Last week, I took a look at some of the best hitting minor league seasons in the history of the Royals. This week, we take a look at some of the hurlers that have enjoyed minor league greatness. While this team historically has been known for good pitching, there was quite the dry spell at the Major League level following the death of Ewing Kauffman. But that didn't stop a few minor leaguers from having terrific seasons on the farm, filling us with false hope that Herk Robinson or Allard Baird would lead us back to the promised land.
Mike Larkin 1974 - I know nothing about Larkin. He was a 50th round pick who posted a 1.08 ERA in 125 innings, mostly as a reliever in Class A in 1974. He put together a fantastic 1975 in the minors as well, but was out of baseball after that, I presume due to injuries.
Danny Jackson 1982 - Jackson was taken in the then-January Secondary Draft, so he was able to pitch a full season in 1982. He went 17-3 with a 2.50 ERA in 194 innings of work for Class A Charleston and AA Jacksonville. Just three seasons later he'd be pitching in the World Series.
Greg Hibbard 1987 - Hibbard was a lefty with solid command who posted 2.00 ERAs in stops in Class A Fort Myers and Appleton before holding his own in AA Memphis. Overall, he had 2.36 ERA with 16 wins, good enough to make him attractive trade bait to lure veteran left-hander Floyd Bannister from the White Sox.
Lance Carter 1999 - Carter began as a starting pitcher, but struggled mightily in Wilmington and lost all of 1997 due to injury. When he came back, he rejuvenated his career as a reliever, posting a 0.87 ERA in 1999 in 69 innings for AA Wichita. The Royals let Carter go after he missed the entire 2001 season due to injury, and Carter would spent a few seasons in the big leagues as a reliever with the Devil Rays, making an All-Star team in 2003.
Ryan Baerlocher 2000 - Baerlocher was a sixth-round pick who struck out an impressive 193 hitters in 165 innings in his first pro season split between Low A Charleston and High A Wilmington. He would never come close to matching those strikeout numbers again, and was let go in 2006, having never reached the big leagues.
Ian Ferguson 2002 - Ferguson was another pitcher who benefitted from playing at pitcher-friendly Wilmington, going 12-1 with a 2.39 ERA there, but he pitched well once promoted to Wichita as well, with a 2.61 ERA. Overall he won 18 games that year, but would have trouble staying healthy after that and would fail to make the big leagues.
Brent Fisher 2006 - Fisher was a flash in the pan, but for one season he was awesome, striking out 107 hitters in 72 innings in Rookie Ball, with just 19 walks. He would pitch just 80 professional innings the rest of his career.
Rowdy Hardy 2007 - One of the best names ever to run through the Royals farm system, the soft-tossing southpaw became an internet sensation after putting up a 15 win season with a 2.48 ERA for Wilmington in 2007. Hardy was a bit older (24) for the league, but it was impressive he walked just 16 hitters over 167 innings of work.
John Lamb 2010 - Lamb was one of the reasons to call the Dayton Moore minor league organization he "Best Farm System in the History of Whatever." He posted a 2.38 ERA with 159 strikeouts in 147 over three levels including AA Northwest Arkansas. His performance got him ranked as a top 25 prospect by both Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, but Tommy John surgery would doom his career, at least for now.
10. Jimmy Gobble 2001
10-6 2.55 ERA 162 1/3 IP 154 K 33 BB 134 H in High A Wilmington (Age 19 season)
Yes, before he was the pitcher Trey Hillman left out to dry for a ten-run relief performance, Gobble was actually a very promising Royals pitching prospect. Gobble had been a first-round sandwich pick out of high school for the Royals. By his third pro season he was in Wilmington, but he was much younger than his opposition. Despite his age, he put together a fantastic season, striking out nearly a hitter per inning. The season got him noticed by Baseball America, who tabbed him as the 69th best prospect in baseball the next spring, and just two seasons later he was in the big leagues at the age of 21.
9. Doug Bird 1970
11-11 2.12 ERA 157 IP 163 K 35 BB 132 H in Low A Waterloo/High A San Jose (Age 20 season)
I don't know how Bird lost 11 games that year, but its a testament to poor run support in Waterloo as Bird was extremely stingy in 22 starts with a 1.84 ERA. He would complete seven games that year and give up just five home runs in 147 innings in Iowa before being promoted to San Jose. He did not fare all that well in ten innings in the California League, but all together, he put together a very solid season that would put him on the path to becoming a rotation fixture on Royals playoffs teams in the late 70s.
8. Curtis Isom 1973
13-11 2.42 ERA 208 IP 227 K 121 BB 146 H in A San Jose (Age 22 season)
I don't know much about Isom, but he apparently threw very hard with very little idea of where the ball was going. In his first professional season, he walked an amazing 91 batters in 68 innings. He would walk more than a hitter an inning his second season as well. The Royals stuck with the lefty and he began to harness his control in 1971 and 1972. In 1973 he would put together his best complete season, striking out nearly ten hitters per nine innings, an unheard of number back in those days, although his walk total were still higher than most managers would tolerate. Isom would struggle with his command the next season, which would be his last as a professional.
