KC Royals: Is Ashe Russell in Kansas City’s plans?

(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

The KC Royals’ top pick in the 2015 amateur draft has pitched only 13 times in the minor leagues, taken a leave of absence and undergone Tommy John surgery. Is he still in the club’s plans?

The roster of the Northwest Arkansas Naturals, the KC Royals’ Double-A minor league affiliate, boasts four of the organization’s sizzling young pitching prospects. Although at least one–Brady Singer–will probably be assigned elsewhere before or during the regular season–Jackson Kowar, Daniel Tillo, and Tyler Zuber may well start their campaign in Springdale.

Less conspicuous on the Naturals’ roster is Ashe Russell, himself a once sizzling prospect whose baseball future seems, at least for the moment, somewhere between on hold and uncertain. Whether he pitches for the Naturals, or anyone else, this season remains to be seen.

It’s not just that Tommy John surgery forced Russell to miss all of 2019’s games; it’s also that he didn’t compete in 2017 or ’18 and took time away from baseball beginning in ’17 to deal with personal issues. And he’d appeared in only 13 games after the Royals made the 23-year old right-hander a first round selection in 2015.

The Royals’ decision to spend a first round pick on Russell, coming as it did in June of the season they went to the World Series for a second straight time, seemed well-timed. The team was just a game back in the AL Central the moment the draft began, clearly in the thick of a race it hoped would culminate with the World Series title KC missed the year before. But getting back to the Series would probably (and eventually did) mean giving up pitching to get better pitching for the stretch run. Obtaining pitching in the draft, then, took on added importance.

Russell was a good bet…a very good bet. Owner of a high-octane fastball (he’d hit 97 as a prepster), and a curve, slider, and changeup, he was named Indiana’s Gatorade Baseball Player of the Year at a point in his 2015 senior high school season when he was 4-1 with a 1.23 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 34 innings. The Royals picked him with the 21st overall draft selection; the 18-year old soon signed and headed for Burlington, KC’s Appalachian League rookie level team.

He started 11 games and went 0-3 with a 4.21 ERA, not a particularly troubling performance for a young hurler just out of high school. But things unraveled for Russell in 2016–he pitched only twice for the Royals’ Arizona rookie affiliate and, in two innings, was 0-1 with a 9.00 ERA, two walks and a strikeout.

Russell had developed confidence problems. With no resolution early in 2017, he remained in extended spring training before taking his leave of absence midway through the season.

He threw some in 2018, but not in games, then appeared ready to return in 2019 but lost the season to Tommy John surgery.

Some may have lost track of Russell or believed he’d left baseball for good. But he’s around, as Jeffrey Flanagan, who works the KC Royals beat for mlb.com, reported earlier this spring:

That Russell elected surgery and was in spring camp suggests he’s ready to return to the game. Baseball’s forced hiatus will give him more time to recover and rehabilitate from the Tommy John operation. What his timetable is remains to be seen but he should be able to go full speed sometime this summer or early fall.

So while Singer, Tillo, Kowar, and Zuber continue their journey to Kansas City, Russell will remain in the background, his future hinging on recovering from surgery and resolving the issues that caused him to take time away from the game. He’s certainly in the right place and with the right team–the KC Royals worked patiently and successfully with Danny Duffy and Zack Greinke when they hit their own bumps in the road.

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For Ashe Russell, things haven’t gone the way he or the KC Royals hoped. Nevertheless, it appears Russell is ready to resume his career and remains in the club’s plans.