Jackson Kowar is the No. 4 prospect in the “21 in 21” prospect watch.
Of the Royals’ heralded young arms, no one is more polarizing than Jackson Kowar. To some prospect experts or Royals fans, Kowar is the most expendable of the five, and seems to be the most likely to traded, should Dayton Moore want to go that route. After all, Kowar pitched in Double-A Northwest Arkansas along with Brady Singer in 2019, and posted a 3.51 ERA, 3.68 FIP, and K/BB ratio of 3.71 in 74.1 IP (he also posted a 3.53 ERA, 3.60 FIP, and 3.00 K/BB ratio in 74 IP in High-A Wilmington earlier that season as well). And yet, while Singer and Kris Bubic (who didn’t pitch higher than High-A in 2019) made their MLB debuts in 2020, Kowar was stuck at the Alternate Site in KCK last season along with Daniel Lynch and Asa Lacy, who joined them later in the season.
Thus, the lack of a late-season callup for Kowar may concern some Royals fans, especially since the Royals weren’t really a serious contender in the playoff race, and they were also trotting out retreads like Matt Harvey to the mound more than they should have (though honestly, I was initially behind Harvey getting a chance). Furthermore, the lack of an appearance isn’t the only blemish on his record from 2020: he didn’t exactly look impressive in Spring Training or Summer camp, and he fell 17 spots in the 2021 Baseball America Top 100, going from 78th in 2020 to 95th in BA’s most recent rankings.
While Lynch and Lacy’s reputations spiked in most prospect circles, despite the lack of a Minor League season, Kowar took a hit, even though he really didn’t do anything to necessarily “hurt” himself or his development this past season.
And yet, even though Kowar may have lost some shine to Singer, Bubic, Lynch, and Lacy this off-season, Kowar still remains an intriguing starting rotation option, who could perhaps have the most long-term upside of the five.
Because of his changeup, honestly.
Kowar sports a different demeanor than former Florida Gator teammate Singer, and it’s possible that pitching in Singer’s shadow since college hasn’t helped Kowar’s stock since. While Singer has an ultra-competitive demeanor and approach, Kowar gives off a more subdued and laid back vibe, even more evident in the “Royals Reflections” video he participated in last summer:
And yet, while he doesn’t have the “reputation” of his former Gator teammate, Kowar may have more upside than Singer in the long-run. While he has found success early on in his MLB career, Singer is pretty much a two-pitch pitcher who needs to develop a better third pitch (i.e. changeup). Kowar, on the other hand, has a robust three-pitch mix, highlighted by a changeup that was graded a 70 by MLB Pipeline in their most recent scouting report. Here’s what Pipeline said about Kowar in their most recent writeup on the 24-year-old right-hander:
Kowar’s fastball-changeup combo is his calling card as a starter, but he also has the chance to have three at least average pitches. His mid-80s plus-plus changeup is his best pitch, thrown with excellent deception and arm speed as well as tumbling and fading action that makes it a swing-and-miss weapon against hitters on both sides of the plate. He can run his fastball up to 97 mph, but he usually sits more in the 93-95 mph range with arm-side life and command that improved across his first full season. Kowar has made similar gains in developing a curveball that could be at least average, throwing it with better spin and shape now than he did in college. He’s a solid strike-thrower who generates a healthy number of whiffs as well as weak groundball contact, albeit with command that requires further refinement.“No. 4: Jackson Kowar” Royals Top 30 Prospects; MLB Pipeline
Baseball America also highlighted the upside and potential of his changeup at the MLB level. That being said, they did mention he was less impressive at summer camp than other top Royals arms in their Mid-Season update, and he had to still figure out some delivery issues this summer at the Alternate Site as well, according to their scouting report:
Kowar’s changeup is the gem of his arsenal. It’s a nasty, plus-plus offering at 83-85 mph that confounds hitters with its trapdoor action. It generates swings and misses from both lefthanded and righthanded hitters, and he’s comfortable throwing it in any count. Kowar pairs his changeup with a two-seam fastball that checks in at 93-96 mph with armside sink. He has a tendency to overthrow his fastball, so he worked at the alternate site to keep his delivery more under control and improve his fastball command. Kowar’s mid-70s curveball is a work in progress, but it’s a potentially average pitch he is learning to locate on both sides of the plate. He throws plenty of strikes with at least average control.“No. 4: Jackson Kowar” Royals Top 10 Prospects; Baseball America
When one sees Kowar’s changeup in action from 2019, it’s easy to see why scouts and prospect experts rave about his potential. Trevor Hooth posted this GIF thread of Kowar’s changeups in action in 2019, and it’s easy to see the pitch having major strikeout potential at the Major League level, possibly as soon as 2021. Take a look at the Twitter thread below:
(Dang, the thought of him striking out Dylan Carlson at the Major League level makes me giddy.)
