Image credit: Daniel Lynch (Photo by Brian Westerholt/Four Seam Images)
For the Royals, 2015 was a magical year. Helmed by manager Ned Yost, they won 95 games, fourth most in the major leagues. They ran away with the American League Central, then toppled the Blue Jays for the AL pennant and finished by taking down the Mets and winning their first World Series since 1985.
This came a year after making the World Series but falling short against the Giants thanks to an epic Game 7 performance from Madison Bumgarner. The Royals accomplished this while spending $205 million on payroll in 2014 and 2015 combined. That was $77 million less than what the Dodgers spent in 2015 alone.
Ultimately, the Royals were pushed to the top by a strong homegrown core of players acquired largely by general manager Dayton Moore and his front office after assuming control in June 2006.
From Alex Gordon to Eric Hosmer to Mike Moustakas to Salvador Perez to Kelvin Herrera, the Royals were young, gifted and blue.
Behind the scenes, Royals executives saw this success coming. They just expected it to happen a bit sooner.
“Initially, we thought (our rebuild) would be more like four to five years,” Royals farm director J.J. Piccolo said, “and it ended up being more like five to seven years. The seventh year (2012) we still weren’t really competing. It wasn’t until the second half of the ’13 season that we competed and we got eliminated from that wild card on, I believe, a Thursday before the end of the season.”
Coming off a 104-loss season in 2018, the Royals find themselves in another complete rebuild. Piccolo said the goal this time is to hasten the process.
“We don’t want to wait that long,” he said.
To get back to the top, the Royals are once again counting on their farm system, which ranked as the best in the game in 2011 but had slipped to No. 29 last year.
The Royals’ farm system moved up a few pegs to No. 27 this season, thanks in part to a strong 2018 draft class that was heavy on college pitching.
The crown jewel of the class was Florida righthander Brady Singer. The College Player of the Year ranked as the No. 4 draft prospect last year but fell to the Royals at No. 18 overall. He was followed by Florida righthander Jackson Kowar and Virginia lefthander Daniel Lynch in the first round and Stanford lefty Kris Bubic in the supplemental first.
That eight of the Royals’ first 10 draft picks in 2018 were pitchers wasn’t by design, but it also wasn’t a coincidence. They had targeted hitters in previous years, including Khalil Lee in 2016, and Nick Pratto, M.J. Melendez and Brewer Hicklen in 2017, so the next phase was to rejuvenate their pool of pitching talent.
The Royals have a somewhat unorthodox way of assembling their draft board. Instead of blending every player into one list, they separate the prospects into four categories: College pitchers, college hitters, high school pitchers and high school hitters. As scouting director Lonnie Goldberg and his team ranked them, the depth of talent seemed to skew toward college pitchers. The Royals held five of the first 60 picks, and as the chips fell around them, they picked off five college pitchers in a row.
“The way our board lined up happened to show that college pitching is where the depth was,” Picollo said. “It wasn’t intentional so much as it was predetermined. There was an eye on it, and then depending on where the pick was and how the player on the top of one list stacked up against the ones that were on the other lists.”
The Royals didn’t expect Singer to fall to their first pick at No. 18 overall.
“Everybody was prepared for it, but we didn’t really expect it,” Picollo said. “So now, with that, who might get to our second pick? We didn’t think that Kowar was definitely going to get to our second pick (33rd overall), but he did.
“Lynch was the guy we actually all saw late in the ACC Tournament and we all liked him. He fit that pick (34th) very nicely, so we grabbed him. It’s just the way that it evolved, and as we’re going, it looked like it was intentional, but I don’t think it necessarily was.”
While Singer was held back last summer after a heavy college workload and tweaked hamstring, Kowar, Lynch and Bubic got their feet wet in pro ball. The results were outstanding.
Lynch went 5-1, 1.58 in nine starts for low Class A Lexington, where he struck out 47 hitters in 40 innings. Kowar chipped in 26.1 solid innings for the Legends. Bubic struck out 53 in 38 innings with Rookie-level Idaho Falls.
Lynch and Kowar also helped propel Lexington to the South Atlantic League championship with strong outings in the first and second games of the final series.
The results heartened the Royals.
“No doubt they lived up to and exceeded our expectations,” Picollo said. “Kowar did exactly what he thought he would, with the exception that we kept waiting for a time in August to shut him down, but he was getting better in August and was really strong going into September because he pitched in the playoffs. We felt like he got better later in the year.
“Daniel Lynch, he’s a different pitcher than the one who performed in April and May in front of scouts. We’re talking about a guy who’s pitching with a 70 or close to 80 fastball (on the 20-80 scouting scale) with an excellent curveball, slider and changeup. He’s been very impressive.
“Bubic is exactly what our scouts said, he’s going to throw three pitches for strikes, his changeup is outstanding and he competes really well.”
A rebuild obviously has to be balanced, with both talented hitters and pitchers, and the Royals are quick to point out that before they put together their collection of arms, they made sure to add a few talented hitters via the 2017 draft.
The key cogs were a pair of high school bats drafted in the first and second rounds: California first baseman Pratto and Florida catcher Melendez. The duo ranked Nos. 6 and 7 on the Royals’ Top 10 Prospects entering the season and each showed potential on both sides of the ball.
That last part is particularly important to the Royals, who noted the key role glove work played in the team’s race to the top in 2014 and 2015.
“We didn’t have an explosive enough offense in ’14 or ’15 to win just on offense,” Picollo said. “It had to be pitching and defense, but our defense really showed all of baseball just how much it can impact the game. We believe in defense.”
So when Lee gets to the big leagues, they want him to make an impact in center field and at the plate. When Pratto gets to the big leagues, they want him to be able to knock baseballs into light towers and pick low throws out of the dirt. When Melendez gets to the big leagues, they want him to spray line drives around the diamond and hose runners trying to steal.
Now, with the college-heavy 2018 draft class embarking on their first full seasons and the 2017 class coming off a South Atlantic League title, the two groups have coalesced into one of the most loaded teams in the minor leagues. The high Class A Wilmington roster contains nine of the Royals’ Top 30 Prospects, including two members of the current Top 100 Prospects in Singer and Lynch.
The group houses a great deal of what the Royals hope will be the core of their next championship club—what Gordon, Moustakas, Hosmer, Perez and company were to the 2015 Royals.
This season will be crucial for the Royals’ plans going forward. The team will pick second in the 2019 draft and will likely pick very high again in 2020. Their poor finish also will translate to more bonus pool money to spend internationally.
But for the first time since the World Series run, the Royals have a young prospect core to build around. The next draftees will be attempting to supplement this core.
Now comes the hard part—waiting to see if they can get to the big leagues and push the team back to the winner’s circle. This time, however, they hope it won’t take so long.