Friday June 28, 2019 the Omaha Storm Chasers were wrapping up a four game road series with the Iowa Cubs. On a spur of the moment decision, my wife and I decided to catch the game. I’m a lucky guy, my wife and all my children like to watch baseball. 700 miles away, my son and his wife were sitting in Coors Field watching the Rockies play the Dodgers. We traded pictures of the sun setting over the respective stadiums. You got to love modern technology.
We were a little late getting to the game, and I was surprised to find that the game was a sellout. I got lucky and scalped a couple of General Admission tickets. Two seats for $10, not a bad deal. We grabbed some tacos (3 for $10!) and found some nice seats on the first base side. Man, I’m starting to love AAA baseball. The announced crowd was 13,117. It was a beautiful evening and from our seats you could see the Des Moines skyline. That’s right, all five buildings. Des Moines is a nice little city with an active nightlife and a solid food scene. It’s large enough to draw good concerts and athletic events (Drake relays and NCAA basketball tournament games, for example) yet small enough that you can still drive in and out of the city easily.
I last saw the Storm Chasers in mid-May on their last swing through Iowa. They won that game 8-1 with Brian Flynn getting the win in a rehab assignment. The Storm Chasers won that game easily and the outcome left me with a positive feeling about the AAA club.
For this game, Omaha was starting with lefty Foster Griffin. His name has shown up on the Top 50 Royals prospects from time to time, so I was anxious to see what he had.
Iowa countered with former Marlins and Padres hurler, Colin Rea. Rea, from Cascade, Iowa, started his career at the University of Northern Iowa, before the university disbanded their baseball program, a victim of Title IX funding. He lost his entire 2017 season to Tommy John surgery, before signing a minor league deal with the Cubs.
The game was a pitcher’s duel through five innings. At the end of five the score stood at 2-0 Iowa. Rea shut down the Chasers in the top of the 6th, but Griffin was unable to match. The night was warm and humid, and it looked like Griffin ran out of gas at about the 85-pitch mark. After the second batter of the 6th inning, I told my wife, who is making a sincere effort to learn about the game, that Griffin was gassed and this should be his last batter. Wrong.
Omaha manager Brian Poldberg left Griffin in for two batters too many before finally removing him at the 95-pitch mark. Griffin gave up a leadoff single followed by two walks loaded the bases. Instead of pulling the fading Griffin, Poldberg left him in to face Francisco Arcia, who was hitting something like .184. It was a lefty vs. lefty matchup that looked right on paper but felt wrong. Naturally, Arcia smoked a single to center, driving in a run. Poldberg came to his senses and called on Kyle Zimmer to put out the fire. Zimmer’s first pitch was a 95-mph heater that Jacob Hannemann hit on a rope to Eiler Hernandez in left. The sacrifice fly brought home another run.
Then it got interesting. And ugly. Zimmer proceeded to throw nine consecutive balls, walking two batters and bringing home another run. It was painful to watch. In my mind I could hear Bob Uecker in the movie Major League saying “Ball seven. Ball eight.” When Zimmer finally found the strike zone, Mark Zagunis roped a single to right, plating two more Cubs and the rout was on. Zimmer got the next batter, Phillip Evans, on a sacrifice fly to left. Cub baserunner, Ian Happ, barely beat a nice throw from Hernandez to the plate to make it 8-0 Iowa. Poldberg came to the mound to get Zimmer. Why? The game was already out of hand. Zimmer had only thrown 20 pitches, 12 balls and 8 strikes. Why not leave the guy in and give him a little work? The moves had me wondering if pitching staff mismanagement permeates the entire Royal organization. Zimmer has good stuff. His fastball touched 97 and once he got past his nine-ball spree, he started to find the strike zone. If Zimmer can harness his control, he could be a huge asset to the Royals staff. I hope the kid gets it figured out. I admire his resiliency, overcoming a series of injuries to make it to where he has. Here’s hoping that he doesn’t get discouraged and quit and that the Royals developmental staff doesn’t ruin him.
