KC Royals: Remember the lesson of Brandon Finnegan

The KC Royals and their fans eagerly await the arrival of several young pitching phenoms. But before presuming too much, they need to remember the fizzled career of another hot Kansas City prospect.

This was to be the season a new pitching age dawned in Kansas City. It seemed certain at least one of the three thoroughbred hurlers the KC Royals selected in the first round of the 2018 amateur draft would debut at Kauffman Stadium. Up until the moment baseball stopped last week, Brady Singer appeared close to an Opening Day roster spot and Jackson Kowar or Daniel Lynch seemed likely to make their way to the big club before the season ends.

But now, with no games to play or watch, fans can only wonder when Singer and his young colleagues will make it to the major leagues. Their arrival, it is believed, will bring baseball glory back to town, but ultimate glory in this game shouldn’t be presumed based on the potential and early success of promising players.

For proof of that, look no further than Brandon Finnegan. In his story lies a lesson to remember.

Finnegan was on major league radar as long ago as 2011, when the Rangers picked the prep pitcher in that year’s draft. Finnegan opted to pitch at Texas Christian and, by the 2014 draft, he’d captured the Royals’ attention by turning around a lackluster college career with a junior season that included nine wins, a 2.04 ERA and 134 strikeouts in 105.2 innings. Impressed with his fastball, slider and gutsy makeup, KC made him the 17th overall draft selection on June 4.

Finnegan, however, had other business to attend to–his Horned Frogs were headed to the College World Series, so he couldn’t sign with the Royals and still pitch in the CWS. But he signed when TCU was eliminated and went to work almost immediately for the club’s High A Wilmington affiliate. His 0.60 ERA and 13 strikeouts in 15 innings earned Finnegan a promotion to AA Northwest Arkansas, where he struck out 13 in 12 innings, walked only two and posted a 2.25 ERA.

By then, the Royals had seen more than enough and summoned Finnegan to Kansas City. He debuted against the Yankees with a 1-2-3 inning, striking out Jacoby Ellsbury and Derek Jeter for the last two outs. Next, he pitched a scoreless inning against the Red Sox and struck out Yoenis Cespedes, then struck out Cespedes and David Ortiz in another scoreless frame two days later. In seven appearances, he gave up just one run and struck out 10 over seven innings.

With Luke Hochevar lost to injury, the KC Royals needed another reliever for the playoffs and Finnegan’s stellar performance made him manager Ned Yost‘s choice. Finnegan entered the thrilling, extra-inning Wild Card victory over Oakland in the 10th and held the A’s scoreless for 2.1 innings. He pitched six more times in the postseason and became the first hurler to pitch in the World Series and College World Series in the same season.

The Royals originally envisioned Finnegan as a starter but used him exclusively in relief in Kansas City; to ease him back to starting, they returned him to Northwest Arkansas to begin the 2015 campaign, but soon recalled him, then sent him to AAA Omaha and recalled him again in June.

He was pitching well out of the bullpen (3-0, 2.96 ERA) when the demands of contention, which had been so good to Finnegan the previous season, turned against him–the KC Royals had the playoffs in their sights again and, needing a top-flight veteran starter, traded Finnegan (and John Lamb and Cody Reed) to Cincinnati for Johnny Cueto. While the Royals continued their run to the playoffs and a World Series championship, Finnegan found himself back toiling in the minors for the Reds’ Louisville AAA affiliate.

And that’s where the one-time phenom’s career began to unravel. He went 0-3 with a 6.33 ERA, then 2-2 and 4.18 in a September call-up to the Reds.

Cincinnati returned him to the rotation in 2016; all his 31 appearances were starts and he went 10-11 with a 3.98 ERA for a bad club (the Reds finished last in the National League Central at 68-94, 35½ games out of first).

Injuries limited Finnegan to four major league and three minor league appearances in 2017. The next two seasons weren’t good: 2-10 with a 7.05 ERA at Louisville and 0-3, 7.40 with the Reds in ’18, then 1-0, 6.60 with the Reds’ AA affiliate in 2019.

The Reds, however, didn’t give up on Finnegan and invited him to 2020 spring training. He’d held Cactus League opponents hitless and scoreless through three appearances, but the Royals hammered him for four hits (including home runs by Ryan O’Hearn and Matt Reynolds) and three runs in two-thirds of an inning in his fourth outing. He added a scoreless one-third inning against Arizona before spring games were canceled and finished with a 6.75 ERA in four innings (KC’s runs were the only he surrendered) and four strikeouts and a walk in four total innings.

Whether Finnegan’s serviceable spring, one marred only by his former team, will secure a spot in Cincinnati when the season eventually begins remains to be seen. One thing about him is certain, though: other than his split seasons with the Royals and some good Reds’ starts in 2016, Finnegan’s career hasn’t measured up to his lofty status as a first-round draft pick, or the promise of his regular and postseason days with the Royals. His decline is a mystery not entirely solvable by his 2017 injuries.

Singer, Kowar and Lynch, the Royals’ next crop of first-round pitching picks, are every bit as promising as Finnegan was in 2014 and, as ballplayers, just as susceptible to disappointment. Finnegan’s is a cautionary tale, one that warns of presuming too much too soon, and one that fans must heed.

Sometimes, stars flame out, and some never really shine as brightly as we expect.

Next: Looking back at franchise "firsts"

Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar and Daniel Lynch will probably have great success with the KC Royals. But the lesson of Brandon Finnegan is that, despite fans’ hopes and expectations, phenoms don’t always become superstars.

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