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How should the Royals handle their pitching prospects this year?

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To pitch or not to pitch?

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

If the Royals are going to competitive in the near future, it will depend greatly on the success of the crop of pitchers they selected in the 2018 draft, namely Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, and Kris Bubic. The quartet all put on impressive performances last season and earned invites to big league camp this spring. Singer was even a strong contender to earn a spot in the big league rotation to begin the year, and all four are likely only a step or two from making their Major League debut soon.

But the coronavirus pandemic has thrown the entire season into disarray with uncertainty as to when and how baseball will be played this year, if it is even played at all. There are rumors the entire minor league season will be cancelled, although that has been officially denied.

Considering the great lengths baseball is discussing to get the big league games on the field, it does seem doubtful that the same effort will be made for the minor leagues. If the minor league season is wiped out, what should the Royals do with their prized pitching prospects?

Dayton Moore addressed that very question in a recent discussion with reporters, indicating that right now, with so much uncertainty, there is no definitive plan.

“That’s a good question,” Moore said. “Do we decide to just push some guys in preparation for ‘21 and ‘22? But look, our focus was and remains that we’re going to do the best we can to win as many games as we can in 2020. I don’t want to lose that focus. I don’t want to alter that mindset one bit.

“But it’s an interesting question and it’s something that we’ll have to look at. I just don’t know what the operating structure is going to look like throughout baseball. Until we know, it’s very difficult to put all the pieces together.”

There has been a movement by some in baseball away from developing players primarily through live minor league game action. In 2017, the Astros reduced their number of minor league affiliates from nine to seven because they felt they were better at identifying which players were worth their time and which were not, and consolidating resources to help the players most likely to become impact players was more efficient.

In a piece for FiveThirtyEight titled Do We Even Need Minor League Baseball, author Travis Sawchick envisions a future where teams develop players at their spring training facilities, using video analysis, ball-tracking tech, and other analytical tools to refine what players are doing without having to subject them to live game action for a full season.

“The game is the ultimate test but that’s only three or four at-bats a night,” Russ Steinhorn, one of those progressive hitting instructors, said. “The practice before games, you might be taking hundreds of swings. … For me, the practice environment, the lead-up to the game, is the most important. That’s where the development happens.”

Many teams seem to accept this philosophy in part, as evidenced by a recent push to eliminate affiliations with 42 minor league teams.

The Royals could have their top pitching prospects work out at their facility in Arizona with proper safety precautions, working with coaches to refine their mechanics and develop their pitches. Keeping them away from live game action could also mitigate the risk of injury. Still, facing live hitters has its benefits. Assistant General Manager JJ Picollo recently told Lynn Worthy of the Kansas City Star that “not playing competitive games at the appropriate level for each player, that hurts.”

If we assume Major League Baseball does return this summer, it will most likely be in a greatly shortened season of a no more than 100 games. Players will have a truncated spring training to prepare, and with no minor leagues to shuttle players back and forth or replace injured players, there will most likely be expanded rosters and possibly even a taxi squad of some sort to travel with the team.

This could allow the Royals to keep Singer and possibly even other top pitching prospects on the Major League roster and work them into some games. Singer, who seems to be the most polished and ready for big league action, could work as a starter, and with expanded rosters he could be asked to give the Royals short stints of 4-5 innings at a time to build his workload. Kowar, Bubic, and Lynch are all further away, but the Royals could decide to break them in for short stints as relievers, the way Earl Weaver used to break in his best young pitchers by having them come out of the pen.

Having any pitchers on the Major League roster would start the service time clock, and while the Royals typically have not gamed service time, it is still likely going to be a consideration as they look to develop another wave of young players. Will the Royals want to use a year or partial year of service time in what will likely be a bizarre season?

On the other hand, in a shortened season, and with talk of expanding the playoffs for this unique situation, it is not totally implausible to think the Royals could actually compete for a playoff spot. At the very least, Dayton Moore may believe it. He talks consistently about putting forth the best players available to win games, and he may decide to add Singer and others to the roster gives the Royals a chance to compete for something, which may aid them in their future development.

The Royals will have some difficult decisions to make with how to develop their prospects season in an unprecedented situation. Other teams may be in the same boat, as Matthew LaMar wrote last week, but the Royals are relying more on their minor league development than a lot of other teams.

Regardless of what the Royals decide though, they will still have some pretty talented pitchers ready to go whenever they can play games again. As Dayton Moore told Cody Tapp of 610 Sports this week, “Their talent’s not going to go away at this point in their careers.”