With Zimmer heading to the showers, Poldberg called on lefty Gabe Speier. Speier has a lively arm, touching 95 with his fastball and reminded me a little of former Royal Tim Collins. Speier made it through the seventh before giving way to Jake Newberry in the eighth.
No matter, the Storm Chasers bats were silent for most of the night, thanks to a fine performance from Rea, who held the baby Royals to three meaningless hits in his seven innings of work.
After every game, I try to recap the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In this game, there wasn’t any good. Omaha only managed five hits while being spanked 9-0. I could easily see this was a very different team than the one I had seen play in May. Cheslor Cuthbert, Brian Flynn and Humberto Arteaga were now in Kansas City and rightfully so. In this four-game set with Iowa, the Chasers lost all four by a combined score of 23 to 6. They’ve lost ten of their last thirteen games to drop their record to 37-44. It was kind of shameful. They got their asses kicked in this game and in this series and it looked like they didn’t mind. The Chasers roster is full of players who have spent considerable time in Kansas City. The Cubs roster featured Ian Happ, Tim Collins and Rea and a bunch of guys I’ve never heard of.
Eiler Hernandez had a couple of nice hits and looked solid in left. Bubba made a couple of nice catches in center. Griffin has potential and if you squint hard enough you can see a little Jamie Moyer in him. And that’s it.
On the bad side of the ledger, Bubba is slumping (Ed note, this was as of the end of June). His average peaked on May 18th, at a robust .355. In his last 30 games he’s gone 27 for 109, a .248/.305/.358 slash. It’s even uglier in his last 10 games: 3 for 36 with 12 strikeouts. That’s .083 in case you don’t have a calculator handy.
He’s still at .304/.353/.426 for the season with an OPS of .779, but only five home runs in 233 at-bats. Granted, this is the most the kid has played in a couple of seasons and perhaps he’s battling some fatigue. I certainly hope he’s not giving way to frustration of not being called up to the parent club, while we enjoy the final season of Billy Hamilton’s career. I have made my frustrations well known on this site about this issue. Hamilton is not part of the Royals future. Starling might be. I believe it borders on General Manager malpractice to not find out what Bubba can do in Kansas City. Dayton Moore might have dreams of flipping Hamilton for prospects, but the reality is, Hamilton is at .220/.291/.274 with 16 stolen bases and only 9 RBI. If Moore can squeeze some club for a future major league player in that trade, I will give him his due. Hamilton has been playing better recently, as has Martin Maldonado, so there’s that.
Now for the ugly. Sigh. Brett Phillips. Since I saw him in May, he’s raised his average from .196 to .216. If I were Brett Phillips, I would not play winter ball. He’s played enough games. His arm is fine. His glove is fine. His baserunning is great. He needs to figure out how to make contact. He needs to hire himself an independent hitting coach, someone like a Doug Latta or Craig Wallenbrock. It’s obvious the Royals staff isn’t getting him there. I hope he can make the adjustments. I love watching the kid play, and if he could get his average to the .280-.300 area, he could have a nice major league career.
Samir Duenez. I just don’t see it. He has a nice swing, but he was around .210 when I saw him in May and after this game, he was at .212/.262/.365 with a .627 OPS through 42 games in Omaha. He started the season at NW Arkansas, where he slashed .167/.212/.245 in 28 games before getting the promotion. How does that line get a guy promoted while Frank Schwindel gets designated? If Duenez is one of the Royals top 50 prospects, then the Kansas City farm system is in far worse shape than I had imagined. He looks like a player who needs a dietitian and about 500 more at-bats in AA ball to see if he learn to hit the ball.
A quick glance at the Pacific Coast League standings show that the farm teams of Milwaukee, Houston and San Diego have the best records. The Padres and Astros have two of the topped ranked farm systems in baseball. Most analysts have the Royals ranked in the mid-20’s and I’d say that might be generous.
Despite the Chaser’s dropping a log in this game, AAA baseball continues to amaze me. The overall quality of the play is often very good and sometimes excellent. The prices are right, and the fan experience is terrific.