This team could be an AL Central powerhouse for the next few years, or it might be like the late-90s/early-2000s Royals (only with a better bullpen, we hope).
The factor that will determine if the Royals are a playoff team in the next 5 years? Starting Pitching.
The Royals hitting prospects may underperform but there'll be a lot higher success percentage for them than the starters. And the Royals reliever prospects (if you believe a reliever can be a prospect) will probably be competent until strained by the starting pitching.
So, what is the most important part of being a competent starting pitcher? Strikeouts per 9 Innings. Virtually every pitcher who was above average and could make it to free agency in the majors was able to be around the league average of Ks per 9 at the very worst sometime as a young pitcher. Read "Bird Thou Never Wert" in the New Historical Baseball Abstract (Page 289). Go to Baseball-Reference to test this. It's just as true now as it was in 2004 when low strikeout guys like Jimmy Gobble (2.8 Ks per 9 in 2004!) failed as starters. Fun fact: Even Jamie Moyer struck out 6.6 per 9 in 1987 when he was 24, higher than the National League average of 6. Tom Glavine fared pretty well in strikeouts in his younger years too. Exceptions may exist, but you don't bet on anomaly unless you got guts.
You could bring up ERA, but in the land of minor league baseball, ERA seems like a lot more of a luck thing than in the major leagues, especially for pitchers who keep putting their destinies in the hands of fielders. So ERA will be mentioned mainly as a "What the Org might do" stat instead of "this means something" stat.
So, how do the Royals minor league prospects (and other starters) fare on strikeouts? It's so-so, at best.
Here's the young part of the Omaha rotation (the part without Suppan):
So the top strikeout guy is already in KC. The second best strikeout guy has pretty much been shunned by the organization for not being humble enough after being left out to give up 14 runs. Time will probably tell that Mazzaro getting demoted as more of a reaction to his reaction to 14 runs than a reaction to him giving up 14 runs. After all, we can afford to give up on 24 year old pitchers with our system, right?
Pucetas is a random dude who we got for Jose Guillen. In all reality, Kevin Pucetas is getting DFAed this year.
Mike Montgomery's control sticks out here. But the concern about him should be his strikeout rate. He struck out 7.3 in 59 2/3 innings in AA. So he has continued to be less than a strikeout above the AL average (of 6.5) while in the Minor Leagues. That in itself, is not an indicator that he's going to be a quality MLB starter. The control problems (his two worst walkrates have been post-injury, coincidentally) is just another problem that makes it very possible that Mike Montgomery, the guy who looked like a no-doubter a year ago, is causing people looking in on his performance to have doubts.
How about Springdale, then?
Ouch. I could make a comment about when Edgar Osuna's K/9 is carrying the team, it's a bad sign. But Osuna's K/9 is one of the more promising in the organization. Osuna's K/9 in AA last year was 6.1 and he got pounded in 29 innings in AAA. Osuna could be on his way back up soon if not for his ERA, which I suspect will be given more significance than it deserves. (Osuna's ERA (6.82) is twice Lamb's ERA (3.09), his FIP is 0.42 higher (4.68 to 4.26))
John Lamb might be on his way to surgery within the week. After rocketing through two levels last year, Lamb's K/9 last year was 7.1, and it's 5.7 this year (6.4 combined in 68 innings). So if he misses a year, he might still be in a very good spot to move forward due to his age and competition. But so far, no matter what's wrong with Lamb, he ran into a wall and a guy who struck out 9 per 9 is now seeing his strikeout rate plummet. (I noted his lower level K rate since someone told me Lamb's K rate was good for a groundball pitcher, and he had clearly done better, and guys who strikeout 6 per 9 in AA are not going to be quality major league starters.
Chris Dwyer's biggest flaw going into this year? Walks. And it turns out that he has continued to give out quite a few walks. Through 56 1/3 innings in AA, he has walked 5.3 and struck out 7.7. If you go per game, you'll find his 3 longest starts (18 innings total) have involved 10 strikeouts and 7 walks, while giving up 3 earned runs. The other 8 starts involve 18 strikeouts, 15 walks, and 22 earned runs. Dwyer's K numbers are lower outside the friendly confines of the neutral Arvest
Ballpark (15 Ks in 22 1/3) but his ERA on the road is 7.1 runs lower on the road than at home (9.92 and 2.82).
