Royals outfielder Drew Waters will be out of action for six weeks due a left oblique strain, reports Anne Rogers of MLB.com. Given that there’s about five weeks until Opening Day, it seems as though Waters is destined to miss the start of the season.
Waters, 24, was a second round draft pick of Atlanta and was considered one of the best prospects in the game not too long ago. Baseball America had him up in the #32 slot on their top 100 list going into 2021, with reports highlighting his defense, speed, throwing arm and ability to hit from both sides of the plate. The biggest red flag on his profile, however, was a propensity for strikeouts that has carried into the upper levels of the minors as well as the big leagues.
Waters spent 2021 in Triple-A and struck out in 30.9% of his plate appearances, finishing with a .240/.329/.381 batting line and 94 wRC+. He had some similar results in the first half of 2022 before getting flipped to the Royals alongside two other minor leaguers for a Competitive Balance draft pick. The organizational switch seemed to suit Waters, as he finished the season strong. He hit .295/.399/.541 in Omaha before getting promoted to the majors in August, then hit .240/.324/.479 in the bigs for a wRC+ of 125. Those strong numbers aside, the strikeout issues still lingered. He was punched out in 28.7% of his trips to the plate with Omaha and 36.7% with the Royals.
Even though the strikeouts are still a work in progress, it seems the club believes in Waters enough to give him a lengthy audition. The trade of Michael A. Taylor to the Twins freed up center field and seemingly moved Waters to the top of the depth chart there. He’s considered a strong defender and could prove to be a useful player out there even without strong offense, similar to Taylor, though an above-average bat would obviously be ideal.
It seems that the audition will have to be delayed, at least for a short time. If the provided timeline holds, then Waters won’t miss too much of the season, but oblique injuries are often tricky and recoveries from them don’t always go exactly as planned. For as long as he’s out, the club will have to come up with a plan to cover the position. Manager Matt Quatraro says that Kyle Isbel will “get every opportunity to grab that spot,” per Rogers. Isbel has hit just .226/.281/.361 in the majors thus far but has a much stronger line of .268/.357/.447 in Triple-A over the past two years. He also has strong defensive numbers so far and could be a very useful contributor if he hits at the major league level.
With Isbel likely moving into center for a while, that will free up some playing time in the corners for others. Edward Olivares is a straightforward outfielder in the mix, while there are also many infielders who could see time on the grass, such as Nate Eaton, Hunter Dozier, Samad Taylor and Nick Pratto. There’s also catcher MJ Melendez, who has seen some time in the outfield with Salvador Perez taking the bulk of playing time behind the plate. A non-roster wild card will be Franmil Reyes, who recently signed a minor league deal with the club. He hasn’t played much outfield in recent years but the Waters injury could potentially free up some at-bats for him in the designated hitter slot.