SURPRISE, Ariz. -- While much of the talk around Royals camp this spring will be about their young pitching prospects, keep an eye on speedy outfielder Nick Heath.
Heath, 26, has evolved into a prototypical Royals outfielder under general manager Dayton Moore -- Heath has terrific speed and is an elite defender in center field.
“He’s a center fielder who can flat out go get it,” new Kansas City manager Mike Matheny said.
The Royals thought enough of Heath to add him to the 40-man roster last fall, thus protecting him from the Rule 5 Draft.
“Anyone who has seen Nick Heath play,” Moore said, “can easily see his skill set. He is a tremendous defender who can steal bases and who has improved offensively. We have seen him able to bunt now and do what it takes to get on base. He’s an exciting player.”
Heath stole 50 bases at Double-A Northwest Arkansas last season in 84 games before being promoted to Triple-A Omaha, where he stole 10 more in 21 games. He also stole 16 bases in 34 games with Licey in the Dominican Winter League.
Moore notes the improvement Heath has made offensively. He had a more than respectable .332 on-base percentage at Double-A last year and followed that up with a .392 OBP at Omaha.
“I really like the kid,” Matheny said. “Watching him play -- he had a great year last season. I have been impressed with his improvements offensively. And we all know what he’s like in the field.”
While Heath may have a bright future with Kansas City, he is not necessarily destined to make their roster out of camp.
“A lot of things will have to break right for him to make this team,” Moore said. “But we’re not putting limitations on anyone.”
Heath obviously has options, and he may be more suited to start the season in Triple-A.
And Heath, a 16th-round Draft pick in 2016 out of Northwestern State (La.), would have to somehow beat out Brett Phillips and Bubba Starling to win a job as a backup outfielder.
Both Phillips and Starling are out of options, and most surely have the inside track to make the 26-man roster.
“Certainly [options] play into it,” Matheny said.
With teams having an extra spot on the Opening Day roster, Heath certainly will have a better shot at cracking the roster than previously, but that’s only if Kansas City opts to carry more than five outfielders. That seems unlikely.
But Heath’s defense and speed could be an asset for Matheny off the bench.
“Yes, but you’re looking at two other defenders who are really good in Brett Phillips and Bubba Starling as well,” Matheny said. “And you got the left-right thing going with them.
“But it’s kind of fun to think about having a weapon around like Nick Heath. The guy stole 50 bags before he even got to Triple-A. But I want Nick Heath playing every day. I hope he gets up here at some point. Of course.
“I know he’s got an edge in his mind right now to come in here and make the team. He should feel he can make the team until he is told otherwise. Just come in here and compete. That’s what we want.”