What's next for Kowar after being optioned

March 17th, 2023

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- allowed himself to be frustrated shortly after he was optioned to Triple-A Omaha on Wednesday, but by Thursday morning, he was eager to put Kansas City’s plan into action.

The Royals want and need Kowar to help them this year. The key to finding success, they believe, is unlocking his slider. In a meeting on Wednesday that included Kowar, manager Matt Quatraro, general manager J.J. Picollo, pitching coach Brian Sweeney, assistant pitching coach Zach Bove and director of pitching performance Paul Gibson, the message was clear. They reinforced Kowar’s progress with the slider and urged him to continue working on it.

On Thursday morning before the Royals’ 2-0 win over the A’s at Surprise Stadium, Kowar, Sweeney, Bove and Gibson had a more detailed meeting about the next steps.

“There’s a lot of synergy between Gibby, Sweeney and Bove,” Kowar said. “It’s nice to see the departments feel like they’re all on the same page. It feels good. Even though I’m not in big league camp, I’m still getting the same top-to-bottom feedback and messaging.

“It seems like an insurmountable hill sometimes when you get optioned. Like, ‘Oh, here we go again, how am I going to get out of this?’ But there will be opportunities. The department’s been great about the messaging from top to bottom, and that’s all I can really ask for.”

Kowar, 26, has not had an easy road since he made his debut in 2021. The former first-round Draft pick has a career 10.76 ERA in 16 Major League games (46 innings). His stuff flashes plus, but he’s struggled with command in the big leagues. He’s watched fellow 2018 MLB Draft picks Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic -- who threw two scoreless innings Thursday -- and Jonathan Heasley have some success in Kansas City.

The plan is to have Kowar be around three to four innings at the end of spring. That will allow him to start if he’s needed as starting depth, but more likely it will allow the right-hander to get to the big leagues as a reliever and throw multiple innings out of the bullpen.

When the Minor League season begins, he could start some games or pitch in relief in others.

More importantly, Kowar is going to throw more frequently so he can throw his slider more often in game action. The pitch’s shape is consistent now, unlike last year when the break would vary each day. Sitting around 87 mph and even reaching 90 mph at times, it now has smaller break and better carry so Kowar can throw it for strikes and use it as a third option with his fastball and changeup.

“The command of it and also using it to his advantage is next,” Gibson said. “Being able to know when to tuck it away, when to throw it over the plate, when to backdoor it, when to flip one in there for a strike. Those are the experience pieces of a new pitch. And swings are indicators of whether the pitch will play.”

Joey Votto, for example, hit a check-swing slider from Kowar on Tuesday night and grounded out weakly. Kowar struck out Tyler Stephenson in the next inning on three straight breaking balls.

The Royals aren’t closing the door on Kowar as a starter, especially if he has a three-pitch mix. Rather, they’re more open this year to a variety of roles -- starter, multi-inning reliever, perhaps even a backend reliever.

Kowar is out of options in 2024, so this year is crucial for Kansas City to figure out what the right-hander can be for the club moving forward.

“There’s still a lot of us that think he’s a capable starter. There’s a lot of us that think he could go to the back end because he’s got the velocity and changeup,” Picollo said. “It’s just the effectiveness of the changeup has diminished a little bit because he doesn’t have other pitches to lean on. He needs to keep throwing pitches, not just one inning or two innings, as he develops that slider.”

Kowar wants to flip the script on the past two seasons. Whatever role the Royals need him to be in, he’s ready.

“I don’t and can’t have the ego that I have to be one thing or the other,” Kowar said. “I would rather just help the guys win. At the end of the day, you get upset, and then what good is it going to do? Sit around and feel sorry for yourself? It’s just reality, and it’s OK. Might as well maximize my time here and get better."