As an eighteen-year-old outfielder in his first season of Class-A ball, Kansas City Royals prospect Khalil Lee is facing some of the best young pitchers in the low minors. After tearing up rookie ball in 2016, he may just be up to the challenge.
Drafted in 2016 in the 3rd round out of The Flint Hill School in Oakton, Virginia, Lee was a two-way stalwart at the time. His totals on the mound (7-0, 0.33 ERA, 3 BB, 87 K, 2 runs allowed in 43 IP) were just as impressive as his numbers at the plate (.471, 6 HR, 23 RBI, 11 SB, 37 runs scored in 25 games).
While the Kansas City Royals liked him both as a pitcher and a hitter, they chose to assign him to the outfield to take advantage of his multi-tool potential. At the time of his signing, he was sitting 91-93 with his fastball, touching 94 a number of times.
Lee picked up a preseason All-American nod from Perfect Game, then was named Virginia's Gatorade Player of the Year for 2016. He had been set to attend Liberty University, but backed out when the Royals picked him in the Draft.
Entering the 2017 season, Lee was ranked the 12th best prospect in the Royals' system by Baseball America. Lee was coming off a pro debut with the AZL Royals that saw him demonstrate both gap and pull power, combined with a patient approach at the plate that belied his years. While he did strike out a whopping 57 times in 182 AB, he also drew a healthy 33 walks to boost his OBP to .396, 127 points higher than his batting average. Lee picked up nine doubles, six triples and six homers in his 49 games, driving in 29 and scoring 43 as well.
It should be remembered that Lee began the 2016 season as a seventeen-year-old rookie.
So far in 2017, Lee has smacked five doubles and three home runs, driving in seven and scoring 14 to go with his 6 steals. He's struck out 25 times in 68 at-bats, but he's drawn nine walks and has shown patience and is working on pitch selection. Over the course of just under a year, Lee has been working with a trainer and has added twenty pounds of muscle as a consequence.
Sometimes listed as a 6-footer, Lee is closer to 5'10” but it hardly seems to matter. He generates good leverage with quick hands, letting the ball travel before he cuts loose with a swing that generates good topspin on his liners. He is highly athletic and compactly built, and seems to have retained his flexibility and speed while adding muscle to his frame.
Lee can drive the ball to his pull side and hits hard line drives to opposite field as well. Coupled with slightly above-average speed (4.2 to first from the left side) and smart base-running, Lee will rack up his share of extra-base hits.
He doesn't typically get rattled at the plate, and 2-strike counts are no real assurance that he will go down swinging. His ability to square up both fastballs and breaking pitches will continue to put him on base with frequency despite his strikeout totals.
In the outfield, Lee was initially thought to be a good fit for center. As it appears now, he would be best suited to play the corners until his reads improve. His above-average-to-plus arm strength plays well in right, and he can cover enough ground to reach the gappers or those fly balls that hug the foul line.
As with many highly-athletic players, Lee sometimes appears to be on cruise control on the field. Don't be fooled. He makes all the plays he should make, and is aggressive on the base-paths while taking the extra base prudently.
While he has probably maxed out size-wise, he's still nowhere near hitting his physical peak. As he learns to maximize his new-found added strength and matures as a player, Lee will add to his extra-base totals significantly.
With his athleticism, he should retain his speed for years to come. He will need to make sure he doesn't become so musclebound that he starts to limit his agility, but that doesn't appear that it will become an issue.
All told, Lee is certainly an intriguing prospect in an organization that is essentially resetting as its previous talent has hit the upper levels or graduated to the majors. For those of you who follow long-term prospects, Lee is likely five years away from the majors at this point.
He could certainly become one of the more exciting prospects in the Royals system very soon, as he has definite double-digit home run power, as well as the speed to add 30-40 extra-base hits and 15-20 steals. How soon that happens depends largely on his adjustment to Class-A pitching.