Sometimes all a struggling player needs to turn things around is a fresh start. It certainly seems to have done the trick for outfielder Drew Waters.
Not long ago, the 23-year-old switch-hitter — a second-round pick by the Atlanta Braves in 2017 — was one of baseball's most highly regarded prospects. MLB Pipeline ranked him 22nd on their 2020 end-of-season top 100 prospects list. As recently as last winter, they still had him ranked as the top prospect in the Braves organization. But his star faded when he had an underwhelming season at the Triple-A level in 2021, and his stock continued to drop as he struggled out of the gates this year.
Waters is still very young and has plenty of upside, but it became clear earlier this season that he no longer had an obvious role in Atlanta's future plans when 21-year-old Michael Harris II emerged as the Braves' everyday center fielder. With corner outfielders Ronald Acuña Jr., Adam Duvall, Marcell Ozuna and Eddie Rosario signed to big-money deals, Waters didn't appear to be in line to receive a major league opportunity with Atlanta any time soon, even if he had been knocking the door down at Triple-A.
Looking to add a high-end prospect to their farm system after dealing a flurry of big-name minor leaguers at last year's trade deadline and in a March trade for first baseman Matt Olson, the Braves made a deal with the Royals on July 11 to acquire the 35th overall pick in the 2022 draft. In exchange for the competitive-balance pick, Kansas City received Waters, along with right-hander Andrew Hoffman and third baseman CJ Alexander.
At the time of the trade, Waters had a rather disappointing .246/.305/.393 slash line in 49 games for Gwinnett, the Braves' Triple-A affiliate. Since he joined the Royals organization, however, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound outfielder has hit like the elite prospect he was forecast to be a couple of years ago.
Through 16 games with the Omaha Storm Chasers, Waters is batting .317/.411/.619 with three doubles, two triples, four home runs and eight RBIs. He's striking out quite a bit (21 times in 73 plate appearances), which has been an issue for him since he reached the upper minors. He's nearly doubled the 7.6% walk rate he had in Gwinnett, though, as he's already drawn 10 free passes. He's also played plus defense in center field and has nine stolen bases in nine attempts.
Waters, ranked eighth among Royals prospects by MLB Pipeline, reached base in his first 14 games with Omaha before snapping his streak on Sunday. He had five multi-hit games during that span, the most impressive of which came on July 27 against Syracuse. Waters drew a walk and hit a three-run homer against two-time NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom, then had a pair of base hits and another walk against Mets relievers.
Waters' success in the Royals organization has come over a relatively small sample size, so he still has a lot of work to do to reclaim even a fraction of his former prospect status. He's a very intriguing project for Kansas City's player development staff, though. With Kyle Isbel having struggled this year and Andrew Benintendi and Whit Merrifield being dealt at the deadline, there are at least a couple of outfield spots there for the taking heading into next season. If everything goes right for Waters, perhaps he'll seize one of those roles.
Northwest Arkansas Naturals (Double-A): In a year in which quite a few Royals hitting prospects have significantly increased their stock — Nate Eaton, Diego Hernandez and Michael Massey have been some of the most notable risers — right-handed-hitting outfielder Tyler Gentry may quietly be the organization's biggest breakout star.
The 2020 third-round pick out of Alabama posted a solid .844 OPS in his first professional season last year, but he was severely limited by injuries and wound up playing in just 44 games for High-A Quad Cities. The 6-2, 210-pound outfielder has had much more success staying on the field this year and has consistently raked. He returned to Quad Cities to begin the season and took the Midwest League by storm, hitting .336/.434/.516 with 20 walks and 39 strikeouts in 152 plate appearances. He earned a promotion to Double-A on June 14, and he's continued to dominate since reaching the upper minors. Through 36 games with the Naturals, he has a spectacular .321/.401/.584 slash line with 18 walks and 33 strikeouts in 162 plate appearances. He's reached base at least once in 31 of his Double-A games, including 25 of his last 27.
While Gentry, ranked as the No. 27 prospect in the Royals organization by MLB Pipeline, still hasn't fully tapped into the raw power that was largely responsible for him getting drafted, he does have 14 homers this season between Quad Cities and Northwest Arkansas, and when he squares the ball up, he tends to hit it really far. Gentry hasn't ventured into center field this year and may not have the range necessary to play the position, but he's considered a plus defender at the outfield corners and has a strong arm that should be a weapon in right field.
The Royals may want to avoid pushing Gentry too aggressively and promoting him to Omaha after they already pushed him to Northwest Arkansas this year. With that said, he's certainly hit well enough to justify another promotion, and it'd be nice to see him get a taste of Triple-A before the end of the season. If he ultimately receives that promotion and performs well enough at the minors' highest level, he could be a candidate to compete for a big league job as soon as next spring. While he's a right-handed hitter, he possesses many of the same qualities as Benintendi, and if he reaches his ceiling, maybe he'll eventually be able to replicate the contributions the recently traded All-Star made for the Royals in 2021-22.
