24-year-old Kyle Isbel, who will turn 25 in March, is entering a pivotal point in his career. Not only is he fighting for a spot on the Kansas City Royals, but he's competing for more than just that spot. The organization's No. 5 prospect has done all he can do at the minor league level, and now he has to prove that he's built to stay in the big leagues.
After a fantastic stint in rookie ball and Low-A three years ago, Isbel had a rough 2019 season. In High-A, he hit just .216 and both his on-base ability and power simply weren't there to nearly the degree they were the year prior. His wRC+ plummeted from 169 and 123 between two levels in 2018 to just 86 in 2019, signaling that perhaps he wasn't the player the Royals hoped he'd be. Not playing in 2020 didn't help instill much more confidence, either.
2021 brought more of the same, but it also offered a glimpse of what Isbel can be. Between a couple of stints with the MLB club and an up-and-down year at Triple-A, did Isbel accomplish enough to remain a member of the Royals' core moving forward? Let's take a look at his season.
At the plate
Isbel had a cup of coffee with the Royals to start 2021, playing in 12 games spanning from April 1 to April 21. In those contests, he hit .265 with an OBP of .306 and a SLG of .324. A .629 OPS was nothing that stood out in the slightest, then Isbel was sent back down to Triple-A. What occurred over the next couple of months led to many believing things with him would never improve enough to make him an MLB contributor.
From May 4 through the end of June, a 45-game sample size, Isbel posted a .228/.322/.361 line with a .683 OPS and 48 strikeouts to 18 walks. He didn't hit for much power, nor did he get on base a ton, nor did he flash great plate discipline. There was nothing about this stretch that led folks to believe a breakout was imminent.
Then July, August and part of September happened.
Over Isbel's next 60 games, he was a man possessed. His OPS was .900, thanks to a .304/.386/.514 line. He clobbered 10 home runs and drove in 39. He swiped 10 bags. His walk rate was 11% and his strikeout rate was 18%. In many facets of hitting, Isbel thrived. The adjustments he made completely changed his 2021 season around. As a reward for his stellar play, the Royals called him back up for another stint with the team. This time around, he was much better.
Isbel played 16 games to close the year and in that limited stretch, he performed quite well. In 42 at-bats, he posted a .886 OPS while striking out eight times and walking four times. His improved approach and increased confidence were evident. Ever since the calendar flipped to July 2021, Isbel was a new player. He had put his past struggles behind him and reminded everyone why he's a top prospect within the organization.
In the field
Due to his limited experience at the big-league level, it's hard to get a clear read on how Isbel fared playing in the outfield for the Royals this season. Here's what MLB.com has to say about his capability there:
While he’s not a top-tier runner, Isbel has plus speed and can hold his own as an above-average defender in center field thanks to good jumps on balls. Some see him more as a left fielder, where his average arm strength is a fit and power potential profiles as an everyday player there. The Royals also value his defense more in left field because of the expansive outfield at Kauffman Stadium. If anything, Isbel’s speed and versatility give him a solid floor as a fourth-outfielder type.
According to FanGraphs, Isbel posted a negative 1.0 UZR in 64 innings as a center fielder this year. In right field, that was a positive 0.3 in 101.1 innings. It's honestly too early to write off Isbel in center simply because he was a negative for seven games worth of innings. He's fast enough to hold that position down — it comes down to whether his arm and instincts will be good enough.
MLB.com's point about Kauffman Stadium is legitimate. In many other ballparks, Isbel would be a fine option to be an everyday player in center field. At The K, though, he's probably more of a corner outfielder. That's completely fine but if his defense gets just a bit better, it may increase his chances of being able to play all three outfield positions. Again, it's very early and all of this projecting makes the equation more difficult to solve. Nothing is set in stone.
The spacious outfield factor, combined with some general uncertainty about his defense full-time, as well as Michael A. Taylor's contract extension, all point to Isbel factoring more into the right field picture for the Royals in 2022. With that said, names like Edward Olivares, Hunter Dozier and possibly even Whit Merrifield, Adalberto Mondesi and MJ Melendez have been brought up, too. While it would be nice for Isbel if the team could give him daily at-bats and on-field experience as a young player, it doesn't seem likely.
Should Isbel be given the chance to prove that he can hold down a full-time role at the MLB level? Yes. He's hit well enough, has a professional approach and his speed is a solid tool. Will he get that shot? With so many moving parts and the Royals already having botched the Olivares experiment, it would be a major surprise. There's no elite trait that forces the team's hand. Isbel is just very solid at many things, which may remind some people of current left fielder Andrew Benintendi. If the team knew that was Isbel's future outcome, would he be the starter in right next year? Sure.
They don't know that, though. Isbel's 2021 was a tale of two seasons and while he looked much more comfortable from July onward, it remains to be seen whether he can sustain that level of production. That's the dilemma the Royals are faced with now: balancing between playing veterans with significant financial ties, opting for potential by making room for elite prospects or committing to 25-year-old outfielders with somewhat unknown futures. Isbel is one of two players fitting into the latter category, and it's up to the Royals to decide whether he's worth figuring out.