Many of the 2018 pitching draftees made their major-league arrival in 2021, leaving a hole to fill in the Kansas City Royals farm system. While the 2021 draft featured many pitchers, it is 2020's No. 4 overall selection leading the pitching charge in the minors.
Let's get this out of the way: starting pitcher Asa Lacy was less than stellar in his first professional season. He posted a 5.19 ERA over 14 games, with a 7.1 BB/9 and 13.7 K/9 with the High-A Quad City River Bandits. The poor showing has been attributed to a lingering shoulder injury, one that then-Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo described as needing time to heal.
"We’re looking at a guy in his first year: ‘Is it really worth the risk? Let’s get this thing calmed down.’ Which requires rest," Picollo said in an Aug. 20, 2021 interview. "It’s a rest thing — not a surgical repair. It’ll heal itself, then we’ll be in a good spot."
Lacy did not pitch past July, but returned to the 2021 Arizona Fall League (AFL). His appearance in the AFL may have more significance than meets the eye.
The AFL is a unique league, made up of six teams and 180 players total. The major league teams pool their prospects to make up a singular team. For example, the Kansas City Royals, Baltimore Orioles, New York Yankees, Texas Rangers and Washington Nationals combine select prospects to make the Surprise Saguaros. The five-week-long league offers prospects another chance before spring invites go out.
For fans, "every game in the AFL is like a future All-Star Game," according to the AFL official website. That description is not unfounded. In 2021, 16 of MLB.com's Top 100 prospects appeared in the AFL. If you need more proof, 43 former AFL players appeared in the 2019 All-Star Game. Modern greats such as Derek Jeter, Mike Trout and Albert Pujols have graced the AFL diamonds as well. This speaks to the talent pool in the AFL, and Lacy is a member of said pool.
Has Lacy's performance been perfect? No. But has it been good? Yes.
After starting three outings and totaling 4.2 innings, Lacy has a 2-0 record with a 3.86 ERA. He allowed three hits across those appearances, tallying ten strikeouts and four walks. The stats boil down to a stellar 19.29 K/9, but also a 7.7 BB/9 makes a 2.5 K/BB. That K/BB is good for sixth in the AFL though.
“I was very motivated just considering how the season went,” Lacy said following his AFL debut. “I knew I was a lot better than that. It’s been fun so far, and I look to keep building on it. They told me we are going into 2022 and we want to end ['21] on a good note.”
Lacy is certainly already ending the year on a good note, following a major pitching milestone. He recorded his first 100-mph pitch Oct. 23 against the Peoria Javelinas. That pitch alone showed how the AFL helped Lacy progress. Pairing a blazing fastball with his slider and curveball will be key for Lacy moving forward.
Now, it is not fair to crown Lacy as a future ace after 4.2 innings in the AFL. Lacy is still raw, especially in his control. But, his draft pedigree and upwards trajectory give fans a reason to watch him in 2022 and beyond.