Here's a look at the Royals' farm entering 2020

March 16th, 2020

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Forgive J.J. Picollo for wanting to clone himself. There’s just so much good pitching in this system, all reaching the upper levels and being in big league camp for the first time this year, that the Royals’ assistant general manager of player personnel wishes he could see them all perform at the same time.

“Recently, we had a day I stayed at home to watch Daniel Lynch start a game and Jackson Kowar come in relief,” Picollo said. “I was disappointed I couldn’t be in Tempe to watch Brady Singer start. You like to be everywhere. It is fun and it’s rewarding.

“The hesitation in putting guys in camp is about how they’re going to handle the environment. Are they going to try to do too much? But their maturity, how they’ve been able to handle themselves, being around Cal Eldred, Mike Matheny, getting acclimated to what some of the veteran guys are doing has been really good for them. You wouldn’t know they were in their first camp.”

The "they" Picollo refers to are the four college pitchers the Royals took at the start of the 2018 Draft: Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubic, who are also four of Kansas City’s top six prospects heading into the season. The quartet impressed during their first full seasons and that continued this spring, with knowledge that they’re not far off from being ready to impact the big league rotation.

“A lot of fans like to compare where we are to 2008 or 2009,” Picollo said. “I think we’re in a similar position to 2010. You know guys are on the verge of getting to the big leagues. They may get their feet wet this year or even a little bit more, especially the pitching.”

There’s been a filter-down effect of that “big four,” and there’s more than just that quartet moving rapidly. It’s a group that includes arms like Austin Cox, Jonathan Bowlan and Jon Heasley, and continues across all levels. Picollo says this is the first time in this regime’s 14 full years of being in Kansas City that they have full rotations all but set across every full-season club. Developing pitching is risky, but the maturity of this group and the talent filling in behind the leaders has the front office very optimistic.

“The way I was raised in the game, it takes 10 to get one,” Picollo said. “I think that’s a conservative comment, but we know the attrition on pitching is very high. It’s the highest rate of injury that you have in the game.

“But collectively, the way they’ve fed off each other and learned and pushed each other, has been a fun thing to watch. You always talk about trying to create that culture, but really the players have to be able to handle it. When you have guys like you do at the top and they worked the way they did, it’s motivated others.”

Prospect we’ll be talking about in 2021
Back when the Royals’ farm system was brimming with talent on the way to helping the franchise win the World Series in 2015, there were plenty of high-end, well-known prospects. Then there were also more under-the-radar types, like Greg Holland and Salvador Perez. Lefty Austin Cox, the team’s No. 11 prospect fits in that latter category.

Another college arm taken in the 2018 Draft, the Mercer University product pitched in the shadow of the four bigger names mentioned above in his first year-plus in the organization, but he had a terrific first full season across both levels of Class A ball. Picollo thinks he belongs in the same conversation with the others.

“He reminds us of Terry Mulholland,” Picollo said. “He’s very composed. I don’t see his name mentioned anywhere. You watch certain guys work. He just has that mound presence and demeanor, so you trust this guy on the mound. And his stuff’s good.”

Camp standout
The first hitter the Royals took in that 2018 Draft was Kyle Isbel. After a huge pro debut that summer, his 2019 season was cut short by a hamstring, then a hamate injury. He made up for lost time with a very strong Arizona Fall League performance, and he carried that over to big league camp, with a showing that’s included a pair of homers.

“He’s opened up a lot of eyes,” Picollo said. “He’s played excellent defense, his at-bats have been really good. He and Lynch both got injured at a time we were getting ready to move them both to Double-A. You wonder if he’d gotten a full half-season in Double-A, he’s very likely in Triple-A, maybe he’s pushing for the big league team right now. He’s been outstanding. Those of us who saw him a lot expected that he’d show well, but he’s done even more than we expected.”

Something to prove
The Royals thought they had a fantastic middle of the order in Wilmington in 2019, with Nick Pratto, Seuly Matias and MJ Melendez in the 3-4-5 spots. But things didn’t go nearly according to plan, with the trio striking out more than 475 times together.

“It was contagious last year,” Picollo said. “It was a steady diet of fastballs out of the zone high and as young players will do, they start pressing, then they start trying to change their swing a little bit, put a little more effort into it and it sort of snowballs.”

To their credit, the three young hitters came back to Arizona a month after the season and got to work on fixing what had gone wrong. They all had different issues, from direction to the plate to timing, but they look ready to prove they’re still the highly thought of hitting prospects they once were.

“They were very receptive. Watching them come back, it’s very obvious they continued with the work we tried to put the footprint together in the fall,” Picollo said. “If we can put them in the right frame of mind going into April 9, then I think we’re in a pretty good spot. They should rebound. They’re good players.”