Vahe Gregorian

With a knack for the spectacular, precocious Khalil Lee is moving up rapidly in Royals system

Royals prospect Khalil Lee is moving up to AA Northwest Arkansas

Promising Royals prospect Khalil Lee talks about his promotion to Class AA Northwest Arkansas on June 28, 2018.
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Promising Royals prospect Khalil Lee talks about his promotion to Class AA Northwest Arkansas on June 28, 2018.

As the Royals sputter along at 25-55 and the fan focus on the organization turns toward just when and how they’ll be able to push off bottom, compelling faces of hope are scattered about their minor-league system even if it is ranked 29th by Baseball America.

Perhaps their most rapidly rising prospect arrived here Thursday in the form of precocious outfielder Khalil Lee, who on the occasion of his 20th birthday Tuesday was surprised to get the news he had been promoted from Class A-Advanced Wilmington to Class AA Northwest Arkansas — his fourth level of play since being selected in the third round of the 2016 draft.

Suddenly, the fourth-youngest player in the Carolina League, an All-Star in it a few weeks ago, surely is among the youngest in Class AA ball … with a notion that this fast-forwards him even more.

“We like to think this will speed up his development, (particularly from) the mental aspect,” Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said, adding, “He’s just very, very dynamic overall; there are so many ways he can impact the game.

“Pretty much every night, we’ve come to expect something of him that gets you excited.”

And a little something to cling to when things look so bleak with the parent club.

As he gazed out from the dugout at Arvest Stadium, where banners commemorate time spent here by current Royals such as Sal Perez, Mike Moustakas and Whit Merrifield, the upbeat Lee thought for a moment of how crazy-fast this has been going.

And as he considered his Class AA debut to come on Friday, he thought of where he expects this is leading in the near future for a franchise dependent on growing its own but desperately needing to restock.

“You can look at the team in Kansas City and see we’re having a little bit of struggles, but I also see that we’re having sparks and spurts of greatness up there,” said Lee, ranked by Baseball America as the Royals’ No. 2 prospect behind Nick Pratto, their 2017 first-round pick playing in Class A Lexington. “And I see up-and-coming players in the minor leagues working their way up to possibly help the team, this year, next year, whenever that time might come. …

“Whether it’s meant for me to be with the big-league team this year or next year or whenever, I’m just going to play as hard as I can and let everything else take care of itself.”

Excited as he is about the move, a step he says he had no clue was coming, Lee knows this is all about the here and now at a crucial juncture of his development after hitting .270 with 41 RBIs, 13 doubles, four triples and four home runs for Wilmington.

“Double A to me is the most important part of their career: It’s either you’ve got it or you don’t,” Northwest Arkansas manager Mike Rojas said. “You show your abilities, and you show if you’re a big-league player or not. This is a big stepping-stone for him and a lot of players who come through Double A.”

For all his attributes, including a certain joy for the game, a remarkable arm, unusual bat speed and what Picollo calls a knack for the spectacular in the outfield that it’s “almost like he sniffs out,” he strikes out way too much: 75 times in 244 at-bats this season and 303 times in 877 professional at-bats.

Last year, he led Lexington in home runs (17) and strikeouts (171).

“We like to say he looks to do damage,” Picollo said, noting that his working to refine his aggressiveness makes for a fine line because “we also don’t want to handcuff” that.

But Picollo is encouraged by Lee learning to take more walks and what he sees as development in Lee’s “intent and understanding” at the plate, particularly in two-strike situations.

For his part, Lee says that’s the single part of his game he’s working on hardest, learning to just protect the plate and put the ball in play any way he can.

Work his way through this gap in his game and Lee will have a chance to realize a talent that he began tapping with the help of his father, Robert, an electrical engineer and college track man who played baseball in high school.

Day-in and day-out, father would pitch to son with these stakes: Hit five line drives in a row, and the father would have to run to the foul pole and back. Fall short, and the son would be running.

“He was the judge, too, (and) his judgment was not the fairest,” Lee said, laughing and adding that it was “just like you bump heads with umpires all the time playing baseball.”

Even if they at times disagreed on what a line drive looked like, Lee learned how much consistency mattered and how to focus even when tired.

It proved the underpinning of what was to come — and what figures to lie ahead for Lee, who projects a charming blend of confidence and humility that makes him easy to embrace.

He appreciates having heard comparisons to Ken Griffey Jr., for instance, but says, “I want to make my own brand, too; I don’t want to fall behind someone else’s shadows.”

His temperament reflects his father and mother, Kisha, Khalil’s best friend and dance partner around the home in Oakton, Va..

Simple as it sounds, they always stressed treating others like you want to be treated and, well, just trying to get along with people.

“I’ve been doing a good job with that,” he said, smiling. “It’s been working.”

So for the most part has his game, making for an irresistible combination that should hearten Royals fans as they await a reboot.

At a time they need numerous such candidates to emerge, he’s only one potential part of the solution.

Just the same, any movement forward will be made up of each individual element.

“He’s definitely a part of it,” Picollo said.