When it comes to pitching prospects currently in the Kansas City Royals system, Brady Singer, Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Kris Bubic command all the attention. And to be honest, those four are justified in commanding all the attention in the Royals system because not only are they the Royals’ best pitching prospects, but they are also pitching prospects who are closest in terms of making major impact in Kansas City at the Big League level.
However, there are two prospects in the Royals system who often get overlooked by most major outlets outside of Kansas City Royals fans circles. Now, while they do not have the tremendous upside of the “core four” pitching group, they are definitely interesting arms who could, with proper development, be surprising additions to either the end of the Royals rotation or bullpen within the next couple of seasons.
Those two pitchers are Carlos Hernandez and Jonathan Bowlan, who are both tall, 23-year-old right-handed pitchers who may be the best arms in the Royals farm system that are not named Singer, Lynch, Kowar, or Bubic.
Furthermore, they could also be closer to the Majors than most may think as well, especially during this weird, shortened-season.
Hernandez is a 6-4, near 200 pound pitcher out of Venezuela who is considered a “late bloomer” as a prospect since he did not sign with the Royals until he was 19-years-old, according to Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook back in 2019, who ranked him 18th in the Royals system in that edition. Most prospects who sign out of Latin America do so as 16 or 17-year-olds, so the fact that Hernandez signed at nearly 20 is not exactly a promising sign to those who believe in proper prospect development and projection. Furthermore, the fact that Hernandez is currently 23-years-old and has yet to pitch above Single-A Lexington should makes Royals fans wonder if he can make up enough ground this year and next before his peak “prospect age” of 26. His future in Kansas City is not sunk by any measure just yet, but it would have been nice to see him at least hit High-A Wilmington in 2019.
However, despite his slow progress (which was impeded by nagging injuries in 2019), the Royals still believed in Hernandez enough to add him to the 40-man roster this off-season, which protected him from the Rule 5 Draft (they did the same with outfielder Nick Heath). And it’s understandable why, as Hernandez has the look and tools to, at the very least, be a bullpen option in Kansas City in the next 2-3 seasons. As evidenced by the video below, it is easy to see Hernandez’s potential in Kansas City, while of course recognizing his need to develop and polish up his mechanics a bit in 2020.
Alex Duvall of Royals Farm Report holds an optimistic outlook on Hernandez, whom he rated as the 13th best prospect in the Royals system. Duvall felt he was one of the better pitching prospects in the Royals system, but has struggled with health issues over the past couple of seasons, which has held him back in his development. Here is what he says in his report:
When healthy, Hernandez has legitimately some of the best stuff in the entire system. His fastball reaches 100 mph, his changeup is absolutely filthy when he commands it right, and his breaking ball is a wipeout offering that also needs to be commanded well. If Hernandez were to reach his absolute ceiling, he’d be the best pitching prospect in this system without much competition. The problem there is that his health and command are a couple of big obstacles he’ll have to climb in order to get there.“Royals Farm Report’s 2020 Preseason Prospect Rankings: 15-11”; No. 13: Carlos Hernandez by Alex Duvall; Royals Farm Report
Mike Gillespie of Kings of Kauffman echoed the same sentiment, remarking on the improvement Hernandez made with the Legends as a promising sign of his development in the Royals system:
Recent performances provide reason to believe 2020 may be a good year for Hernandez. Although he started 2019 with an 0-2, 7.36 ERA stint in Arizona Rookie ball (a broken rib suffered in spring training held him out until late June), then had a 9.28 ERA at Burlington, Hernandez found more success at his final ’19 stop–he returned to Class A ball at Lexington and went 3-3 with a much improved 3.50 ERA….He also had the best strikeout rate of his short career last season–10.6 SO9 combined across his three stops–and, despite walking 12 batters in 10.2 innings at Burlington, Hernandez had a 2.5 BB9 at Arizona and a 2.3 BB9 at Lexington.“Projecting KC Royals Prospects: No. 10, Carlos Hernandez” by Mike Gillespie; Kings of Kauffman
Hernandez still has some work to do, as a disastrous 1.1 innings of work in Spring Training didn’t exactly leave the strongest impression on Royals fans and management before Cactus League play was stopped (he allowed three hits, three runs, a walk, and a home run). That being said, the good news is that Hernandez is on the 40-man already, which gives him a leg up on even the “core four” pitchers in the Royals system, who are not on the roster. Furthermore, if there is no Minor League season officially, it is possible that his status on the roster could give him an opportunity to develop his pitching in some way, shape or form in 2020, whether it be in limited Major League work, or perhaps through inter-squad work, which could also happen, as there is talk of expanding the rosters up to 50 in 2020.
Bowlan may be the most intimidating pitcher size-wise in the Royals system, as he stands at 6’6 and 262 pounds. An ace out of the University of Memphis, and the son of former St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Mark Bowlan, Bowlan broke out in 2019 after a ho-hum rookie debut in 2018.
