KC Royals: Why closure to Danny Duffy deal is risky

(Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images) /

The Los Angeles Dodgers assumed significant risk when, trying to strengthen their pitching staff for a heated stretch run and divisional battle with San Francisco, they traded for KC Royals starter Danny Duffy late last July in a transaction to be concluded with a player to be named later.

It was an odd deal for LA to make. Much of the Dodgers’ pitching needs at the time stemmed from injuries and other issues. Clayton Kershaw, Jimmie Sherfy, and Edwin Uceta were all on the Injured List, Jimmy Nelson had just left it, and Trevor Bauer was on the Restricted List. All of that made acquiring Duffy, unavailable for duty at the time because he was on the IL for the second time since mid-May, curious at best and plainly unwise at worst.

To say the trade backfired for the Dodgers understates the situation. Duffy, suffering from his second left flexor strain of the season, never came off the IL and, consequently, never pitched for LA. He’ll be a free agent with an injury-clouded future next month.

Wednesday, the Dodgers sent minor league relief pitcher Zach Willeman to KC to finish the business of the Duffy trade:

With Willeman, the Royals have assumed some risk of their own.

The acquisition of Zach Willeman has some downside for the KC Royals.

Willeman is, like Duffy, a beneficiary of career-renewing Tommy John surgery. Unlike Duffy, however, Willeman underwent the procedure before becoming a professional ballplayer—Los Angeles picked him in the 19th round of the 2017 draft despite his previous operation.

That Willeman needed TJS is cause for concern even four years later. The procedure is most often successful, but offers no guarantees against future elbow issues.

Then there is an impending roster decision involving Willeman. Although the Royals are assigning him to the minors, they didn’t place him on their 40-man roster. If they don’t take the latter step, Willeman will be unprotected for December’s Rule 5 draft, which means Kansas City could lose him before he has the opportunity to pitch for the organization.

Willeman’s control also needs work. He posted a 5.4 BB9 walk rate at Class A Great Lakes in 2019 and a 4.3 this season at Double-A Tulsa.

Zach Willeman also gives the KC Royals some reasons to be optimistic.

While Kansas City’s acquisition of Willeman isn’t perfect, it does have upside. The righthander stands an athletic 6-feet-2 and 219 pounds, and is only 25. He throws a fastball, slider and curve.

Willeman is 10-9 with a 4.35 three-season minor league record; his best seasons were 2018, when he went 3-0, 1.42 in eight games between Rookie ball and Class A, and this year when he was 3-2, 3.78 with an impressive 11.1 SO9 in 33 appearances at Double-A Tulsa.

Expect the Royals to keep Willeman in the bullpen. Although it looks like he’ll start next season with the Double-A Naturals, a midseason move to Triple-A Omaha won’t be surprising. But a 2022 appearance in the majors would be—he’s probably at least a season away from Kansas City.

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The Dodgers concluded the Danny Duffy trade by sending minor league pitcher Zach Willeman to the KC Royals. The deal carries some risk for Kansas City.