Quad Cities River Bandits (High-A): Shortstop Tyler Tolbert may not be the biggest difference-maker at the plate, but he can absolutely change a game on the basepaths. The 24-year-old has 42 stolen bases in 42 attempts this year, and he's the only player in the minor leagues with at least 30 steals — let alone more than 40 — who hasn't been thrown out yet in 2022. In fact, the last time he was caught stealing was July 17, 2021, while playing for Low-A Columbia. That's 62 straight steals without being thrown out — an incredible testament to his speed and ability to find the right moments to run.
The issue for Tolbert is making sure he gets on base enough to take advantage of his speed. The right-handed hitter has a .214/.306/.313 slash line this year and hasn't had an OPS of .600 or better in any single month. He has done a solid job of using the walk to his advantage, drawing free passes at a 10.9% rate while striking out 23.7% of the time — a rather significant improvement over his 27.8% strikeout rate in 2021.
After moving around the diamond during his first two professional seasons and playing every position except catcher, pitcher and first base, Tolbert has settled in exclusively at shortstop this season and has been both durable and efficient. Through 84 games at short, the 2019 13th-round pick has a respectable .974 fielding percentage.
While the odds are against Tolbert becoming an everyday starter at the major league level unless he makes a dramatic offensive improvement, he has an obvious path to the big leagues in a Terrance Gore-type pinch running specialist role. Tolbert may be even more valuable than Gore — a three-time World Series champion who has certainly made a difference over the years — because he plays good defense at shortstop and is athletic enough to hold his own at second base and in center field. He certainly isn't your typical prospect, though, so it should be interesting to see how his career progresses.
Columbia Fireflies (Low-A): Catcher Omar Hernandez has a lot of more highly regarded prospects ahead of him on the organizational depth chart, but the 20-year-old backstop has much upside in his own right and has started to realize his potential at the plate over the last month or so.
Hernandez's calling card is his defense. He's been good behind the plate all season (see the highlight below) while throwing out 23.8% of attempted base stealers. However, he endured significant offensive struggles through the first three months of the season, posting a .193/.266/.240 slash line with just eight extra-base hits — all doubles — in 192 plate appearances through the end of June. Something clicked at the plate for the Cuban catcher as July began, though. In 67 plate appearances since July 1, Hernandez is hitting .339/.379/.436 with three doubles, a homer and 10 RBIs. He's had multiple hits in six of his 15 games, including a pair of three-hit efforts.
Considering that there are no less than six catchers with legitimate major league potential who are currently playing for Royals minor league affiliates, Hernandez may have trouble moving up the organizational ladder. His glove has the potential to take him places, and while he'll probably never hit for much power, he'll help himself out quite a bit if he can at least hit for contact the way he has lately.
Arizona Complex League Royals (Rookie): Switch-hitting second baseman Lizandro Rodriguez arrived stateside this year after dominating the Dominican Summer League in 2021 to the tune of a 1.013 OPS and winning one of the Royals' DSL Player of the Year awards. The 19-year-old has absolutely lived up to the hype in his U.S. debut, hitting .297/.384/.554 with two doubles, a triple, five homers and 12 RBIs in 23 games. Among ACL hitters with at least 80 plate appearances, he ranks 24th in batting average, fourth in slugging percentage and 10th in OPS (.938). He could stand to improve his 10.5% walk rate, but he's also not striking out very much — his 17.4% punchout rate is third-lowest among ACL Royals hitters.
The 5-11, 180-pound infielder saw action at second base, third base and shortstop last year in his first professional season, but he's exclusively played second in 2022. He's been a dependable defender, especially by the usual standards of infielders in rookie ball, making only three errors in 174.1 innings. Rodriguez, a Dominican native, wasn't a particularly high-profile signing when he joined the Royals in July 2019, but with the way he's hit for two straight summers now, it wouldn't be surprising to see him start appearing on publications' top 30 prospect lists before the year is over. And since the Royals' Low-A affiliate in Columbia could benefit from an infusion of offense, it should be interesting to see whether he gets a taste of full-season ball over the season's final six weeks.
Dominican Summer League Royals (Rookie): Want to feel old? Wilson Betemit Jr., the son of the infielder who played in 141 games for the Royals from 2010-11, has taken the DSL by storm this season. Over 25 innings, the 19-year-old right-hander has been virtually unhittable, holding opponents to a .134 batting average and allowing just one earned run. That's good for a 0.36 ERA that leads all DSL pitchers who have thrown at least 20 innings this season. Betemit Jr., who stands 6-1 and 170 pounds, has showcased impeccable command, striking out 24 while issuing just four walks.
Since he's repeating the league, it's hard to say with much certainty that Betemit's dominance of the DSL will foreshadow tremendous success at higher levels. At bare minimum, though, it should be enough to get him to the Royals' complex in Surprise next spring. He's still young enough that he has a chance to skyrocket up the prospect rankings if he keeps this momentum going.