While Singer, Lynch, Kowar, and Bubic got all the attention in the 2018 draft, Bowlan was also part of that draft class, getting drafted in the second round 58th overall by the Royals. However, after signing quickly, he struggled in his rookie campaign in Idaho Falls, as he posted a 6.94 ERA and 1.71 WHIP in 9 starts and 35 innings of work in the Short-Season Pioneer League. When combined with a “not bad, but not great” season in Memphis earlier in the year before the draft (he went 2-9 with a 3.71 ERA), it is not surprising that Baseball America left him off their Top 30 Royals list in their 2019 Prospect Handbook.
However, Bowlan ended up proving all his naysayers wrong in his first full year of professional ball. While his traditional numbers from 2018 underwhelm, he demonstrated excellent command in his time in Memphis, as he struck out 104 and walked only 18 in 85 innings of work in 2018 with the Tigers. With the Legends, Bowlan went 6-2 with a 3.36 ERA in 11 starts and 69 innings of work, which included posting a K/BB ratio 7.40. When he was promoted to Wilmington, Bowlan proved to be a key member of the Blue Rocks’ Carolia League title squad, as he posted an even more impressive 2.95 ERA and a still sterling 5.40 K/BB ratio over 76.1 innings of work. And if that wasn’t enough, the former Tiger threw a no-hitter on July 15th, which only made Baseball America look even sillier after leaving him off their list in favor of other pitchers like Arnaldo Hernandez and Foster Griffin, who both got absolutely shellacked in Omaha.
If 2018 was a disappointment, then 2019 was a “dream” and then some for the 23-year-old right-hander, who poses an intimidating presence on the mound. Duvall of Royals Farm Report was particularly high on Bowlan in his report, as he ranked him 11th in the Royals system going into 2020, and said this about Bowlan:
All Bowlan has done since being drafted in 2018 is pitch like a top 10 prospect in this system. He probably would be, too, if every other pitcher that KC drafted that year hadn’t also pitched like a top 10 prospect in the system. Bowlan commands the strike zone better than any pitcher in the organization and seems to have added a tick or two to his fastball. He won’t “wow” you with his pure stuff, but Bowlan’s command of the strike zone and mix of three above average pitches make him a force to be reckoned with at 6′ 6″ 262′. He will more than likely get his 2020 season started at AA Northwest Arkansas, and while there’s probably too many guys in front of him to make his big league debut this season, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Bowlan was big league ready by season’s end.“Royals Farm Report’s 2020 Preseason Prospect Rankings: 15-11”; No.11: Jonathan Bowlan by Alex Duvall; Royals Farm Report
Shaun Newkirk of Royals Review also was bullish on Bowlan’s outlook, as noted that his supreme command helped him stand out in the crop of Royals pitching prospects, which is not exactly chopper liver. However, as he also notes in his criticism of Singer, he does mention that Bowlan has to develop his secondary pitches, especially as he climbs the ladder in the Royals system.
Bowlan’s command is a lot better than his size let’s on just as his velocity is a little slower than the same size might look like it should be. He’s got the build of a lumbering hard thrower with nasty stuff but iffy command (Lance Lynn, Joel Hanrahan, Carlos Zambrano, etc…) and yet, he has pretty good command, good velocity, but lacks a wipeout pitch.“The top 20 Royals prospects for 2020”; No. 10: Jonathan Bowlan by Shaun Newkirk; Royals Review
Unlike Hernandez, Bowlan is not on the 40-man roster, which puts his development and progress a bit in question as baseball works to get going again (hopefully sometime in June with a short Spring Training 2.0). That being said, considering his sudden rise in the prospect rankings, his superior command, and the likelihood that he probably would have pitched in Double-A this year, it is possible that Bowlan could be a candidate for a roster spot if they do expand to 50 as rumored.
Hernandez and Bowlan are not the “elite” prospects that the “core four” are. However, they are both intriguing prospects who are coming off productive minor league campaigns and were trending in the right direction heading into 2020. Do they have their flaws? Absolutely. They still need to develop third pitches, and Hernandez will need to show that his injury issues of 2018 and 2019 are behind him. And at 23-years-old, they are at a critical age as prospects, which make this whole COVID shutdown more deflating to their Major League hopes and dreams.
That being said, they could be seen in 2020 if rosters expand to 45 or 50, which may fee like a rush to their development, but may be the best thing for them if no Minor League baseball is to be played in 2020. They will be up there in Kansas City or the Surprise facility with Singer, Lynch, Kowar, and Bubic, but it would not be surprising to see one or even both outperform one or a couple of those four this season if they are all playing together in inter-squad play.
Hernandez and Bowlan have that kind of dark horse potential, and it’s about time they get some attention from baseball fans outside of Kansas City and Royals prospect circles.