Royals' prospects hope to max potential
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Right-handed pitcher Chase Wallace serves as an example of how the Kansas City Royals' past and present have converged during this unprecedented period in Major League Baseball's history amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, KC's ability to make the most of new additions like Wallace by helping them reach their ceiling will be critical to the organization's future.
Wallace, a 21-year-old resident of Sevierville, Tenn., enjoyed a promising start to his junior season at the University of Tennessee, but the pandemic truncated the college season and he wasn't picked in an MLB draft shortened from 40 rounds to just five.
Baseball America had ranked him the 440th-best draft-eligible prospect. In a 40-round draft, at least 1,200 players would've been selected. Under MLB's new system, all teams could offer a maximum signing bonus of $20,000 to undrafted free agents, such as Wallace. Starting Sunday, a couple of days after this year's draft concluded, players were flooded with a bevy of recruiting pitches from organizations bidding for their services.
"I'm pretty sure I talked to almost everybody in that organization, it felt like," Wallace said of the Royals. "I even talked to (general manager Dayton Moore). They showed a lot of love. Will Howard, the area scout who scouted me, kept in contact with me throughout the day."
Wallace is just one of seven undrafted free agents, including three college pitchers, who've agreed to terms with the Royals, though the club has not officially announced the signings.
Wallace's Tennessee roots provided a connection to the Royals' past. His pitching coach during his freshman year of high school at Sevier County High just happened to be Dylan Hochevar, the younger brother of former Royals No. 1 overall draft pick and World Series champion Luke Hochevar. Both Hochevars attended Tennessee.
Despite his early struggles and an eventual conversion to the bullpen, the Royals stuck with Luke Hochevar and brought him back after he was granted free agency in 2014. He went on to play a key role in their championship run in 2015.
"What really helped me was my relationship with the Hochevars," Wallace said. "I talked to Luke and his dad Brian throughout the day. They were pretty much selling me, too. They were pretty much saying how much they (the Royals) care for their guys in the minor leagues. The relationships they gain with each player was very unique, so I just wanted to be a part of that."
Wallace's primary goal was to find an organization that would help him grow.
"Player development," Wallace said when asked what he prioritized. "I don't want to go to an organization where I can get stuck and no one is really helping me."
Wallace features a fastball ranging from 89-92 mph with a lot of movement from a slightly low arm angle. It pairs very well with his slider out of the same arm slot that moves in the opposite direction.
This spring at Tennessee, Wallace moved from the Vols' bullpen into the starting rotation and posted a 3.50 ERA with 18 strikeouts, seven walks and a .194 opponent's batting average in four starts (18 innings).
He continued an upward trend that started last summer in the wood-bat Cape Cod League. He'd missed much of his sophomore season due to injury, but on the Cape he started to learn to "pitch" as opposed to just "throwing."
"I think Kansas City is going to get a really good pitcher that has got a chance to move and do some things," Tennessee pitching coach Frank Anderson said. "Really, it's a good opportunity for both the club and him."
Anderson, the former head coach at Oklahoma State and father of MLB pitcher Brett Anderson, cited the Royals' track record with SEC players and pitchers as well as the organization's reputation as reasons he thinks Wallace found a good fit.
"I think a lot of it was confidence because he'd been injured," Anderson said of Wallace. "It wasn't anything arm-wise, but he'd just had some stuff with his body. I think he got healthy and started throwing and the confidence started coming on."
One of the myriad people Wallace spoke to last Sunday was Paul Gibson, the Royals' director of pitching performance.
Last offseason, the Royals restructured their player-development system to create a more encompassing approach to developing pitchers, as well as developing hitters.
Gibson, who spent 19 seasons as a pitcher in pro baseball with the Detroit Tigers, New York Mets and New York Yankees, is now charged with coordinating individual development plans for each of the Royals' pitchers, using performance science, strength and conditioning, behavioral science and analytics as well as traditional pitching coaches.
Gibson, who initially joined the Royals in their scouting department, sat down with The Star during spring training to discuss the progress of their pitching prospects.
"If I had to say one thing that I believe in my heart that separates us, we have from Dayton down to J.J. (Picollo) to Lonnie (Goldberg) to everybody in the system is you need to know that player," Gibson said. "You need to know his makeup. You need to know what kind of person he is."
Gibson may have the most crucial job as the Royals try to mold their wealth of young pitching talent. In general, all pitchers in the system will be judged on holding runners, fielding their position and overall pitching _ command of the fastball, breaking ball, ability to throw to all four quadrants of the strike zone and executing a game plan.
But they're all on individual timelines to get them to their ultimate end goal: reaching, and succeeding in, the majors.
Gibson must make sure that, while they're allowed to learn and experience growing pains, they're also in a competitive environment that prepares them for the pressure and adrenaline of baseball's biggest stage.
"The delicate balance between developing skills and going out and competing is really interesting," Gibson said. "Because if you put too much focus on development, they forget to go out and compete. If you put all your eggs in the compete basket, you don't pay attention to detail."
So far this month, the Royals have added another seven pitchers — including four draft picks — to their farm system. They grabbed possibly the top pitcher in the draft in Texas A&M ace left-hander Asa Lacy with the No. 4 overall pick.
Before the draft, seventeen pitchers were among the Royals' top 30 prospects, as ranked by Baseball America, including a pair of top-100 prospects in left-hander Daniel Lynch (No. 39) and right-hander Jackson Kowar (No. 78).
Developing top prospects and under-the-radar ones alike will be crucial in multiple ways.
The Royals' back-to-back World Series appearances in 2014 and 2015 were built in no small part upon contributions of homegrown pitching, such as Danny Duffy, Greg Holland, Yordano Ventura, Kelvin Herrera and Hochevar.
But just as importantly, the Royals developed young pitching talent they then used to augment their roster through trades that acquired James Shields and Wade Davis (a deal in which they also brought in pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery), Johnny Cueto (traded for pitchers Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed) and super-utility man Ben Zobrist (traded for Aaron Brooks and Sean Manaea).
Moore underscored the importance of acquiring and developing young pitchers after the first night of the draft when he said, "The economics of this game does not allow us to win the negotiations of these top-rotation pitchers once they become free agents."
That harsh economic reality is why the Royals must get the most out of the pitchers they bring into their organization, be it through the draft or as undrafted free agents like Wallace. It's one of the few level playing fields they have on which to compete for talent.