7. Bret Saberhagen 1983
16-7 2.55 ERA 187 IP 130 K 48 BB 164 H in Low A Fort Myers/AA Jacksonville (Age 19 season)
When Saberhagen was drafted out of a Chicago-area high school, there was some discussion that he might play at shortstop. After his first professional season, it was clear the Royals had made the right move sticking him on the mound. In 16 starts for Fort Myers, Saberhagen would walk just 19 hitters and post a 2.30 ERA with three complete games. He was promoted to AA Jacksonville where he held his own in 11 starts with a 2.91 ERA. A year later, he was pitching in the playoffs. Two years later, he was the youngest World Series MVP in baseball history.
6. Junior Guerrero 1999
11-5 2.31 ERA 155 2/3 IP 181 K 71 BB 120 H in Low A Charleston (WV)/High A Wilmington (Age 21 season)
Junior Guerrero signed out of the Dominican Republic in 1996 at age 18, but didn't reach low A ball until 1999. When he finally arrived to the Royals affiliate in Charleston, West Virginia, he exploded onto the scene, striking out 113 over 104 innings in nineteen starts before being promoted to High A Wilmington. He excelled there, with a 1.40 ERA with 68 strikeouts in his last nine starts. His 181 strikeouts overall were the fourth most out of Class A pitchers. With a live arm, Guerrero quickly gained notice with scouts and prospect-mavens, but he never developed his secondary pitches, and lost velocity as he reached the upper minors. By 2003, he was out of affiliated baseball.
5. David Cone 1982
16-3 2.08 ERA 177 IP 144 K 70 BB 140 H in Low A Fort Myers/High A Charleston (SC) (Age 19 season)
The story of David Cone is fairly well known in Kansas City. The local kid was a 3rd round draft pick out of Rockhurst High School in 1981. In his first full season as a professional, Cone excelled, going 7-1 at Fort Myers with six complete games (you don't see that in the minors anymore!). He was promoted to Charleston where he would go 9-2 with a 2.06 ERA. Cone would miss the entire 1983 season with a knee injury, then struggle with his command in the upper minors as other pitching prospects would pass him by. Disappointing results at Omaha led the Royals to trade the local product to the Mets in one of the most infamous deals in franchise history.
4. Glendon Rusch 1995
14-6 1.74 ERA 165 2/3 IP147 K 34 BB 110 H in High A Wilmington (Age 20 season)
When the Royals were struggling to put together five healthy pitchers in the late 90s and early 00s, Glendon Rusch was cited as "the one that got away." Before the southpaw was dealt to the Mets for middling minor leaguer Dan Murray, Rusch was an exciting Royals pitching prospect, drafted in the 17th round out of high school in Washington state. Rusch had put up good numbers his first two seasons as a pro, but in the pitching-friendly environment of Wilmington, he put together his finest season. He would give up just five home runs in 26 starts and would be named the 83rd best prospect in the game by Baseball America following his terrific 1995 season.
3. Zack Greinke 2003
15-4 1.93 ERA 140 IP 112 K 18 BB 114 K in High A Wilmington/AA Wichita (Age 19 season)
Zack was a first round pick for the Royals in 2002 at a time when the Royals were absolutely starved for good pitching. When he put together his first full professional season in 2003, Royals fans were salivating at the numbers he was putting up. Greinke would go 11-1 over 14 starts in Wilmington, tossing three complete games and striking out 78 in 87 innings. with a miniscule 1.14 ERA. He would be promoted to Wichita where the 19 year old would pitch against hitters much older than himself. Zack would hold his own with a 3.23 ERA over nine starts. In 23 starts that year, he would walk just 18 hitters.
2. Dennis Leonard 1973
15-9 2.58 ERA 206 IP 212 K 81 BB 152 H in High A San Jose (Age 22 season)
You don't really see minor leaguers toss 200 innings in a season anymore. The very next season Leonard would log 223 innings at AAA Omaha, or 7.6 innings per start. But Leonard would exhibit the workhorse ethic that would cause him to finish in the top ten in innings pitch five times in his short Major League career. In San Jose, Leonard logged one of the few 200 strikeout seasons in Royals minor league history, and perhaps just as impressive gave up just eight home runs all year.
1. Tom Gordon 1988
16-5 1.55 ERA 185 2/3 IP 263 K 75 BB 96 H in High A/AA/AAA (Age 20 season)
Tom had been a sixth-round draft pick considered by some to be too short and too wild to maken it in the big leagues. Those doubts were put to rest in 1988 when he skyrocketed through the Royals system and electrified scouts with his amazing curveball. He began the year in High A Appleton (Wisconsin) in the Midwest League. He made 17 starts, going just 7-5, but with a 2.06 ERA while striking out 172 hitters in 118 innings while giving up just 69 hits. He was promoted to AA Memphis where he made just six starts - two of them complete game shutouts. In 47 1/3 innings at AA, he gave up just three runs (two earned) for a 0.38 ERA with 62 strikeouts. He would then make three starts at AAA Omaha, winning all three, giving up just three runs for a 1.33 ERA with 29 strikeouts.
For the year, he had struck out 263 minor league hitters in 185 2/3 innings with a 1.55 ERA and just 96 hits allowed. He would get a cup of coffee in the big leagues that year, striking out 18 in 15 2/3 innings. For his efforts, he was named, Baseball America Minor League Player of the Year, the only Royals pitcher to receive that honor.