With Nate Karns landing on the disabled list this week, the Royals will turn to rookie right-hander Miguel Almonte to make his first Major League start Thursday afternoon in Yankee Stadium. While many Royals fans are just breathing a sign of relief that anyone BUT Chris Young will be starting, the decision still leaves questions such as, who the heck is Miguel Almonte?
Most diehard Royals fans will be somewhat familiar with the name Miguel Almonte as he has been on the prospect radar for several seasons now. Originally signed for $25,000 as a 16-year old kid out of the Dominican Republic in 2009, Almonte was in low-A ball Lexington in 2013, impressing with a 3.10 ERA and over a strikeout-per-inning in 25 starts at the age of 20. That performance got people’s attention, as he was invited to participate in the Futures Game and Baseball America listed him as the #5 overall prospect in the Royals organization that winter, just ahead of Sean Manaea and Hunter Dozier.
Almonte’s ERA spiked to 4.50 in the pitcher-friendly environment at Wilmington, but his peripherals were only down slightly, and he was listed as a Top 100 prospect in all of baseball by both MLB.com (#84) and Baseball Prospectus (#56). Royals brass were excited about his future, particularly international operations VP Rene Francisco.
"This guy is farther along than (Yordano) Ventura at the same stage — throwing the curve ball, throwing the changeup, knowing how to pitch...This guy is way more advanced (at the same point) than Ventura. To me."
His strikeout numbers continued to slide at AA Northwest Arkansas in 2015, where he had a 4.03 ERA in 17 starts before being promoted to Omaha. In Omaha, his ERA took a hit, but he struck out a whopping 10.1 hitters-per-nine innings. He began working out of the bullpen in anticipation of helping out the Royals pen during their pennant run, but Almonte actually fared worse out of the bullpen for Omaha with a lower strikeout rate and higher OPS against as a reliever.
On September 1, he made his Major League debut, giving up a two-run home run to the second hitter he faced, Ian Kinsler. He gave up six runs in 8 2⁄3 innings for the big league Royals, walking seven, but whiffing ten hitters.
By 2016, Almonte seemed like a decent bet to contribute to the bullpen and maybe even help out the rotation. John Sickels ranked him as the #3 prospect in the system as a “B-” prospect. But Almonte’s inconsistent secondary stuff caught up to him and he had a disastrous season. He posted a 5.55 ERA in Omaha with an awful rate of 6.3 walks-per-nine innings. He was demoted from the rotation to the bullpen and eventually sent down to AA Northwest Arkansas, where he continued to struggle. Baseball America listed him as the #25 prospect in the Royals’ system, describing a pitcher out-of-sorts with his mechanics.
Almonte consistently opened up in his delivery too early, causing his elbow and arm slot to drop, which cost him control. He left his fastball and changeup elevated, while his curveball got sweepier. The result was too many walks and too many hittable pitches up in the zone.
He has been accused of inconsistent arm action - sometimes attributed to a lack of focus - causing his secondary pitches to flatten out. His plus changeup has been his meal ticket thus far, but he has over-relied on in the past. Almonte attributed his 2016 struggles to mechanical issues and focused on altering his delivery to work from the stretch, a technique that has benefited Danny Duffy, among other pitchers. The results thus far, have been fantastic.
John Sickels at Minor League Ball describes Almonte’s stuff:
At this best he features a mid-90s fastball, an above-average change-up, and an average breaking ball. He did not show his best stuff for most of 2016, hampered by mechanical difficulties that hurt both his velocity and location, but he’s returned to impressive standards in 2017, posting a 1.85 ERA in 24 innings for Omaha with a 29/5 K/BB. He’s throwing strikes and PCL observers report that he’s maintained his best stuff all spring.
The sharp drop in walk rate, while in a small sample size, is most impressive for Almonte. It suggests that he has fixed a mechanical flaw that has allowed him to repeat his delivery more consistently. There has been debate as to whether Almonte will ultimately end up in a starting rotation or as a late-inning reliever, but it is encouraging the Royals will at least let him try his hand at starting.
Almonte has been sitting idle since May 15, and has not had an outing this month where he has gone more than 63 pitches, so expect him to have a pretty short leash Thursday. But if he shows poise and is fairly consistent in his pitch command, he may present the Royals an intriguing rotation option this year that gives Royals fans far more hope than Chris Young.