The Kansas City Royals did well with their top picks in the 2017 Draft, selecting first baseman Nick Pratto and catcher MJ Melendez out of the high school ranks with their first- and second-round picks. But even though both performed well in full-season ball as teenagers last year, the systems’ crop of pitching prospects still lagged well behind in both quality and quantity.
That changed last June, when the Royals used a surplus of extra picks to land some of the best college pitchers in the Draft, essentially building a future starting rotation that can rise through the Minors together.
After taking University of Florida ace Brady Singer (No. 16 overall) in the first round, followed by fellow Gator Jackson Kowar and Virginia lefty Daniel Lynch in back-to-back spots (No. 33 and No. 34), the club proceeded to grab college hurlers with its first five picks in the top two rounds and nine of their 13 picks in the Top 10 rounds.
“Our system looks completely different than it did a year ago,” said J.J. Picollo, the Royals’ Vice President and Assistant General Manager of Player Personnel.
Both Lynch and Kowar finished the year at Class A Lexington and were instrumental in helping the team take home its first South Atlantic League title since 2001. Lynch, the Royals’ No. 4 prospect, fired four scoreless innings in back-to-back starts, while Kowar (No. 7) won both of his starts, tossing five innings with five strikeouts in each.
The pair surely would have been joined by Singer, the club’s top-ranked prospect, had the team not erred on the side of caution with the right-hander as he dealt with a minor hamstring injury.
Now in their first Spring Training together, the three hurlers have impressed the Royals’ coaching staff with their stuff and work ethic.
“Singer, Kowar and Lynch have been working in the same group, and they’ve been really, really good. All of their bullpens have been really good,” said Picollo.
“They’re very mature,” he added. “Just seeing the way they work and feed off each other and listening to the discussions they have with each other, you get the feeling that this is a veteran group. That, on top of their ability, makes us feel good that our pitching is where we’d like it to be.”
The Royals will use the spring to gauge how best to handle Singer, Kowar and Lynch heading into their first full seasons, but all signs point to the talented trio comprising the majority of Class A Advanced Wilmington’s starting rotation in 2019.
“You take our 2018 Draft class and add them to some of the names currently in our system, and we feel like we have some pitching,” said Picollo.
“You always want more pitching, but we think we’re in a much better spot that we were a year ago.”
Pratto, the Royals’ No. 5 prospect, was a major contributor in Lexington’s South Atlantic League title run, hitting .333 with two homers, five runs scored and three steals in six games. With the performance, the then-19-year-old first baseman tied a bow on a breakout second half in which he slashed .322/.394/.518 with seven homers and 23 doubles in 64 games.
Altogether, he compiled a .280/.343/.443 line with 14 homers and 33 doubles in 127 games.
“He did exactly what you hope a guy does, going out in the first half and competing and maintaining confidence, and then making adjustments in the second half,” Picollo said.
The emergence of Pratto’s power in the second half didn’t surprise Picollo, and he expects more will come as Pratto’s approach evolves and creates more opportunities.
“We’ve spent a lot of time talking to him about early-in-the-count approaches, because he’s very patient and has a great eye, but he takes some pitches that are hittable. So we conveyed to him that, as he moves up levels, it might be the only time he gets that one pitch in an at-bat, maybe even game,” he said.
On top of that, Picollo and other club officials like what they’re seeing with Pratto’s left-handed swing early in camp.
“[His swing] has gotten better without us doing a whole lot,” he said. “We see him getting on plane sooner and getting good extension, with the loft you want to see. It was a little bit more manufactured before, so I think him getting stronger has something to do with it.”
Right-hander Zach Haake, the Royals’ sixth-round pick last June, has been among the pitching standouts so far in Minor League camp.
“The ball is really coming out of his hand well. He’s been up to 97 mph, with power,” said Picollo. “He had some arm problems, and we were thinking he might need surgery when we drafted him, but he’s looked great.”
Haake struggled to the tune of an 8.47 ERA as a University of Kentucky junior, but pitched well during his pro debut, registering a 1.76 ERA and 0.85 WHIP with 14 strikeouts in 15 1/3 innings between a pair of Rookie levels, including the Pioneer League.