Brief but auspicious, the spring training dress rehearsals of Kansas City Royals pitching prospects Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch and Kris Bubich were significant in that they indicated the group has collectively moved closer to the majors.
Only Singer hadn't been sent to minor-league camp when MLB suspended spring training. While all four were expected to start the season in the minors, they've each shown enticing potential.
The quartet's time as part of KC's big-league camp served as a continuation of their development and a means of paving their way toward joining the major-league roster in the not-to-distant future.
Their collective progression will have an impact on the organization for years to come. The Royals didn't have a fifth starter headed into spring training, and two of their certain starters, Danny Duffy and Mike Montgomery, could be free agents after the 2021 season.
The Royals have struggled in recent years to produce homegrown starting pitchers, and considerable draft capital went into acquiring their latest young foursome. All four were first-round draft picks in 2018 and have quickly grown to symbolize a new hope for the future.
"Some guys are just built for this game in the big leagues, and it shouldn't take them long to get on that stage and figure it out on that stage," Royals director of pitching performance Paul Gibson told The Star last month in Arizona. "For others, it takes longer. But I think this group of four, they're all wired right. So I don't think you worry as much as a coach as to whether they're going to cross every 't' and dot every 'i' and take care of business."
Gibson, 34 years into professional baseball, spent 19 seasons as a pitcher in the minors and majors, including stints with the Detroit Tigers, New York Mets and New York Yankees.
Gibson joined the Royals as a national supervisor in the fall of 2010, and he remained in that role through 2018, when the club drafted right-handers Singer and Kowar out of the University of Florida, left-hander Lynch from the University of Virginia and left-hander Bubic out of Stanford.
Baseball America ranked all four pitchers, along with left-hander Austin Cox, among the top-10 prospects in the Royals' farm system.
"It's somewhat of an anomaly for all four of them to be in the same place at the same time today," Gibson said while all four were still in the Royals' big-league camp. "Where they're at is a little different than even what we expected maybe a year ago."
The Royals had five pitchers among their top-10 prospects in 2011, the year Baseball America ranked theirs the top farm system in the game.
At the time, the group included John Lamb, Chris Dwyer, Aaron Crow, Montgomery and Duffy. Lamb, Montgomery and Duffy were all drafted out of California high schools.
Singer and Kowar were part of teams at Florida that won two SEC championships, appeared in the College World Series three times, went to the CWS as the top seed in the nation twice and won a national championship.
Lynch's Virginia teams and Bubic's Stanford teams were in NCAA Regionals two times apiece.
"There's a level of maturity, a level of experience, that's a little bit different when you're talking about a collective group of these four guys, and it shows," Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. "It shows in their knowledge of the game. It shows in their preparation, both on the field and off the field."
In less than two full seasons in professional baseball, they all could have been at Double-A or Triple-A to start the season.
"We believe the Double-A and Triple-A guys, it's our responsibility in player development to finish them off so when they get to the big leagues they're prepared the best they can be to stay in the big leagues," Gibson said.
"Obviously, the performance on the field dictates how long you stay and how successful you are, but we don't want it to be because you didn't field your position or you didn't hold runners. Those are the things we can control. That's where a lot of our focus would go with the higher-level guys."
At major Division I college programs, there's substantial pressure to win immediately. While winning is part of the development process in the minors, the bigger picture commands considerable focus.
"I was able to flash a good curveball in college, but I didn't throw it enough to be consistent with it or even prove that I had it in the arsenal," Bubic said. "Coming here has kind of allowed me to unlock that consistency of the third pitch. I think that's definitely something they saw.
"Everybody saw the fastball and the changeup — that's still my bread and butter, obviously — but to be able to unlock and jump up to this new level I've kind of unleashed was definitely all because of the curveball. I think that's what the Royals' front office saw — the scouting department and the coaching staff."
When Bubic first entered the organization, Idaho Falls pitching coach Jeff Suppan made him think critically about how he used the various pitches in his arsenal. By his own admission, Bubic threw his fastball 70 to 75% of the time.
