For much of Dayton Moore’s tenure as General Manager, the Royals have not had much success developing starting pitchers. By saying they haven’t “had much success” I’m being extraordinarily kind, because it could be described as something closer to “abject failure,” but it’s spring training so I’m going to be nice. However you want to characterize it, the starting pitching development appears to have actually taken an upward turn in the last couple of years.
Danny Duffy and Yordano Ventura both should be in the team’s rotation by mid-season, and Kyle Zimmer may be joining the big league roster later this summer. Duffy and Ventura both had success above AA, which had been a sticking point for past prospects, and Zimmer was dominant at that level in a handful of starts, and should return to Northwest Arkansas this spring (once he starts throwing again) to prove he’s ready to contribute in Kansas City.
Now, it looks like there may be a couple of other high-level starters joining those ranks. The Royals have already said they will start Sean Manaea at High-A Wilmington this season, with a plan on having him in the big leagues in 2015. And yesterday, it was reported that Miguel Almonte had a good chance of starting the year in AA, after spending all of 2013 in Low-A Lexington.
Almonte won’t turn 21 until this April, and he’s coming off a terrific season in which he struck out over a batter per inning and had a 3.10 ERA in 130.2 innings. Because of his ability, he’s been getting rave reviews from scouts, ranking in the top 100 of several prospect rankings, including those of Keith Law and Baseball Prospectus. BP in particular thinks very highly of Almonte, putting him at 46th on their list. Almonte has a solid fastball that sits in the low-to-mid 90s and has some life to it. He also boasts a plus changeup that should be his out pitch, and could probably get out big league hitters right now. But, the sticking point for some has been Almonte’s lack of a reliable breaking ball. He had been working on a slider and a curveball, both of which have shown flashes, and with this news, I would guess the Royals are very happy with how that third pitch has come along.
Beyond his pure stuff, what scouts love about Almonte is his advanced feel for pitching. At such a young age, he has quite a bit of polish and poise on the mound. He knows how to attack hitters, and while he relies a bit too much on his changeup right now, he still takes a good approach. It’s because of his makeup that the Royals are so comfortable with potentially having Almonte skip a level. Obviously his stuff is undeniable, but he should be able to handle a tougher level of competition, and if he does face some struggles out of the gate, the organization doesn’t seem to worry about his confidence being shaken too much. Almonte also is not a fly ball pitcher, so the hitter-friendly confines of Arvest Ballpark shouldn’t hurt him too badly. He seems to have what it takes to accept this challenge.
If all goes well in Northwest Arkansas, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see Almonte get a cup of coffee this September. He wouldn’t be making any starts, but I could see him coming out of the bullpen and being successful with his fastball/changeup combination. It’s probably not terribly likely, but it could happen. That kind of debut may help the young righty get a taste of the big leagues, with an eye on having him in the rotation at some point in 2015. Most reports see Almonte as having a mid-rotation ceiling, but also having a fairly high floor. At 6’2″, 180 pounds, he could still add some weight to his frame, and become an innings-eating number three starter. And who knows? Since he’s still so young, he may still have more potential that we haven’t seen yet. If he adds some velocity to his fastball, or if he takes his breaking ball from an average pitch to a plus offering, Almonte suddenly becomes an even more attractive prospect. This could be a big season for Almonte, and if he continues to progress as well as he has recently, the Royals may start to shake their poor reputation when it comes to starting pitching development.