Has this promising KC Royals pitcher damaged his future?

Our player grading series continues with Austin Cox.

Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports
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Welcome back to Kings of Kauffman's offseason series analyzing the 2023 performances of various KC Royals players. Up today is pitcher Austin Cox.

Don't expect Austin Cox to ever look with any kind of favor on the evening of Sept. 8, 2023. That's the night Cox, who as a rookie had been pitching regularly for the Royals since they'd called him up earlier in the season, went down with an apparent left knee injury trying to cover first base against the Blue Jays in Toronto.

The news was bad. Cox had torn his left ACL and also injured his MCL; his rookie season over, he headed for surgery. Now, his early season destination will be rehabilitation and the 60-day Injured List, and his ability to pitch in 2024 is in serious doubt.

But his pair of injuries aside, did Cox's 24-game performance last season damage his Kansas City future?

Austin Cox got his chance last season, but was he good enough to stick?

Cox was among the talented pitchers thrust into baseball's limelight when the Royals chose them all in the 2018 amateur draft, and he quickly set about the serious business of affirming the club's decision to take him in the fifth round.

Consider, for example, the 33.1 innings he threw in nine Rookie ball starts after signing that summer. He struck out 51 for an excellent 13.77 K/9. Then he posted a 2.76 ERA, eight-win, 2.62 BB/9 record in a 2019 season split between Single-A and High-A; so good was the impression he'd made that the club included him in its 60-man Player Pool for the 2020 season.

Bumped up to Double-A when the minor leagues returned to action in 2021, Cox went 4-1 with a 3.00 ERA before the organization promoted him in late September to Triple-A Omaha, where he uncharacteristically gave up 10 runs in five innings, a sample size too small from which to glean much, if anything, about his future.

Then came last season, which began for Cox back in Omaha. He pitched reasonably well, going 2-1, 3.61 in 12 appearances before the Royals summoned him to Kansas City for a brief, one-game stint in early May. The southpaw debuted with two scoreless innings against Baltimore and returned to the Storm Chasers the next day, but was back in the majors for good in June.

His first five June appearances went quite well — he didn't yield a single run, struck out 12, walked three, and held batters to a minuscule .063 OBA over 10.1 innings.

But things began to change during his first big league start June 28. After shutting out Cleveland for three innings, Cox began the fourth by giving up a single and two walks to set the stage for José Ramirez, who punished him with a first-pitch grand slam that triggered a 14-1 Cleveland win and Cox's first major league loss.

From there, Cox pitched 17 more times for the Royals (15 in relief), and over those appearances surrendered 16 runs (14 earned), walked nine, hit two batters, and gave up 22 hits, in 19.2 innings. His 6.41 ERA and .297 OBA during that span were undeniably unsightly.

Kansas City subsequently chose not to protect Cox from the Rule 5 Draft; in fact, they made him a free agent by non-tendering him in November. But he remained a Royal by quickly re-signing a minor league contract.

But his rapid return to the organization notwithstanding, did Cox's pre-injury 2023 performance hurt his long-term chances with the club? He finished his first big league season 0-1 with a concerning 4.54 ERA, and his post-June stats weren't pretty, but those 24-game numbers probably aren't bad enough to seriously taint his future. And all things considered, cutting him from the 40-man roster in November appeared then as a move made solely to clear space for Rule 5 Draft protectees.

Whether Cox remains part of the Royals' plans won't be known definitively until he returns from his injuries and resumes pitching. For now, though, it's clear the club hasn't given up on him.

And his grade for the 2023 season? We're giving him a C+.

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