Will Smith will probably wind up part of some "pitch to contact is totally worthwhile" argument if he's Northwest Arkansas' best ERA starter while putting up the worst K/9. I have the confidence of knowing that AAA and the major leagues are littered with the careers of guys like Will Smith who don't strike out batters.
Misc Note: Keep an eye on Buddy Baumann. If he passes the organization "You must be tall enough to start baseball games" test enough times, he could assemble a record as a starter strong enough to give him a shot of making it. He struck out 7 in 6 innings in his second start but has mainly worked relief all year. He started 14 games and made 17 relief appearances last year in Wilmington, registering 113 Ks in 100 1/3 innings.
How about the Hitter's Graveyard in Wilmington?
But outside of Melville and Marks, they do have nice ERAs.
Odorizzi has an excellent shot of moving so far up the ladder that he's in contention for a spot in KC within 15 months. Think "good half-year in NW Arkansas, moves up to Omaha next year, 2012 rotation sucks and the team is out of contention".
Arguelles is the sort of guy who is a bit of a question mark in AA and beyond. Cuban pitchers have a way of defying various laws of reason. If Arguelles' K rate stays around 6 or goes up in AA, then he's probably closer than Odorizzi due to the Major League Contract.
The other four guys are a mix of two underperforming draft picks (Melville and Sample) and two recent acquisitions (Pimental and Marks). Sample had 8.7 Ks per 9 and 7.1 walks per 9 in Burlington in 2010 (his first full-season team after being drafted in 2008). It seems like we've been waiting for a year for Melville to break through Wilmington. Melville's K/9 last year was 7.2 and it's 6.8 overall. But Melville might finally make it to Springdale this year and if he does, i'll check up on his K numbers then.
Pimental's 69 innings in the KC organization haven't come close to reproducing his 9.7 Ks per 9 from his stint with the Dodgers Midwest League team. Overall, Pimental put up 9.1 Ks per 9 last year, a number that is 1.8 higher than his best K/9 numbers from an American rookie league. So his 5.9 in Wilmington is hopefully on it's way up, although if he's striking out 7 per 9 in Rookie Leagues, he might strike out 6.5 per 9 in Wilmington by the end of the year if his performance improves.
Justin Marks' overall K/9 numbers are boosted by his relief appearances (13 in 11 2/3). But he recently put up 7 Ks in 7 innings, then worked out of the bullpen 6 days later and put up 6 Ks in 4 innings. So hopefully he gets enough work as a starter since he did put up 9.8 Ks per 9 in Kane County in 2010.
And lastly, the "new" guys at Kane County.
|Sugar Ray Marimon||9||43.33||37||17||7.68||3.53|
There's still some promise out there.
Santiago is playing his first full-season year, and his K/9 rate is the same as it was in Burlington, NC so far. Also, his walk rate is the same as it was in Burlington, NC. Santiago spent 4 years in short-season ball before making it to Kane County with a K rate of 8.5 per 9 in rookie ball.
Leondy Perez also spent 4 years in short-season ball before making his full-season debut this spring. His short-season strike numbers have been better (9.6 Ks per 9). So if I recall the old baseball belief about summer making everybody better (somehow), i'm sure that in 2 months or so, we'll get a good idea as to the ability of Perez on this level.
Sugar Ray Marimon has the best name in minor league baseball. His parents were obviously big boxing fans and may have been awaiting the Sugar Ray Leonard/Donny Lelonde right that took place within 60 days of Marimon's birth. This is Marimon's second year in the Midwest League. He struck out 6.4 per 9 last year and 7 per 9 in 2 years of short-season ball. Marimon is the one guy whose control may be a question mark, as he has walked 3.9 per 9 in his career. But his name is Sugar Ray. They should probably disregard their minor league norms just to allow Marimon to wear "Sugar Ray" on the back of his jersey. Charlie Finley would do that. (What Would Charlie Finley Do is typically a terrible question to ask though)
Greg Billo is a 28th round draft pick from 2008 making his first run in the Midwest League. His K numbers were 8.7 going into this year, and are only 8 per 9 due to his relief work. Billo might be the first guy out of the rotation in Kane County, but I'd hope he can be fit into their plans going forward.
Also, Kane County has a variety of guys who have made under 5 starts who you may have heard of recently. I'm not going to make judgment calls on them for 2011 though.
Jason Adam has 2 starts and seems to be starting off smoothly. Keaton Hayenga has been out of action for a month after making 4 starts. Robert Penny was demoted after 3 starts (Is there a difference between Extended Spring Training and the AZL Royals right now?). Crawford Simmons has been on the DL for a month. Yordano Ventura has made 2 starts.