There’s no questioning Kowar’s tools and potential. While I may not be as high as others on Kowar, I think it’s totally reasonable to imagine him having No. 2 or No. 3 potential at the Major League level. The fact that he has a pretty developed changeup already is pretty impressive, as Nate Handy of Pitcher List noted in his own recent analysis of the Royals farm system:
A nasty changeup is the best tool a pitcher can have in my opinion, and I’m invested in Kowar, but there is work to be done and reports from instructs seemed to lean towards that work still in progress. Probably not worthy of the top echelon of fantasy pitching prospects at this point, but he has a chance to outproduce many of them if things come together, and relatively soon. Kowar could be a sneaky value play for dynasty owners but does have some added risk.“No. 4 Jackson Kowar” Kansas City Royals’ 2021 Pre-Season Top 50 Prospects by Nate Handy; Pitcher List
So, what’s holding Kowar back? Why shouldn’t Royals fans be all in on Kowar, much like we have been on Singer, Bubic, Lynch, and Lacy?
Because honestly, an above average starting rotation made up completely of drafted or system-developed guys rarely exists at the Major League level.
In the midst of NFL Conference Championship games going on, a Major MLB trade was announced that piqued my curiosity and nostalgia:
And while Taillon’s acquisition was mostly seen as a boost for Yankees fans looking to solidify their rotation, it made me think about what the Pirates rotation “could have been” had they kept all their elite homegrown arms. Taillon was a former No. 1 prospect in the Pirates system. As was Gerrit Cole. As was Mitch Keller. As was Tyler Glasnow. The Pirates could have had one of the best system-developed rotations in the Majors going into 2021. And yet, of those pitchers I have mentioned, only Keller remains with the Pirates, and he struggled through injury a year ago.
Why do I bring up Taillon and the Pirates? Because it shows how hard it is for teams, small market ones especially, to see the fruits of their scouting and player development at the MLB level, especially when it comes to pitching. In a perfect world, in 2023, Singer-Bubic-Lynch-Lacy-Kowar would be the envy of MLB teams and front offices, a shining example of what good scouting and player development can do for a small market club. That being said, 1-2 homegrown pitchers can be hard to produce, let alone five.
Hence, it just makes sense that Moore will eventually trade one of those arms for a more substantial and proven MLB talent wise in the near future. Maybe it doesn’t happen this year. But next Winter? The 2022 Trade Deadline? That could be a looming possibility.
And Kowar would be the option that would make the most sense.
Kowar is the least heralded of the bunch, and the Royals have plenty of reinforcements at both the Major and Minor League level when it comes to right-handed arms. Other than Austin Cox, there aren’t a whole lot of highly-heralded starting left-handed pitchers in the Royals system. But right-handed ones? There’s Jonathan Bowlan, Carlos Hernandez, and Ben Hernandez, just to name a few. Furthermore, the Royals still have Brad Keller, who as of now, is the current ace of the Royals rotation for 2021.
The Royals would take a far lesser hit to their pitching depth if they traded Kowar rather than Lynch or Lacy.
Hence, one has to wonder how long will Kowar last? Will this be a Jake Odorizzi situation, where he makes a few starts in a September call up, only to be traded in the off-season in a Major blockbuster deal? Or will Kowar be another Yordano Ventura, and get to become a crucial piece of the starting rotation for the long haul?
As said before, it’s unlikely that anything Major will happen to Kowar in 2021. He will get a chance to prove himself this Spring, and who knows…maybe he impresses and earns a spot in the Royals rotation as perhaps a sixth starter, which has been floated around in Royals circles. Kowar has the stuff and the ceiling, and it would be encouraging to see him emerge as the next heralded arm to debut in 2021, even though Lynch remains the favorite at this time.
Nonetheless, Kowar’s status as a Royal will be interesting to pay attention to in the Winter of 2021/2022.
Because I think by then, Royals fans may know if the front offices views Kowar as a Ventura-like asset…or perhaps an Odorizzi-esque one.