Let’s face it, any Royals team in the next block of however many years it takes to build a contender is going to be only as good as its pitching staff. Most of the small market teams and long-time losers who are having success this year are doing so largely because of the strength of their pitching.
The Nationals were 69-93 in 2010. They were 80-81 last year. Today, they have the best record in the big leagues and, not coincidentally, their starting pitching has given up the least amount of runs in the league. Similarly, Tampa Bay, Oakland and Pittsburgh are all in the top ten among starting rotations in runs allowed per game and are in the playoff hunt.
The Royals scored more runs in 2000 than any other Royals team in franchise history. Their 879 runs scored eclipsed the old record of 856 runs set in – wouldn’t you know it? - 1999. In those two seasons, they scored 1735 runs. They won 141 games and lost 192. The offense was around the top third in all of baseball, but the pitching staffs gave up the second most runs in the majors in 1999 and the third most in 2000. A strong offense can’t erase awful pitching.
Now, the Royals find themselves with a lineup that feels like it should be able to produce runs over the long-term (or at least, that’s what the scouts say), but the key to success will be pitching, specifically starting pitching.
That’s as true today as it was on the last day of the season in 2011 as it was on the first day that pitchers and catchers reported. The Royals entered 2012 needing pitching and in the middle of August, they still need starting pitching. Injuries have hurt. If all goes well with recovery, they should see Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino return next July or so, but their contributions may only have an impact if he Royals can manage to piece together some winning months prior to the duo’s return.
The team’s relative inactivity in the offseason to add significant depth to a potential rotation gives me pause about hoping for significant upgrades in the rotation, although some may be on the Royals radar this winter. The Royals ideal situation is to develop pitching via the farm system as the Rays have done with James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson et al; like the Nationals have done with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman and Ross Detwiler. Hopefully, the Royals go after some of the arms available in free agency or through trade because, in the meantime, while there are a number of strong performances in the minor leagues by pitchers who compose what could be the next wave of talent, most aren’t ready to make the jump yet.
Jake Odorizzi has performed well since his promotion to Omaha, allaying concerns that he might struggle early in a tougher league. Last year, he’d racked up 108 strikeouts in 78.1 innings for Wilmington, but became homer-prone in the Texas League and ended his 12 start stint in Northwest Arkansas with a 4.72 ERA. He started his 2012 season back in Double A, put in seven good starts and earned a promotion.
Since then, he’s been putting up good numbers in Omaha, capped off by an outing on Tuesday where he went 6.2 innings before allowing a hit. In 89.1 innings in Triple A, he’s got a 2.92 ERA (though his walk rate is up and he’s giving up more hits, so there could be some good fortune in that ERA). He’s a flyball pitcher, so it will likely make him home run prone once he gets to the big leagues, but he can miss enough bats and should have pretty good control to allow him to limit damage. He projects as a number three starter with some upside and should get to Kansas City in September for a couple appearances.
Another prospect to dream on is John Lamb, who has finally made it back to the mound. He underwent Tommy John surgery last June and in the process of maintaining his conditioning, aggravated a tendon in his ankle and had to hold off on game action.
On Tuesday, he started for the Arizona Royals in Surprise, throwing a scoreless inning and striking out two. A batter reached on an error, but Lamb gave up no hits or walks.
The Royals will probably be very patient with him for the rest of this season, just getting him worked back into game speed. I think we’d all like to see him make a start at each level until he got back to Double A, but I think he’ll work within the rookie levels, then into instructional leagues. J.J. Picollo said on a recent Royals TV broadcast that they’re looking for Lamb to start in Double A next year and be on the fast track. Lamb’s got a good shot to make that happen – he’s been touted for his temperament before even being drafted, and has come back from significant injury before. He might see Kansas City late in 2013, possibly on a similar path as Odorizzi has been on this year of a few starts for the Naturals, a long stint in Omaha and then Kansas City in late August or as a September callup.
