Even without a Minor League season in 2020, the year was full of “next steps” for Royals prospect Khalil Lee. A year ago, he was invited to his first big league Spring Training camp and was able to immerse himself in the Major League clubhouse, sit across from the Major League players and interact with the Major League staff.
When baseball returned for Summer Camp, Lee was one of the top young prospects invited to Kansas City, where the outfielder spent the summer working under the direction of the Royals' player development staff at the alternate training site and participated in the Royals’ Fall Camp at Kauffman Stadium.
In November, Lee was added to the 40-man roster and protected from the Rule 5 Draft.
“That’s a really big accomplishment for me,” Lee said during this year’s Rookie Program. “Once you’re on the 40-man, you’re one step closer. Really, it was more excitement than anything. I’m ready now, I’m one step closer, so I’m just excited to get back to the season and start Spring Training and get with the guys. It’s a big step.”
What does the next step hold for the 22-year-old outfielder? The Royals’ 8th-ranked prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, could make his Major League debut at some point in 2021.
“I think I’m ready for it,” Lee said. “I think the Royals believe in me. That’s why they put me on [the roster], and I appreciate that and [I'm] ready to keep going.”
Lee was one of the 200 top baseball prospects to participate in the 30th edition of the Rookie Program in January. The joint event between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association was held virtually this year but still focused on the core teachings for up-and-coming players on the skills they’ll need to succeed once they reach the big leagues.
“It’s a great honor,” Lee said during the interview with MLB Pipeline. “It feels good to be recognized as one of the players to potentially have some big league time this coming year. Really just shows how much the Royals believe in me and my talents and think that I can be an asset to the team.”
A third-round Draft pick in 2016, Lee’s talent is unmistakable. He has the tools to hit for average and power, and his on-base skills and plus-speed make him a threat whenever he gets on base. In 2019 with Double-A Northwest Arkansas, the 5-foot-10 left-handed-hitting Lee slashed .264/.363/.372 with 53 stolen bases, the third-most in the Minors. He collected career highs in steals, games played (129), hits (124) and runs scored (74). Lee was the organization’s Player of the Year in '19 and earned a Texas League All-Star selection that season.
But Lee also had an elevated 28.2 percent strikeout rate in 2019, highlighting plate discipline and swing-and-miss tendencies that have persisted. Those issues, along with being able to hit for more power, became a focus throughout '20, and Royals officials were impressed with the growth he showed.
Lee’s improvement over the past year won’t put him as the Opening Day center fielder -- that’s what the Royals signed Michael A. Taylor to be. Lee could stand to benefit from at-bats in Triple-A -- a level he hasn’t played yet -- but continuing to shore up those issues will likely mean a big league opportunity coming soon. And consistent approach at the plate could allow Lee to grow into a future everyday player for the Royals.
“[This summer] was tough, but we got good work in. Everyone was really excited just to be playing because a lot of the guys didn’t have the opportunity to play at all,” Lee said. “Just having the opportunity to get some reps in, and all of our high-prospect guys were down there, so it was good competition, good battles between some of my buddies. I had a lot of fun and think I got a lot out of it.”