Royals outfield prospect Kyle Isbel scuffled through his most recent Minor League season, dealing with hamstring issues that set him back and limited him to just 59 games between rookie ball and Class-A Advanced. The canceled Minor League season in 2020 prevented him from taking the next step in the farm system.
It didn’t mean he would lose development.
Isbel, the Royals’ No. 5 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, took advantage of the time he had at Kansas City’s alternate site last season, used it as momentum coming into this spring and has been making a case for an outfield spot on the Royals’ roster come Opening Day.
“It’s been emotional, it’s been really fun, but I can only control what I can control and just keep playing hard,” Isbel said Saturday night. “That’s all I can do. … I had a goal to make the team. Like I said, it’s out of my hands, but I give it my all every day. Whatever happens, happens.”
Royals manager Mike Matheny said last week that Isbel is still in the mix for an Opening Day spot based on his strong spring, including a .342/.422/.553 slash line in 21 games before starting Sunday’s penultimate Cactus League game in right field.
Despite Isbel’s reassignment to Minor League camp a week ago, the Royals continue to start him in Cactus League games so they can get more looks at the 24-year-old before they make their final decision.
“It feels good,” Isbel said. “It’s an honor to be out there and compete with these guys. It’s just a blessing, it really is. It’s fun competing with them every day, and the fact that they give me an opportunity to do that is great.”
Isbel, the Royals’ third-round Draft pick out of University of Nevada-Las Vegas in 2018, has earned the trust of the Royals’ coaching staff with his outfield play -- no small compliment when thinking about the expansive outfield at Kauffman Stadium. He would bring another left-handed bat to the lineup, with some speed near the bottom of the order, as well as power potential with two home runs this spring.
Though he doesn’t have experience above Class-A Advanced, the Royals are confident Isbel would be able to handle the Major Leagues, a credit to what the alternate training site accomplished last season. Players like Isbel faced pitching prospects like Daniel Lynch and Jackson Kowar, as well as pitchers who had Major League experience.
“[Last year] doesn’t necessarily give guys the credit they deserve,” Matheny said. “Last year was another year of development, playing probably against competition equal to if not higher than what they would normally be playing. … You got a mix of Major League, Double-A and Triple-A players that you’re facing every day. I know we all have to take the data right in front of us, which says these are low-level players, but it’s just not accurate. That’s a full year of growth and development.
“It doesn’t concern me as far as being able to check boxes, if there is such a thing. But the challenges are the same. For every player, there’s a new level of distractions, new level of information, new level of talent. And this just depends on how well they handle some of the distractions and how well they adjust to the talent.”
For Isbel, last year was about staying healthy and staying steady with his preparation and his play every day. That has stood out this spring to those watching closely, another thing clubs want to see out of young players when gauging whether they’re ready for the Majors.
“I think it’s just about being consistent,” Isbel said. “Consistency is obviously what everybody shoots for, but trying to make your lows even out with your highs, I think it’s more of a mindset of going out there and competing every day. It’s an honor to have a uniform on and be around a great group of guys.”
Whether Isbel is in the outfield at Kauffman Stadium on Thursday is still to be officially decided, but Isbel's hard work has him primed for his debut at some point this year.
“I feel ready,” Isbel said. “The guys we had at the alternate site, we had some of the best young arms in all the Minor Leagues. Being able to compete with them every day was a battle, and we all got better. They got better, we got better. It was a great experience.”