Back in 2010, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals won 86 games and the Texas League Championship. By the end of the season, they were trotting out a rotation of Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy, and John Lamb (among others) at the end of the year to secure the title.
That winter, the Royals were bestowed the titled of best minor league system on Planet Earth and landed nine prospects on Baseball America’s top 100 list. Montgomery and Lamb were both in the top 20. Duffy was #68, then-newly-acquired Jake Odorizzi was #69, and Chris Dwyer (who’d made four starts for the Naturals) was #83.
All five were tantalizingly close to the majors entering 2011. Montgomery gave up one run and struck out seven batters in nine innings that spring. He walked eight batters as well, but there was still he may have had a shot to open up the year on the big league roster or at least be a call-up in the first half. Danny Duffy opened the year in Omaha and struck out 48 batters in 42 innings and was in Kansas City in late May 2011. Odorizzi started the year striking everything out in the Carolina League and landed in Double A to finish the year. Lamb had a 3.09 ERA through eight starts. Dwyer, well, he came out struggling in 2011, but you can’t win them all, right?
Of course we know how this story ends. Lamb needed Tommy John surgery after those eight starts. Duffy would need it about a year after Lamb’s. Montgomery fell off the radar with control issues and Odorizzi made steady improvements but still didn’t make the majors until September of 2012 and even then was coddled by facing only the Indians (who still smacked him around a little in two starts). Dwyer is still struggling and has battled back issues and a thyroid problem last year. Montgomery and Odorizzi were traded. The Royals won’t see Duffy until June at the earliest. Lamb isn’t any closer to the big leagues.
But the system keeps churning and there’s depth rising through the ranks now. Once again, Northwest Arkansas could be the focus of the next great pitching hopes.
Earlier today, Paul Nielson of NWAOnline.com passed along news from Eric Edelstein, GM of the Naturals, that Lamb could be the opening day starter for the club and that 2012 first round pick Kyle Zimmer could start out in the NWA rotation as well in 2013. They would likely also be joined by Yordano Ventura, who’s pitching well in spring training, but only had six starts at Double A last season, and Jason Adam, who J.J. Picollo basically confirmed as headed to Double A in 2013 after Adam handled High A last year.
Here’s that potential rotation with ages on April 4, 2013:
- John Lamb (22)
- Yordano Ventura (21)
- Jason Adam (21)
- Kyle Zimmer (21)
Noel Arguelles (23 years old) may start out there as well. So far he’s throwing harder this spring, but his command is still off. Robinson Yambati (22 years old) is another possibility, though most of his success in 2012 was out of the bullpen.
Again, that group is tantalizingly close. If Lamb can get back on track, he’s very likely to be in Triple A before the All-Star break and has an outside shot of hitting Kansas City in September. Ventura’s name has popped up repeatedly all winter to the point that there’s suggestion that they want to see him in Kansas City by the end of the year as well. Zimmer would be skipping High A Wilmington entirely if Edelstein’s hunch is correct.
Zimmer had just six starts with Low A Kane County last year and the jump from High A to Double A is steep enough. If he shows the Royals what they want to see in minor league camp to where they feel confident in that sort of jump, that’s an aggressive move. Scouts love his stuff and delivery, but he’s only been pitching for a few years after converting in college. He doesn’t have a lot of experience on the mound. He doesn’t have long-term bad habits either.
But pushing Zimmer to Double A signals a message from the Royals that they expect these guys to be pushing for a spot in the rotation as early as 2014 (assuming everyone stays healthy and has the progression the Royals think they’ll have). Quite a lot has to go right for that to be the case, and luck hasn’t been on the Royals side. It’s seemed like they’ve been more conservative in the past in challenging their pitchers, so if this is a shift in philosophy on the developmental side, it’ll be interesting to see how other pitchers farther down are handled.
Picollo pointed out on the Kansas City Baseball Vault two weeks ago that the organization tries to base those decisions on the individual pitcher, so perhaps that speaks to how much more advanced they feel Zimmer and Ventura are relative to Montgomery et al in 2010. Entering that season, Duffy was promoted to Double A (after a spring hiatus) in late July at the age of 21. Dwyer was 22 when he made it to Double A in July 2010. Montgomery opened the year as a 21-year-old in Wilmington before jumping up after four starts. Lamb was just barely 20 years old when he made it to Springdale. Maybe it’s just by a few months, but the second wave hitting Double A could be a few months ahead of the first if they all start the year in Northwest Arkansas rather than lower levels. Also, Lamb and Ventura have to be penciled in to Omaha’s late-season rotation.
Now they just have to perform better than the first wave had (Texas League Championship notwithstanding).
Photo credits for photo on homepage: Kyle Zimmer – US Presswire File Photo; Yordano Ventura – Jake Roth – USA Today Sports; Jason Adam – Jen Nevius – Kings of Kauffman/Aerys Sports.