Congratulations to the Northwest Arkansas Naturals on winning the Texas League Championship.   The Naturals won with a roster full of intriguing prospects, not the least of which were a trio of young arms with upsides through the roof.

Mike Montgomery, Danny Duffy and John Lamb might be the best the trio of prospects to come through the Royals system at roughly the same time since Saberhagen, Gubicza and Jackson vaulted to the majors and helped the Royals win their one and only World Series.  

The excitement and anticipation surrounding those three arms (among others – Will Smith for example) certainly has to be tempered by the knowledge that developing major league starting pitchers out of minor league prospects is one of the most problematic equations in all of sports.   The Royals have had enough of  their share of mismanagement, injuries and just plain bad luck in the past to make many long time fans (including this writer) utter a phrase like this:  “Well, if just one of them develops into a reliable front-line starting pitcher I will be happy.”

While that skepticism is well founded, for any organization, but especially for Kansas City, sometimes all your prospects do develop.   Case in point, the Oakland A’s of ten years past.

Oakland got competitive in no small part because of its trio of dominant arms:  Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito.   They were drafted in three successive years and before any of them had reached age twenty-five, those three pitchers formed probably the best front three starters of any rotation in the league.

Hudson was drafted in the summer of 1997 in the sixth round.   He debuted in the majors two summers later, starting 21 games in 1999 and posting a 3.23 earned run average at age twenty-three.   Hudson won 20 games the next season and has never looked back.

Mulder was drafted in the first round of the 1998 draft and two years later started 27 games in the majors.   While the 22 year old Mulder managed just a 5.44 ERA in that 2000 campaign, he won 21 games the very next season.   While Mark’s career was derailed by injuries six seasons later, he was a force for the A’s.

Zito was drafted in 1999 (Round 1) and at age 22 was already in the majors to start 14 games in 2000 (2.72 ERA).   He went 17-8 with a 3.49 ERA in 2001 as he went on to start 208 games for Oakland.   Say what you want about his huge contract and move to San Francisco, but Zito had a tremendous run with the A’s.

Fast forward to the Royals’ hopeful big three.   The big difference is that Montgomery, Duffy and Lamb were all drafted out of high school, which obviously extends the time they will spend in the minors versus Oakland’s trio.   In addition, Lamb lost his first summer after being drafted due to injuries suffered in a high school car accident, while Montgomery battled some injuries this past summer.   Of course, we are all aware of Duffy’s sabbatical from baseball at the start of this season.  In the case of Montgomery and Duffy, that basically set their timetable to making the majors back one full season.  

My guess is the Royals, prior to the season, were thinking they might see Duffy, their 3rd round pick in 2007, in Kansas City this September.   However, after taking time away from the game, Danny pitched only 62 regular season innings in 2010.    He will likely start next year back in AA with a mid-season promotion to Omaha in mind.    Given his low inning count, it is probably unreasonable/unwise to pile more innings on Duffy next September.

Innings issues aside, Duffy has been pretty dominant at each and every level in the minors and I do not think it is a stretch to see him continuing the trend.   Danny could delay his major league debut until April 2012 and would still be just 23 years old that entire season.

Mike Montgomery, a sandwich pick in 2008, was on a rocket pace through the minors and was the organization’s number one prospect prior to losing chunks of his 2010 summer to minor injuries.   Like Duffy, he has an innings issue in 2011 as he threw just 93 this summer and that may put Mike on the exact same timeline as Duffy.

While some might debate that Duffy ‘has been dominant’ in the minors, I don’t think anyone can debate that statement when it comes to Montgomery and he is still very young.   Should Montgomery make the major league roster in 2012, he will do so as a 22 year old.

The Royals 5th round pick in 2008 was John Lamb.   As mentioned above, John did not pitch that summer as he recovered from a car wreck.    In just his second professional season, Lamb pitched at both A levels and then finished up in AA this summer.   Both the Midwest League and the Carolina League were no match for Lamb, who struck out 133 batters in 114 innings in those two levels combined.

John’s first four starts in AA were a little rocky – keep in mind he had just turned 20 in July of this year – but over his last three regular season starts for the Naturals, Lamb threw 16 innings, allowed just 8 hits, 5 runs, walked only 2 and struck out 17.

Here is the funny thing about prospect development:  with 147 innings logged in 2010, Lamb might the first of these three to make it to Kansas City.    He might well do so late next season, where he would be pitching as a 21 year old.

Could Montgomery-Lamb-Duffy be the next Hudson-Mulder-Zito?   History has taught us that the odds are probably against all three getting to the majors and being great once they get there.   Still, history has also taught us that it can happen and it appears that the current Royals’ trio has a decent chance of getting it done.