On Sunday here at Globe Life Park, Dillon Gee will make his seventh start of the season. You could say the decision is a curious one, and you would perhaps be right. Gee has posted a 6.43 ERA in his six previous starts. He allowed five runs in his last outing on Tuesday. Opponents are now hitting .358 against him when he begins a game on the mound. But the Royals lack a suitable alternative, so Gee it is, taking the mound just 45 miles or so from where he grew up in Cleburne, Texas.
Some of the starting pitching issues are obvious, of course. Chris Young hit a wall after an excellent season in 2015, posting a 7.39 ERA as a starter. Kris Medlen has been ineffective and mostly injured. Mike Minor has been slow to return from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
And yet, the Royals’ depth issues run deeper than that. When the season began, Royals officials were hopeful that top prospects Kyle Zimmer and Miguel Almonte could emerge as midseason options if the back end of the rotation crumbled. But, the oft-injured Zimmer is out for the season after being diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a neurogenic issue that causes numbness and pain in the shoulder and hand. Almonte has been plagued by poor command and inconsistent mechanics, issuing 42 walks and posting a 5.55 ERA at Class AAA Omaha. He is now pitching out of the bullpen.
Once you get past Zimmer and Almonte, the Royals’ top pitching prospects reside at Class AA Northwest Arkansas or in the lower levels of the minor leagues. At this point, the most talented among that crop have not been deemed major-league ready.
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So what happened? Some of this, of course, was expected. A season ago, the Royals dealt five pitchers, including four left-handed prospects, in deadline trades that netted Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto. But the stalled progress of Zimmer and Almonte has been disappointing.
Last week, The Star spoke to J.J. Picollo, assistant general manager for player personnel, to sift through the Royals’ pitching landscape in the minor leagues. The system, of course, is not without bright spots.
Right-hander Jake Junis, a 29th-round pick, has emerged at Class AA Northwest Arkansas, recording a 3.19 ERA. Left-hander Matt Strahm had a solid season in the rotation at Northwest Arkansas before transitioning to the bullpen in recent weeks. Right-hander Scott Blewett, a second-round pick in 2014, has made progress at Class A Lexington. Club officials have also been impressed with Corey Ray, a former fifth-round pick who is pitching at Class A Wilmington, and A.J. Puckett, who has posted a 2.90 ERA in five starts at Class A Lexington since being drafted in the second round in June.
The Star spoke to Picollo about Almonte, Junis, Strahm, former first-round pick Ashe Russell and others in the minor-league system. The interview has been condensed for clarity.
THE STAR: Miguel Almonte has posted a 5.55 ERA in 60 innings at Omaha. He’s now pitching out of the bullpen. Do you have a better answer for what Miguel Almonte’s been through or what his season has been like?
PICOLLO: “It’s repeating his delivery that has been the challenge this year. When his delivery is right and he stays behind the ball and delivers the ball like he’s capable of, he’s very, very good. Now, maintaining that over five, six, seven innings has been a challenge. That’s why we’ve shortened his outings and put him in the bullpen, so he can have two innings and we can say, ‘Hey, stay in your delivery for two innings and let’s build off that.’ That’s where we’re at with him. There’s a direct correlation of his increasing velocity, which came in high-A and Double-A. He always had a good arm — 92 to 93 (mph) you could count on. But the 96 to 99, that was kind of foreign territory. When he got to AA, that’s when we started to see it more consistently. And when he got a feel for his delivery, the same arm slot, not spinning off, having a good direction to the plate, that was very consistent as a young guy when he wasn’t throwing very hard.
“Now that he’s throwing much harder, he’s gotten out of his delivery some. Now that he’s gotten to Double-A and Triple-A, the hitters are more mature. You can’t get away with pitches in the zone like you do in A-ball. So that’s been the challenge for him. The stuff is very good. He’s got a good fastball; he’s got a very, very good curveball; he’s got a very, very good change-up. But if you’re behind in the count or you’re not able to locate a pitch early in the count, it’s going to be 1-0. It’s not going to be 0-1 like it would be at the lower levels because of the chase rates being what they are in the lower levels.
“It’s been a constant focus. He understands it. He knows when he does it right. He knows when he’s spinning off, and we’ve just got to stay on it with him. He’s still a young pitcher, and we’ve got to help him get through this. That’s what the pitching coaches get paid to do, and this is where player development has to be very good. If everyone threw strikes and threw 99, there wouldn’t be any coaches. That’s what they’ve got to do.”
THE STAR: With Ashe Russell, your first-round pick in 2015, did he just spend the first half of the season in Arizona? What has his progress been like this year?
