The Kansas City Royals preview continues with a look at the center field depth chart.
The Royals signed Michael Taylor to a one-year contract as a free agent prior to the 2021 season. He rewarded Kansas City by playing elite center field defense, ultimately winning a Gold Glove and leading the league in Outs Above Average. His 19 Defensive Runs Saved were the highest of his career and also among the best in all of baseball, at any position. As a result, the Royals signed Taylor to a two-year extension that will pay him $9 million over the course of the next two seasons. Taylor (31) is a fine player, an outstanding defender but ultimately very poor at the plate. For his career, he’s posted just a 79 wRC+. Last season in Kansas City, Taylor struck out 27% of the time, hitting just .244 with a .297 OBP.
Diving into Taylor’s splits, he was much better against left-handed pitching last season. In 152 plate appearances against LHP last season, Taylor hit .295/.344/.425. Ahead in the count, Taylor carried a .910 OPS versus a .445 OPS when he fell behind in the count. The Royals will look to keep Taylor patient at the plate and could utilize more of a platoon split this offseason to get better results at the plate from their center fielder.
2022 ZIPS Projections : 138 G, .229/.281/.363, 11 HR, 73 wRC+
Kyle Isbel received a lot of love in our right-field preview but Whit Merrifield will be the everyday right-fielder for Kansas City. Isbel should make the roster as a fourth outfielder and the Royals could implement a platoon in center field. Michael A. Taylor was much better against lefties last season, while Isbel posted an OPS nearly 100 points higher against righties than lefties. The 25-year old center fielder brings a 60-grade field tool to Kansas City and, although he played right-field mostly in the majors last season, most of his work in AAA Omaha (482 innings) came in Center.
The defense is likely a step down from Taylor’s but still very good. If the Royals can still get above-average defense from the position while upgrading majorly at the plate, I believe Isbel stands to eat into Michael Taylor’s playing time more than I first imagined. Kyle Isbel may make the team as a fourth outfielder, but expect him to play often and make his mark this season.
2022 ZIPS Projections : 120 G, .247/.308/.398, 12 HR, 91 wRC+
In December, the Royals signed JaCoby Jones to a minor league contract. Jones, 29, has appeared in 352 major league games as an outfielder, both in center and in corner outfield spots. In 2020, Jones played extremely well over a small 30 game sample. He hit .268/.333/.515, all career highs. His 128 wRC+ was the highest mark of his career and ranked among the better center fielders in all of baseball. As good as Jones was in 2020, he was that bad in 2021. His fortune ran out, hitting .170/.210/.250 with a 24 wRC+, all marks among the worst hitters in the league. The best tool that Jones brings is his 55-grade power. The hit tool, however, isn’t great which shrinks his game power noticeably. He has a good arm, is an average defender, and brings a veteran presence that the Royals would like to have available in the Minors in case of injury.
2022 ZIPS Projections : 106 G, .227/.285/.381, 10 HR, 80 wRC+
Dairon Blanco is an intriguing prospect (yes, he’s a 28-year old “prospect”) for the Royals in center field this season. Blanco was signed as an international free agent by the Athletics at age 24, after 4 years of playing professionally in Cuba. He joined the Royals as a part of the Jake Diekman trade in 2019. Over the course of Blanco’s early time in the minor leagues, he struggled mightily with strikeouts. He was striking out nearly 30% of the time, walking less than 8%, and slugged just .302 for AA Northwest Arkansas in 2019. Last season, Blanco cut the strikeouts down big time. Between AA and AAA last season, Blanco appeared in 117 games and hit .277/.350/.441 with just a 20% strikeout rate. He hit a career-high 14 home runs and stole 41 bases. He’s a name to watch early this season in AAA Omaha.
2022 ZIPS Projections : 111 G, .239/.288/.361, 8 HR, 75 wRC+
Nick Loftin – Kansas City Royals
The Royals drafted Nick Loftin, a shortstop, in the first round of the 2020 MLB Draft. The Royals liked Loftin so much entering the draft that they considered drafting him at fourth overall (where they of course drafted Asa Lacy instead). Loftin fell instead to pick 32 where the Royals still were able to select him. Loftin has outstanding speed and instincts. Those, along with the Royals’ overall lack of depth in center field, have led the Royals to give Loftin some work in the outfield this spring training. Keith Law of the Athletic ranked Loftin as the Royals’ number 5 overall prospect. He’s still a ways from the majors. He played all last season in High-A Quad Cities, where he hit .289/.374/.464 over 90 games. A debut for Loftin is likely in 2023, but he could skyrocket through the system this season.
2022 ZIPS Projections : 98 G, .259/.310/.383, 9 HR, 88 wRC+
Organizational Depth for Kansas City Royals
Organizational Depth is noticeably slim in the Royals’ system. For good reason, Fangraphs ranked the Royals 29th in their center field organizational power rankings. “…Kansas City’s farm system, boasting some future stars, there’s no help coming to center field any time soon.” Much of what we see in the minor leagues for Kansas City is pretty similar to what sits at the top behind Michael Taylor; many infielders or corner outfielders turned center-fielders.
Peyton Wilson, a second baseman drafted out of Alabama, profiles as a future center-fielder. Much like Loftin, his speed and instincts should carry him to the outfield where he can develop into an everyday center-fielder. Wilson is still just 22 and should make it to High-A this season once Loftin is promoted to AA.
The sole true center field prospect for Kansas City is 19-year old Erick Pena. Pena was signed as an international free agent in 2019 out of the Dominican Republic. When signed, Pena drew many Carlos Beltran comparisons. He has an outstanding work ethic, ideal frame (6’3″, 200 at age 18), and excellent athleticism. As Pena develops into his frame, he looks likely to move to a corner outfield spot because he lacks the range needed to play center in Kauffman. He hit just .161/.256/.314 over 40 games in his first appearance stateside last season.
Yes, the Royals’ “sole true center field prospect” should eventually move to the corner outfield. That alone tells you all you need to know about the state of the Royals’ minor league depth in center field.
Check out our last preview on third base.