The KC Royals have a strong left-handed pitcher working his way to the big leagues. He may not make it to Kauffman Stadium this season, but it shouldn’t be too long after that.
Monday’s news that he’d been reassigned to minor league camp probably didn’t surprise KC Royals pitcher Kris Bubic. His start the day before against the White Sox wasn’t pretty–in an inning and a third, he gave up four runs on four hits, surrendered a home run and a walk, and balked on a pickoff attempt. The Sox beat KC and he took the loss.
Whether Sunday’s performance offset the quality of Bubic’s other Cactus League appearance, a scoreless two-inning, two strikeout stint against Milwaukee February 27, is really a moot point. Although the left-hander started spring training in the major league camp, he wasn’t even a longshot to make the Royals’ Opening Day roster; not only does he lack experience (he hasn’t pitched above High A yet), but he was a non-roster invitee to camp, a status typically bestowed on inexperienced players just to give them a taste of big league routine.
So Bubic’s farewell to the major league atmosphere is best considered a developmental move, a temporary return to the minors for seasoning. It’s not a setback–Bubic is too good, and the KC Royals’ opinion of him too high, for that.
Bubic, you see, is one of four college pitchers the Royals selected in the first round of the 2018 amateur draft. The club took him with the 40th overall pick, behind Brady Singer (18th), Jackson Kowar (33rd) and Daniel Lynch (34th), and Bubic hasn’t disappointed. Baseball America named him the organization’s 2019 Minor League Player of the Year and mlb.com recently ranked him as sixth-best among KC’s Top 30 Prospects.
Bubic was 2-3 with a 4.03 ERA in 2018’s 10-start, post-draft rookie-level debut. He struck out 53 in 38 innings (12.6 SO9) but walked 19.
His second minor league campaign was much better–a 4-1, 2.08 ERA with 75 strikeouts in 47.2 innings and an improved BB9 of 2.8 earned him a promotion from Class A Lexington to High A Wilmington. Relying on a mid-90’s fastball, a good changeup and a curve, he went 7-4 in 17 starts for Wilmington and posted a 2.30 ERA, 9.7 SO9 and 2.4 BB9. His 185 strikeouts (110 at Wilmington to go with the 75 at Lexington) led the minor leagues and his combined 2.23 ERA was the best in the organization.
Bubic is now 13-8 with a 2.59 ERA after two professional seasons; he’s averaging 11.4 strikeouts and less than three walks per nine innings and has a good 1.078 WHIP. How will his third campaign go?
Worst case scenario. Bubic had two remarkable complete games in a row last August–he first pitched a three-hitter with 11 strikeouts, then fanned another 11 in a game in which he lost a no-hitter in the ninth. Those efforts, together with his overall record at Wilmington, suggests Bubic may be too good for High-A hitters, so a promotion to AA Northwest Arkansas is probably in order.
Moving up a minor league level often spells trouble and requires a period of adjustment; a step back for Bubic wouldn’t be surprising, but a significant regression would. A bumpy start is likely the worst thing Bubic will experience.
Best case scenario. If Bubic pitches like he did at Wilmington, expect him to shine–15 wins aren’t out of the question, especially if he maintains a high strikeout rate and decent control. If for some reason the Royals choose to return him to Wilmington, he’ll advance to AA soon and could finish the season at AAA Omaha. If he does, he just might snare one of the two extra spots the Royals will have for September call-ups. (New rules cap September rosters at 28).
Most likely outcome. With his talent and record, Bubic’s “most likely outcome” should match his “best case scenario.” A 15-win season simply isn’t unrealistic. But he probably won’t see Kauffman Stadium until September (if then, considering the new roster limits); his big league debut may have to wait until 2021 or ’22.
Kris Bubic was a first-round pick of the KC Royals in 2018. He’s been showing why and should continue his upward trend in 2020.