You may remember Aaron Crow’s amateur career. Stud starting pitcher at the University of Missouri. He was a high first round draft pick for the Washington Nationals in 2008 (9th pick) but they were unable to sign him and he went back into the draft in 2009. The Kansas City Royals grabbed him with the 12th pick of the 2009 draft. Immediately the projections began that he was a top of the rotation guy who could be in the big leagues within a couple years at most.
So what happened to Aaron Crow? Is he a bust? My good friend Cardinals Fan (who is also a Mizzou fan) and I have this discussion often. It usually begins and ends with him asking me, “When are the Royals going to put Crow in the rotation?”
I guess the only way to figure out whether he is a bust is to first define what a bust is, exactly. The first factor you have to consider when judging draft picks is WHERE they were picked. The next factor is expectations for the player based on the draft position in he which he was chosen. The third factor is the amount of money it took to sign the player. The fourth factor is how long it took the player to move through the system and reach the major leagues, if he ever does so. The fifth factor is what role he plays on the major league roster. The final factor is his performance level in that role.
Let’s look at each factor separately to see if we can get a handle on Crow.
1. Crow was a top first round pick TWICE. The higher the pick, the greater the expectations are on a player. When an MLB team chooses a player in the Top 10-12 picks, he’d better be an impact player on the MLB roster one day or it is a wasted pick. Washington picked him at #9 in 2008; the Royals at #12 in 2009.
2. Expectations were very high for Crow. The Royals and their fans penciled Crow in as a top of the rotation starting pitcher in KC. He was an ace at Missouri and was expected to improve and develop further once he got some innings in the minor leagues. He may not have been a true “ace” at the MLB level, but he was projected as a #2 or very good #3 pitcher in a winning starting rotation.
3. Crow turned down a lot of money from Washington to re-enter the draft. Despite being taken lower the next year by the Royals, it still took a lot of money to sign him. Crow signed with the Royals for approximately $4.5M a couple of months after being drafted.
4. Crow moved through the low minors relatively quickly, advancing from A ball to AA on a fast track. But something happened to Crow at the AA level- he could no longer command the strike zone. When he wasn’t walking lots of hitters, he was getting lit up when he threw strikes. It was reported that he was having trouble with his mechanics, particularly that he was unable to consistently repeat those mechanics throughout innings or games. Eventually, Crow struggled so much that he was demoted from AA to A at the end of the 2010 season. Surprisingly, Crow showed up to Spring Training in 2011 and was lights out. He opened a lot of eyes and was noticed enough to get a very long look for a roster spot. Crow continued to pitch so well that he made roster the Royals roster in 2011, less than 2 years after being drafted. One more important detail….Crow made the team as a reliever rather than a starter.
5. Crow was so good in the bullpen as a rookie that he eventually became one of the more dependable setup men for closer Joakim Soria. Crow was dominant as a rookie and was counted on heavily by the team. He was so good that he was named the Royals lone All-Star in 2011. He even earned some time as the team’s temporary closer during a brief time that Soria had some injury/performance issues. Crow is currently in his third season as a setup man and continues to perform VERY well in that role. Many discussions will bring up his name as a potential closer on an MLB roster but there is rarely any discussion about him returning to the starting rotation. Crow’s performance history at the MLB level indicates that he is much less effective in his second inning of work whenever he pitches that long. The Royals appear to be well aware of this since it is now extremely rare that you see him pitch more than one inning. He NEVER does it in a close game.
Crow is not a starting pitcher let alone a top starter. Even when the Royals were extremely short on starting pitching, he was not given a legitimate shot as a rotation candidate. This fact, along with his struggles in multiple inning appearances (and the very limited time in which he makes such appearances), suggests that there has been no improvement in Crow’s ability to repeat his mechanics for more than one short inning. Despite this, he does appear to have the ability to serve as a closer if the need arose due to performance, injury, or trade.
6. All-Star in 2011, but not quite as good but still above average in 2012. Still good this season but not quite as dominant as in previous seasons. His performance at the MLB level has been nothing to complain about. He has been mostly reliable in his role as a setup man/temporary closer. The majority of Royals fans would tell you that he does not scare them when he enters the game.
So is Aaron Crow a bust? Taking these factors into consideration, I am completely on the fence with this question.
On one hand, you have a top draft pick who was supposed to be a starter at the top of your rotation and you paid him $4.5M to be that. He has no major history of arm trouble since being acquired, yet he can’t pitch effectively for more than one inning at any level. He never became the important part of the home-grown starting rotation that the Royals must rely upon due to payroll constraints. It does not appear that the Royals ever have any intention of giving him another shot to start, and all of Crow’s career stats (minor league and MLB) support that approach.
On the other hand, he’s made an All-Star roster and performed at an above-average level in every season he’s pitched. You could make a case that he might be the best closer the Royals have on their roster. In terms of MLB payroll, he is relatively cheap ($1.28M salary this season) and is not arbitration-eligible until after 2014. He is not a free agent until 2017. If he remains effective in his role (or as a closer) he is extremely valuable for the amount of money he costs the Royals.
Cardinals Fan and I have this detailed discussion and still haven’t come to a solid conclusion. His take is that a team crying for starting pitching (prior to 2013, anyway) had no choice but to keep him a starter and keep developing him to sink/swim as a starter. Cardinal Fan thinks the Royals messed up on Crow and gave up on him too soon, ruining him as a starter due to impatience. I don’t recall Cardinals Fan calling Crow a bust, but rather blaming the Royals for his failure as a starter.
Despite Cardinal Fan’s viewpoint, I do not think the Royals screwed Crow up. I think the Royals responded to what Crow’s performance in multiple-inning appearances told them and found a way to get him on the MLB roster to help the team. Crow DOES have the look of a draft a bust right now, BUT I’m not prepared to call him one yet for a single reason: it is still to early to decide. The most important factor in deciding is draft position. If Crow is a 3rd round pick and finishes his career as an effective setup man for the Royals then it is a victory. But a pitcher who is a Top 12 pick MUST hit as either a regular member of a good starting rotation or a closer.
Crow doesn’t look to be a starting pitcher but he does have a chance to become an effective/dominant closer for the Royals. I think we need to give him until the end of the 2014 season to make a determination. If he is not the closer by then (or is not traded for some significant addition to the Royals roster to aid them in the race for the postseason), then he is a bust.
Conclusion: Crow is not a bust yet, but if he is still a setup man for the Royals in November 2014 then he is a bust for sure.