Monday, March 15, 2010

Prospect Rundown, Part 4.

(Before we get to the meat of this article, in our continuing effort to bring you all things Chris Hayes, here’s a nice piece on Disco in Saturday's Chicago Tribune, including a few choice comments from yours truly. Bonus: this article ran on the front page of the paper - not the sports section, the front page - along with a large picture of Hayes in full Royals uniform that you can see here. Be afraid, Chicagoans - the yokels from the Midwest are taking over. Next step: please welcome your new alderman, Zack Greinke.)

As discussed last time, the Royals have had a truly frightening track record of developing left-handed pitchers throughout their history. But due to a combination of good scouting and aggressive spending on big-money prospects, the Royals have no fewer than five lefties who have reasonable odds of becoming long-time pitchers in the major leagues.

We’ve already covered Mike Montgomery, the consensus best of the lot. It might be a little audacious to project Montgomery as a future #1 starter, at least unless he develops more velocity (which some still think may happen.) But at the very least he looks like a good #2 starter, comparable to a Danny Jackson or Jose Rosado in terms of effectiveness if not repertoire.

Here, in no particular order, are the other four:

Noel Arguelles: Arguelles is the $7 million cherry on the top of what was already a formidable amount of pitching depth in the minors. He was signed in December to a five-year contract after defecting from Cuba in the summer of 2008.

There’s always a risk in signing international free agents to big-time contracts, but that risk is multiplied when those free agents hail from Cuba. It’s not hard to understand why. Take Arguelles – aside from the occasional international tournament, he’s done all his pitching in Cuba, in a domestic league where the average talent level is comparable to a short-season league in the minors, in a totalitarian state off-limits to scouts, where he’s dependent on the government for everything from his daily meals to his glove to the right to travel out of the country with the national team. The Royals based their decision to spend $7 million on him largely by watching him pitch in showcases set up by his agents after he defected.

So it’s not surprising that Cuban defectors come with their own unique set of challenges and mysteries – even their listed date of birth can’t be taken at face value. This is why some Cuban players have proven to be bargains (Kendry Morales) and some quickly proved to be huge busts (Andy Morales).

So there’s no question that Arguelles has the most risk of any of the lefties on this list, even as he has the most upside. And he does have the most upside – he has true #1 starter potential, something not even Montgomery can claim at the moment.

Here’s what we know about him: his fastball runs around 93 mph, and his second-best pitch is a changeup with good deception. His curveball has a slider-like tilt, and the Royals are working with him to develop the pitch. He also has the body type of a potentially overpowering pitcher. When I spoke with a member of the front office, the first word they used to describe Arguelles was “physicality”. I even heard a C.C. Sabathia comparison – at 6’4”, 225 pounds, he’s not quite as big as Sabathia, but he’s also more athletic.

He gets high marks for his coachability, although of course he has to adapt to massive cultural differences like every other Cuban player. For that reason, the Royals expect to move him slowly, likely starting him at Wilmington even though he has the stuff to start in Double-A. He’s listed at 20 years old; if that really is the case, he has plenty of development time ahead of him, and there’s no sense in rushing him at all.

Before he’s even thrown a pitch, Arguelles cracked the final spot on Baseball America’s Top 100. Certainly, there’s risk here, but it’s worth noting that most of the true busts that have come out of Cuba have been hitters, while the pitchers have been generally (but not always; see Alain Soler) as advertised. This makes sense – it’s very difficult to evaluate a hitter against sub-par competition, whereas you can formulate an opinion about a pitcher just from seeing him throw on the side. If the radar gun says Arguelles throws 93 in warmups, he’s not suddenly going to throw 88 just because a hitter stands in.

Arguelles has inevitably been compared to Aroldis Chapman, the Reds’ $30 million bonus baby, given that they’re both lefties who defected around the same time. Chapman throws a legitimate 98-99, but his off-speed stuff isn’t as polished as Arguelles’ is. While no one would argue that Arguelles is the better prospect, the difference between them isn’t nearly as great as the difference in their signing bonuses would have you believe.

The Royals are being very cautious with Arguelles, understandable given his youth and the fact that he needed some rest after showcasing his arm from the time he defected until the time he signed. So we haven’t seen any game action from him this spring. By proxy, then, the fact that Chapman is impressing people above and beyond expectations for the Reds may be a good sign that Arguelles will do the same thing when the Royals take the bridle off him.

Danny Duffy: Duffy is the most experienced pitcher in the group; he’s the only one who’s been in the organization more than two years. Duffy was the Royals’ third-round pick in 2007 out of a small inland California high school, and a good piece of scouting. (He makes up for the fact that the Royals’ second-round pick that year, Sam Runion, looks like one of the bigger busts in recent memory.) He works with a standard-issue fastball-curveball combo, with his changeup still being a work in progress.

