Near the end of last season, as Daniel Lynch wrapped up his summer and fall pitching in intrasquad games and scrimmages and bullpens without facing an opponent with a different jersey than him, he came to a realization.
He was ready for the big leagues.
As Lynch, the Royals’ top pitching prospect, took the mound in big league Spring Training this year, facing Major League hitters in every single start -- yes, the Royals designed it that way -- he felt more ready with every pitch. The 24-year-old’s work at the alternate training site over the past month only furthered the feeling.
“I feel even more ready than I was last year,” Lynch said Sunday.
The Royals agree.
Now, it’s showtime.
The Royals announced Sunday night that Lynch will make his Major League debut as the starter for Monday’s game against Cleveland at Kauffman Stadium. The club’s No. 2 prospect and baseball’s No. 24-ranked prospect, per MLB Pipeline, found out Sunday morning from Triple-A manager Brian Poldberg that he would need to get to Kansas City soon because he wouldn’t be making Tuesday’s Minor League Opening Day start anymore.
“’Well, you’re starting in Kansas City,’” Lynch recalled Poldberg saying.
The day moved quickly from there. Lynch got his work in on the field, called his family -- his fiancée was the first call, followed by his dad, brother and sister -- packed up his apartment and started the three-hour drive that took him to Kansas City.
“It didn’t really set in until I started driving,” Lynch said. “It was pretty hectic until I got driving down the road and I got to turn the music off and just really reflect and feel really grateful for this opportunity. Not a lot of people get to do this, so that’s kind of how I’m feeling.”
Lynch’s debut has been highly anticipated since he was selected No. 34 overall in the 2018 Draft and especially since fellow first-rounders that year, Brady Singer and Kris Bubic, arrived in the Majors last season. Right-hander Jackson Kowar, the Royals’ No. 4 prospect, was taken 33rd overall in the 2018 Draft and is expected to make his debut at some point this year, too.
The future that the Royals envisioned with those four, and the others in that loaded 2018 Draft, is fast approaching, if not here already, even without a Minor League season in 2020.
But the timing of the promotion was intriguing, considering the Royals’ rotation has been fairly solid throughout the first month of the season. General manager Dayton Moore said Sunday night that Lynch will take over Jakob Junis’ spot in the rotation, with the rest of the starters -- Mike Minor, Brady Singer, Danny Duffy and Brad Keller -- expected to stay on turn throughout this next homestand.
Despite Junis’ efficiency and effectiveness as a starter this year -- posting a 3.80 ERA in four starts -- the Royals strongly believe he will be even more valuable in the bullpen, especially with the current lack of depth there now. Right-handers Kyle Zimmer (left trapezius strain) and Jesse Hahn (right shoulder impingement) are on the injured list. Junis is going to get a chance for high-leverage situations as a reliever, but Moore said he anticipates Junis making more starts later in the season, and the Royals are still being open-minded about a six-man rotation if the club needs it.
“I see Jakob Junis starting games, finishing games, pitching in the middle,” Moore said. “He’s got the chance to be the MVP of this staff, just because of who he is. He’s a very poised pitcher. And he’s got out pitches. He’s going to be very effective in whatever role.
“If we’re going to win a championship, we’re going to need a lot of guys to accept different roles at different times.”
Moving Junis to the bullpen to help with depth opened an opportunity in the rotation. And there was little doubt in the Royals' front office who should take over. Lynch has looked “locked in,” Moore said, dominating his competition at the alternate training site and commanding his four pitches (fastball, curveball, slider and changeup). Lynch said he found his “identity” as a pitcher working with Triple-A pitching coach Dane Johnson last season, and as his delivery smoothed out and became consistent over the past year, so too did the 6-foot-6 left-hander.
“It was pretty much a consensus,” Moore said. “He’s ready for the next step. Daniel right now is throwing the ball, delivering his pitches at a very high level and is the most capable right now of being in the rotation. Plain and simple.”
After a few years of pitching with his Major League debut always in the back of his mind, Lynch will take the mound Monday night with one goal: Help the American League-leading Royals win another game.
“I just need to go out there and give the team a chance to win,” Lynch said. “It’s not, ‘What’s the coach going to write in a report to the front office? Am I going to pitch well enough to get called up?’
“I think that’s a really cool thing because it strips away all the other stuff that you worry about naturally as a Minor Leaguer. And now it’s just like, go compete and do your best.”