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It’s time for the Royals to re-evaluate how to acquire pitching

Instead of relying on development, make trades and sign free agent arms.

MLB: Cleveland Guardians at Kansas City Royals Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

On Sunday, the Cleveland Guardians, who’d scored only once through their first two games of the season, put up a couple of touchdowns and tacked on a field goal on their way to a 17-3 victory over the Royals.

Yes, it was bad for Kansas City.

But, dig just a little bit deeper, and it really doesn’t bode well for the future of the Royals’ group of pitchers.

Before all that, let’s recognize that it was just one game. One out of 162 games. That’s the epitome of a small sample size, so this doesn’t exactly call for a scene akin to Kevin Bacon from Animal House waving his arms while imploring the mad mob around him to “remain calm—all is well!”

And yet...

Well, here’s the closer look: back in 2018, the Royals used their first five draft picks in the first two rounds on college pitchers. Three of them pitched in Sunday’s shellacking against the Guardians.

  • Kris Bubic: 0.2 IP, 3 hits, 2 walks, 0 strikeouts, 5 earned runs*
  • Jackson Kowar**: 3.1 IP, 11 hits, 1 walk, 4 strikeouts, 7 earned runs
  • Brady Singer: 3.0 IP, 6 hits, 1 walk, 3 strikeouts, 1 home run allowed, 4 earned runs

*Three of these earned runs came off a Grand Slam allowed by Taylor Clarke, who relieved Bubic.

**Since demoted.

Overall, that’s 7 IP, 20 hits, 4 walks, 7 strikeouts, 1 home run allowed, and 16 earned runs.

Or, simply: woof.

Again, this goes back to 2018, and how the Kansas City Royals decided to acquire pitching. They did so through the draft and by targeting college arms, arms that were hopefully closer to being ready for the Major Leagues than high school arms. Arms that were cheaper, both in capital (draft over trade) and finances (lower salaries over signing free agents). Arms with high floors but low ceilings.

That strategy doesn’t seem to be working. Perhaps it’s time to re-think it.

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Brady Singer (51) throws against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the first inning of a spring training game at Surprise Stadium. Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Perhaps it’s time to start focusing on drafting high-ceiling batters in the first round and acquiring pitchers outside of the draft, at least the first couple of rounds.

Over the past five drafts, the Royals have made 17 picks before the start of the third round using 11 selections on pitchers, eight of whom came from the college ranks, including five-for-five in the 2018 draft.

The results haven’t been there for any of those pitchers, but especially those drafted out of college.

Compare this to the last Chicago Cubs rebuild under Theo Epstein. Instead of targeting cheap arms in the draft, the Cubs targeted cheap bats, landing guys like Kris Bryant (2013, round 1, pick 2), Kyle Schwarber (2014, 1-4) and Javier Baez (2011, 1-9) while trading for other young hitters (Anthony Rizzo from the Padres, Addison Russell from the Athletics) to supplement.

For pitching, in 2016, when the Cubs won the World Series, their rotation consisted of zero pitchers drafted by the team. Instead, Chicago signed veteran free agent starters like Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Jason Hammel while acquiring Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks through trades.

Also consider the Royals starting rotation in 2015, the year they won the World Series: Chris Young, Jeremy Guthrie, and Edinson Volquez all arrived through free agency. Johnny Cueto came over in a midseason trade. (Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura were both homegrown.)

Even out of the bullpen, guys like Wade Davis, Ryan Madson, and Franklin Morales arrived by trade or free agency.

Considering this, maybe it’s time for the Royals to circle back to talks with the Athletics about Frankie Montas. Maybe it’s time to start scoping out the next round of free agent pitchers, keeping an eye on how starters like Noah Syndergaard, Nathan Eovaldi, and Sean Manaea perform this year. Might be time to open the wallet and splurge on a big-name pitcher who won’t be 39 come October.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Kansas City Royals Peter Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

There’s still time, of course. There’s still time for the Royals’ young pitchers to improve and show that Dayton Moore & Co. were wise to select them over hitters like Nolan Gorman, Triston Casas, and Brennen Davis. There’s still time to avoid being forced to strike a blockbuster trade for merely a couple of seasons of a frontline starter.

Sunday’s bad loss makes it clear, though: that time is running out.