Royals: Is pitcher Grant Gavin a forgotten prospect?

Kansas City Royals (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Kansas City Royals (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /

Kansas City Royals minor league pitcher Grant Gavin isn’t heading any top prospects lists or making big headlines. Is he major league material, or just another forgotten player destined for anonymity?

Kansas City Royals General Manager Dayton Moore has a lot on his offseason plate. He has to replace Ned Yost, help determine how much the Royals are willing to pay Alex Gordon for at least one more season if Gordon doesn’t retire, decide whether to pursue any free agents and face probable arbitration with Jorge Soler.

Those aren’t the only important tasks facing Moore, however. The Royals have until Nov. 20 to finalize their 40-man roster for December’s Rule 5 Draft, the annual winter Major League get-together when teams can snatch players left off other teams’ 40-man rosters by paying $50,000 (with some restrictions explained here). Setting the 40-man is difficult and risky.

Grant Gavin, the Royals’ 29th round draft choice in 2016, is Rule 5 eligible, a status which subjects the pitcher to closer offseason scrutiny by Moore and his staff. If the Royals still like him and believe he might reach Kauffman Stadium someday, they risk losing him if they don’t find a 40-man roster spot for him. Gavin is talented and known to strike out hitters with astounding frequency.

On top of that, he’s another potential Royals’ “feel good” story, a hometown-type player striving to play big-league ball at home. He grew up in nearby Platte County, played prep ball there, and put in three seasons as a reliever at Central Missouri, just an hour down the road from Kauffman Stadium.

The Royals’ Arizona rookie ball team was Gavin’s first stop after the ’16 draft. He went 3-1 with a 2.01 ERA in 13 games, but his strikeouts and control drew the most attention–in 49.1 innings, he fanned 47 and walked just five for an eye-popping 9.40 SO/W.

That performance earned him advancement to Class A Lexington and then High-A Wilmington in 2017; in 36 games, he went a combined 3-2 with a 1.79 ERA. He struck out 77 in 65.1 innings and posted a 1.79 RA9.  But all was not good: in an unfortunate sign of things to come, he walked five times as many hitters as he did in his rookie season, dropping his SO/W to 3.08.

Gavin’s decline continued in a 2018 season split between Wilmington and AA Northwest Arkansas. His combined ERA rose dramatically to 3.19 and, together with his SO/W of 2.35–a remarkable drop from his rookie season–signaled control and command problems. His RA9 almost doubled.

A post-season assignment to the Arizona Fall League, typically a good sign for prospects, turned out to be a mixed bag for Gavin. His 1.50 ERA over 12 innings in nine games was promising on the surface, but his RA9 rose once again, this time to 5.25, and five walks and seven strikeouts dropped his SO/W to 1.40.

Not surprisingly, Gavin’s 2018 performance didn’t earn him a promotion to AAA Omaha. His troubles continued at Northwest Arkansas–his ERA ballooned to 5.99 in eight April appearances; in May, he walked eight in 9.1 innings and his ERA for the month was 5.80.

But the 2016-2017 form that made Gavin known as a promising prospect returned in June and July. He didn’t allow a run in five June appearances, setting the stage for July when he struck out 17 in 10 innings and posted an eight-game 1.80 ERA. Although Gavin’s performance declined slightly in August, he still finished 2019 with 73 strikeouts in 52.1 innings and improved his SO/W to 2.92; although his 3.61 ERA and 4.82 RA9 were higher than previous marks, they were skewed by his poor April and May performances.

Gavin recaptured the promise of his first two seasons midway through 2019. Now 24, he faces two critical career crossroads — the Rule 5 draft and his fifth professional season. A Nov. 20 spot on the Royals’ 40-man roster, and the Rule 5 protection it would bring, seem unlikely for Gavin; although the Rule 5 Draft can be unpredictable, don’t look for another team to pick him up.

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Instead, expect Gavin to start his fifth pro campaign at Northwest Arkansas. On the strength of his mid-2019 resurgence, Gavin shouldn’t be considered a forgotten man adrift in the organization. The Kansas City Royals need capable relievers; improved command and a season consistent with his mid-summer of 2019 could put Gavin back on the road to home. And home is where Kauffman Stadium is.