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A look back at the Royals’ 2018 draft class, five years later

The Royals had a lot of picks, did they use them well?

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MLB: SEP 01 Indians at Royals

By 2018, the Royals were three years removed from their championship team, needing to replenish the farm system to replace the core that had departed. Thanks to the departure of those free agents, the Royals came into the 2018 draft armed with eight picks in the top 152 - four of those in the top 50, including the #18 pick overall.

It was a chance to replenish a depleted farm system with a $12.7 million draft bonus pool, the largest in baseball. This fueled speculation the Royals might try to swing for the fences with some high-end talent. The Royals were connected to prep players like infielder Jordan Groshans, and outfielders Jordyn Adams, Connor Scott, Alek Thomas and Nick Schnell. If they went with a pitcher, some projected Ole Miss left-hander Ryan Rolison.

The Royals did decide to go with college pitching, not just with the first pick, but their first five picks in the draft. They did not select a single high school player until the ninth round. Moore later revealed that they had wanted two position players that were selected before they had a chance. But they went into the draft wanting to add pitching.

But it would not be Rolison the Royals took at pick #18 (he would slide to the Rockies at #22), but rather intense Florida right-hander Brady Singer. Singer had gained notoriety for his performance in the College World Series in 2017 and had risen up draft rankings with a strong 2018 performance. Jim Callis at loved the pick, having ranked Singer as one of the top players in the draft.

I really like this pick for the Royals, who need pitching and couldn’t have expected Pipeline’s No. 2 Draft prospect to last until No. 18. I’m not sure what happened here, but Kansas City got a nearly MLB-ready pitcher who has a lively fastball and tremendous feel for his slider. I really like the way Singer attacks hitters, and his competitiveness is off the charts.

Baseball America ranked him #4, noting his “spotless track record”, but also raising one concern.

While Singer doesn’t throw many changeups currently, scouts think he has the ability to develop at least an average changeup in pro ball, when he would be able to throw it more frequently. Teams more skeptical of Singer will see a two-pitch starter with a concerning arm slot that might lead to the bullpen, while less critical scouting departments might see a potential middle-of-the-rotation arm who has impressive strike-throwing ability and more high-level track record than any pitcher in a deep 2018 class.

Our own Shaun Newkirk compiled an aggregate draft board, where the top player available to the Royals would have been South Florida left-hander Shane McClanahan. The Rays took him at #31 and he was an All-Star last year and leads the league in wins and ERA this year. The next highest player was prep pitcher Kumar Rocker (who fell to the 38th round when it was clear he would not sign), Rolison, then Singer, who was the composite 12th-best player.

Newkirk felt Singer had a “decent shot to be a major league pitcher in the back half of a rotation” but criticized the Royals for playing it too safe with their draft.

I think the Royals should have swung for the fences with their picks, instead it feels like they... decided to round first base halfways and then decide to turn back after the outfielder got to the ball quicker than they thought.

The Royals refuted concerns they were going for a low-upside, high-floor approach.

Until opting for some late fliers in the final rounds, the Royals mostly avoided high school players like the plague. Most of those players will likely go unsigned and head to college. But despite the collegiate theme and the reliance on arms, Goldberg said the club did not sacrifice upside or potential for certainty.

“There’s still [a] ceiling with the group that we’ve selected,” he said.

The Royals had three sandwich picks, and took three more college pitchers. Singer’s teammate, Jackson Kowar, went with pick #33. He was the composite 18th-best player, with some publications ranking him in the top 15. At pick #34, the Royals took Virginia lefty Daniel Lynch, seen as a bit of a reach with a ranking of #111 by Baseball America, who wrote, “Lynch doesn’t have one standout tool, but the sum of his parts gives him a chance to be a back-of-the-rotation innings eater.” Lynch would end up signing $369,200 under slot.

With the #40 pick, the Royals took lefty Kris Bubic out of Stanford, ranked #40 by Baseball America for his “high floor.” Of the 13 players taken in the sandwich round, six have reached the big leagues, including the three Royals pitchers. But McClanahan has outshone them, and even Diamondbacks outfielder Jake McCarthy, taken at #39, has accumulated more WAR (3.0) than any of the Royals sandwich picks.

In the second round, the Royals took yet another college pitcher with big-bodied right-hander Jonathan Bowland out of Memphis. Few of the second rounders taken after him have done much - Ryan Jeffers is a decent catcher for the Twins, outfielder Alek Thomas has some potential with the Diamondbacks, and Josiah Gray has had mixed results with the Nationals after being drafted by the Reds. In the third round, the Royals selected UNLV outfielder Kyle Isbel. Later that round, the Astros selected University of Maine shortstop and future ALCS and World Series MVP Jeremy Pena.