Yordano Ventura is another guy to keep an eye on. He’s possibly got the most upside of any starter in the system, but those types usually have some risk. In his case, the Royals are probably going to have to resist the urge to turn him into a reliever if he encounters any bumps in the road. He’s small (listed at 5’11″ 140 pounds, though he looks like he’s filled out since) and the perception is that smaller pitchers are fragile or can’t hold up to the rigors of 200 inning seasons.
That being the case, he has the potential to be a high strikeout pitcher if he starts, has shown decent control, and has the type of stuff that misses bats. He can hurl a fastball into the triple digits, his curveball is developing into a solid secondary pitch and his changeup could be more than adequate. He’s currently on the disabled list in Double A with carpal tunnel symptoms in his wrist, but should finish the year there, start back there next year and hit Omaha in the summer months.
Of course, Kyle Zimmer should be in this discussion. The Royals first rounder in 2012 is only 20 years old coming out of college and has already started to shine in Low A Kane County’s rotation. He’s made eight pro starts, building up 33.2 innings, striking out 39 batters and walking just seven. He’s also been getting a decent amount of grounders in his short pro career. Strikeouts plus low walk totals plus groundball tendencies are great components for a future star to have. He’s had one rough start of those eight, but all of his others have been dominant. He’ll start next year at High A Wilmington and might be up in mid-2014 if he keeps rolling.
One pitcher who needs a new challenge is Sam Selman. The lefty from Vanderbilt has been destroying the Pioneer League and will hopefully get a shot at a higher level to see how his dominance continues. He’s striking out 13.9 batters per nine innings at Idaho Falls.
Kyle Smith struck out 11 batters in five innings in his first pro start for Idaho Falls and was moved to Kane Country afterwards. He’s continued to perform well there, making nine starts and striking out 58 batters in 45.2 innings. He has nearly a 5/1 K/BB ratio as a pro. He’ll turn 20 next month and isn’t the big, tall pitcher the Royals usually go for as a starter, but he deserves a look as he moves up the minor league ladder. His best start came two weeks ago when he went seven scoreless innings, gave up just three hits and struck out 12 while walking none against Cedar Rapids. More of that, please.
Another good arm in the system is Jason Adam. He started the season off well for Wilmington, hit some rough patches in May and June, but has righted the ship and is pitching well. His 5-11 record is deceiving, as he’s hardly gotten any run support in most of his starts, best demonstrated by a May 19 start when he went six innings, struck out seven and gave up two runs, and the Blue Rocks got no-hit. He’s surpassed seven innings in six starts to lead Wilmington and has a good share of 6+ IP starts as well.
As a result, he’s probably thrown too many innings to get anything more than a courtesy start in Double A. At 141 innings this year, he might be shut down soon. He’s a strong candidate to start the year in Double A next year after demonstrating enough ability to miss bats (7 K/9) and prevent walks (2 BB/9) this year while also inducing his share of ground balls. He has good stuff, but it’s not dominating, though he’s been adding velocity recently. He’s hit the mid-90s with his fastball before, and if he can build up to that level, it gives him more upside. He’s another guy who scouts suggest could be a #3 starter down the line.
Unfortunately, for the moment, this is all just dreaming on these guys, because Odorizzi’s the closest to the big leagues and won’t have much time in the big leagues if at all by next spring and it may keep him from making the team out of Surprise. Lamb and Ventura will probably hit Triple A next year, but among Zimmer, Adam, Selman and Smith, there’s not a single pitch at the Double A level yet. That puts them some ways away from the big leagues.
Ideally, the Royals will be able to add these arms to the mix in the future. They won’t have much impact next season so if the Royals are to build up their rotation (which they need to do), they’ll have to go after those free agent targets. They may have to put one of these arms into a trade to get a better return on a starter with another team. The Royals want to bring their star starters up from the minor leagues and have a homegrown staff, and that’s commendable, but for the moment, unless Mike Montgomery (5.71 ERA in 41 innings after his demotion to Double A) or Chris Dwyer (6.21 ERA in Omaha) figure things out – sooner rather than later – the homegrown pipeline of pitching talent will remain a pipe dream.