Burlington in an effort to keep his innings in the 100 range.

Kevon Jackson (18, OF, anticipated assignment: Idaho Falls)

If you look up Jackson’s stats from last season, this one might have you scratching your head. He struggled mightily in his big league debut, but his numbers from last year need some context to truly understand him. And it’s Jackson’s potential that will keep me interested in his second pro season.

Most importantly, Jackson is super young. He was 17 when the Royals drafted him in the ninth round last season. So, yes, he had a terrible line .178/.325/.248, but he was very young even for the AZL. Plus, that line reflects a finishing stretch where he collected five hits in his last 20 games. Slumps can really affect a young player emotionally, and he was finishing the season after having already had a full high school season and probably some summer ball, as well (at least some showcases).

Forget all that, Jackson interests me because he has one thing you can’t teach: speed. He was a track star in high school, and according to Baseball America is at least a 70-grade, if not a 80-grade, runner. His ISO and slugging don’t show it, but he also has some muscle packed into his 5’9” frame, and I’ll be interested to see if gap power starts to emerge for him as he grows and continues to work on his swing.

Interestingly, Jackson already knows how to take a walk. His 16.3 percent walk rate gave him a decent OBP (.325). If he learns to cut down his strikeout rate (38.2 percent in 2018), he could have a profile similar to Rudy Martin.

He’s not on the fast track, but if Jackson takes even small steps forward this season, I’ll remain excited for his future.

Nate Eaton (22, 2B maybe, anticipated assignment: Lexington)

Eaton is such an odd prospect, but it’s a testament to the Royals scouting department that they found him and were able to land him in the 21st round of the 2018 draft.

Eaton is odd because he was a catcher in college who has transitioned to … well … they haven’t really found a position for him yet, but it’s most likely going to be second or third base. Unlike most catchers, Eaton can run. He stole 19 bags in 66 games last season. It’s like the Royals saw him playing catcher at VMI and were like “Nope, that guy’s a second baseman.”

Really, Eaton’s not a very good second baseman yet either, but he is good at hitting baseballs hard all over the place. In 260 plate appearances, Eaton went .354/.427/.581. That’s a 1.008 OPS, good enough for second in the Pioneer League. That includes a un sustainable .435 BABIP, but his walk rate (10.9) and strikeout rate (19.8) were reasonable so even if the BABIP deflates, there’s a good chance his numbers stay in the 800-900 OPS range.

I expect Eaton to start out in Lexington and to zero in on one position. At least, that’s what I would have him do. The Royals might decide to send him the Travis Jones route (a player with whom he shares many characteristics) and see if he can become a super-utility player.

For my money, it’s better to be average at one position than bad at many, but what do I know?

Rubendy Jaquez (19, IF, anticipated assignment: Idaho Falls)

Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2015, Jaquez is the deepest cut of the four on this list. I found him perusing the stat lines of AZL Royals from last season. He jumped out at me, and the more I learned, the more I liked.

Jaquez spent most of last season (his age 19 season) with the AZL Royals where he hit an impressive .303/.389/.448 before getting nine games with Idaho Falls where he crushed out a .387/.474/.452 slash line. Despite being half a year younger than the average player in the AZL (and half a year actually matters at that age) and a year and half younger in the Pioneer League, he showed an advanced approach with a 12 percent walk rate across both levels. He struck out 17 percent of the time, which is respectable in this era of the strikeout.

Jaquez’s power and speed are still hard to parse out without watching him live. He stole quite a few bases in 2018 (18 in 54 games), but he was also caught too frequently (7). His slugging percentage and ISO suggest he has some pop in his bat, but his home run totals aren’t astounding. His pop from last season may be the result of playing in Arizona for most of the season. His frame (5’11”, 174) doesn’t suggest massive power output, though he will almost surely fill out more and gain strength as he ages (and may have already grown from his listed height and weight).

Right now, Jaquez reminds me of Emilio Bonafacio in profile, body type, and swing. Jaquez is a little slower with maybe a little more raw power. But Jaquez plays multiple positions, switch hits, and swings the bat a lot like Bonafacio. He’ll probably start in extended spring training before heading to the Pioneer League this year, though don’t be surprised if the organization gives him an aggressive start in Lexington either.

He’s now one of my guys so I’ll be tracking his progress along with the rest of this group all season.

Feature Image Credit: John Roark

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