The 2018 Royals draft class would produce eight big leaguers in all. In addition to Singer, Lynch, Bubic, and Isbel, they selected Austin Cox (5th round), Jonathan Heasley (13th round), and Nate Eaton (21st round). The draft class became the first one ever to have five pitchers start for their team in the same season. But the starts have not been quality starts. The quintet has combined to start 218 games with an ERA of 5.04.

Royals 2018 draft class starting pitchers

Pitcher Selection ERA FIP GS IP K/9 BB/9 fWAR
Pitcher Selection ERA FIP GS IP K/9 BB/9 fWAR
Brady Singer 18th 4.43 3.97 78 422.2 8.7 3 6.5
Jackson Kowar 33rd 9.83 5.93 8 57.2 9.4 5.9 -0.5
Daniel Lynch 34th 5.11 4.74 48 236.0 7.7 3.6 1.4
Kris Bubic 40th 4.85 4.81 60 325.0 8.0 4.0 1.8
Jonathan Heasley 392nd 5.27 5.64 24 121.1 5.7 3.7 -0.5

By objective measures, this would be a pretty successful draft. Getting eight players to the big leagues, including five starting pitchers, one or two of whom may have some mid-rotation stuff, plus a potential starting outfielder, is a pretty good haul. But for a team looking to re-stock, this could have been a chance to add some high-end talent.

Perhaps there was little high-end talent in this draft - first overall pick Casey Mize hasn’t panned out, and only two first-round picks have more career WAR than Singer - McClanahan and Cubs infielder Nico Hoerner (24th overall), although Jonathan India (5th), Jarred Kelenic (6th), Logan Gilbert (14th), Nolan Gorman (19th), and Matt McLain (25th) look promising. Jeremy Pena, Steven Kwan, and Taj Bradley were available in the next few rounds, but there doesn’t appear to be much else in terms of solid starters.

This was not a bad draft class by any means. But the fact the Royals had to depend so much on this draft class just to stock a depleted organization makes it harder to appreciate.

Royals 2018 draft class, first 20 rounds

Round Overall Player School BA draft rank Notes
Round Overall Player School BA draft rank Notes
1 18 RHP Brady Singer U. of Florida 4 4.5 WAR season in 2022, but has regressed in 2023
1 33 RHP Jackson Kowar U. of Florida 17 Career 9.83 ERA in 57.2 MLB innings.
1 34 LHP Daniel Lynch U. of Virginia 111 Career 5.11 ERA in 48 MLB starts
1 40 LHP Kris Bubic Stanford University 40 Career 4.85 ERA in 325 MLB innings
2 58 RHP Jonathan Bowlan U. of Memphis 230 Had Tommy John surgery, now in AAA.
3 94 OF Kyle Isbel UNLV 93 Plus defender, but hitting just .222/.274/.359 in 160 MLB games.
4 122 OF Eric Cole U. of Arkansas 433 Reached as far as High-A before retiring.
5 152 LHP Austin Cox Mercer University 212 Went 39 batters without allowing a hit to start MLB career.
6 182 RHP Zach Haake U. of Kentucky 218 Released last year, now in Phillis organization.
7 212 RHP Tyler Gray U. of Central Arkansas 300 Senior sign, reached A ball.
8 242 OF Jackson Lueck Florida State Univ. 214 Released in 2019 after A ball.
9 272 OF Kevon Jackson Queen Creek HS (AZ) Unranked Never made it out of Arizona complex ball.
10 302 LHP Austin Lambright U. of Central Oklahoma Unranked Pitched a few innings in High-A for the Red Sox last year.
11 332 C Michael Emodi Creighton Univ. 469 Retired in 2021 after High-A ball.
12 362 LHP Rylan Kaufman San Jacinto College Unranked Had a 5.21 ERA in A-ball last year, hurt this year.
13 392 RHP Jonathan Heasley Oklahoma State Univ. 266 Career 5.27 ERA in 121.1 MLB innings
14 422 RHP Chrstian Cosby Chapman University Unranked Released last year after a 15.51 ERA.
15 452 OF Milan Walla Tivy HS (TX) Unranked Did not sign, never drafted again
16 482 RHP Kyle Hinton Univ. of Delaware Unranked Released in 2020 after reaching A ball.
17 512 RHP Noah Bryant Georgia Highlands College Unranked Last pitched in 2019.
18 542 RHP R.J. Dabovich Central Arizona College Unranked Did not sign, now in Giants system
19 572 SS Hunter Wolfe Walters State CC 432 Did not sign, never drafted again
20 602 LHP Josh Hendrickson Barton CC Unranked Did not sign, now in Phillies system