The Royals possess the worst record in the American League, but they at least seem better than some of Kansas City teams of the near past.   This group fields better, runs better and pretty much hits better than probably any Royals’ team of the past eight or ten years.   Despite being dinged for two losses over the weekend and a less than perfect Joakim Soria, the team’s bullpen is viewed as a strength right now and likely to become even better.   Alas, as we all are well aware, there exists a big, gaping, borderline hideous void on this team called the starting rotation. 

Nine different pitchers have started games for the Royals and they have combined for an American League worst 5.13 ERA, more than a half run worse than the next worst starting rotation (Toronto, by the way).   They have struck out just 214 batters, 52 less than the next lowest total compiled by Baltimore and opposing hitters have hit .290 against KC starters, 14 points higher than against any other team.

As bad as the rotation has been, Royals’ fans have been able to comfort themselves with the thought that help was on its way.  After all, Kansas City began the season in possession of baseball’s best farm system:  an analysis whose foundation was largely based on the talent and number of good, young arms in the system.

Nearing the halfway point of the season, things have not exactly gone as planned when it comes to many of the young starters and left many of us wondering if help is truly on the way.  

Here to Help Now – Danny Duffy

There is an ever growing possibility that Duffy might be sent back to Omaha to make room for the apparently inevitable return of Kyle Davies to his birthright:  a spot in the Royals’ rotation.   While more Davies is hardly a good thing, sending Duffy back to AAA is not the end of the world, either.

Having thrown just 62 regular season innings in 2010, Duffy is likely to run into a major inning’s crunch as the season progresses.   Between Omaha and KC thus far he has already thrown 70 innings and one would think the Royals really cannot feel comfortable pushing the 22 year lefty much beyond 120 innings total in 2011.

No matter where Duffy gets his work, he has gotten a taste of major league action.   While you might wonder if, given what we have seen out of Danny thus far, actually qualifies as ‘help’, you might be interested to see what a few other pitchers did in their first seven major league starts:

  IP HITS RUNS BB SO ERA
DUFFY 34 39 19 22 29 5.03
SABATHIA 37.1 34 16 15 21 3.86
LATOS 37.1 34 20 16 29 4.82
HAMELS 37.2 37 23 20 35 5.50
HAREN 38 42 17 13 27 4.03
KERSHAW 33 33 16 22 29 4.36

At minimum, Duffy has gotten 34 innings closer to hopefully translating his minor league numbers into major league success.   The stuff is undeniable – it seems like Duffy gets two strikes on virtually everyone (one in five hitters have fallen behind him 0-2) – but has yet to translate that into consistent success.  

I think he will, probably sooner rather than later, and will likely take a spot firmly in the middle of the starting rotation, maybe even as a number two starter, for good to start the 2012 season.   Given the experience gained already and surely to be gained in some measure with additional major league starts this year (be it now or August), Duffy should be ready to pitch contending baseball.

With a Little Hope in Late 2011 – Mike Montgomery

Prior to the start of this season, the debate was not whether Mike Montgomery was going to make it, but whether he would be an ace or the team’s number two starter behind John Lamb.   Fast forward a few months and Lamb is having Tommy John surgery while Montgomery has allowed 51 runs in 78 innings, uncorked 10 wild pitches, hit 4 batters and walked 46 more.   In his last 51 innings, Mike has been tagged for 43 runs and 8 homers.

Certainly those numbers are discouraging, particularly since they seem to be getting worse not better.   However, after being completely lit on fire two nights ago, Greg Schaum tweeted that Montgomery was ‘working on some things’ and would be back to form in a couple of starts.   That is not an exact quote as I’m simply too lazy to scroll back and look, but it captures the essence of Schaum’s tweet and I have no reason to doubt that it has a factual foundation.   Truth is, I am going to put a  lot of stock in Schaum’s 140 characters simply because I don’t want to think about a 2012 rotation that doesn’t include Montgomery very early on.

Not lost in the Montgomery equation is the fact that the new ballpark in Omaha would seem to be shaping up as a hitter’s park and the league itself is a hitter’s league.   Time will tell when it comes to Werner Park, but simply by where it sits (I live 50 miles from Omaha) any Nebraskan will tell you the ball is going to jump out of there most nights of the summer.

All that said, even if Montgomery rights the ship, he will also run into an innings crunch having pitched just 93 frames in 2010.   Already at 78.2 for this season, one would logically assume that Mike probably does not have much more than another 70 or 80 innings left before it becomes less than prudent to have him log any more time on the mound.    That is just enough time to get things going in AAA and get Montgomery’s own seven or eight ‘first’ major league starts out of the way and make him a member of the 2012 rotation from day one.

