Uh, we may have a problem. Recently, I was looking through this excellent draft rankings comparison from Alex Duvall and day dreaming about who I want the Royals to draft when it occurred to me that the Royals’ system might be light on outfielders … specifically center fielders.
I thought I must be forgetting someone so I scoured lists of Royals prospects and the rosters of the teams’ affiliates, and I wasn’t. The Royals are thin in center field. Their stock of minor league center fielders is more a wing and prayer than anything.
This was a bit shocking to me because the Royals prioritize defense up the middle as much as any team. They currently have enough shortstop and catching prospects to build a large human pyramid out of them. And in the past, the team always had a few center fielders who if squinting hard enough looked like they could become major league regulars.
No longer. It’s last call on a Tuesday night for center field prospects right now.
Here’s a list of the players who have played center field most frequently for each affiliate this season:
AAA: Edward Olivares
AA: Dairon Blanco
A+: John Rave
A: Diego Hernandez
People are excited about Olivares, and he has been hitting well so far this season, but no one has ever confused him for an actual center fielder (someone who plays that position well). In 82 innings in center field at the major league level, he’s tallied -4 defensive runs saved. That’s not just normal bad; that’s exceptionally bad. And though that’s a small sample size, I’ve never heard anyone express enthusiasm about his abilities in center. Probably best to put him in a corner outfield spot.
Hernandez has started the year pretty well, and the Royals love his potential as a defensive outfielder. But he’s more of a fringy prospect, a lottery ticket at best. Hernandez isn’t in the Royals’ top-30 on any major prospect rankings including RFR’s. Rudy Martin is another fringy guy who is playing well so far at AA (he plays right field most of the time but could certainly play center). I’m a big fan of his, but even I’ll admit, as a 25-year-old player in AA with limited power, injury issues, and a spotty track record, he’s more a long shot than someone who can be counted on to develop into an every day major league player.
Honestly, the Royals heir apparent in center field right now is probably Kyle Isbel who can probably play an average to slightly above average center field despite below average speed for a center fielder. Ideally, though, Isbel would be placed in left or right field to play Gold Glove caliber defense rather than center.
And if you’re screaming “What about Erick Pena?”, I have two bits of news for you. 1) He’s 18, and there is no such thing as a reliable 18-year-old prospect. 2) He’s so large he probably won’t stick in center field.
That’s it; that’s all of them,* a cupboard full of maybes, possiblies, and probably nots. Really, the Royals created this problem themselves. They’ve placed far more emphasis on drafting and signing college pitchers and toolsy middle infielders with an eye toward, perhaps, converting some of those middle infielder into outfielders. That’s not a terrible plan, but if you’re going to change someone’s position, it’s best to do it when they’re young, especially if you’re asking them to learn a position as important as center field.
*I do not consider Bobby Witt Jr. or Brady McConnell center field prospects as neither has played a significant amount of center field before. Also Blake Perkins is a solid defensive outfielder who is still waiting to be assigned this year, but I don’t think he’ll ever hit enough to play in the bigs.
We know that a highly proficient outfield is important for the Royals’ success. Playing in the cavernous Kauffman Stadium makes outfield defense especially important, as we saw during the teams’ 2014-2015 World Series runs, and as we’re seeing again this season, though, in a negative way (not from center field where Michael A. Taylor has played well but from right field where Jorge Soler has not).
So, when you’re looking at draft prospects, spare a thought for those prospects you think could patrol center field. Someone’s got to … and I don’t think 35-year-old Whit Merrifield will be the answer this time.
Feature Image by jimcchou