It’s no secret that the 2018 draft class has been really successful so far in their professional careers. Just 12 months after being drafted, Jackson Kowar and Brady Singer have already made it to AA and Kris Bubic, Jonathan Bowlan, and Kyle Isbel have all found success with High-A Wilmington.
The Royals scouting department did a great job of identifying talented pitchers out of that 2018 draft class and gave the Royals system a much needed boost in the pitching department. The Assistant General Manager of the Kansas City Royals, JJ Picollo, was kind enough to answer some questions for us regarding the 2018 draft class, and the Royals pitching prospects as a whole. Here’s the entire interview:
Q1: The pitchers in the Royals farm system couldn’t be performing much better as a whole than they are right now. Jackson Kowar, Brady Singer, Austin Cox, Jonathan Bowlan, Kris Bubic, as well as several others, have been every bit as advertised so far in 2019. Who/what do you think deserves the most credit for the overall success of the group this year?
The credit goes to our amateur scouting department. Lonnie Goldberg, Danny Ontiveros, Paul Gibson and their entire staff just did an amazing job at identifying the talent and recognizing the maturity and competitiveness of this group. Our pitching coaches have done a great job with them as well. The toughest part for them is recognizing how advanced one guy may be versus another and coaching to their skill level and they’ve done an amazing job nurturing each pitcher individually. It’s exactly how the process is designed to work.
Q2: A lot of the guys that we just mentioned were all drafted as part of that huge 2018 draft class. I think the Royals surprised a lot of folks with the direction that they went in the draft, but we’re starting to see some significant return on investment from just about every pitcher taken early on in that draft. Can you tell us about the feelings you guys must have had on draft night? I’m sure there was a ton of excitement when Brady Singer fell to #18, but what can you tell us about the rest of the night and how you wound up with five college pitchers in your first five picks?
We had a clear objective to address pitching but as the night unfolded, pitcher after pitcher we liked was available. It was more a product of how the draft unfolded than it was a pre-determined conclusion to just take pitchers. Fortunately for us, quality pitchers who we identified as assets, were available and we were able to benefit from that. We knew over the course of those first two days our system was instantly better.
Q3: The starting pitchers in the system get a lot of the attention, and rightfully so, but the relievers on the farm have seemingly been every bit as good. Grant Gavin, Yunior Marte, Josh Dye, Tyler Zuber, Josh Staumont, Holden Capps, and plenty of others have had something of breakout seasons in 2019. The big league bullpen was obviously a trademark of those playoff teams in 2014 and 2015, but it seems that the organization has put an emphasis on bullpens all the way down to the lower levels of the minors. How happy are you with the development of Kansas City’s next great bullpen?
We do have some depth with our relievers in the minor leagues. The importance of a power bullpen is well documented but there also needs to be versatility and flexibility. Right now we have a nice combination of power arms, versatile arms and guys who have flexibility in what they can do to help a team win.
Q4: Baseball America recently moved Jackson Kowar into their top 75 prospect list and named him the best pitching prospect in the Carolina League for the first half of 2019. They also had Daniel Lynch on their top 100 list at the mid-season mark. Kris Bubic has pretty well dominated every one he’s come across this year and represented the Royals at the MLB All-Star Futures Game. You got all three of those guys at the very end of the first round in 2018, meaning every other team could’ve taken a chance on them at some point. Can you speak to how excited you were to get all three of them into the system and how their development has gone so far?
All three have met or exceeded early expectations and are clearly better just one year after having selected them. All three are extremely motivated, intelligent and great competitors. They all have different strengths and are different individuals but all are very focused on who they are and what they want to be. The internal competition we now have has had a great impact on every one of our pitchers, these three guys are a big reason the competition level has gone up.
Q5: Several young guys have looked really good in spurts this season, such as Adrian Alcantara, Yohanse Morel, Delvin Capellan, and Woo-Young Jin. How nice is it to have some depth among the pitchers in the system, where you seemingly have a highly-touted prospect going on every night at various levels?
We have had a goal to have an average or better prospect in our rotations at every level. That is a difficult thing to do but this season has easily been the closest we have gotten to that goal. Guys who are less heralded, like Alcantara, Morel, Capellan and Jin have added to that depth and contributed to a healthy competition.
Q6: There are plenty of guys that are healthy and have been pitching really well this year, but there are also some guys that have missed time due to injury that would add even more depth to what is already a deep crop of pitching prospects. Yefri Del Rosario, Carlos Hernandez, Evan Steele, Janser Lara, and Daniel Lynch have all missed some time due to injury this year, but we hope they’ll have full seasons coming back in 2020. You already have a tough offseason in front of you with several key prospects needing protection from the Rule 5 Draft, Carlos Hernandez being one of them. How difficult is it to make the decision of who gets protected and who doesn’t, especially coming off of an offseason in which Elvis Luciano was plucked from your system?
The Rule 5 draft is a challenge every year and next year will be even more challenging with major league rosters expanding to 26 players. The risk to select a player is minimal so the likelihood of losing a power arm is high. We always make the decision that is best for the organization at that moment in time. We have a lot of healthy debate about our players and ultimately you can’t protect all the players you wish you could. It’s part of the game and we make every effort to make the best decision we can.
Q7: What are your thoughts on the new ball in the PCL? Has it hampered the development of any of your guys at all? Lovvorn, Blewett, and Hernandez all made trips back to AA, do you see the ball playing a factor in their struggles with Omaha?
Offense is clearly up in the major leagues and AAA. The increased offense has led to a lot of discussion of what we can do to combat it. At the end of the day, pitchers need to make pitches. The balls in the PCL are the same as ball in the major leagues, so from a developmental perspective, it gives pitchers a chance to pitch with that ball in adverse conditions that ultimately should help their development if the pitcher has the right mindset. We all know offense is up but we don’t control the ball we use, so we need to control what we can and get the pitchers in the best mindset to execute pitches that we can.
- The biggest thing that I’m starting to take away from the Royals front office: they may have very legitimately have been drafting the player that they thought was the best option available in 2018 (save maybe for Bowlan who signed for way under slot). All five of those first five picks from 2018 have been absolutely nails so far in their professional careers. At the time of the draft, the only thing I really would have done different would have been to draft either Nolan Gorman, Brice Turang, or Trevor Larnach instead of Singer, but you can’t blame KC for putting that kind of pitcher in a pitcher-barren system.
- Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Kris Bubic might all be some wild draft steals. Lynch and Kowar especially, it’s kind of crazy the Royals were able to get them so late in the first round.
- The Rule 5 Draft has the potential to get pretty nutty this offseason.
- We had theorized last week that, maybe the Royals would let Singer and Kowar skip AA and bring them straight to the big leagues. It doesn’t sound like that’s immediately on the minds of the Royals front office, and that maybe struggling through AAA would be a good learning curve for the young arms.
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