Royals veteran Danny Duffy recognizes the signs, the buzz inside the organization, about what the future might hold. He has paid enough attention to know the impact of what may hit Kansas City in the next few seasons.
Duffy, the left-handed pitcher selected in the third round of baseball’s draft in 2007, looks at the young talent in the club’s farm system — highlighted by last year’s pitcher-heavy draft class — and gets the sense that a sequel is coming to the movie in which he once played a key role.
This time around, the Royals tabbed a trio of potential leading men in the first round of last June’s draft: 6-foot-5 right-hander Brady Singer of Florida; 6-4 Virginia lefty Daniel Lynch; and Singer’s former college teammate and 6-6 right-hander Jackson Kowar.
“Those guys, in my opinion, if they stay on the track that they’re on they’re going to shoot through the minor leagues like we did,” Duffy said. “I think it’s a good model to go off, to keep them all together.
“Then they can experience things all at the same level at the same time together. There’s a lot to that. There’s a lot there with that. Like I said, I think they resemble us a lot, the quote unquote blue wave.”
The first time around, home-grown talents like Duffy were the foundation for back-to-back World Series appearances in 2014 and 2015, including the Royals’ first championship in three decades when they got over the hump in 2015.
“I watched the 2015 World Series, and the cool thing about that was they said it was a core group of guys brought into the system at a young age,” Singer said. “Ultimately, they were (built) into a World Series championship.
“I think that’s what we’re hoping for with the young guys that were in Lexington last year and the guys that are in our minor league organization and this draft coming in. I think it’s all going to conclude into one, and our ultimate goal is the World Series.”
Along with that trio of first-rounders, the Royals also selected two other pitchers within the first 58 picks of last year’s draft: Stanford lefty Kris Bubic (40th) and Memphis right-hander Jonathan Bowlan (58th).
There’s a belief among some inside the walls of the Royals’ facility that their minor-league system may have even more potential major-league starting pitchers than when they boasted baseball’s best-rated farm system in 2011.
“I hope that those guys down there know that we’re really excited about where they’re at and what they bring to the table,” Duffy said. “We can only hope that we’ll be a part of it as well, that drives us to work harder, stick around and be a part of that success too.”
Brothers in arms
Duffy’s daily companions while grinding it out in the minors were a group pitchers that included John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Everrett Teaford and Chris Dwyer. This group “grew up together.”
The biggest thing the pitchers learned from one another?
How to handle themselves on a daily basis, according to Duffy. They all held each other accountable for everything from their weightlifting schedules, to being on time for buses and how accurately they kept their pitching charts from games.
“If anybody stepped right or left of the line we were trying to walk, we were able to bring each other back in,” Duffy said.
The Singer-Lynch-Kowar cohort has already shown itself to be in similar lockstep.
They lived together in Arizona during spring training, a natural fit considering Singer and Kowar were roommates in college and Lynch and Kowar became quick friends last year while pitching for Low-A Lexington. All three are 22 years old entering this season.
Throughout spring training, they’ve thrown on the same day and done drills together in minor-league camp. Lynch, from Henrico, Va., and Singer, a product of Eustis, Fla., would walk out to the field together daily and begin their weighted-ball warmup routine.
They’ve also already planted the seeds for the type of productive peer pressure that Duffy described. Lynch admitted any time he sees one of the others doing anything he hasn’t done, it grabs his attention.
“There’s definitely that aspect of seeing something that he did extra, and that motivates me to not go and sit on my phone,” Lynch said. “He’s doing something in the training room to get better that I’ve never done, so I can ask him what that’s doing to get him better.”
Kowar, a native of Charlotte, N.C., claims Singer and Lynch have made him more efficient.
“They don’t waste any of their time at the ballpark,” Kowar said. “They have a plan from the moment they step in until the moment they leave.”
Connected by competition
Kowar, selected 33rd overall, left Florida with the third-best winning percentage in program history (.806). His 2017 season ranks among the best of any collegiate pitcher ever: He went 12-1 as a sophomore and tied for Florida’s all-time best single-season record.
His 12 wins ranked second in the country.
“When you get surrounded by really highly-motivated and competitive and really talented people, it only makes you better,” Kowar said. “It’s not just us too, it’s a lot deeper than that. I think we’ve all really enjoyed that aspect of it — you get to kind of go out there and compete with each other.”
While Singer, the 18th overall pick, has yet to throw a pitch as a professional in a regular-season game, it’s clear that it doesn’t take much to ignite his competitive fire.
“If we’re doing fielding practice, it’s ‘who can field the most ground balls, who can not throw it away, who can do this and that,’” Singer said. “That’s how we are. That’s how we were born, as competitors. That’s what makes us all really good at baseball.”