Mike Montgomery and Chris Dwyer are in a zone of concern (an equivalent to a thunderstorm watch) due to their slow starts with control and strikeouts. Dwyer's control is a consistent problem. Montgomery's strikeout numbers will have to improve. Especially since we can only pull the "Next Tom Glavine" wishful thinking once and we have 4 lefties who could get that label.
Outside of Montgomery, there's no starter in Omaha who they want to use as a starter on the ML level these days. Mazzaro seems to have worn out his welcome in an organization that needs a guy like Mazzaro for a year or two.
John Lamb is in limbo until they know how long he'll be out with an injury. Osuna is someone to keep an eye on but in all likelyhood, they'll overvalue ERA with Osuna.
Odorizzi might just be good enough to make it though Springdale this year. So far, his K/9 is beating the K/9s of Montgomery, Duffy, and Lamb. Arguelles is an unknown quantity. The rest of the Wilmington rotation is not too impressive. Kane County is closer to "kinda impressive unknowns".
But there's always hitches.
Blake Wood started off in Wilmington with a K/9 around 10 as a starter. Then he finished out 2008 with a K/9 of 7.9 in Springdale. His K numbers plunged to 5.6 in 2009, and he wound in the bullpen in 2010 and 2011.
Dan Cortes had K/9s of 8.8 and 8.4 in 2007 (Wilmington) and 2008 (NW Arkansas). He somehow missed promotion and started 2009 in Springdale, saw his K rate drop to 6.4 with his control unraveling. Then he was traded for a certain shortstop and is now a possibly useful reliever (after returning to striking out 9 per 9 as a starter)
Carlos Rosa struck out people as a starter in Springdale and Omaha, so the organization chose to use him as a reliever in KC and put him in the bullpen. He's currently putting up 10.1 Ks per 9 as a reliever in Reno.
Danny Duffy narrowly avoided being sentenced to the bullpen this year, and perhaps that luck will lead to the Royals having a dependable young pitcher after years where it seemed like any young pitcher who made it to the glass ceiling in Omaha or Northwest Arkansas was subtly lured into the bullpen or traded while the fans got to experience years of Brian Bannister and Kyle Davies.
It seems like one of two things is being leaned on to establish confidence for the Royals system in the system. Either people are leaning on our ability to always have good drafts and find guys outside of the top 100 picks, or they are leaning on Dayton Moore becoming a better judge of big league talent in 2012 than he was in previous years. There is a certain amount of fallacy involved in such hopes. But the rotation in 2 years is either going to be made up of lots of young guys or lots of random dudes. Luke Hochevar won't be a free agent for years, but he's also not showing any signs of being any good at his physical peak.
The best case rotation going into 2013 is Duffy/Montgomery/Hochevar/two other guys. The other guys could be random acquisitions, or one of the prospects listed here breaking through the glass ceiling. But it also puts a lot of pressure on a Duffy to carry a rotation that he may not be able to carry for a few years, puts pressure on a Montgomery to get back to his pre-injury form, and also involves a 29 year old Hochevar. There's always a hope of a free agent signing. But consider the history and consider the GM here.
Is Montgomery going to be pitching in the majors within 2 years? Probably. Will he be a good pitcher? Maybe. Could Dwyer harness the power as a starter? Maybe. Will he wind up in the bullpen? Considering history. Probably. Could Odorizzi make it all the way to KC by 2012? Maybe. Wasn't there a former Mizzou pitcher who didn't get mentioned? Possibly. I also didn't mention Jeremy Jeffress or Felipe Paulino starting 20 times in 2012 because those things aren't happening either.
Is having a young good hitting team with deficient starting pitching going to lead to lots of frustrating losses? Yes.
It just seems like mentioning the idea of doubting that Montgomery/Dwyer/Duffy/Lamb aren't going to be the foundation of the rotation for this decade leads people to try summoning a Spanish Inquisition.
But If these guys don't improve their performance, we're going to be stuck in part 2 of the process. (The Process being "Acquire Prospects/???/Plaza Parade", I recall correctly). Don't be shocked if guys who don't strike out 7 guys per 9 in the minor leagues are unable to be useful major league starters. Because it only happens repeatedly to multiple guys a year. If you're not an average strikeout starting pitcher in the minor leagues, you won't be one in the major leagues. Don't be upset, that's just how it goes.