Royals “Hall of Not Forgotten”: Aaron Crow, RHP

Kansas City Royals fans love “local” players. It’s the reason why the Royals embraced third baseman Joe Randa and pitcher David Cone when they came to Kansas City, even though they were not drafted by the organization. Frank White is not just Royals “Hall of Famer” because had a long career in professional baseball, but because he also hailed from Kansas City, went to Lincoln Prep on the outskirts of the Jazz District off 18th and Vine, and was a graduate of the short-lived Royals Baseball Academy. It probably has helped the case of outfielder Bubba Starling, a former first round pick who would have been let go by a lot of organizations by now, but has probably been given an extended chance because he hails from Gardner, Kansas. And this also applies to players “not selected” by the Royals, as Royals fans still struggle to forgive Royals management for not selecting Albert Pujols, even though he went to Fort Osage and Maple Woods Community College in the Northland area of the Kansas City Metro (and the fact that he went to the Cardinals, in the the 13th round of that 1999 Draft nonetheless, only makes it sting more).

Aaron Crow fit the mold of a “local” guy that should have been beloved by Kansas City Royals fans, especially during a time when the Royals were building themselves as a club to prepare for those magical 2014 and 2015 seasons. Crow was raised in the small community of Wakarusa, Kansas, just outside of Topeka, and attended Washburn Rural High School, a powerhouse in athletics in the state of Kansas. He ended up pitching at Mizzou, which is just three hours east of Kansas City, and has a considerable alumni bases in the KC Metro area.

Everything was set up for Crow to succeed in Kansas City, and perhaps be the next big “local Royal.” Hell, it wasn’t far-fetched for Royals fans to imagine in 2009 when Crow was drafted that the Royals were getting another David Cone, only this time they weren’t going to trade him for Rick AndersonMauro Gozzo and Ed Hearn. But unfortunately, Crow didn’t become Cone 2.0 or had a career that resembled the former Rockhurst High School product.

For after the 2014 season, Crow never pitched at the Major League level again.

Aaron Crow had a pretty sterling career at the University of Missouri, which was a pretty strong baseball program at the time when they were still in the Big 12 (they moved to the SEC in 2013 and have struggled to be competitive in one of the nation’s best college baseball conferences). In his three seasons at Mizzou, Crow helped the Tigers make the NCAA Tournament three times, which included a Super Regional appearance his freshman year in which they lost to Cal State Fullerton, the host, in the championship game. While they did not make it out of the regional round his sophomore and junior years, the Tigers still made the tournament, which they have only done once since 2009 (2012, which was their final season in the Big 12).

Crow improved every year as a Tiger. He posted a 1-4 record and 4.06 ERA in 77 innings of work as a freshman, which was not bad for a first-year Division 1 player, but his his high H/9 rate (10.89) and WHIP (1.47) left some to be desire. However, Crow put in the work, and improved those numbers over more innings his sophomore year, as he threw 50 more innings his sophomore year (117.2 IP) and lowered his ERA (3.59), WHIP (1.21) and H/9 (8.34). In his junior year, Crow went from very good to elite, as he posted a 2.35 ERA, 1.15 WHIP and sterling 13-0 record over 15 starts and 107.1 innings of work. Crow also posted a K/9 that was 10.65 (almost four strikeouts per nine higher than his sophomore season) and a K/BB ratio of 3.34 (0.61 points higher from his sophomore season), which also aided him in being named Big 12 Conference Pitcher of the year that season.

In addition, in the Cape Cod League in 2007, Crow was given the Robert A. Mcneese Award, which goes to the Top Pro Prospect that season after a stellar summer stint with the Falmouth Commodores. According to the Cape Cod League press release, “[Crow] compiled a 3-1 won-lost record and a league-best 0.67 ERA. In 40-1/3 innings of pitching, he gave up just 19 hits and seven runs, only three of them earned, while walking nine batters, hitting four and striking out 36.” Furthermore, they also noted that “his low walk total and his strikeouts-to-walks ratio are the figures that have caught the eye of big league scouts, many of whom watched him overpower the opposition as the West Division starter in July’s CCBL All-Star Game at Wareham.”

