Written by: Ray Butler
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It’s currently one of the more underrated, interesting questions in the world of baseball prospects. A question that’s off the beaten path because the big league team is bad and the farm system has been widely discarded as shallow and lackluster. It is, however, a debate that should gain some serious steam soon, and it could eventually be one of the first things fans ponder as they scan prospect lists in the near(ish) future.
Who’s better, Seuly Matias or Khalil Lee?
To answer the question is to state who you believe the best prospect in the Royals organization is. It’s a debate between two teenage outfielders with mesmerizing skillsets and enormous ceilings, though the potential is at times clouded by deficiencies experienced by most teenage prospects.
Let’s dive into the details.
Even if your definition of prospect fandom is to follow a few prospect-oriented Twitter accounts and to scan box scores from time to time, you’ve almost certainly seen Seuly Matias’s ridiculous home run numbers this season. As a matter of fact, Matias currently leads ALL minor leaguers with 20 round-trippers (in 205 plate appearances thru 51 games). It’s described as ‘light tower power’, and it’s genuine enough that Fangraphs graded Matias with 60-future game power and 70-future (!) raw power. Rustin Dodd, a write for The Athletic who covers the Royals, had this to say about Matias after visiting Lexington (the Royals’ Low-A affiliate) last month. It’s a story mostly dedicated to Matias’s athleticism and power, which some have described as ‘generational’. In a full 162-game season, Matias would be on pace to hit 62 home runs. In isolation, that sentence by itself speaks to the massive upside the Dominican Republic native possesses. It’s not mentioned often, but Matias has also chipped in four stolen bases this season. Regardless of whether he maintains his speed as his physical maturation finalizes, that number speaks to the general athleticism of a prospect who’s listed at 6’3 200 lbs. Matias ranked as the 85th-best dynasty league prospect by Baseball Prospectus heading into the 2018 season, and his ‘realistic ceiling’ was compared to that of Eloy Jimenez. I ranked Matias 155th in my preseason top 200 prospect list, though it goes without saying that he’ll receive a nice bump in my midseason update. Here’s a Matias home run from May. The power is so effortless.
Khalil Lee doesn’t possess the ‘calling card’ tool that Matias does, but he makes up for it with an extremely well-rounded skillset. Last season as an 18 and 19-year-old in Low-A, Lee had 17 HR, 20 SB and an OBP of .344 (that was aided by a fantastic 12.2 BB%). Thru 260 plate appearances this season in High-A (all as a 19 year old), Lee has 4 HR, 12 SB and a whopping .424 OBP (!!!!!!!!!!!, it’s aided by an elite 17.4 BB%). What’s more, the strikeout rate that was once seemingly viewed as a glaring negative for Lee has improved greatly this season (32.1 K% last season to 23.6 K% this season). Defensively, Lee has an above average glove and a plus arm. Those tools alone may not help you in your fantasy league, but Lee’s defensive proficiencies could eventually expedite his arrival in Kansas City. Fangraphs grades Lee with 60-future raw power, so the center fielder should continue tapping into his home run potential as he continues to develop his plate approach. Listed at 5’10 170 lbs., Lee’s base stealing ability appears sustainable for the foreseeable future (on paper, anyways), which means the 19 year old possesses tools that will help you across-the-board in your fantasy baseball league. Like I said, it’s a well-rounded toolbox. (Let’s not talk about the fact Lee didn’t make my preseason top 200 prospect list. User error. A swing and a miss. Believe me when I say you’ll want to check out my midseason update……). Here’s Lee crushing a walk off home run last season for Low-A Lexington. You can watch a GIF of Lee’s fourth home run this season here.
If the title of this article interested you enough to click on it, you know exactly what you’re about to read. Seuly Matias currently possesses a 37.6% strikeout rate. It’s mesmerizing, but not in a good way. High-powered teenage prospects who struggle with pitch recognition is a tale as old as time, and Matias appears to epitomize that issue. The great John Calvagno (@SALNotes on Twitter) said it best: (Matias) will hit a mistake a mile but there are holes in the swing. Namely, Matias has some free-swinger tendencies who often expands the zone against off-speed pitches. I genuinely don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say Matias would be flirting with a 50.0 K% against Double-A pitching right now. The flaws are pronounced, and it’s hindered the outfielder to the tune of a .244 AVG and .319 OBP. Matias will likely spend the remainder of the 2018 season with Low-A Lexington, which should be followed up by a full season at High-A Wilmington. It’s a patient approach to his ETA, but he genuinely needs ample experience in the low minors before graduating to pitchers who can throw multiple off-speed pitches for strikes at the drop of a hat. The obvious issues aren’t insurmountable, but Matias’s plate approach development will certainly take seasons before it becomes anywhere in the realm of matching up versus advanced pitching. And not to pour salt in the wound, but most evaluators who have seen Matias in person believe that, as the outfield prospect finalizes his physical development, the stolen base ability will diminish. You’re not rostering Matias for his speed anyways, but 5-10 stolen bases per season sure would be handy. As it stands now, Matias is a two-category contributor (HR and RBI, and of course the HR-potential is impactful) from a fantasy standpoint, with third category impact to be determined. He’s the definition of an extreme-risk prospect who will only become more risky (with his current swing-and-miss issues) as he begins to be included on prospect lists (and his acquisition price rises).