Singer, maybe the most highly regarded pitcher to come out of the Florida program, earned national and SEC pitcher of the year honors, as well as the Dick Howser Trophy as the collegiate player of the year last year as a junior.
A year after helping lead his team to a College World Series title in 2017, Singer posted a 12-3 record and an SEC-best 2.55 ERA, ranked third in the conference in batting average against (.194) and ranked 18th nationally in WHIP (0.94 WHIP) in 2018. He also struck out 114 batters and walked just 22.
Singer enters his first season of professional baseball with a belief that constant competition is the only way to become your best.
“There’s always that unknown competition between every player,” Singer said. “That’s ultimately why you’re such a good team, everybody is competing to beat each other. When you start beating each other that means you’re getting better, they’re getting better. It’s an unknown competition, but it’s never anything that’s going to separate anybody on the team.”
Developing each other
Singer, regarded as the best prospect in the Royals’ farm system and one of the top prospects in all of baseball, acknowledged that all three pitchers have aspects of their game in which they’re ahead of the others.
Singer and Lynch envy Kowar’s changeup, a pitch he credits to his father Frank (a former college and minor-league pitcher). Singer has thrown a large volume of changeups against live hitters in camp in order to get a feel for the pitch.
Kowar and Lynch, meanwhile, covet Singer’s ability to manipulate his fastball for outstanding movement. Lynch, the lone left-hander of the group, has seen an increase in velocity in his fastball in the past year. It now reaches the upper 90s.
Because none of them is a finished product, the internal competition is less important than the communal aspect.
“I think a lot more of it is picking each other’s brains on routines and habits and ideas, just little stuff like that, little stuff you can grab from each other,” Kowar said. “I don’t think it’s my performance versus your performance. I think it’s more like, ‘What can I learn from you. What do you do well? What do I need to work on?’”
Since Kowar and Singer have known each other for years and have shared experiences from college, a player like Lynch, with a different background and different coaching, only adds to the dynamic.
“There’s definitely an aspect of bouncing things off each other. I would say (there’s) that more so that competition,” Lynch said. “If Brady did something that I saw, I’d say, ‘Hey, what’d you do there?’ I’d sort of bounce ideas off him because I know he knows the game really well. You know, what did they do at Florida that they may have learned that I never got to learn?”
Lynch would appear to be a quick study based on the start of his pro career. In 12 starts last season between Rookie ball (three starts) and Low-A Lexington (nine starts), he went 5-1 with a 1.58 ERA, 1.01 WHIP and 61 strikeouts against just eight walks in 51 1/3 innings.
By virtue of their living arrangements during spring training, the triumvirate has kept their collective pitching juices flowing both at the Royals’ facility and at home.
And yes, baseball is often the topic of discussion when they settle in and put their feet up.
“Some people would think that we get away from the field and we don’t sit on the couch and talk baseball, but we honestly do,” Singer said. “We talk a lot about baseball.”
Lynch has heard people say that when they go home they want to play video games or participate in some other activity to take their mind away from the game. He simply can’t relate, or fathom telling the guys to skip the baseball talk.
“I just haven’t felt that need to get away,” Lynch said. “I think we all love it. I think you have to. For me it’s constant. Even if I go home and I’m not thinking about baseball, I go on Twitter and there’s a video of someone pitching. The gears are always turning, and maybe that sparks a conversation about something.”
The Royals way
Having a group of talented young prospects play together, learn from each other and come up through the system together is a formula the Royals’ front office used under general manager Dayton Moore in building toward the World Series runs of 2014 and 2015.
“I just remember the story. There was always that big story of (Eric) Hosmer, (Mike) Moustakas, all those guys who sort of were home-grown Kansas City players that brought them a championship,” Lynch said. “I always thought that was really cool how they didn’t trade for those guys, they developed those guys in their own system.”
Duffy recalls assistant general managers J.J. Picollo and Scott Sharp — and of course Moore — regularly popping up at games and watching attentively as that previous group worked its way up.
“Iron sharpens iron, that’s what I believe,” Moore said. “So to have guys that are like-minded hold each other accountable, push each other, pick each other up, it begins to formulate what a team should be.”
Moore believes this is the way the Royals must build — out of necessity, yes, and also because of the culture it forms and perpetuates.
He won’t hesitate to tell you that he and his staff are working off a vision similar to what they did previously, relying on their scouting department, development system and home-grown players first and foremost to build a winner.
“Some organizations simply do not commit to that or can’t commit to that,” Moore said. “We have to do it a certain way, but I’d rather do it this way than any other way.”