Hence, the combo of a solid junior season at Mizzou and Cape Cod campaign made Crow one of the top pitching prospects entering the 2008 MLB Draft.

Going into the draft, Crow was widely expected to be picked in the Top 10, with Washington the most likely spot, according to Baseball America in their 2008 Mock Draft. In their article, this is what they said about Crow and his fit with the Nationals:

9. WASHINGTON. The Nationals are willing to spend money on the draft, so Hosmer and Posey wouldn’t scare them off if they fell this far. If that doesn’t happen, Washington would look hard at Gordon Beckham, Smoak and Alonso, all of whom figure to be off the board. That would mean the Nats would bolster their pitching staff with Crow, who has the best fastball in the draft and a nifty slider as well. Skipworth, who worked out for the Nats earlier this week, is another possibility.

Projected Pick: AARON CROW, rhp, Missouri.

“2008 Final Mock First Round” by Jim Callis; Baseball America

The Nationals actually ended up picking Crow in the 2008 Draft as Baseball America predicted, but Crow did not sign with the Nationals, as they were unable to agree on a signing bonus figure. According to Jim Callis from Baseball America in a May 19, 2009 “Ask BA” segment, pitcher Brian Matusz, who was drafted and signed by the Baltimore Orioles for a less-than-expected bonus of $3.2 million, ended up being a primary factor in the negotiating process, as the Nationals didn’t want to sign Crow for much more than Matusz, who went earlier in the daft than Crow (Matusz went 4th overall). The segment below from that article profiles how things went south between the Nationals and Crow’s agents, which ultimately ended in Crow not signing with the Nationals.

Crow was willing to sign for $4 million right before the Aug. 15 deadline, but by that point his agents, Alan and Randy Hendricks, and then-Nationals general manager Jim Bowden were unable to compromise. In retrospect, neither side handled the negotiations well. The Hendricks brothers opened negotiations by asking for upwards of $7 million, while the club stuck firm to MLB’s slot recommendation of $2.15 million. Neither side began to budge until a couple of days before the draft.

On the day of the deadline, Matusz unwittingly undermined Crow when he signed a subpar deal with the Orioles as the No. 4 pick. Matusz received a big league contract with a $3.2 million bonus but only $272,500 in additional guaranteed salaries, and Washington took the position that because Matusz was a higher-rated prospect, Crow shouldn’t exceed his $3.5 million guarantee. The Nationals held firm at that price and the Hendricks wouldn’t come below $4 million, and the two sides wouldn’t bridge the gap.

“Ask BA” by Jim Callis; Baseball America

Crow ended up playing Independent Ball the following season with the Fort Worth Cats of the American Association, though he only made 3 starts and pitched 17 innings total in 2009 (he also made one start with the the Cats in 2008). While mostly a tune up to keep him fresh in preparation for the 2009 MLB Draft, Crow performed well in Independent Ball, as he won every start and posted a 1.06 ERA, 0.94 WHIP and 3.40 K/BB ratio.

The Kansas City Royals selected Crow with the 12th overall pick in the 2009 MLB Draft. The selection of Crow made a lot of sense for both sides involved: for Crow, it was a chance to play for his hometown team, and for the Royals, it gave them a polished arm who could advance quickly in the Royals system. While expecting him to debut in Kansas City in his first year of “affiliated” professional ball at the time was wishful thinking, it wasn’t far-fetched to think that he could debut in Kansas City in his sophomore season, especially considering the Royals were coming off 75 and 65-win seasons in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

The Royals didn’t sign Crow until September of 2009, which basically prevented him from playing in the Royals system that season. However, he did sign for a $3 million signing bonus, and as expected when he was drafted, debuted in Double-A Northwest Arkansas in 2010. Unfortunately, the quick promotion to the Texas League didn’t help Crow, as he struggled in his affiliated ball debut. In 22 starts with the Crow with Naturals, he posted a 5.68 ERA, 1.58 WHIP and 1.53 K/BB ratio over 119.1 innings of work. The rough patch earned him a demotion to High-Wilmington in August, though things did not fare much better in the Carolina League, as he posted a 5.93 ERA and 1.30 WHIP in 7 starts and 44 innings of work with the Blue Rocks. However, his K/BB ratio did improve to 8.83, a promising sign that his ERA numbers were inflated perhaps due to BABIP and some bad luck.