Lee’s flaws are much less obvious, which speaks to his encompassing skills. I do wonder if the center fielder’s increased plate patience and swing plane that’s led to an increase in AVG and OBP this season compared to last season has negatively affected his power (.193 ISO in 2017, .154 ISO this season). Having not seen him in person to evaluate his speed, I’m mystified by Fangraphs 50-future speed grade for Lee. Will the frame mature poorly? Or will Lee continue excelling on the bases thanks to a mixture of speed and delivery recognition? The 19 year old (20 later this month) obviously doesn’t possess the massive power upside of Matias, so diminished base stealing ability would be unfortunate for his real life and fantasy value. I also want to see Lee’s slash-numbers sustained over the course of an entire season; a regression towards his 2017 AVG and OBP paired with fewer HR would be fairly disastrous after such a strong first half performance, especially if the strikeout numbers ascend towards 30-percent. As I said, poking holes in performance is much more difficult with Lee than it is Matias, but there are valid questions regarding both outfielders that could eventually hinder their ridiculously-high ceilings.
So where do we go from here? We know what Matias and Lee look like now, but what could they look like two seasons from now? How about five seasons from now? Even with substantial improvement in his plate approach and pitch recognition, Matias is always going to have some swing-and-miss in his game. Unfortunately, his floor is that of a quad-A hitter who swings and misses so much that his monumental power never plays to its full potential. But even if he progresses to a point in which he hits .250 AVG/.300 OBP in the major leagues, Matias is capable of slugging 40 home runs as an everyday big league outfielder. Actually, his current numbers resemble the Low-A numbers of a big league slugger who hangs his hat on elite power.
Joey Gallo, age 19 in the Sally League in 2013: 10.8 BB%, 37.0 K%, .365 ISO, .245/.334/.610, 163 wRC+
Seuly Matias, age 19 in the Sally League in 2018: 8.0 BB%, 36.8 K%, .394 ISO, .244/.318/.639, 161 wRC+
— James Anderson (@RealJRAnderson) June 13, 2018
Joey Gallo would be an acceptable outcome for Matias, right? And we can always dream on the contact skills. Of course, Gallo seems to be an exception compared to other hitters with similar profiles, most of which are platoon players or guys who plateaued as AAA/MLB go-betweens. The variance is terrifying, but the ceiling is simply game changing. Based on the data we have on Matias, paired with a history of players with similar at-age skillsets, I’ll set Matias’ realistic big league ceiling at .240/.310/.530 with 40 HR and a 32.0 K%. I have absolutely zero confidence in that prediction.
Lee’s outlook is safer, albeit less high-powered. There’s a chance he gets promoted to Northwest Arkansas sometime this summer, but with the Royals nowhere near contending, I’ll predict he makes his MLB debut sometime in 2020. There’s still plenty of development left to go, so you shouldn’t want Kansas City to rush him anyways. From a generic statistical comp standpoint, I think Lee’s big league outlook resembles that of 2017 Andrew Benintendi: .270/.350/.420 with 20 HR and 20 SB (note: Benintendi obviously possesses a better hit tool than Lee. The comp is generic statistical only). The top-notch ceiling is similar slash numbers with 20 HR and 25 SB. Ideally, Lee’s strikeout rate continues descending and stabilizes close to 20 percent. Realistically, I’m prepared for stabilization closer to 25 percent. I’ve talked to folks who think Lee will be closer to a .250 AVG/.330 OBP guy, but I tend to be slightly more optimistic that his contact skills continue trending upward.
I’m probably in the minority here, but give me Khalil Lee. You know I’m a plate approach guy, and it’s hard to imagine Matias matching Lee’s OBP and K% next season when Matias is in High-A and Lee has progressed to Northwest Arkansas. I know Matias possesses special power. He also possesses swing-and-miss issues that could potentially singlehandedly lose a matchup for your fantasy team. Lee is safer. Not only is he safer, but Lee’s 20/25 ideal-ceiling with acceptable on base and strikeout numbers is actually quite appetizing. Those are the numbers of a borderline superstar, and I’d say there’s a better chance Lee reaches his ceiling than Matias reaches his. When we’re debating two prospects with astronomical ceilings, I’ll always take the safer of the two. Here, that’s undoubtedly Khalil Lee.
I’m bullish on both though.
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Featured image courtesy of Minor League Baseball