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The 2018 Royals draft class, one year later

How are the kids doing?

From left to right: Royals top prospects Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, and Jackson Kowar before a Wilmington Blue Rocks game.
From left to right: Royals top prospects Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, and Jackson Kowar before a Wilmington Blue Rocks game.
Ryan Griffith

The 2018 Kansas City Royals draft was an important one. It came in the middle of what would be the second-worst season in Royals history and was the first real draft of the new rebuild. And thanks to a mediocre 80-82 season in 2017, the departures of Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain in free agency, and the competitive balance round meant to help small market teams stay competitive, the Royals had an abundance of picks to help them kick off the rebuild.

Kansas City owned the 18th overall pick, but their true opportunity was through the sheer number of picks the Royals had. Four of the first 40 picks—or 10% of those picks, if you prefer percentages—were owned by the Royals. Kansas City also owned the 58th and 94th pick, giving them six picks within the first 100 of the draft. With so many picks, the Royals had a large signing bonus pool, giving them more flexibility than other teams.

In October, I graded the professional debuts of notable members of the 2018 draft class. But half a season isn’t enough time to properly evaluate a draft class. For instance, Brady Singer, the Royals’ first pick in the 2018 draft, didn’t even debut because of lingering soreness and a long college baseball season.

So, let’s take a look at the 2018 Royals draft class, one year later. Even the best prospects spend two or three years in the minor leagues before graduating to the big leagues, and so this is obviously still an incomplete assessment. With that being said, these prospects have spent enough time as professional ball players that we can start to judge the effectiveness of the draft.

Those early returns are quite good. We won’t review every member of the 2018 draft, but we will examine a few of the important groups of players and what they’ve done.

The New Fab Five

Kris Bubic pitching for the Wilmington Blue Rocks on June 12, 2019.
Ryan Griffith
  • Brady Singer, 18th
  • Jackson Kowar, 33rd
  • Daniel Lynch, 34th
  • Kris Bubic, 40th
  • Jonathan Bowlan, 58th

In the first rebuild, the Royals had a quartet of lefties that came to be known as the Fab Four. They were Danny Duffy, Michael Montgomery, John Lamb, and Chris Dwyer. All were prep pitchers who landed on multiple top prospect lists.

This time around, we’ve got a Fab Five. They will be forever grouped together, as they were Kansas City’s first five selections in the 2018 draft and all were college arms. And like the Fab Four of yesteryear, these college pitchers have all experienced success and they’ve all moved very quickly.

Singer and Kowar have made it to Double-A Northwest Arkansas already. With good performances the rest of the year there, both could position themselves for a 2020 call-up to Kansas City. Lynch had an injury setback in early June, but once he is healthy he should join them as well.

Bubic and Bowlan have flown under the radar a bit, but both earned promotions to High-A Wilmington after carving up Low-A Lexington. Bowlan will probably stay in Wilmington through the year—he was just promoted after the first half of the season ended—but Bubic has already been in Wilmington for a while and has a chance to move to Northwest Arkansas later in the year.

How good has the Fab Five been? All have an ERA below 3.22, all have a strikeout-to-walk ratio of at least 3, and the five pitchers have pitched in a combined 14 minor league levels—a figure which could rise as high as 16 or 17 by the end of the year.

The College Outfielders

Kyle Isbel warming up before a Wilmington Blue Rocks game on April 7, 2019.
Kyle Isbel warming up before a Wilmington Blue Rocks game on April 7, 2019.
Ryan Griffith
  • Kyle Isbel, 94th
  • Eric Cole, 122nd
  • Jackson Lueck, 242nd

After Kansas City’s initial run on college pitchers, they began to turn towards college outfielders in the early few rounds of the draft.

With the first position player of their draft, the Royals chose Kyle Isbel out of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. In 2018, Isbel showed that he was too advanced for the first few levels of the minor leagues, putting up a gaudy 169 wRC+ in the Idaho Falls rookie league and a 123 wRC+ in Low-A Lexington. This year, the Royals aggressively put him at High-A Wilmington, where Isbel proceeded to crush the ball to a tune of a 197 wRC+ in 13 games. Unfortunately, Isbel hasn’t played since April 17 due to a small collection of injuries, and will likely return mid-July.

If you’re looking for a guy who is most likely to never make a top prospect list but would nevertheless have a long and productive big league career, Isbel is probably your choice. Isbel doesn’t do any one single thing superbly but instead has a little bit of skill in everything, from fielding to speed to game power. Royals fans have seen a player like that in David DeJesus recently—DeJesus was a college outfielder who wasn’t great at anything specific, but he was competent in a wide range of skills to ride that through a 13-year career in the Show.

