Ashe Russell, Royals’ 2015 first-round pick, steps away from baseball

Royals sign first-round draft pick Ashe Russell

The Kansas City Royals signed their first-round draft pick, Indianapolis pitcher Ashe Russell, and introduced him before a Wednesday, June 17, 2015 game at Kauffman Stadium.
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The Kansas City Royals signed their first-round draft pick, Indianapolis pitcher Ashe Russell, and introduced him before a Wednesday, June 17, 2015 game at Kauffman Stadium.

Ashe Russell, the Royals’ first-round pick in the 2015 draft, has stepped away from professional baseball, club officials told The Star.

Russell, a 20-year-old right-handed pitcher from Indianapolis, took a leave of absence last month. Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo described it as a “mental break” after a frustrating two-year stretch.

General manager Dayton Moore said Russell had the club’s full support. Picollo said there was no timeline for a potential return to the organization.

“We’re not worried about baseball one bit with Ashe Russell,” Picollo said. “It’s not our concern at all. It’s something that when the time is right for the game, that’s when we’ll do it. But there’s no expectation whatsoever for him to come back this summer or even this fall.

“For things to happen good on the field, other things have to be in place. And it starts with the mind and the heart, and when we get that right, Ashe can enjoy baseball again.”

When reached by The Star on Friday, Russell said he was focused on working through some personal issues but didn’t wish to discuss the situation at this point.

A 6-foot-4, 205-pound pitcher, Russell was drafted out of Cathedral High School in Indianapolis at No. 21 overall. He signed for $2,190,200, just slightly more than the slot value for the pick. In the weeks after signing, Russell made his professional debut for Burlington (N.C.), the Royals’ rookie affiliate in the Appalachian League. He posted a 4.21 ERA in 36  1/3 innings.

Russell, however, would experience a series of setbacks starting in 2016. A mechanical flaw in his arm action and delivery limited his ability to control the baseball. The struggles affected his confidence. He appeared in just two games for the Royals’ affiliate in the Arizona Rookie League last season. He spent much of the summer working at the club’s facility in Surprise, Ariz.

This year, Russell took part in spring training but was not assigned to a minor-league affiliate when the season began. He remained in extended spring training until after the draft, when club officials met with him and discussed his future, Picollo said.

“I don’t think he was having as much enjoyment with what he was doing the last year and a half or so,” Picollo said. “When you see players get to that point, you just want to help them. And sometimes the thing they need to do is take a step back and get away.”

Club officials have described Russell’s battle with his mechanics as a combination of physical and mental issues. In some cases, Picollo said, it can be difficult to separate the two.

“He’s made some adjustments that have been detrimental to having success,” Picollo said. “And (he’s) now trying to let the ball go the way he did at one time. But until he develops that feel again, it’s hard to let him go pitch right now.”

In an interview last week, Moore said Russell was “working on developing as a person away from the game.”

“We fully support that and applaud his efforts,” Moore said.

Picollo praised the way Russell has handled the adversity.

“For what he was going through, he came to the park every day with a smile on his face, he did all the right things,” Picollo said. “It just wasn’t happening for him.”

“He is going through some personal things, some things he needs to handle himself,” Picollo said. “The struggles on the field are sort of the result of things that he’s trying to get a handle on.”

It is not unprecedented for top prospects to take breaks from baseball. Royals pitcher Danny Duffy left baseball for a short time in 2010 while pitching in the minor leagues, though he was already established as a major-league prospect. Duffy returned to the organization later that season and made his Royals debut in 2011. Former Royals pitcher Zack Greinke also took a break from baseball after his major-league career began. After his return, he won the AL Cy Young Award in 2009.

Russell was one of two top picks from the Indianapolis area in 2015. The Royals also selected right-handed pitcher Nolan Watson with the No. 33 overall pick. Watson, 20, has posted a 5.71 ERA in 34  2/3 innings for Class A Lexington.

In the same draft, the club selected right-handed pitcher Josh Staumont out of Azusa Pacific with the 64th overall pick in the second round. Staumont, 23, has developed into one of the club’s top pitching prospects, opening the season at Class AAA Omaha. He was recently demoted to Class AA Northwest Arkansas to work on command issues, though club officials still view him as ahead of schedule in his path to the major leagues.