Big piece of Royals' future has arrived

August 24th, 2022

This story was excerpted from Anne Rogers’ Royals Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

KANSAS CITY -- The first day Drew Waters joined the Royals’ organization, a day after Kansas City acquired him and two other Minor Leaguers from the Braves for this year’s No. 35 overall pick in the MLB Draft, he sat down with Royals hitting coordinator Drew Saylor and the hitting coaches with Triple-A Omaha.

The conversation ranged from Waters’ swing mechanics to his offensive approach. He was honest with the group, telling them he didn’t like where he was offensively. And they were honest with him, saying they thought he could be better than what the results showed the last couple years in Atlanta’s organization -- the club that drafted Waters in the second round of the 2017 MLB Draft out of Etowah High School in the Atlanta area.

“Day 2 was when we really started talking about the swing, what they like to teach here with the Royals and what’s important to them,” Waters said. “They just [told me] to trust them, and that’s really what I did.”

Kansas City’s hitting development team prioritizes game planning for its hitters, focusing on finding pitches they can do damage on and controlling the strike zone. The Royals had valued Waters’ tools since he was in high school, and they believe their philosophy had helped several of their young position players unlock offensive production the last two years.

What they didn’t realize was how quickly Waters would grasp it.

The 23-year-old outfielder posted a .940 OPS in 31 games with Omaha, blasting seven home runs and stealing 13 bases. That’s two more homers and eight more stolen bases than he had with Triple-A Gwinnett this year -- in 18 fewer games.

Those results, plus Waters’ confidence, were enough to prompt Kansas City to call the switch-hitter up for his Major League debut on Monday afternoon against the White Sox, when he drew a bases-loaded walk to score the go-ahead run in the Royals' 6-4 win over the White Sox.

“Our hitting plan has helped him,” general manager J.J. Picollo said. “After every game, we review the at-bats and figure out the good decisions, the bad decisions. He’s starting to verbalize some of those things. He’s getting it, the thought process of, ‘How do I evaluate my at-bat?’ It’s not always, ‘Did I get a hit or not?’ What was the quality of the plate appearance? He’s got power and he hits the ball hard, so now that he’s starting to make better decisions, it’s coming together for him.”

It was easy for Waters to buy into everything the Royals threw at him when he joined Omaha, leading to fast results. 

“They had just traded for me, so I knew they wanted me and had my best interests at heart,” Waters said. “It was a little weird at first just because it’s different, but now I’ve fully bought into what they do in terms of getting guys ready for the game and the game-planning side of things. When you start seeing results, when you start seeing things from what you do at 3 p.m. translate to what you do at 7 p.m., it’s really easy to buy in.” 

Waters began making better decisions at the plate, finding himself in more 3-2 counts and deeper at-bats, which only gave him more pitches to hit. In those situations, he’s able to flash his tools, with contact that has some scouts saying he could be a leadoff hitter, but also with pop from both sides of the plate. 

Even after games in which he’s struggled, Waters has a better understanding of why and doesn’t let it leak into the next day, something he might not have done earlier this year. 

“I go back and look at the pitches that I swung at, the decisions I am making,” Waters said. “You start seeing the things you're swinging at and why it’s maybe not the best idea. The next night, you go into the game knowing you’ve got to do a better job at controlling the zone. And you go out and have four really competitive at-bats and go home happy.”

Waters has received rave reviews about his bat from the Royals, but they also consistently mention his defense. He’s always been a solid defender at all three outfield spots, but working with longtime coach and current special assistant Rusty Kuntz has helped Waters smooth out his defense with better jumps and quicker routes. In a text, Kuntz said Waters attacks the ball on the ground to keep runners to one base and goes back on the ball like Gold Glove center fielder Michael A. Taylor.

Kuntz also praised Waters’ baseball IQ, which has led to heads-up baserunning and more stolen bases.

“That was one thing I really noticed when I got traded over here,” Waters said. “The Kansas City Royals love to run. I’m definitely a guy that can steal bases, and I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what I was doing. But Rusty opened up a whole new world, I think. … It’s shown, I think, in how I implement the little mechanical things.”

I chatted with Waters via phone on Saturday morning from a coffee shop in St. Petersburg, Fla., before the Royals played the Rays that afternoon. Waters was in his hotel in Louisville, Ky., preparing to play for Omaha.

Waters had no idea that at the end of his game that night, he was going to be told to get to Kansas City to make his Major League debut this week.

Five years after he was drafted by his hometown team in Atlanta, Waters stepped on a Major League field for the first time in Royal blue, for an organization that sees him as a piece of its future.

“I think it’s kind of a good thing that it happened like this,” Waters said, after learning that he would be in the lineup on Monday afternoon and not Tuesday night, like he thought. “Because I don’t like the build up to things. Just get here and go. I’m excited to be with the Royals and excited to make my Major League debut with them.”