The other two guys, though, haven’t been as electric. Eric Cole, out of the University of Arkansas, hit a robust .313/.407/.520 in his junior year before the draft and walked over 10% of the time over his NCAA career. He has continued his plate discipline as a pro, showing a 10% walk rate and a 15.8% strikeout rate between Burlington and Lexington. With a middling batting average, though, Cole will need to add power or show that he can stick in center field to continue climbing the ranks.

Meanwhile, Jackson Lueck hasn’t been able to gather much steam as a pro. Lueck is currently hitting .159 with a mere .056 ISO in Lexington as a 22-year-old. With a 36.3% strikeout rate, there’s not much Lueck is doing right this year. Lueck has time to blossom, but the early start isn’t exactly promising.

The Second Tier of Arms

Lexington Legends pitcher Jon Heasley in a game on June 11, 2019
Regina Rickert
  • Austin Cox, 152nd
  • Zach Haake, 182nd
  • Tyler Gray, 212th
  • Austin Lambright, 302nd
  • Jon Heasly, 392nd

Considering the Royals’ poor track record in developing starting pitchers from the draft, you’d be forgiven if you thought that Kansas City’s second tier of pitchers—taken after the first 150 picks—wouldn’t amount to anything. While they still might not, that’s more an indictment on the chance of success for prospects in general than it is for these guys.

Remember further up when I noted that the Fab Five all had ERAs below 3.22 and a K/BB rate of over 3? You can add Austin Cox and Jon Heasly to that mix, too. Cox was recently promoted to Wilmington, and Heasly is forcing his way there as well. Zach Haake has been derailed with injuries, but when healthy he has been dominant in Lexington.

Tyler Gray hasn’t been effective out of the bullpen so far—a disappointing start to his pro career—but Austin Lambright has been every bit the nasty arm every team needs out of the pen. Between Lexington and Wilmington this year, Lambright has struck out 38.6% of total batters (for comparison, Greg Holland struck out 40.4% of total batters in his masterful 2013 and 37.5% in 2014). However, Lambright was an older senior out of the University of Central Oklahoma and will already turn 25 in August.

Others of Note

Lexington Legends infielder Nathan Eaton in a game on April 28, 2019
Regina Rickert
  • Kevon Jackson, 272nd
  • Rylan Kaufman, 362nd
  • Nathan Eaton, 632nd
  • Josh Dye, 692nd

The Royals selected 43 players in the 2018 draft, and it would be a very long article to cover all of them. These four, however, are worthy of a deeper look for one reason or another.

Kevon Jackson, an outfielder out of Queen Creek High School in Arizona, is important for a few reasons. First, at 272nd overall, Jackson was the first high schooler picked by Kansas City. Whether rightfully or not, as that first high schooler picked, he will play a part in how this college-heavy draft will be viewed. Second, Jackson is the youngest player out of the Royals’ entire draft, with a birthdate of June 14, 2000. Jackson is extremely raw but has electrifying speed; his youth and unteachable talent will give him plenty of time to figure it out. You can find Jackson on the Burlington squad.

Another high schooler, Rylan Kaufman was the 362nd overall pick. However, he is of note because of his signing bonus: $722,500, or nearly $600,000 over the slot value. Kaufman only pitched four games last year and has only pitched twice this year.

Nathan Eaton and Josh Dye round out the list because of their exemplary performances. Both college players with a signing bonus significantly under slot, both have nevertheless played above their station as picks closer to the end of the draft than the beginning. In 38.1 innings out of the bullpen between Lexington and then Wilmington, Dye has notched 4.33 strikeouts per walk and sports an ERA of 2.82. His Wilmington numbers aren’t great yet, but he was good enough in Lexington to warrant eyeballs. Meanwhile, Eaton has posted a 110 wRC+ in Lexington a year after putting up a 153 wRC+ in Idaho Falls. The utility player can also play all around the diamond.

The verdict

Ultimately, we won’t start seeing these names make it to Kansas City until mid-2020 at the very earliest, and likely it won’t be until that September or 2021.

With that being said, all we can do now right now is judge their performance in the minor leagues. Overall, the 2018 draft class has been killing it so far. The pitchers have stayed mostly healthy and have advanced quickly, and a handful of position players have performed better than expected. That’s all you can really ask for one year later.