John Lamb sensed the free fall of his career last summer inside Frawley Stadium in Wilmington, Del.
He was sitting with Scott Sharp, the Royals’ director of player development, who wondered what had become of the pitcher this organization once hoped to build around.
Sharp had just watched Lamb stumble through another pitiful performance with the Class A Blue Rocks. Three years earlier, Lamb had dominated this level as a teenager. Now, two years removed from Tommy John surgery on his left elbow, he could barely survive.
His arm speed had disappeared. His velocity had dropped. Team officials worried about his dramatic weight loss. Sharp had counseled Lamb for years, prodding him to embrace the organization’s suggestions for bolstering his lifting and conditioning. Now the tone was different.
You are not a prospect anymore, Sharp told him. You have to perform. This is your career. You can’t wait for everyone else to fix your problems.
need to fix it.
“That lit a fire underneath my (rear end),” Lamb said one day earlier this spring. “To realize, this is kind of a now-or-never, sink-or-swim, adapt-or-die type of thing.”
Sharp espouses a player-development axiom also mentioned by general manager Dayton Moore and J.J. Picollo, assistant general manager for scouting and player development. Moore and Picollo studied in Atlanta under a revered executive named Paul Snyder. He taught them a mantra: You need 10 pitching prospects to deliver one to the majors.
Homegrown starting pitching is baseball’s most valuable commodity. Moore learned its value with the Braves, and preached its importance with the Royals. Their track record developing relievers is strong, but their record with starters is spotty at best.
The Royals hired Moore on June 8, 2006, two days after the team selected right-hander Luke Hochevar with the first pick in the draft. In Moore’s seven seasons at the helm, only four amateur pitchers he drafted or signed in the international market have started big-league games: Hochevar, Danny Duffy, Everett Teaford and Yordano Ventura.
Heading into this season, the team still possesses an admirable collection of talent. Ventura is the Royals’ third starter. Duffy could break into the major-league rotation by the summer. Knocking on the door are Kyle Zimmer, Miguel Almonte and Sean Manaea.
But the Royals have been here before.
Heading into 2011, Baseball America ranked five Royals pitchers among their top 100 prospects. Lamb was considered the best of the bunch. His case is instructive, if not representative, of the pitfalls along the path to the majors — and why the Royals have had so little success developing qualified starting pitching.
None of those five — Lamb, Duffy, Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi and Chris Dwyer — will open the season with the Royals.
“During that time period, 2011, we felt pretty good about our pitching prospects,” Picollo said. “Certainly expected two or three of them to get into our rotation. It hasn’t worked out that way. But we still are optimistic.”
The Star polled Royals officials, players, rival executives and scouts in search of an explanation. A few crucial themes emerged: The Royals experienced a spate of bad luck, like arm injuries to Lamb and Duffy, and a mysterious thyroid ailment that delayed Dwyer. They committed one regrettable mistake in the 2010 draft. And they have experienced the growing pains familiar to so many organizations, when they tried to get players to adhere to their philosophy.
All of these themes hit on a familiar refrain. Developing starting pitching is so critical.
It is also so difficult — a reality Lamb embraced as this camp opened.
Lamb said he received Sharp’s message. He pointed to that evening in Delaware as a crossroads, and dedicated himself to an offseason program for the first time. The Royals can only hope they’ll reap the rewards. The team dispatched him back to the minors in early March, with the hope he’ll compete for a spot in their big-league rotation by 2015.
“It’s crazy the type of roller-coaster it seems to have gone through,” Lamb said. “But things seems to be falling into place.”
The decision was not unanimous.
The kid from Florida Gulf Coast University stood 6 feet 6 and weighed maybe 170 pounds. Chris Sale was a rail-thin, left-handed conundrum. As the Royals plotted their draft strategy in the summer of 2010, some in the baseball operations camp saw him as a starter. The majority believed him to be a reliever. Years later, one team official referred to this as “the only decision that causes me to lose sleep.”
Other teams shared this appraisal — including the one that drafted him. Sale was the best college pitcher in the country that year, but he fell to the 13th pick. The White Sox utilized Sale as a reliever that season and again in 2011. Only in 2012 did they allow him to start.
Picking fourth, the Royals chose middle infielder Christian Colon. Sale has become an annual candidate for the American League Cy Young award. Colon could reach the majors this season as a backup utility man.
During the early years of Moore’s tenure, the team utilized early-round picks on position players such as Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer. And for the most part, the organization’s draft regrets are standard. The Royals chose Moustakas over Madison Bumgarner, Aaron Crow over Shelby Miller and Bubba Starling over José Fernandez. Every team can issue a similar lament.
“You’re definitely going to have your successes and your failures,” Moore said. “And in this game, when it comes to the draft, your failures outweigh your successes.”
But 2010 looms as a more critical juncture. A canvas of Royals officials revealed a defensible position. At the time, they felt they lacked credible middle-infield prospects. On the other hand, their cupboard of left-handers was stocked with Lamb, Montgomery and Duffy.
Plus, the consensus was Sale wouldn’t last as a starter. The previous summer, the team selected Crow with the 12th pick. The team was split on his future role, too, with some evaluators worried he’d never throw enough strikes to last as a starter. Crow suffered through an unproductive 2010 campaign, when he bounced from Class AA back to Class A, with a 5.73 ERA in 29 starts between the two affiliates.
“I think his expectations were really high, and he expected to be in the big leagues as a starter,” Picollo said. “And probably wasn’t focusing on the now, in looking to the future. And he struggled.”
