Biola University, a small, private school in La Mirada, Calif., is no baseball factory. Tucked 16 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, it has produced just two major-league players, brothers Todd and Tim Worrell. Yet five years ago, in the spring of 2013, then-coach John Verhoeven found himself fielding a three-man starting rotation with two promising freshmen.
One was named Josh Staumont, a flame-throwing right-hander who would transfer schools, harness a 100-mph fastball and develop into one of the top prospects in the Royals minor-league system. The other was Trevor Oaks, a right-hander from Riverside, Calif., who on Thursday was reunited with his old college teammate after being traded to the Royals from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In a three-team trade that included the Dodgers and Chicago White Sox, the Royals parted ways with relievers Scott Alexander and Joakim Soria and received Oaks and infield prospect Erick Mejia from Los Angeles, signaling a coming rebuild. In the process, the Royals positioned themselves do something even more rare: In the not-so-distant future, the Kansas City rotation could feature not just one, but two, pitchers who began their college careers at Biola.
“It’s not too common, I can tell you that,” said Verhoeven, a former major-league pitcher who coached for a decade and a half at the school. “I was head coach for 16 years. Never had a player make the big leagues.”
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Oaks, like Staumont, did not finish his career at Biola. While Staumont followed Verhoeven to nearby Azusa Pacific, where their old coach became the pitching instructor, Oaks transferred to California Baptist, near his home in Riverside, before being drafted in the seventh round by the Dodgers in 2014. Yet four years later, the Royals are less concerned with Oaks’ small-college pedigree and more focused on what he could be in the future.
“We think he’s got a chance to be a very durable major-league starting pitcher,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said.
For most evaluators and scouts, the projection begins with Oaks’ potent sinker. As a 24-year-old in the Pacific Coast League last season, he logged a 3.75 ERA in 84 innings for Class AAA Oklahoma City while battling oblique issues. One year before, he led minor-league baseball by inducing 26 double plays while posting a strong ground-ball percentage (64.5 percent) at Class AA Tulsa.
He began the offseason ranked as the Dodgers’ 14th-best prospect and was added to their 40-man roster before the Rule 5 draft. But a stacked roster meant little opportunity for him in the 2018 rotation.
That will change with the Royals. When spring training begins next month, Oaks will compete for a spot in a rotation that, at the moment, features Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy, Jakob Junis, Nathan Karns and Jason Hammel. Yet the Royals, in the early stages of a rebuilding process, will continue to listen to trade offers for other assets. Among the possibilities: They could seek to dump the salary of Hammel, who is owed $11 million entering the final season of a two-year, $16 million contract. That sort of move could open an additional rotation spot.
The Royals are hopeful Oaks is poised to make his major-league debut. Yet the projections from scouts, who view Oaks as a mid-rotation or back-end starter, suggest some caution. In a scouting report from MLB Pipeline, MLB.com’s ranking of prospects, Oaks was deemed to have an impressive sinker while the rest of his repertoire was rated as “pretty ordinary, with his changeup ranking as his second-most reliable offering ahead of his cutter and short slider.” Others see a ground-ball specialist in a baseball environment where keeping the ball out of the air is paramount.
Oaks also underwent Tommy John surgery following his senior year of high school, which meant a redshirt season at Biola. In the weeks after injuring the ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow, Oaks called Verhoeven and offered to give up his scholarship.
“Right away, I thought: ‘What a character kid,’” Verhoeven recalls.
In four seasons in the minors, Oaks’s arm has remained healthy. A 6-foot-3 and 220-pound right-hander, he posted a 2.65 ERA and 74 strikeouts in 125 2/3 innings at two minor-league levels in 2015. He logged a career-high 151 innings in 2016 before being dogged by an oblique injury last year. But he pushed forward on his path to the major leagues, sitting on the cusp as the offseason began. On Thursday, that path changed slightly. Oaks found himself traded to another organization in another league. He was, however, reunited with one old teammate.