Kansas City Royals

Royals prospect Khalil Lee showing he’s got more than raw athleticism in his toolkit

Despite the presence of mainstay and Gold Glove winner Alex Gordon in left field, the Kansas City Royals’ outfield included a rotating cast of characters in 2019.

Twelve players started games in the outfield this season, many in multiple positions. A set everyday group simply may not be in the cards for the club’s immediate future, considering the number of guys who’ve yet to establish themselves in the majors.

Highly athletic outfield prospect Khalil Lee likely won’t factor into that equation out of spring training, but the club’s Double-A Player of the Year in 2018 may force his way into the conversation sooner than later.

A one-time third-round draft pick out of high school in Virginia with intriguing raw athleticism and tools, Lee started to show more maturity in his game this past season in the minors.

“Consistency, that’s the biggest thing,” Lee said at Kauffman Stadium in the final week of the MLB season. “I go into every year and I want to be consistent in everything I do. There are times in the game when you feel like you’re having the best game of your life, and I want to have that feeling throughout the entire season.”

Entering 2019, Baseball America and MLBPipeline.com ranked Lee the Royals’ No. 2 overall prospect and top position player prospect in their farm system. The publication’s midseason rankings this summer ranked him as the Royals’ second-best position player prospect behind top draft pick Bobby Witt Jr. MLB Pipeline also rates Lee the second-best position player and No. 4 Royals prospect.

This season, Lee collected career-highs for games played (129), hits (124), runs scored (74) and walks (tied, 65). He produced a slash line of .264/.363/.372, and his 53 steals, also a career best, were the third-most in the minors.

The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Lee, who turned 21 in late June, also earned a Texas League mid-season All-Star selection. Baseball America ranked him the 16th-best prospect in the league this season.

Plan of attack

Lee first reached Double-A Northwest Arkansas in 2018, but he played in just 29 games there due to a back injury. He returned to action in the Arizona Fall League with a focus on refining his approach at the plate after having struck out 171 times in 129 games in 2017 and 103 times in 100 games in 2018.

“Every pitcher that you’re facing has some pitch that he has perfected,” Lee said of playing in Double-A. “A lot of pitchers in lower levels had struggles with all their pitches or could only throw their fastball for a strike or whatever, but every pitcher in the Texas League had an out-pitch. That was his go-to pitch, his out-pitch. Being able to eliminate that or being able to adjust to those pitches was a big difference.”

The Royals also wanted Lee to focus on being more aggressive earlier in the count and finding opportunities to drive the ball as opposed to falling behind by always trying to work deep counts.

Lee still struck out 154 times this season in 129 games, but Royals assistant general manager/player personnel JJ Picollo saw signs of progress beneath the surface.

“His strikeout numbers were about the same, but I think the way the at-bats went were better this year,” Picollo said.

Picollo pointed to Lee’s increased aggressiveness earlier in the count as a positive step. As Lee continues to face higher-level pitching, he’ll have at-bats where taking pitches early will severely handcuff him.

“That give and take that a hitter needs to learn is where Khalil really made the improvements this year,” Picollo said. “He didn’t lose his selectivity. His chase rates weren’t any worse this year, but he was more aggressive early in the count. When you look at this year … his numbers didn’t really regress at all. He maintained his numbers, which is a really good sign of a hitter handling the league.”

Picollo said the Royals organization thinks Lee has just started “scratching the surface” of what he’ll eventually be capable of doing. While they’ll continue to emphasize limiting his strikeouts, Picollo contended that learning when a strikeout is acceptable will be more important.

Those “key” situations will ultimately prove more crucial than strikeout totals. Being able to move a runner over or drive him in with two strikes means more to the Royals from the standpoint of being a productive player.

Stealing the show

In Lee’s 270 games in the minors ahead of the 2019 season, Lee stole a grand total of 44 bases. He dashed his way to 53 in 129 chances this season and still finished second in the organization to Nick Heath.

Heath stole 50 bases while teammates with Lee in Northwest Arkansas (84 games) before he went up to Triple-A Omaha and added 10 more steals (21 games).

Last offseason, Lee spent a lot of time working in Arizona with minor-league strength and conditioning coordinator John Wagle, who will soon change titles to director of performance science/player development for the minor leagues.

“John’s field of expertise is speed, training runners,” Picollo said. “Khalil spent a lot of time with John, so the speed got better, but I also think it was that sort of inner drive Khalil has. He set a goal this year that, ‘I’m going to get 50 bags.’ And he wanted that.

“I thought what was really neat about that was that it didn’t take long to realize him and Nick Heath, when they got on base, they were running. You sort of waited for the defense to adjust. … But it never slowed them down.”

Picollo also credited work done with Lee by assistant base running and bunting coordinator Damon Hollins as well as special assistant to the general manager Rusty Kuntz.

“He wasn’t running just to run,” Picollo said. “He was running with intent. He was using intelligence. And he was applying things he spent last winter and then spring training on, talking about the art of stealing a base.”

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Lynn Worthy covers the Kansas City Royals and Major League Baseball for The Star. A native of the Northeast, he’s covered high school, collegiate and professional sports for The Lowell Sun, Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Allentown Morning Call and The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s won awards for sports features and sports columns.