This Royal deserves your attention

August 16th, 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.

If you want to get Vinnie Pasquantino fired up, just ask him about the ending of his junior baseball season at James River High School in Virginia.

“Two words,” Pasquantino said, shaking his head. “Nate Eaton.”

Paquantino and Eaton share lockers next to each other in the Royals’ clubhouse now, but in 2015, they were opponents in the Richmond, Va., area. Pasquantino was a junior at James River, Eaton a senior at Thomas Dale High School -- and one of the school’s best pitchers, hitting 96 mph off the mound before converting to a position player at Virginia Military Institute.

“Nate made me go 0-for-4 in my last high school game my junior year, and I did not get to hit .600 because of Nate,” Pasquantino said, just getting started. “Yeah, that is a fact. I ended up hitting .550 or something like that because of Nate Eaton. Do I lose sleep about it? Sometimes. We were way better than them, but he was better than all of us.

“We were a loaded team, and Nate came into town and put us to bed. We didn’t get to go to regionals because of Nate. And he’ll say, ‘Oh, Vinnie hit a walk-off against me to end the first game of the season.’ Well, nobody cares about the first game of the season, do they? It was put up or shut up time, and Nate shut us up.

“So yes, I went 0-for-4. One strikeout. It’s how I ended my junior year of high school. Really good. Wow, this is a good warmup for today’s game. It’s getting me going.”

Eaton, hearing how heated Pasquantino -- who hit .537 his junior year -- got when mentioning the 2015 high school baseball season, just laughed.

“That’ll get him going,” Eaton said. “I was always pitching against him. We’ve known each other since we were 9 or 10 years old. Playing in the Royals’ system was the first time we’ve ever played on the same team.”

Pasquantino and Eaton were never close during their prep days, and both had their own paths before they ended up in Kansas City. Eaton went to VMI and was a 21st-round Draft pick in 2018. Pasquantino played baseball at Old Dominion University and was an 11th-rounder in ‘19. Being a year apart, they didn’t fully meet up again until Spring Training in 2020. Now, they’re close friends, teammates and supporters of one another.

And like any good friendship, they joke around with each other as much as they cheer each other on.

“He’s the classic case of you hate playing against him and you love playing with him,” Pasquantino said of Eaton. “You look that up in the dictionary, and Nate’s face is there. It’s great. You watch him track balls, and he’s going after everything.

“I’m saying way too many nice things.”

By now, Royals fans know and love Pasquantino, not only for his talent but for his easygoing and fun personality that has lightened up the clubhouse. But now that Eaton has debuted (he hit a special home run in Toronto) and made highlight-reel plays in the outfield, fans are starting to pay attention to the 25-year-old, too.

His play isn’t a surprise to anyone in the Royals’ organization.

“He’s a big part of this culture,” Royals hitting coordinator Alec Zumwalt said. “His name wasn’t being brought up a ton, but he’s in the center of all of it with those guys. He’s important for this group. He wants to win. He’s got that fire.”

Originally drafted as a catcher out of VMI, even though he rarely caught, the Royals saw Eaton as a future utility man, and they played him in the infield and outfield during Rookie ball in ’18. In Class A Advanced Lexington in ’19 and High-A Quad Cities in ‘21, he played mostly third base because of a need, but he got work in at shortstop and second base, as well as the corner outfield.

Eaton broke his hamate bone last year, missing more than a month and putting a damper on his season. But playing in the Arizona Fall League helped tremendously, getting him back on track and putting him on the radar. Because of his versatility, he was able to play a lot and slashed .317/.352/.463 in 20 games.

“Being able to showcase my skills, what I can do, doing it for the entire time on that stage, I think it just helped me,” Eaton said. “It was probably a big reason I got into big league camp."

Eaton didn’t stop hitting, impressing in spring and doing the same across Double-A and Triple-A, where he hit a career-high 13 home runs. As he settles into the Majors, his defense alone makes the Royals want to put him in the lineup every night. When the ball goes anywhere near Eaton in the outfield, those sitting on the Royals’ bench usually lean over the dugout railing because they know Eaton’s about to make a play, and they don’t want to miss it.

“He plays like his hair is on fire,” Zumwalt said. “You don’t see that every day.”

“We knew about the speed, but not as much about the jumps and instincts,” manager Mike Matheny added. “He’s fearless how he goes after the ball. … He just comes out of nowhere.”

Eaton has a plus arm, and his sprint speed (29.5 feet per second) already ranks in the 95th percentile among big leaguers. He was not a heralded prospect, only landing on some rankings just this year. But that never bothered him.

He has been a franchise favorite since he was drafted, and now he’s showing his skills off in Kansas City.

“Nothing he does surprises me,” Pasquantino said. “He’s going to pitch one day and throw 98 mph. If you ever want to feel less about yourself, just look at him. He’s good looking. He’s jacked. He’s faster than you. He has more power than you. He’s just got it. He’s got everything.”