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For a once promising crop of Royals pitchers, it’s now or never

At least we made some friends along the way

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not one to give up easily on a player. Player development isn’t linear across the span of a professional career. We’ve seen the Alex Gordon story unfold in Kansas City. Not long thereafter, we saw something similar with Mike Moustakas. Players with potential can struggle for quite some time before ultimately putting it all together and becoming exactly what we’d hoped for all along.

I cover the minor leagues so of course, I’m a bit of an optimist — maybe too much so. After all, preaching about potential is a slippery slope. It’s easy to look at the great things a player does while looking past the bad. You think, “Well they’ll improve the power with time.” Or, “The approach will come, but look at the tools.” Far too often we look back and realize that the power never did come and the strikeouts never did tail off. Sometimes a player is exactly what they are from the moment they step on the diamond. It’s a truth I don’t entertain often enough, I fear. But what is baseball without hope?

For the Kansas City Royals, much of that optimism and hope has surrounded one crop of players, acquired and developed fairly closely together over the course of three seasons. The entire potential of the future seemed to hinge entirely on the successful development of those pitchers. In all, Kansas City owned 30 selections in the top 10 rounds from 2018-2020. Of those 30 selections, 19 would be pitchers. Among the selections are names that we’ve all grown accustomed to: Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, Kris Bubic, Alec Marsh, Jonathan Bowlan, Asa Lacy, and Ben Hernandez. Those names are simply the earliest selections over the span of their respective draft classes. Austin Cox, Drew Parrish, and Anthony Veneziano were all part of those draft classes as well.

For the better part of three seasons, those names were heralded as the hope all Royals fans needed in order to look past the 100-loss seasons. They would break the curse that was decades of failed pitching development by the Royals’ organization. These pitchers were going to build a winner and change the reputation of the franchise. In the year 2023, that notion is laughable. It’s baseless and naïve. Many of those pitchers were college arms — quick movers — that would move through the system quickly and build a top-of-the-line starting rotation.

I admit, I myself likened the impressive group of minor league arms to those of the Braves in the 90s. I compared them to the New York Mets prospects of the 2010s and I drank the Kool-Aid. I believed that it would all be different. Instead, the class looks more like that of the 2010 Orioles - their top prospects that season included Brian Matusz, Zach Britton, Jake Arrieta, and Brandon Erbe. Oh, how the narrative has changed.

It’s time to look (once again) to the future in Kansas City

Nobody wants to hear it, but we all know it. It’s time once again to look to the future as Royals fans. A major storyline this season is the improved development of young arms in the system. The “next wave” is headlined by Frank Mozzicato, Ben Kudrna, Chandler Champlain, Noah Cameron, and David Sandlin. Mozzicato and Champlain have been dominating at their respective levels so far this season, leading many fans to ask why they still haven’t been promoted.

So why haven’t they been moved up? The answer can be found in the “next wave that never was.” That very crop of pitchers from 2018-2020 that were going to reshape the future is instead a slow-moving barge slowing progression through the system for the next group of potentials. Omaha’s rotation is headlined by Cox and Parrish, two pitchers who have seen flashes of good stuff in Triple-A. However, so far they lack the stuff needed to translate that success to the Major Leagues.

Behind them in Northwest Arkansas, Alec Marsh posted a 6.16 ERA in the month of May. Jonathan Bowlan has once again been hampered by injury and has an ERA over 6 this season. Those struggling pitchers in the upper minors are now blocking the way for potential promotions. There’s no room in the AA rotation, so Chandler Champlain (2.68 ERA) remains in High-A. Luinder Avila (2.91 ERA) remains there as well after 7 exceptional starts. Past them in Low-A Columbia, Frank Mozzicato (2.14 ERA) is banging down the door to Quad Cities. Ben Kudrna (3.73 ERA) and David Sandlin (3.54 ERA) are right behind him.

Once the future, the Royals’ large group of pitching prospects is now blocking the future. It’s now or never for them. Jonathan Bowlan will be 27 in December. Marsh turned 25 in May. Austin Cox and Drew Parrish are both going to be 26 next season. Asa Lacy, the youngest of the bunch, is 24 and hasn’t pitched in a game at all this season. He’s not injured (thankfully) but instead is working on his “mindset.

“It sounds so cliche, but it really is my mindset. I’ve learned how to better flush the bad days, even bad pitches. I just want to continue it tomorrow and the next day. And if I keep doing that, it’s going to be a good season.”

At the major league level, Brady Singer is struggling once again. He’s nearly 27. Daniel Lynch has one solid start this season but owns a career ERA north of 5.00 at age-26. Kris Bubic looked like a positive story this season, but unfortunately suffered a season-ending injury and won’t pitch again until at least the start of next season. He will be 26. The prospects have become failed major leaguers hoping to turn it around or “former” top prospects. And that stinks.

I haven’t given up all hope. The talent still exists somewhere within all of these players. Daniel Lynch wasn’t a Top 50 prospect for nothing. Brady Singer and Jackson Kowar once landed on the Top 100 as well. There would be nothing better for Kansas City than seeing all of these pitchers finally put it together and become quality major league additions. Nobody is counting that out. We just aren’t counting on it anymore. We can’t. The Royals can no longer wait for the development of pitchers that will be close to 30 years old when the contention window opens up.

That makes the next two months make-or-break for minor leaguers like Austin Cox and Drew Parrish. The same goes for Jonathan Bowlan and Alec Marsh. If the trade deadline rolls around and those pitchers are doing many of the same things we’ve already seen, they may end up pitching in another organization this very season. If not via trade, many may see their spot on the 40-man given to someone else as the franchise looks to the future once again. Not during the season, but likely over the coming offseason when others like Noah Cameron and Chandler Champlain will have earned a place.

The future isn’t now anymore in Kansas City. Whether we like it or not.