PICOLLO: “He’s had a tough go of it. It’s been command issues and delivery issues. We’re just trying to put the pieces together for him and help him with it. It’s just been a tough year so far. He’s a young kid with a great arm. That’s the benefit that we have that, I think, gets a little overlooked because of his status as a draft pick. We don’t have to rush guys out there.
“If we can do the right things with young guys at 18, 19, 20 and go slow and at the rate they need to go early on, then we can move forward. The progression through Double-A and Triple-A will be a little faster. I think with Ashe, because of who he is, there’s more attention on him. But we just want to take time to get his delivery right, get his timing right and let him be who he is. And that’s a guy with a really good arm and really good stuff. We’ve got to help him make some adjustments that are necessary at this time.”
THE STAR: Will Russell go to go a short-season affiliate at some point? Is that to be determined?
PICOLLO: “It’s to be determined. We’re doing a lot of drill work. A lot of delivery work with him right now. Really, at this point in time, going into games is not a priority. We’re trying to get some other things ironed out first. Then, when he’s ready to get into games, we’ll get him into games. I know he’s anxious to get into games, but he wants to get this right as well. He’s been committed to the throwing program that’s been laid out for him at this point. He wants to get that right. When he gets that right, we’ll get him into games.”
THE STAR: Who have been the success stories in the system? Are there any guys at the lower levels, pitching-wise, that you feel like have made some strides?
PICOLLO: “This is not necessarily at the lower levels, but one guy that has taken a huge step is Jacob Junis in Double-A. He’s been outstanding all year long. He was a guy that sort of showed you short glimpses of him really being sort of a dominating guy. He threw 90-95, good breaking ball, good change-up. And then he would lose it. He’d lose it for a little bit and get back into it. Well, then this year, he just had a better mound presence and he just kept working. He’s probably been our most consistent guy since the beginning of the season. He’s been consistently throwing 93-95 and his change-up has been good every night. His curveball has been good. He’s learning how to add and subtract from those pitchers with velocity. He’s been a real shining light this season.”
THE STAR: Who else is on that list?
PICOLLO: “(Left-hander Eric) Skoglund in AA … he’s been really good. He missed all of last year with a torn lat muscle and was on track to get to Double-A last year, but then he got hurt. This is his first full year in Double-A, but he’s shown signs that he can be a guy that we can count on as early as next year.
“(Left-hander) Matt Strahm has been really good. We recently moved him to the bullpen. The reason for that is because of our major-league team and what our needs might be. Matt has shown he can do that. We are not giving up on him as a starter at all. He’s really made some great strides and his curveball has been improving. So we think he can start. At the same time, he’s already pitched his innings pitched from last year. So this is a way to get him another way to get another 30 innings for him, so his innings increase from one year to the next is within the limitations that we like. He’ll have about a 30 percent increase. Typically, we like to have a 20 percent increase, but it’s going to be about 30 percent. And he can help our major-league team in the relief role.
“We’re going to give him that opportunity in Double-A in the bullpen and see how he’s doing and maybe progress him to Triple-A. But, as we told Matt, this isn’t a pre-determined thing, but we’re going to see how you pitch out of the (bullpen). Because if there’s an opportunity in the big leagues, you’ve got to be prepared. And prepared means you’ve got to be performing well. But he’s been a very, very encouraging story over really the last two years, from the beginning of 2015 until now.
“A.J. Puckett, so far, has been outstanding (at Lexington). (Right-hander) Scott Blewett has made really good progress in the last month, month and a half. He’s had some really good strikeout numbers, and his velocity keeps increasing as the year goes on. I think he’s just scratching the surface of what he can do.
“Another guy is Corey Ray in Wilmington. He was a fifth-round pick in 2014. He didn’t pitch much at Texas A&M, but he is really starting to put things together. There are nights where he is just flat-out dominant (with a) 94-97 fastball. We changed him from a slider to a curveball last year, and that curveball keeps getting better and he sort of throws a split-grip change-up. It’s a change-up, but it moves like a splitter. That’s been his best second pitch. I think he’s gaining confidence with every start, and he’s got a lot of ability.
“Zach Lovvorn is another one. It’s kind of interesting: He’s got a (2-12) record, but if you look at the rest of his numbers, it’s really good. He’s got like a 3.55 ERA; his strikeouts are good. He’s just had bad luck. He’s kind of a guy that’s fallen under the radar. There’s been some outings where he’s been very good and he settles in and it’s average-ish. But he’s been really good all this year. Truthfully, he should be in Double-A. It’s just a matter of getting him to AA. He just needs the opportunity in Double-A.”