Duffy has known nothing but success since turning pro. Last year, he had a 2.98 ERA for Wilmington, allowed just 108 hits and 41 walks in 127 innings, while striking out 127 – and those were easily the worst numbers of his career. Nonetheless, he was passed by Montgomery as the Royals’ top pitching prospect last year, because on a pure stuff basis he projects more like a #3 starter than an ace.

I will admit: I’ve always been a little skeptical of Duffy, because the more success he has pitching in the minor leagues, the more he reminds me of Chris George and Jimmy Gobble, both guys who overmatched hitters in the low minors but whose stuff was too short to succeed in the majors. I shared these concerns with a scout a few months ago, and he alleviated my concerns a little, pointing out that Duffy’s fastball ranges from 88 to 92, which is at least an average major-league fastball from a lefty, and harder than either of the G-men threw.

Duffy’s short-term outlook is clouded by an elbow strain he suffered earlier this month, evidently after he tried to impress the Royals in his first major league camp by throwing too hard too soon. I’ve been told his elbow is “intact and structurally sound”, but he’s going to miss at least a month of the season as a precaution. If he’s healthy, he should slot right into the Double-A rotation.

The temptation is there to rush him, as he’s close to major-league ready – indeed, he was talked about as a dark-horse bullpen candidate out of spring training before his sore elbow cropped out. I think the Royals would be better served taking it slow with Duffy, despite his polish. Alternatively, given the other lefties he’s competing with, and the fact that the major league rotation isn’t suffering from a lack of candidates to begin with, Duffy ought to be a trade candidate if and when the Royals decide to trade some of their pitching excess for some bats.

Chris Dwyer: Dwyer was drafted out of the third round last year as the rare draft-eligible freshman. He was held back a year in school early on, and then made up another year in high school after transferring to a private academy, which is why he didn’t enter college until he was 20. He’s actually the oldest of the lefties on this list, as turns 22 next month.

All that means that there isn’t much projection left in Dwyer’s body. The Royals drafted him anyway – and gave him late first-round money ($1.45 million) to sign – because they think his stuff is plenty good already. He throws 90-94, and his curveball has a lot of downward bite. His changeup is also a plus pitch when he’s on. The problem with Dwyer is his command, which is spotty, as are his mechanics.

In his one season in college, you can see his strengths and flaws on his stat line – he struck out 95 batters in 86 innings, but also walked 33 and allowed 11 homers, leading to an unimpressive 4.92 ERA.

The best way to describe Dwyer is that he has the combination of stuff and rawness you’d typically find in an 18-year-old – only he’s 21. (Think of him as the Dee Gordon of pitchers.) He’s a pure scouting pick, but how he develops may tell us more about the Royals’ development process than about their scouting department.

John Lamb: While Dwyer is a college pitcher with the profile of a high school guy, Lamb is a high school pick with the polish of a collegiate arm. He’s not so much a scouting find as a medical find, as the Royals banked he would regain his stuff after he suffered an injury before the draft. (The Royals have done this a few times in recent drafts, most notably with Keaton Hayenga, a late-round pick the Royals gave $300,000 to in 2007 even though he tore his labrum sliding into a base before the draft.)

Lamb had broken his elbow in a car accident, and the Royals reasonably gambled that once healed it would present no further problem. It hasn’t, and his stuff returned as good as new. He returned to action last summer and struck out 71 batters in 69 innings.

He throws his fastball 90-91, but in the words of one front-office source, “he throws strikes with his fastball more consistently than anyone else in the system.” His curveball and changeup are still developing, but both project as plus pitches. Lamb’s best attribute is simply that “he can really pitch” – not only does he throw strikes, but he knows when to add and subtract, he keeps the ball down in the zone, he never gets rattled, etc.

He’s still only 19, and while he’s listed at 6’3”, I was told he’s actually 6’5”. Either way, there may be some projection left there. He’s the guy whose name came up when I asked the Royals for a sleeper among their pitching prospects. If there’s one guy in the system that could vault his way onto a Top 100 Prospects list next season, it would be Lamb.

If I were to rank the five lefties in terms of upside, it would look like this:

1. Noel Arguelles

2. Mike Montgomery

3. Chris Dwyer

4. John Lamb

5. Danny Duffy

Ranking them in terms of the odds that they’ll develop into at least a #3/#4 starter in the majors, I’d rank them like this:

1. Mike Montgomery

2. Danny Duffy

3. John Lamb

4. Noel Arguelles

5. Chris Dwyer

However you rank them, all five ought to have significant major league careers, in the bullpen if not in the rotation. And the sheer number of lottery tickets makes it likely that at least one will develop into a front-line starter. The term “dominant Royals southpaw” may not be an oxymoron for much longer.

I’ll be back soon to finish up with a few other prospects, as well as an overall assessment of the state of the farm system.