A combination of conversations with Suppan and some high pitch-count outings helped Bubic realize the importance of developing his curveball.
Last year, Bubic had Mitch Stetter as his pitching coach in Lexington. Stetter, now the Royals' manager of pitching performance, gave Bubic cues to help develop his curve.
In Idaho Falls, Bubic posted a 4.03 ERA with a 1.50 WHIP and .253 opponent's batting average in 10 starts.
Last season, Bubic, who turned 22 in August, moved up the ladder and pitched at both Low-A Lexington (nine starts) and High-A Wilmington (17 starts). He improved his ERA (2.23), WHIP (0.97) and batting average against (.199) despite facing higher-level competition.
"In college let's say I'd throw 100 pitches in a start and I'd throw maybe one or two curveballs," Bubic said. "Looking back, that's not enough to even get comfortable, even get a feel for it. ...
"There was a game I always go back to last year. It was the second-to-last start, the first playoff start in Wilmington against Salem. They had six lefties in the lineup. I actually threw 40 curveballs that game. If you would have told me a year go I would have done that, I would have thought you were crazy."
Kowar has similarly focused on cultivating his curveball, while Singer has worked on developing a consistent changeup.
"In the minor leagues you really learn to develop, and you learn to use pitches you're not comfortable with at uncomfortable times," Singer said.
Each pitcher has his own individually tailored development plan and timeline in the system, and their various experiences and interactions will resonate differently with each of them.
The 34th overall pick in the 2018 draft class, Lynch has progressed to the point that Baseball America ranked him the 39th-best prospect in the minors this spring.
The 6-foot-6 Lynch features a fastball that touches 98 mph, up from around 93-94 in college. His command has also improved since he entered professional baseball, and he's growing in the mental aspects of pitching.
"(I learned) how to use my stuff most effectively," Lynch said of his trip to the Arizona Fall League at the end of last season. "I didn't really have too good an understanding of that, of where my stuff plays best. I definitely started to find that there."
The Royals shut down Lynch in the middle of last season because of discomfort in his throwing arm. That missed time _ from June 1 to July 20 _ led the Royals to send Lynch to the AFL after the minor-league season ended.
One of his other takeaways from Arizona was that he became comfortable attacking hitters with fastballs at the top of the strike zone.
"Before, I only knew how to elevate a fastball in an ahead-count for a swing and miss," Lynch said. "To a guy who is a good low-ball hitter, you're going to have to be able to throw that ball at the top of the zone for a strike, too. That was a concept I didn't really understand, and I got a better understanding of."
Before being sent to minor-league camp, Kowar spoke to the familiarity gained by all the first-time invitees to big-league camp. They're each aiming to return to the big leagues at some point.
"It's just nice getting comfortable over here," Kowar said. "It's nice to put some faces with names and meet people and interact with them and to get to know them more personally. So I think it's been big, just being able to learn."
Kowar said the fact that they all went through this experience together shouldn't be overlooked. No one guy has to shoulder all the attention and expectations or handle the learning curve alone. And they can still push one another.
"I think it's easy when we're all going through it together," Kowar said. "There's not a bunch of pressure on one guy _ probably like it was when it was (Eric Hosmer), (Mike Moustakas) and those guys coming up. It's easier, at least for me, when there's a group of us. There's a giant group of us. You're not feeling all the pressure as one guy. I think the competition is good. It brings out the best in us."
Each of the four endured hiccups in big-league camp. Some of it they pitched their way out of, such as when Singer loaded the bases with no outs against the Chicago Cubs.
Being "challenged" at a different level will ultimately serve them well, Gibson said.
Pitching in traffic with runners on base in tight spots is just part of the process. Gibson came away impressed with how they slowed things down and handled those situations.
"I still believe that they all have stuff to work on. That would be one opinion," he said. "I think most of the things they need to tune up or work on are things that they're all capable of.
"I wouldn't think that it's going to be a long time (until they figure it out). That's (manager) Mike Matheny and (pitching coach) Cal Eldred's decision, as to when they feel the need and the time is right for them to be ready."