Royals found an unsigned prospect who throws 99. He's pursuing his master's as backup

The Royals signed free-agent relief pitcher Jacob Condra-Bogan, who was drafted by the Blue Jays in 2017 but never signed, in January. The first stop in his minor-league career is with the Royals' low Class A affiliate Lexington Legends.
The Royals signed free-agent relief pitcher Jacob Condra-Bogan, who was drafted by the Blue Jays in 2017 but never signed, in January. The first stop in his minor-league career is with the Royals' low Class A affiliate Lexington Legends. Courtesy of Clinton Riddle

Royals minor-league pitcher Jacob Condra-Bogan has a routine.

He pulls himself off the mattress that lies on the living room floor of a three-bedroom home he shares with four Lexington Legends teammates, prepares himself for a workday at the ballpark of the Royals’ low-Class A affiliate and makes time for schoolwork. Sometimes it’s before games, other times late at night. Bus rides, too; he can get plenty of work done on those if the wireless internet cooperates.

He’s two online classes away from graduating Georgia Southern with a master’s degree in sports management. July is the target date.

Even though he’s 1 1/2 weeks into a new assignment in the Legends’ bullpen, Condra-Bogan won't let life in the minor leagues get in the way of his degree.

Playing baseball might not pan out. It almost didn't once before.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in baseball," said Condra-Bogan, who went unsigned out of college last summer. "I got drafted but I'm a free agent from indy ball. It’s important to me to have a backup plan. ... It’s my insurance policy."

The Royals signed the 23-year-old right-hander in late January out of the Frontier League, the same league where they found Class AAA Omaha reliever Kevin Lenik last June. Since then, they’ve been rewarded with Condra-Bogan’s ability to wield a 99 mph fastball without losing command of the strike zone.

And Condra-Bogan’s been rewarded with some stability.

As he sprawled his 6-foot-3, 220-pound body over a blue stadium chair outside the Legends’ clubhouse this week, he hesitated to discuss the uncertainty in his career and personal life. He was adopted at 15 after landing in foster care at 12.

“That’s a long story,” Condra-Bogan said, glancing toward the clubhouse door. A series opener against the West Virginia Power, the Pirates' affiliate in the South Atlantic League, would start in about 45 minutes. “Probably not a story for before a game.”

Yet he offered the Reader’s Digest version: He was about to start eighth grade when he was placed in a group home. His younger sister went to the Bogan family in their hometown of Duncan, near Spartanburg, S.C.

They weren’t separated long. The Bogans worked to take him in, too. A few years later, on October 7, 2009, he became Jacob Condra-Bogan.

The rest is history.

By then, he’d already made headway on becoming a ballplayer, one of the first goals he'd executed a plan for. His dad, Britt Bogan, had already set him up for the sport during their first Christmas together.

“I asked him for a baseball glove and stuff, and he ended up getting me a bucket of balls, a bat, a glove, a net to throw into and a little hitting thing that swings around and comes back. Like a Hurricane Swing-Away or something like that,” Condra-Bogan said. “All out.”

The tools were all he needed to cultivate his affinity for the sport. He worked at it, often on his own, in the backyard, hitting and throwing for hours at a time. In the hot and humid South, he learned quickly to wear long pants and sleeves or “I’d get eaten up. I’d have bumps all over me.”

Years later, the same determination carried Condra-Bogan into independent baseball after the MLB draft in the summer of 2017 .

“I thought I was pretty good. I thought I had plenty of talent,” Condra-Bogan said. “I thought I was good enough to pitch anywhere. Not everyone felt the same way.”

Condra-Bogan had been a fifth-year senior who transferred from Wofford College, a four-year school, for his final season of eligibility.

He'd compiled a modest college career: Over three seasons at Wofford and one at Georgia Southern, he posted a 5.18 ERA (106 earned runs in 184 innings) and struck out 174 batters.

But he had a hard fastball, imposing stature and the accompanying arm strength that lent itself to development.

“You’re looking for one tool you can hang your hat on,” said J.J. Picollo, Royals assistant general manager for player personnel. “Arm strength with pitching is what we look for.”

Yet few scouts were looking at Condra-Bogan. His playing days seemed numbered until the Blue Jays called to draft him in the 32nd round.

The sides did not agree to terms. Condra-Bogan gave the Frontier League’s Washington Wild Things, an independent baseball team he'd thought might stall his career, a chance.

“I was OK with not being good enough, but I wanted an opportunity to prove that I was good enough,” Condra-Bogan said, “to go somewhere and fail rather than give up.”

He didn’t fail. He appeared in 11 games and posted a 1.17 ERA for the independent league team in Pennsylvania.

When the season ended in September, he returned to Georgia Southern to continue his schooling and improve himself on the mound. He worked with the school’s strength coach in the weight room and monitored himself in bullpens.

When he was ready for major-league scouts to come by in January, he was throwing 96 mph consistently. The Royals, tipped off by video sent to them by one of Condra-Bogan’s coaches, won the bidding and purchased his contract from his Frontier League team.

“He’s got the arm strength,” Picollo said. “If you’re able to throw 95-96 and touch 99 most nights, able to repeat your delivery and have the physical strength and endurance to bring that velocity every night — that’s certainly the reason why we signed him.”

Condra-Bogan’s fastball touched 99 mph during extended spring training before he joined the Legends’ bullpen on May 21. Entering Friday, he’d logged five innings, allowed two hits and struck out six batters. His fastball had hovered around 95 mph in those three appearances.

It’s not far-fetched to think his velocity will continue to crop up.

But Condra-Bogan's not worried about when. Checking off goals comes naturally; this is just another one to add to the list.

“I took a gamble,” he said. “I could be throwing bullpens in January and not play until May (in the independent league). But I’m happy. It was definitely worth it. It paid off.”