KC Royals: Aaron Brooks’ journey takes him to Korea

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

The KC Royals gave a pitcher his first shot at a major league job. He was later part of a key trade, played for other teams and now pitches in Korea.

Not much remains of the memorable 2014 and 2015 KC Royals, the teams that brought championship baseball back to Kansas City after 30 agonizingly long years without it. Only four members of those clubs–Alex Gordon, Salvador Perez, Danny Duffy and Greg Holland–are still with the team, a number that may decrease by one if Holland’s bid to regain a bullpen job falls short.

Those four championship alums are caught now in the baseball limbo imposed by COVID-19; but while they anxiously await the game’s return, one of their teammates plies his trade as a professional pitcher in the Korean Baseball Organization League, South Korea’s premier professional circuit.

Aaron Brooks signed last November with the KIA Tigers after leaving the Baltimore Orioles, the latest, and perhaps last, team of his multiple-club major league journey. The KBO began its pandemic-delayed season a few days ago. (ESPN is televising select games).

The Tigers represent the latest opportunity for Brooks, a pitcher whose best years have been in America’s minor leagues. Drafted by the Royals in the ninth round of the 2011 amateur draft, Brooks wasted no time getting started–he signed with Kansas City the next day and pitched 15 games for the club’s Idaho Falls rookie team. He was 6-2 with a 3.84 ERA and struck out 73 and walked only eight in 79.2 innings.

He advanced to A ball in 2012; while his 9-12, 4.98 ERA season wasn’t spectacular, he continued to demonstrate good control, walking just 1.52 batters per nine innings. Brooks split the next campaign between High-A and Double-A, working to a cumulative 9-10 and 4.28 ERA. His control remained sharp with 22 walks in 160 innings (1.2 BB9).

Brooks made his big league debut early in 2014–the Royals selected his contract April 5, but he didn’t get any work and found himself at Triple-A Omaha four days later. He returned May 2 and made his major league debut late in the next night’s game with KC trailing Detroit 3-0; he pitched a scoreless eighth before the Tigers battered him for six runs on seven hits in the ninth. He was back in Omaha the next day.

He didn’t last an inning when the Royals recalled Brooks for a May 31 start against Toronto. The Blue Jays scored seven runs on five hits and three walks before Ned Yost replaced him with two outs in the first. It was Brooks’ last game of the season for the KC Royals.

For all his big-league misery that season, Brooks and his control were superb at Omaha. He again averaged less than two walks per nine innings (25 in 139, a 1.62 BB9) and was 12-3 with a 3.88 ERA. But because he didn’t return to the Royals, he missed their first postseason since 1985.

Brooks made four round trips between Omaha and Kansas City in 2015 but, again, pitched only twice for the big club. He hurled a scoreless ninth inning in a 12-1 victory over New York May 15 and gave up three runs in 3.1 innings in an 11-run June 21 loss to Boston

Then came the event for which Brooks may be most remembered in Kansas City, the July 28 trade that sent him and prospect Sean Manaea to Oakland for Ben Zobrist in a deal that helped propel the club to its second straight pennant and first World Series title since 1985.

Brooks went 3-4 with a 6.71 ERA for the A’s, who traded him to the Cubs in February. He never made it to Chicago–an injury sidelined him for most of 2016 and the Cubs released him in August of ’17 after he gave up 102 runs in 138 Triple-A innings. The Brewers claimed him on waivers and he pitched two games for their Colorado Springs Triple-A affiliate, then returned to the Sky Sox in 2018 and turned in a respectable 9-4, 3.35 record. The A’s purchased his contract in mid-September and he didn’t give up a run in three appearances.

Brooks began last season with the A’s and finished with Baltimore after Oakland released him in early July. He finished a combined 6-8 with a 5.65 ERA and his control was still good.

The offseason brought Brooks the new opportunity to pitch overseas and the Orioles obliged him so he could join KIA. The Tigers, playing to empty stadiums as part of the KBO’s COVID-19 precautions, are 1-3 at this writing; Brooks started but didn’t figure in the decision in his only appearance so far, striking out six and giving up a run in 5.2 innings in the Tigers’ 3-2 loss to Kiwoom. True to form, he didn’t walk anyone.

The 30-year old right-hander’s consistent ability to find the plate is a strength–he’s averaged less than three walks per nine innings in his four partial major league seasons and just 1.61 in the minors; his cumulative BB9 is less than two. But his 1.506 big league WHIP and career .293 opponents’ average suggest his location needs work if he’s to get back to the majors. Should that improve, the KC Royals might be tempted to take another look at him, but the plethora of young pitching talent in the pipeline argues against it.

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Aaron Brooks’ quest to pitch successfully has taken him from the KC Royals to the Kia Tigers for whom he works while former big-league teammates look forward to the resumption of games in America. Hopefully, good days in Korea will revive Brooks’ major league prospects.