Crow ready to set sights on bright future
Royals' top Draft pick a year older, but a year wiser, too
KANSAS CITY -- The calls kept coming, one by one. Calls from family and friends and reporters. All wanting to talk to the Kansas City Royals' newest first-round Draft choice.
But Aaron Crow didn't have too much to say. It was a Tuesday night and he'd just been picked by his childhood team. The team that was just an hour down the road from his hometown of Wakarusa, Kan., just outside of Topeka. But Crow kept it cool.
"I'm excited," he said.
Maybe it was because he'd been through this before. The Draft-night anxiety, the feeling of being a first-round Draft choice, all the extra attention and phone calls.
Now he's ready to play professional baseball, something he could have been doing since last year.
Crow was drafted ninth in the first round by the Washington Nationals in 2008. But negotiations can be tough, and Crow's contract talks with the Nationals kept dragging on and on. In the end, both groups could never agree on a number, and Crow turned down a multi-million dollar signing bonus.
But for Crow, all that's in the past.
Crow is 22 years old and he has an opportunity to play for his favorite organization. Some people never thought Crow would be a first-round pick. Some think he made a mistake by passing up guaranteed money last year. Crow is ready to prove all of those people wrong.
"I'm just looking forward to putting what happened last year behind me and moving on to this year," Crow said.
J.J. Picollo can tell you exactly why the Royals drafted Crow. Picollo, the Royals' assistant general manager/scouting and player development, was in charge of the Royals' draft for the first time this year.
The Royals needed an advanced arm, he says. And he's seen Crow dominate.
"He's got three well-above-average pitches," Picollo said.
There's a quality slider, an improving changeup and a fastball that tops out in the mid-90s.
Of course, people didn't always gush about Crow like this.
Matt Duncan remembers those days.
Duncan worked for the Kansas City Sluggers, a local baseball club run by former University of Kansas coach Dave Bingham, who's now an assistant at Nebraska.
Crow was 14 when Duncan first saw him. He was young and raw, and his fastball barely reached the mid-80s.
But Crow sat down with Bingham and Duncan and worked out a plan.
The right-hander would show up to lessons three times a week. Sometimes after lessons, he'd stick around even longer, soaking up as much pitching knowledge as possible.
He grew a little, worked himself into a little better shape, and his fastball jumped six miles per hour in six months. And by the end of his junior of year of high school at Washburn Rural in Topeka, Crow was throwing 88 to 89 mph.
"After his junior year, you could tell he was going to be special," Duncan said.
Still, some college coaches weren't convinced. And neither were pro scouts.
Maybe it was because he was from Topeka, not exactly a baseball hotbed. Maybe they just missed.
Duncan thinks it might have been that Crow's pitching mechanics were too good.
"A lot of teams didn't want to invest in a guy whose mechanics are sound," Duncan said. "They'll see a guy who throws 90 with bad mechanics and think they can change him and he'll throw harder. But if a guy has great mechanics, they think he won't be able to throw any harder."
Crow still earned All-State honors at Washburn Rural. He went 4-2 with a 1.71 ERA with 53 strikeouts as a senior. And playing for the Sluggers, he turned some heads in the summer, too.
But the pro scouts weren't interested, and Crow wasn't drafted out of high school.
Colleges still weren't interested, either, except for one.
"Missouri wanted him, and they showed they wanted him," Duncan said.
When Crow took the mound at Missouri, the scouts finally noticed. He showed promise as a freshman, pitched well as a sophomore, then exploded as a junior, when he went 13-0 in 15 starts and struck out 127 batters in 107 innings.
The fastball was dialed up and the scouts were dialed in. Crow was a commodity, one of the hottest college pitchers going into the 2008 Draft.
Then came the Draft and the negotiations and the aftermath. Left without a Major League organization to play for, Crow signed with the independent league Fort Worth Cats. He'd have to wait another year to hear his name on Draft day.
Luke Hochevar, another Royals first-round pick, understands the challenges that await Crow. He lived them in 2006.
After a standout career at Tennessee, Hochevar was drafted by the Dodgers in 2005. But Hochevar didn't sign. He turned down millions and went back into the Draft. He spent the next year working out and polishing his command. He pitched for the Fort Worth Cats, too.
"It's good for the point you can really get in the weight room and you can really bear down on your workouts and get a lot stronger," said Hochevar, who tossed his first career complete game against the Reds on Friday, allowing just one run while using just 80 pitches. "But also, it gives you a lot of time to work on some stuff, to fine tune some pitches and really gain some arm strength."
But there are negatives, Hochevar says.
All the free time to work out doesn't make up for the missed time on the mound. And you can't simulate what it feels like to hold the ball with nine professional hitters on the other side of the diamond.
"In an entire year, you need to get your starts," Hochevar said. "Sometimes it takes a little bit of time to get back in a routine. It took me a little while to adjust."
Hochevar has heard about Crow. He's heard about the sinking fastball and the slider and the changeup.
"With that kid's stuff, he should be fine," Hochevar said.
Picollo and Royals general manager Dayton Moore aren't too worried either. They think they got an advanced pitcher who can start at an "advanced level."
What that means isn't exactly clear. It could mean Class A-Advanced Wilmington, or it could mean Double-A Northwest Arkansas.
First the Royals need to get Crow signed, and that could take a while. Picollo is optimistic about Crow and the Royals' other top Draft choices.
"But if you look at the past history," he said, "there have been deals that have gone right down to the final minutes. If that's what it is, and we get the player signed, we'll deal with it and we'll be happy."
For Crow, the extra attention kept coming after Tuesday's Draft. His friends were pumped, more reporters kept calling, he made an appearance on MLB Network. Everybody wanted to know: How did it feel to be drafted by your favorite team?
"I was excited," Crow said.
And with last year over, Crow has learned a few things from the whole experience.
"Be more focused on getting things done," he said, "and making it work."
Rustin Dodd is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.