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Grading the 2018 Royals draft class pro debuts

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Some clear successes and some not so much

2017 Division I Men’s College World Series - Florida v LSU - Game 2
Jackson Kowar #37 of the Florida Gators delivers a pitch against the LSU Tigers in the ninth inning during game two of the College World Series Championship Series on June 27, 2017 at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Nebraska. Kowar was drafted 33rd overall by the Kansas City Royals in the 2018 MLB Amateur Draft.
Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

The 2018 Kansas City Royals draft class is going to be one of the most important single draft classes in the history of the Kansas City Royals. With the Royals entering 2018 with one of the worst few farm systems in baseball, Kansas City rolled in the June Amateur Draft with four picks in the first 40 overall selections and five of the first 58. Furthermore, the Royals accrued 104 losses in 2018, tying for the second-worst campaign in franchise history.

You can read Max Rieper’s initial draft recap here, but the tl;dr is that the Royals went very heavy on college players, many of which were pitchers. In fact, all of the Royals’ first five selections were college pitchers.

It is now the cold, sad offseason, and these players have long since made their pro debut. With the benefit of a little distance from their debuts, let’s take a look at how they did. Rather than ranking them individually, I will be using the following scale to sort their debuts into tiers. They are:

A: Definitively successful pro debut

B: Good pro debut with a few caveats

C: Average pro debut

D: Bad pro debut with a few bright spots

F: Definitively unsuccessful pro debut

A few notes. First, this is subjective. You could easily move dudes around here based on different categories; I included how highly a player was drafted in my considerations, for instance, and this list looks different if you don’t. Second, I only included 15 draftees of note; more might make headway next year, but it wouldn’t be particularly useful giving a grade to everybody drafted quite yet. Third, these pro debuts are merely the first step in a larger journey. Successful debuts are great stepping stones, but sloppy ones definitely aren’t career killers. One look at Whit Merrifield, Paulo Orlando, or Erik Kratz is all it takes to see that getting to the big leagues takes a little time, sometimes. And with that Amy Grant song swirling around in your head, let’s get to it.

A

  • Kyle Isbel
  • Daniel Lynch
  • Jackson Kowar

It’s hard not to consider Isbel as a player in the same vein as Michael Gigliotti. Both were 21-year-olds drafted out of universities that weren’t exactly baseball powerhouses. Both are athletic outfielders of averageish size that can handle center field but are more likely to end up in the corner. And both absolutely dominated at the plate, leading to a promotion to A-ball Lexington. Isbel’s offensive explosion slowed considerably towards the end of the season, but he still put up a 123 wRC+ in Lexington after forcing his way there by demolishing Idaho Falls. Keep an eye on Isbel to be a quick mover.

Similarly to Isbel, the Royals placed Lynch in Rookie ball—Burlington in his case—where he surgically dissected the poor batters there. Lynch quickly moved up to Lexington, where he pitched even better. The lanky lefty, whose 6’6”/190lb frame is a spitting image of Chris Sale, tossed a 7.8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in Lexington and kept both his ERA and FIP under 2. Lynch may also be a quick riser through the system, especially considering that the Royals won’t be close enough to contention to tempt a Brandon Finnegan-esque reliever stint.

After a sluggish start, Kowar turned on the heat towards the end of the season. In his last five starts, including the playoffs, Kowar struck out 24 batters in 19 innings against only three walks, allowing two runs. While Kowar’s overall season performance wasn’t quite as exemplary as Lynch’s, Kowar skipped the rookie leagues and spent the entirety of his pro debut in Lexington. Kowar may have the highest upside out of any of the Royals’ big drafted pitchers.

B

  • Nathan Eaton
  • Brhet Bewley
  • Austin Cox

You’ll be forgiven if you don’t know any of these players. Cox was the first drafted, at 152nd overall. Bewley and Eaton were drafted in the 600s and 900s, respectively. Historically, these types of players seldom make the big leagues.

And yet—all performed quite well. Eaton, a 5’11” infielder out of Virginia Military Institute, owns the distinction of having the best debut season by wRC+ out of any newly drafted Royal at a stunning 153—in a touch over 300 plate appearances, no less. Eaton did a bit of everything: hitting for power, walking over 10% of the time, hitting for average. A towering .435 BABIP suggests good luck was in his favor, but hitting 53% better than average is always indicative of talent. As for Bewley and, yes, his first name is spelled Brhet, the infielder hit 25% better than league average between Arizona and Burlington, primarily on the back of a superb 16.2% walk rate. Bewley was drafted 962nd overall and has a hard road, but he absolutely outperformed most of his draft peers to get on this list.

Cox has the least attractive ERA figure so far, at 3.78, but he has two things working in his favor. First, he was subject to bad luck, as his FIP is a full run lower. Second, Cox has struck out about a billion dudes. Cox struck out 35% of the batters he faced in Burlington—as a starter, no less—which is tops among all 2018 Royals draftees.

C

  • Kris Bubic

Bubic is the definition of mixed results, hence his C grade. On one hand, like Cox, he strikes out a ton of people (30.8%, as a starter). On the other, Bubic walks a ton of people, too (11.1% walk rate). His ERA and FIP are both around 4, which is not great, but also not terrible. It was a fine debut, but nothing special. It is worth noting that Bubic is entering his age-21 season next year as opposed to many of his draft peers, who are entering age-22.

D

  • Eric Cole
  • Tyler Gray
  • Jackson Lueck

Cole was selected 122nd overall as the seventh Royals selection. The switch-hitter turned in a league average season with the bat, which does not bode well for a future corner outfielder. At 5’11”, he’ll need to produce sooner rather than later. Still, there’s time for him.

Gray is another one of the Royals’ college arms from the 2018 draft. While Gray hasn’t been quite as bad at walking people as some of his other talented peers (under 10%) and he has struck guys out (26.8%), Gray has been knocked around in the rookie leagues to the tune of a 4.56 ERA/4.36 FIP. That’s not terrible, but Gray isn’t in the top tier of college pitchers and will need to produce better to advance. As a righty, his options are limited, too. He might end up as a reliever.

Like Cole, Lueck basically turned in a league average season (102 wRC+). Also like Cole, Lueck walked at exactly 9.1% of the time, which is pretty good. Unlike Cole, Lueck struck out twice as often (28.3%), and such poor plate discipline is a red flag when it’s right out of the gate in the rookie leagues.

F

  • Jonathan Bowlan
  • Kevon Jackson
  • Austin Lambright

There’s not too much to say here. Bowlan was simply bad, sporting a 6.94 ERA and only managing to strike out 13.9% of batters. For a Royals organization that has struggled mightily with developing pitching, it’s hard to see how they can turn Bowlan around if there’s some underlying issue there.

While Jackson is a fascinating player and still extraordinarily young—he just turned 18 in June—it’s hard not to give him an F based on a 38% strikeout rate, a .178 batting average, and a .069 ISO. Those numbers won’t cut it. They’re not close to cutting it. Jackson has more time than most, but there’s a reason why most speedy guys don’t ultimately make it.

INCOMPLETE

  • Brady Singer
  • Zach Haake

Singer has yet to make his pro debut. Haake has only pitched 14 innings. Can’t grade what you can’t see, after all.