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Relieved: How switching to the bullpen has Daniel Tillo rising in the Royals’ farm system

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The former 2017 third-round pick is becoming a highly coveted name after a strong offseason.

BASEBALL-USA-MEX Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images

It was a call to the Northwest Arkansas bullpen, but for 23-year old Daniel Tillo, it was still an unfamiliar routine. Up to that point, the Royals’ 2017 third-round pick out of Iowa Western Community College had started 58 of the 59 professional games he had appeared in his career, including three starts with the Naturals. But on an August evening against Tulsa, Tillo was asked to relieve J.C. Cloney in a 2-0 game in the eighth inning.

“It was about 9:00 p.m. and usually I don’t play catch at that time,” Tillo said in a phone interview on his first time warming-up in relief. “I remember my arm was a little slow and tired. I didn’t throw that hard out of the bullpen the first time, but once I got my body regulated on that, I started throwing harder each time.”

The southpaw proceeded to surrender two runs in three innings of work and notched his first win in Double-A.

In his 23 starts between Class-A Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas, Tillo posted a 3.74 ERA in 122 2⁄3 innings with 74 strikeouts to 54 walks. Tillo said he was approached with this idea after his promotion to Double-A and was initially caught off guard by the decision to move him to the pen.

“When I got called up to Double-A, they told me I was going to be in the bullpen in the Arizona Fall League,” Tillo said. “I had never been in the bullpen before so they wanted me to get some reps.

A transition wouldn’t be as simple as it sounded. But the Iowa native embraced the opportunity in front of him.

“Whatever they tell me to do and get done, I work towards that,” Tillo said. “I try to be the best pitcher whether I am a starter or reliever. I’ve been developed, in my opinion. So, it works out.”

Like any prospect maneuvering his way through the minor leagues, a mentor was needed to alleviate the pressure of switching roles. Tillo needed a voice to guide him through the process of becoming the best version of himself. Those voices came from teammates Tyler Zuber and Grant Gavin.

“{Zuber and Gavin} talked me through how to get ready and what they do,” Tillo said. “I picked their brains a little bit because they’ve been in the bullpen for a while. I just talk to them about what to do differently compared to a starting pitcher.”

Both Zuber and Gavin are 24-years-old and are coming off productive seasons in 2019 at the Double-A level as relievers. Zuber, drafted three rounds later than Tillo in 2017, logged 26 innings with the Naturals and held opposing hitters to a .205 batting average. Gavin - a 29th round pick out of Central Missouri in 2016 - tossed 52 1/3 innings and showcased a 3.61 ERA with a 1.30 WHIP.

Before the season wrapped up in Springdale, Arkansas, Tillo appeared in six games as a reliever and posted a 3.38 ERA in eight innings - striking out 11 and walking zero. While most of his teammates returned home for the offseason, the lefty’s job wasn’t quite finished.

Down in Surprise, Arizona for the Arizona Fall League, Tillo continued his reps in his new relief role. His numbers weren’t eye-popping - he posted a 6.94 ERA with 12 hits allowed and seven walks in 11 2/3 innings with 11 strikeouts. But his increase in velocity gained attention from scouts.

MLB.com evaluator Jim Callis highlighted Tillo as one of eight standouts in the AFL. Callis called his “pure stuff” impressive. He also noted that his fastball ranged from 95-98 mph and his slider from 88-89. Tillo attributes that rise to his ability to cut loose.

“When you’re pitching 1-2 innings out of the bullpen, you can ‘let it eat’,” Tillo said. “As a starter, I tried to hit my spots a little bit more. But as a reliever, I am all gas, no brakes.”

His notoriety earned him a spot on Team USA for the Premier 12 Tournament. The games would work as a qualifier for the 2020 Summer Olympic games in Tokyo, Japan.

“It was a true honor to wear that red, white, and blue across your chest,” Tillo said on representing the country. “I made a lot of good friends and relationships that will last forever.”

Of those friends, Tillo bonded especially close with pitchers J.P. Feyereisen from the Milwaukee Brewers system and Cody Ponce from the Pirates organization.

“Those are the main two I built friendships with,” Tillo said. “Honestly, every guy on that team was a great dude and guys I can talk to whenever I want.”

During his time with Team USA, Tillo caught the eye of those covering the tournament. One of those media members, Jon Morosi of MLB Network, raved about the left-hander.

“I know Britton has a nasty sinker and gets ground balls and strikeouts. Out of the bullpen, I was doing both of that. So, sure, that’s a good comparison,” Tillo said with a laugh.

While repetition has allowed Tillo to settle in, he has continued to work on his off-speed stuff.

“My slider got a little bit better when I moved to the bullpen,” Tillo said. “I just ripped it more and got on top of it better. It’s a process with that, but it’s a lot better than it was last year.

While his slider is a work in progress, the lefty says he’s held off on throwing another off-speed pitch that was common with him as a starter.

“As a starter, I’d throw my change-up a lot more,” Tillo said. “But out of the bullpen, I don’t really throw it.”

In addition to the resurgence of Tillo, the upcoming arms in the Kansas City system such as Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic, and Jonathan Bowlan, has those on the outside salivating at the next wave of talent to put the Royals back on the map. From the eyes of someone who witnessed them first hand, Tillo is enamored with the development of the pitching staff between Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas.

His one word to describe the bunch says it all.

“Electric,” Tillo said on the young arms. “A lot of good pitching - both starting and bullpen. Royals’ fans should definitely be excited about the pitching staff coming up.”

With the Kansas City bullpen ranking 27th in all of baseball last season, posting a collective 5.07 ERA and .272 opponents batting average, it might not be too long before the aforementioned pitchers crack the big league roster. In the case of 2020, that’s exactly what Tillo plans to do.

“If you’re not trying to play in the big leagues, then why are you trying to play baseball,” Tillo said. “I want to help out at the major league level. I got to work everyday for that goal. It’s a dream of mine.”

That dream could become reality this March.