The No. 2 prospect in the Royals system according to Baseball America going into 2010, Crow’s prospect stock fell in 2011, as he was rated as the No. 9 prospect in the Royals system in their 2011 prospect handbook. Furthermore, Crow was rated as the 40th best prospect overall by Baseball America going into 2010, and was left off that Top 100 list completely by 2011. In many ways, after a rough Double-A, and ho-hum High-A campaign his rookie year, many experts wondered if Crow would have any impact in Kansas City at all, let alone soon.

However, Crow surprisingly made the active roster on Opening Day in 2011, despite his rough stretch in the Minors in 2010. Though he made the team as a reliever, Crow electrified Royals fans in his Major League debut against the Los Angeles Angels, which also occurred on Opening Day. Crow relieved Opening Day starter (and former Number 1 overall draft pick) Luke Hochevar in the 6th inning and proceeded to not only strike out Howie Kendrick to end the inning, but he also proceeded to retire the 3-4-5 hitters of the Angels’ lineup (Bobby Abreu, Torii Hunter, and Vernon Wells) in order in the 7th. And to put icing on the cake, Crow struck out Hunter and Wells in the process as well.

For Crow, his Major League debut could not have gone much better, and he rode the momentum of that electric Opening Day appearance on the mound to a stellar overall rookie season. 2011 was arguably Crow’s best season over the course of his career, as he finished the year with a 2.76 ERA, 4-4 record, 1.39 WHIP, and K/BB ratio of 2.10 in 57 appearances and 62 innings of work in relief. Furthermore, he was the lone Royals All-Star, which ended up being his only appearance in the Mid-Summer classic.

2012 ended up being a solid follow-up to his Major League rookie debut, even though his traditional stats didn’t necessarily reflect it. While his ERA increased to 3.48, about 0.72 points higher from his All-Star season, he posted a better WHIP (1.18 to 1.39 in 2011), FIP (2.96 to 4.11 in 2011), K/BB ratio (2.95 to 2.10 in 2011), and record (3-1 to 4-4 in 2011). Furthermore, Crow pitched more innings (64.2 to 62 in 2011) and made more appearances (73 to 57 in 2011), so it is arguable to say that Crow’s sophomore season was close in production and effectiveness to his rookie campaign.

Surprisingly, the Royals never made the move to transition Crow back to the starting rotation at any point in his Major League career and he became a mainstay in the bullpen, especially during the 2011 and 2012 seasons. Crow nearly usurped the closer’s role in 2011, a season in which Joakim Soria had one of his more underwhelming campaigns with a 4.03 ERA and 5 losses along with 7 blown saves in 60 innings of work. However, even though Crow posted 25 holds between 2011 and 2012, he only accumulated 2 saves in 2011 and 6 saves overall in his four-year career. Furthermore, Crow didn’t exactly thrive in a closer’s role either, as he had 7 blown saves in 2011 and another 6 in 2012.

While the Royals started to show signs of winning as a team in 2013 (they went 86-76 which was the first first winning season in a decade), Crow’s career began to regress in his third season of professional baseball. While he still posted a decent ERA at 3.38, his workload decreased from 73 appearances to 57, and from 64.2 innings to 48 innings. Furthermore, his FIP increased from 2.96 to 4.34, his WHIP increased from 1.18 to 1.48, and his K/BB ratio decreased from 2.95 to 2.00. Once a Royals’ go-to setup man in the 7th and 8th innings (he posted 27 holds between 2011 and 2012), Crow had relinquished that role in 2013 to Hochevar and Kelvin Herrera, who set things up for closer Greg Holland. While he did post another 19 holds in 2013, his role wasn’t quite as embedded in the late innings as it was in the previous two seasons.

