In the second installment of our Prospect Laden Rotations segment, we're taking a look at the Kansas City Royals Double-A affiliate, the Northwest Arkansas Naturals.
The Royals farm system as a whole has been on an unprecedented run of success and depth, and they remain a stacked system despite the promotions in the last year of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Danny Duffy.
The glut of the Royals current pitching talent is currently in Double-A, and comes in all shapes, sizes, and origins.
Jake Odorizzi was the top pick in the Milwaukee Brewers farm system before coming over to the Royals in the Zack Grienke deal before last season. In this system, he's got a little more competition for the top spot, but he's also in better company.
Odorizzi is the most talented pitcher currently toeing the rubber at NW Arkansas, and has the highest ceiling. Powered by a mid-90's fastball, the right-handed Odorizzi missed a lot of bats in the lower minors. It's been a different story, however, during his time in Double-A.
Promoted last July, Odorizzi's ERA rose almost two full runs after leaving Wilmington. Some of that has to be attributed to leaving the most pitcher-friendly park in the minors for the warm weather of the Texas League, but the alarming part was Odorizzi's lack of strikeouts, which dipped below one-per-inning for the first extended period of his professional career.
The good news for the Royals is that in his return to Double-A, the strike outs have returned. The bad news is that his ERA has gone up another two runs, or at least it had before he turned in an 11-strikeout gem yesterday night, dropping his ERA back down to 4.08.
Odorizzi was the piece of the Grienke trade that was the furthest away from the majors at the time of the deal, but with a strong rebound performance this season, he shouldn't be too far away from Kansas City, and still has the potential to fall somewhere in the top-half of their big league rotation.
The Royals didn't have to spend any money to get Odorizzi, but they spent a lot to sign Chris Dwyer ($1.45 million) after drafting him in the 4th round in 2009. What started off as optimistic performances by the 6'3" lefty in the lower minors in his first full season - a 3.00 ERA combined between High and Double-A while striking out 10 batters per nine innings - has become a potential stall out in Northwest Arkansas.
His four starts there in 2010 went as well as could have been expected, but his return there for a full season in 2011 couldn't have gone much worse. Dwyer has never been a control artist by any means, but his 78 walks in 141 1/3 were bad enough that for the first time, his control hindered his ability to be a successful pitcher.
The good news for Dwyer is that his velocity and stuff are still there, it's just a matter of putting them all in the right place. The bad news is that, so far back in Double-A for the third straight season, the results have been even worse, as Dwyer has walked 11 batters in four starts.
Dwyer will have to improve his control in order for him to have any chance at a major league career. If he makes big strides, he could be a mid-rotation starter. If he only improves a little, his big curveball and left-handedness could make him a nice reliever, which is something, but certainly not what the Royals were hoping for when they shelled out the money to sign him.
One year before they forked over the bucks for Dwyer, the Royals did the same thing with another fourth rounder, Tim Melville. The 6'5" righty has yet to live up to his billing despite years of top prospect status, and his 7.59 ERA in three starts this season is just the latest example.
His first professional season in 2009 wasn't exactly what the Royals had hoped for, but a sub-4 ERA and 8.9 K/9 showed signs of promise, despite four walks per nine. A move to pitcher's paradise Wilmington in 2010 should have helped things, but instead his ERA ballooned to 4.97 and his strikeouts declined. A return there in 2011 fared slightly better, with a lower ERA and better control, but still not what the Royals were expecting.
The team moved him to Double-A for the 2012 season anyway, as he had little left to prove in Wilmington, but he will have to improve on his start that has seen him walk eight batters in 10 2/3 innings pitched.
Unfortunately for the Royals, the trend of well-paid and well-hyped, yet underachieving, prospects continues further into the NW Arkansas starting rotation. A fourth member of the rotation, Noel Arguelles, was signed to a 5-year major league contract just before the 2010 season, after defecting from Cuba. He then proceeded to miss the entire 2010 season with a shoulder injury.
His first full season of professional action in Low-A Wilmington should be considered a success thanks to a 3.20 ERA, but his 5.5 K/9 rate was frighteningly low. His 6.08 ERA so far this season is a little misleading, due largely in part to a .412 BABIP against in three starts, but that's also the risk that is taken with pitchers who don't miss bats.
The report on Arguelles when he was signed was that he had an advanced feel for pitching to go along with with a high-80's fastball from the left side. That's not the description for a power pitcher, but the Royals were hoping he would add some more velocity with a better regulated workload and proper nutrition. So far, that result hasn't happened, leaving the Royals only able to wonder how Arguelles will pan out as he progresses to the upper levels of the minors.
Despite their recent struggles, this rotation is still loaded with prospects, and will only become more so when John Lamb returns from his Tommy John recovery later this summer. The quartet of Odorizzi, Dwyer, Melville and Arguelles is talent-laden, despite their inconsistencies. Odorizzi should ultimately play a role of some kind in Kansas City, but even of the other three never do, as prospects go they are still intriguing developmental projects, and are exciting to watch.