Royals Trying To Establish New Tradition With Young Pitchers

KANSAS CITY, MO: Starting pitcher Danny Duffy #23 of the Kansas City Royals throws against the Chicago Cubs at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Tuesday, the Baltimore Orioles released Chris George.

This is understandable. George is 32 years old, and this spring he'd posted an 11.25 ERA with the Orioles' triple-A affiliate.

But for Royals fans, Chris George is a reminder of Pitching Prospects Past ... which is a reminder of many failures.

Before their current crop of young starting pitchers -- more on them a little later -- I believe that 11 Kansas City farmhands were listed at some point among Baseball America's top 100 prospects, going back about 15 years.

One of them was Zack Greinke. It took longer than anyone expected, but he eventually turned out well. Turned out real well.

The other 10: Jim Pittsley, Chris George, Jimmy Gobble, Kyle Snyder, Jeff Austin, Glendon Rusch, Dan Reichert, Denny Bautista, Dan Cortes, Luke Hochevar. As Royals, they have combined for 111 wins, 165 losses, and a 5.64 ERA.

Hochevar is currently in the Royals' rotation; career-wise, he's 31-44 with a 5.30 ERA. Everyone loves his stuff, but he's now in his sixth season and he's shown approximately zero progress since his second season. He might well enjoy a good season at some point, but will probably leave the Royals having never been even average.

Glendon Rusch somehow fashioned a fairly long career in the majors, despite a 5.04 career ERA. In his brief time with the Royals, he went 12-25 with a 5.80 ERA.

Over the course of 15 years, the Royals had 11 highly regarded pitching prospects and essentially got one good pitcher out of them: Greinke, plus a replacement-level starter in Hochevar.

Is this out of the ordinary, though? I look at today's Atlanta Braves, with Tommy Hanson and Brandon Beachy and Mike Minor (plus Julio Teheran and Jair Jurrjens and Randall Delgado) and I wonder, "Why can't the Royals do that?" I look at the Oakland Athletics of the last 15 years, with Barry Zito and Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder and Rich Harden and Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez and Joe Blanton and Dallas Braden and I wonder, "Why can't the Royals do that?"

Well, not many franchises can do that. The Braves have been exceptional over the last few years, developing more starting pitchers than they can use. The Rays, same thing. Many franchises try, but few succeed.

Are the Royals especially unsuccessful, though? Yeah, they probably are. The Pirates have been the Royals of the National League in terms of wins and losses, but they did develop Kris Benson, Zach Duke, Tom Gorzelanny, and Paul Maholm. Of course, all those guys put together weren't as good as Zack Greinke. But all four were decent major-league starters for at least a season or two.

Let's think of another woeful organization ... How about the Rangers? Until recently, they were infamous for their inability to pitch well or develop young pitchers. And until Derek Holland and Tommy Hunter in recent years, the Rangers' reputation was well-deserved. Aside from Doug Davis, whom did the Rangers develop after the late 1990s? John Koronka? Aaron Myette? Rob Bell? Joaquin Benoit? Those guys would fit comfortably in that list of failed Royal prospects. Except the Rangers didn't have quite as many prospects as the Royals had, partly because the Rangers usually were drafting after the Royals.

So it's not just the Royals. Most teams have problems developing young starting pitchers. You gotta be good, and you gotta be at least a little lucky. But without checking every team, I have to think the Royals are near the bottom of the list when it comes to converting top pitching prospects into good major-league starters. Which goes a long way toward explaining why they've enjoyed one winning season since 1994.

It also goes a long way toward explaining why I wasn't sanguine about the Royals' chances in 2012. When your ace is Bruce Chen, you're probably not going to pitch well enough to win 90 games. And after the last 15 years, it's hard to imagine the Royals coming up with anyone better than Bruce Chen. That said, it's really not fair to rest the sins of past management on the shoulders of current general manager Dayton Moore. It's not his fault that Chris George and Jim Pittsley and all the rest of them flamed out. Moore wasn't around then. In fact, Moore spent many of those years working for the Atlanta Braves, where young pitchers have developed.*

* Granted, this recent string of hot prospects all graduated to the majors well after Moore left the Braves for the Royals. Is it impolite to mention this?

It's too early to pass judgement on the Royals' latest crop of pitching prospects. Danny Duffy, now in the big club's rotation, was the No. 68 prospect one year ago. Mike Montgomery's currently in AAA, Jake Odorizzi in AA; this spring they were anointed as the 23rd- and 68th-best prospects in the game.

The near-term success of the franchise depends largely on two of those three young starters contributing 200-odd innings per season. Good innings. Which means they're looking to get more from two of those guys in the next two or three seasons than they've gotten from all their other top pitching prospects in the last 15 seasons.

They gotta be good, and they gotta be lucky.

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