Crow’s last season in Kansas City (and in Major League Baseball in general) was by far his worst, and it would be interesting to know if he was dealing with injuries that would eventually derail his Major League career after the 2014 season. Even though the Royals won an AL Pennant in 2014, Crow didn’t have much impact on the team. During the regular season, while Crow posted a 6-1 record and accumulated 11 holds, he also posted a 4.12 ERA, 5.40 FIP, and 1.29 WHIP over 67 appearances and 59 innings. What made matters worse is that the Royals left him off the playoff roster during their World Series appearance and run, as the Royals opted for rookie Brandon Finnegan and Jason Frasor in the pen for the playoffs. It certainly was a disappointment for Crow to not pitch for the Royals in their first postseason since 1985 in any round, even though he represented the Royals in the All-Star game a few years earlier.

At the conclusion of the 2014 season, the Royals parted ways with Crow, as he was set to make more on a year-by-year basis in arbitration, and Moore and the Royals didn’t see him as part of the bullpen going forward. This was especially true with the emergence of Wade Davis and his transition to the bullpen, as the famous “HDH” (Herrera-Davis-Holland) seemed to eliminate Crow from any opportunity for pitching in high-leverage situations. The Royals trade Crow to Miami Marlins in purely a salary dump situation, as they traded him for Reid Redman and Brian Flynn, with Flynn being the only who contributed to the Royals in the future.

Unfortunately, Crow’s Major League career pretty much ended after he left Kansas City. Arm issues and injuries ravaged Crow over the next few seasons. He missed all of 2015 due to injury that required Tommy John, and didn’t pitch an inning in the Marlins organization. He signed a minor league deal with the Chicago Cubs the following season, but only three total innings in the Arizona Rookie League as he tried to rehab from injury. Unfortunately, he was released by the Cubs, and again, missed all of 2017 due to injury. From 2015 through 2017, Crow only pitched a total of three innings in professional ball, a sad and frustrating stretch for a pitcher who showed so much promise as a Royal back in 2011.

Crow tried to make one last come back in the Mexican League, as he pitched 13 games for the Acereros de Monclava and 6 games with the Pericos de Puebla in 2018. Unfortunately, the 31-year-old Crow was a shell of his former All-Star self, for while he posted a 2.33 ERA in 19.1 innings of work in the Mexican League, his 1.45 WHIP and 0.92 K/BB ratio demonstrated that he probably was at the end of the road as a professional pitcher. Though he never announced a formal retirement, Crow has not pitched professionally since the conclusion of the 2018 season in Mexico and was not signed to play anywhere in 2020.

In many Royals fans’ eyes, Crow was a bust. He was drafted to be a key part of the Royals rotation in 2009, and he never started any of the 254 games he pitched at the Major League level. And even though he showed some promise as a rookie, Crow couldn’t hold an important spot in the pen, as he eventually ceded his role first to Hochevar, and then eventually Davis. And lastly, Crow being left off the playoff roster only shows those doubting Royals fans that Crow was a waste, as the Royals probably could have picked someone else in that first round in that spot who could have had more impact long-term than Crow.

That being said, Crow is worth remembering, even if his time and success was fleeting in Kansas City. He showed so much promise in 2011, and it seemed for a while that Crow was in line to succeed Soria as the Royals closer. Crow had nasty, stinking stuff that could make hitters look silly at times, and until his last year, he always demonstrated good control and command. He also was one of the better Royals relievers when it came to generating groundballs, as he finished his career in Kansas City with a 49.2 percent groundball rate.

Of course, it seemed like the physical part of the game caught up to Crow, though that was no fault of his own. His fastball velocity dipped from 95.2 his rookie year to 92.0 in 2014, his last year in Kansas City. For a pitcher who only had three pitches (fastball, slider and change), that kind of velocity dip is career-killing, and it eventually proved to be his demise after the 2014 season, in addition to injuries.

What would Crow have been as a Royal though had the velocity dip not happen? What would Crow have been had he been given the closer’s role in 2011? Crow’s career will most likely be forgotten by most Royals fans, and it’s understandable: his WAR and overall impact is pedestrian at the end of the day in the grand scheme of things. But Crow was a local guy who achieved his dream of playing for his hometown team, and contributed in positive ways to his hometown team, even if it was shortlived.

Not a lot of local high school or college players can say they played for the Royals. Not a lot can say they were All-Stars as Royals.

Crow, on the other hand, can say both.

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