The Northwest Arkansas Naturals, the Double-A affiliate for the Royals, last won a league title in 2010. They finished top of their division in 2009, 2010, 2015, and 2016. But following a poor stretch of drafting and watching promising prospects fizzle out, the Naturals are barreling towards a last place finish in the second half in the Texas League North and will miss the playoffs.
However, there’s been an uptick in talent, stemming from the 2018 draft. College arms such as Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, and 2017 third round pick Daniel Tillo, have brought intrigue for what is to come next year. Despite a rough start to Double-A, Singer has rebounded to post a 3.66 ERA with 79 strikeouts over 83 2⁄3 innings. Kowar logs a 3.28 ERA in 12 starts while collecting 73 strikeouts. For Tillo, who tossed seven scoreless innings in his Double-A debut, the left-hander has since moved to the bullpen. In all, he’s showcased a 3.74 ERA in 21 2⁄3 innings, holding hitters to .258 average.
As promising as it presumes to be, another group of pitchers in High-A Wilmington are creating noise in the Carolina League. Noted as a pitcher-friendly place to pitch, Kris Bubic, Jonathan Bowlan, Daniel Lynch, and Austin Cox are beginning to prove they don’t belong at the level any longer. And this is meant to come across in a positive manner. Bubic is striking out 10.1 per nine and worked back-to-back complete games in his starts on August 8th and 15th. Bowlan completed a no-hitter on July 15th and has logged a 2.74 ERA and 0.97 WHIP in 11 starts with the Blue Rocks. If not for arm soreness that sidelined him for most of June and July, Lynch would be in Double-A. In 14 starts with Wilmington, he’s posted a 3.23 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a collective 3.36 ERA. Cox, the sleeper of the bunch, has quietly emerged into one of the better arms in the Royals’ system. In 49 1⁄3 innings, the 22-year-old has a 2.74 ERA and a .261 opponents batting average.
With the four pitchers remaining in Wilmington for its postseason, the promotions will have to wait until next season. However, it’s not a stretch to assume Bubic and Bowlan will start in the rotation for the Naturals to begin 2020. With the injury and lack of innings, Lynch and Cox might need a few more starts in High-A before joining the staff. That being said, Northwest Arkansas’ rotation could look a little something like this in April:
RHP Brady Singer (Age: 23)
RHP Jackson Kowar (Age: 23)
LHP Kris Bubic (Age: 22)
LHP Daniel Lynch (Age: 23)
RHP Jonathan Bowlan (Age: 23)
At the Major League level, everyone is fully aware of who has the chance to stick in the rotation long term. For the starting staff, Brad Keller stands out as the lone man to be a long term member. Including his age (24) and 2019 numbers (28 starts, 4.19 ERA, 122 SO, 70 BB, 1.35 WHIP), Keller fits in the future plan - being just one year older than the five arms in Double-A. Aside from him, pitchers such as Danny Duffy, Glenn Sparkman, and Mike Montgomery won’t be starting games for Kansas City in a year or two. Junis has provided a much stronger second half, but could be pushed out by the upcoming prospects. Still considered young at 26, a role in the bullpen as a long reliever could keep him in a Royals’ uniform or make him a valuable trade asset down the road. In the bullpen, Josh Staumont (25), Scott Barlow (26), Jorge López (26), and Richard Lovelady (24) all have the arsenal to stick. However, the organization will need all of the previously mentioned names to outperform in high leverage roles in 2020 to prove they belong.
In the grand scheme of things though, the improvement in Double-A is what eyes will be fixated on next season. For Kansas City to take the next step in its rebuild, having the 2018 pitchers continue their trend is paramount. Barring any injuries, this time next season could witness the first 2018 draftee make their debut with Kansas City. High-A to Double-A will be the biggest jump in competition for the group in their minor league careers. The Wilmington arms will no longer benefit from a pitcher’s environment. Where it took Singer a few outings to adjust, Kowar rolled in and found comfort sooner than expected. Than plan may be different for Dayton Moore and the front office. However, harboring a log jam of talented arms and another top-3 draft pick to come next June, the once decimated farm system is suddenly on the uprise.