Not shown on the Duffy chart above are guys like Jered Weaver, Justin Verlander, Cliff Lee and Zack Greinke who all hit the major leagues and were effective and often dominant from start number one.   The Royals could use something like that out of Mike Montgomery.   Frankly, the Royals have endured enough bad karma to have exactly that happen.

The Void That Is 2012

Okay, we have been optimistic with Duffy and Montgomery by projecting both to be legitimate major league starters by the end of 2011; here comes a dose of pessimism.

2012 was supposed to be the year that John Lamb would burst on the scene and challenge to be the ace of the Royals’ rotation.   Down with Tommy John surgery, that will not happen next year and likely we won’t be looking for Lamb until sometime in 2013.    He may still become the ace of the staff, it just won’t be next year or the year after that.

With Lamb down, the Northwest Arkansas rotation is led by Chris Dwyer (5.76 ERA), Will Smith (4.71 ERA, 94 hits in 71 innings) and Edgar Osuna (6.88 ERA).  Welcome to the world of pitching prospects, where a Top 100 prospect like Dwyer puts up Kyle Daveish numbers.

The upside on Dwyer is that he still is allowing less than one hit per inning and is still striking out close to a batter per frame as well.   His walk rate is up, like seemingly every other prospect in the organization, and Chris has buried 9 wild pitches in 66 innings of work.    Over his last two starts (11.1 innings), Dwyer has struck out 12 and allowed just one run.

Will Smith’s strikeout rate has dropped as he moves to higher levels in the minors while his hit rate has increased.   That doesn’t bode well for anyone.  Osuna, last year’s Rule 5 pick, had a nice 2010 campaign in AA and an atrocious time in AAA.   This year, Edgar has recreated his dismal AAA performance, only at the AA level.

If one is realistically looking for minor league help in 2012, your best bet is Dwyer, but more likely later in the season than early on.    Even that, that is taking an incredibly optimistic and likely unrealistic approach that three of the Royals’ top four pitching prospects actually come through

 

Projecting the Unprojectable

The Wilmington rotation has some exciting names, led by Jake Odorizzi and followed by Noel Arguelles, Tim Melville, Tyler Sample, Elisaul Pimentel, Justin Marks and Michael Mariot.   That said, when was the last time that Wilmington didn’t have a good rotation (remember Rowdy Hardy, Dan Cortes, Julio Pimental and Blake Johnson?) and how often have we seen great High-A seasons fade against poor AA and AAA careers?   As said by many before, counting on prospects is a gamble:  counting on pitching prospects is heartbreaking.

Odorizzi, part of the Greinke haul, is the guy who could jump to Northwest Arkansas this summer and get himself into a mid-2012 major league conversation.   He has struck on 93 batter ins 65 innings this year, after fanning 135 in 120 innings the year before.   Despite a BABIP against of a .363, Odorizzi has held opponets to an overall .233 batting average on his way to a 2.17 ERA and 1.161 WHIP.   This is the guy who looks and feels like the next big thing.

Of course, we said that about Lamb and Montgomery and Duffy and others.    So, take those seven pitchers I named at the top of this section and, realistically, project one to be good and another to be serviceable.    Maybe that’s more pessimistic than realistic, I’m not sure, but it seems to me that the Royals would consider themselves blessed to have Montgomery, Duffy and Odorizzi occupying three of the top four spots in their rotation by early 2013.

If Melville, who many in the organization believe is close to ‘putting it all together’ after a season and one-half of less than resplendent outcomes, does just that and is poised to join the party at some point in 2013 (or Arguelles, who we still don’t know much about or Jason Adam, currently in Kane County, or Yordano Ventura or Yambati or someone else – you get the point here), then Kansas Citians should be ecstatic.

Of Course, THAT’S 2013 and Beyond

Given that most young pitchers have a period of adjustments and struggles at the beginning of their major league careers, what the above tells us is that a homegrown rotation can a ‘contending rotation’ no sooner than early 2013 and more likely late 2013.   Do you wait that long?

Even the most optimistic and aggressive projections for Duffy and Montgomery probably does not have them being true numbers one or two type starters in 2012.    Sure, there are worse things than a rotation of Hochevar, Francis or Chen, Duffy, Montgomery and someone else (Mazarro, O’Sullivan..don’t you dare say Kyle Davies!) next April, but it certainly would not be a strength of the team at that point.

Should Dayton Moore make a big move between now and next season to get an established arm into his rotation?   Do the Royals package prospects to acquire a legitimate number two or three starter who they think could become a number one?   Or do you wait, endure an up and down 2012, and hope that by 2013 the top of the rotation is Montgomery, Duffy and Odorizzi with John Lamb soon to come back and Jason Adam or Tim Melville in the wings?

That is a tough decision and a gamble no matter which way Dayton Moore decides to go.   Of all the decisions Dayton Moore has made and will make, this one will likely define his tenure as Royals GM.

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