From the moment they were selected, it was clear that the success or failure of the 2018 MLB Draft for the Kansas City Royals was going to rest on a quartet of college pitchers that were all selected in the top 40 picks: Brady Singer (18th), Jackson Kowar (33rd), Daniel Lynch (34th), and Kris Bubic (40th). Another talented college hurler, Jonathan Bowlan out of Memphis, was drafted 58th overall.
So far, there has been a toned-down sense of encouragement as the first four hurlers have all reached the majors. All four have had notable struggles, but Singer, Lynch, and Bubic have all had limited success too, combining for 2.4 WAR thus far in their careers.
Only Kowar has been an abject disaster thus far, going 0-3 with an 11.50 ERA in six outings, posting a -0.9 WAR. Singer, the headliner of the group, has endured an inconsistent sophomore season (4-10, 4.85 ERA, 0.2 WAR), while hitting the IL twice. However, his second IL stint, which begins today, leads to another member of the 2018 draft class coming up to the majors: right-hander Jon Heasley.
Who is Jon Heasley?
Unlike the quartet, Heasley was not highly thought of coming out of college. MLB Pipeline did not list him amongst their top 250 draft prospects for 2018. A 6-3, 225-pound right-hander, he had a mediocre final season at Oklahoma State, going 4-6 with a 5.96 ERA, striking out 79 batters and walking 38 in 80.0 innings. He also was knocked around to the tune of 93 hits in those 80.0 innings, equating to a .292 opponent’s batting average.
Likewise, not many eyebrows were raised when Heasley was selected in the 13th round at 392nd overall. However, his signing bonus may reflect what the Royals saw in him. He signed for $247,500, the second-highest bonus given in that round, and well above the $125,000 that most 13th-rounders signed for that year.
After posting a 5.15 ERA and striking out just 35 batters in 50.2 innings at Rookie-Advanced Idaho Falls as a rookie, Heasley was not on the radar. 2019 represented a breakout, though. At Class-A Lexington, Heasley went 8-5 with a 3.12 ERA. He made 20 starts, struck out 120 batters in 112.2 innings, and was a key component in securing a second-straight South Atlantic League Championship for the Legends.
Still, he wasn’t listed among the Royals’ top-30 prospects at the conclusion of 2019, before having his entire 2020 season wiped out. However, Heasley was a late add to the Royals alternate site, earning him valuable reps and turning enough heads among talent evaluators for him to debut at #25 on the Royals top-30 list that offseason.
2021 has gone just as well, as he moved to Double-A Northwest Arkansas and slid into the front of the Naturals’ rotation after Bowlan went down in late May with Tommy John surgery. Heasley has gone 7-3 with a 3.33 ERA at Double-A, striking out 120 batters in 105.1 innings.
On August 14, Heasley survived, um, a reversal of fortune in the seventh inning of Game 1 of a doubleheader, then re-grouped to finish off a seven-inning, complete-game 1-0 shutout.
As of this writing, Heasley is now ranked as the 14th-best prospect in the Royals system, indicating that the industry is continuing to see more and more than Heasley is a legitimate prospect, and not just filler like his draft slot may have suggested.
What Kind of Pitcher is Heasley?
Part of the reason that Heasley was not that highly thought of coming out of college is that he doesn’t possess any one overwhelming pitch. His MLB Pipeline scouting report from 2020 says as such:
“Heasley knows how to mix his four pitches, though nothing he throws is plus…Though he doesn’t overpower hitters, Heasley gets his share of whiffs because he knows how to be successful with sequencing, often pitching backward.”
The 2021 report, however, is noticeably more glowing, in particular indicating that his stuff, and not just his smarts, is a contribution to inducing more strikeouts.
“Heasley has unlocked more velocity as a pro thanks to a higher arm slot. His fastball sits at 92-95 mph with high spin but can get up to 97 mph…He has done a great job of repeating his delivery, and he gets whiffs not only because of his stuff but also because he knows how to be successful with his sequencing…Heasley receives praise for his competitiveness on the mound and his ability to control the running game and field his position.“
So what kind of arsenal can Royals fans expect to see from Heasley? Well, his scouting report again offers insight to that:
“His fastball sits at 92-95 mph with high spin but can get up to 97 mph. His 12-to-6 curveball is an above-average pitch, and he also has a slider that’s distinct from his other breaking ball. Heasley rounds out his arsenal with an effective changeup, and he’s not afraid to throw to either side of the plate with it.“
What’s noticeable from that list is the fastball; he generates high spin on the pitch, meaning that the ball doesn’t sink as much and has the illusion of rising, making it more difficult for a hitter to pick up and square up. Since moving to the pro ranks, Heasley changed his arm slot, which added more velocity to his fastball, further enhancing the effectiveness of the pitch.
His fastball and curveball are both graded at 55 on a 20-80 scale, indicating just above average MLB-quality pitches. Meanwhile, his changeup grades at 50 (average) and his slider at 45 (just below average). His control is also pegged at a 50.
Given his current grades, he seems projected to peak as a back-of-the-rotation starter, though after the leaps he’s made just in the last two years, a higher ceiling can’t be ruled out, either.
Regardless, he will have his chance to prove himself early, with an initial indication that he would start sometime this weekend, though one Royals writer indicates it likely will be tonight:
If Heasley does indeed start tonight, he will potentially have three or four starts to show what he can do. Regardless, the fact that Heasley is even here is a testament to the work of the Royals’ scouting and player development staffs. Barely three years after being drafted together, Heasley will become the fifth member of the heralded 2018 draft class to make a start for the Royals, a tremendous accomplishment in itself.
What comes out of it is still to be seen, but so far, there is strength in numbers, and Heasley further adds to that.
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