In big-league camp the next spring, Crow starred as a reliever. He made an All-Star team that summer. Like Joakim Soria before him and Kelvin Herrera after, the bullpen became Crow’s home. He has settled into a comfortable role as a useful middle reliever.
The Royals never got to experience that dilemma with Sale. Now he torments them each season. To Moore, the lesson reminds of the game’s inherent unpredictability.
“It’s very easy to look back on any draft and second-guess what you should do or what you shouldn’t do,” Moore said. “And it’s cowardly for either people in the industry or outside the industry, in the media — it’s cowardly to criticize it. Because that’s just not how it works. It’s very inexact.”
The infomercials poked at him all summer on the televisions in minor-league clubhouses.
The advertisements promised a more sculpted physique, the kind Lamb felt he lacked, the kind he desired after Sharp’s speech.
That was how he decided on his offseason conditioning program for the winter of 2013 — even if the Royals suggested he try a more functional plan, one that would improve his pitching, not his physique.
“I was tired of hearing just the normal, 9-to-5 worker turned their body into the professional athlete’s body,” Lamb said. “And I’m sitting there with the rounded shoulders, looking down at my stomach. And it’s like, ‘OK, all right. I want to do something with this. I want a change.’
Lamb also saw a physical therapist. For him, this was progress. The previous winter, as he returned from surgery, he opted for a regime of swimming. That was his conditioning program. He felt the decision backfired because the swimming motion caused him to alter his arm angle. On the mound, he threw from a more over-the-top place, rather than his customary three-quarters slot.
So his new choice was not ideal. But the team was willing to work with him.
“We’re very flexible,” Sharp said, a concession that underscores one of the modern game’s dilemmas: How do you convince players to accept their organization’s philosophy?
“It’s not just the Royals,” one American League scout said. “It’s every team. They all have trouble getting kids to buy in.”
The Royals selected Lamb in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. He fractured his elbow in a car accident his senior year at Laguna Hills High in California, which hampered his stock. But the Royals banked on his considerable gifts.
In a way, Picollo explained, his talent was also something of a curse.
“Of all the guys that we had at that time, his delivery and his command was the best,” Picollo said. “He could throw a fastball in, out, up, down. He had a secondary pitch in his changeup that he could go to at any time in the count.”
Lamb dissected Carolina League hitters. He graduated to Class AA in 2010 after striking out 90 hitters in 742/3 innings with a 1.45 ERA for Wilmington. Yet team officials fretted about Lamb’s future. Picollo and Sharp lamented his refusal to condition properly. They counseled him on the necessities of big-league life: Develop a routine. Get enough sleep. Eat better.
Lamb heard the pleading from team officials, coaches and teammates. Even his own father implored him to listen. He refused.
“The training room, the weight room, these are all things I just hated before,” he said. “Literally, just, ‘No. That’s not going to help me throw.’
He added, “I would be scared to go into the weight room — and, or, lazy — because of making an excuse that I don’t want to change.”
Lamb admits he felt his talent alone could carry him to the majors. Sharp compared the situation to a train on a faulty track. In retrospect, team officials say, they knew a reckoning was coming. On May 19, 2011, after eight promising starts in Class AA, Lamb tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow.
“We were trying,” Sharp said. “He was trying. And it just wasn’t working. And eventually, he just failed from a ligament standpoint, a health standpoint.”
Lamb represents one end of the spectrum. Mike Montgomery resides on another. The team sparred with him for years over his throwing program. Montgomery was a discipline of long-toss guru Alan Jaeger, who advises players to throw at distances up to 300 feet. The Royals preferred he adhere closer to their guide of 150 to 180 feet, and worry more about in-game adjustments.
Royals officials are reticent of criticizing Montgomery. They appreciated his diligence, dedication and even his stubbornness. They could not have acquired James Shields without him. His stock has plummeted in recent years. He finished 2013 with a 4.83 ERA, accrued mostly at Tampa Bay’s Class AAA affiliate.
“It’s not like Mike Montgomery went to the Rays and became a star,” one rival executive said.
Yet the two poles are illuminating. To aid Montgomery, they tried to break a routine. To aid Lamb, they tried to create one. Neither approach succeeded.
The trouble for the Royals is figuring out how to avoid missteps in the future. Each individual player is a unique blend of talent and makeup. There is no magic formula.
“What you do with one guy that fails, and you try to learn from, may have worked for a completely different guy,” Sharp said. “You can’t have a double-blind study. You can’t go back and re-do the guy that didn’t work out.”
It takes 10 to get one, and the Royals’ last five have yet to provide one.
The class of 2011 experienced attrition. Montgomery and Odorizzi helped acquire James Shields. Dwyer recovered from his health problems, rebounded in 2013 and will begin 2014 in Omaha. He’ll be joined by Duffy, who flunked a big-league bullpen audition in the final weeks of camp.
Then there is Lamb. He impressed manager Ned Yost with a low 90s fastball in his first appearance in the Cactus League.
“He’s back now,” Yost said, even if the front office had already decided Lamb’s offspeed pitches were far too consistent to expect him to contribute at the big-league level.
On March 8, Yost gave Lamb a chance to start. It was a catastrophe. Lamb looked tentative and disappointed observers with his lack of conviction. One scout clocked his fastball at 86 to 89 mph. He gave up four runs and couldn’t finish the fourth inning. “It’s a mystery,” one club official said.
Two days later, the Royals optioned Lamb to Class AA Northwest Arkansas. The organization still floats the idea he’ll compete for a position in 2015, but first he needs to thrive in the minors.
The task was once so easy. Now it is a mystery.
“There’s no elevator to the top,” Lamb said. “I’m just doing what I can to control what I can. I don’t know what the answer is. Trial and error.”