The back fields here form a mammoth cloverleaf, four baseball diamonds that surround the Art Stewart Tower and offer the main hive of activity in the early days of spring training.
On Tuesday morning, that activity was built around a session of live batting practice, so Royals manager Ned Yost hopped on a golf cart and cruised out to the cloverleaf to evaluate a collection of young pitching prospects. On this day, the headliners were Josh Staumont, a flame-throwing 23-year-old, and Kyle Zimmer, a former first-round pick whose career has been beset by injuries.
But something strange happened as Yost jumped from field to field. He watched Zimmer throw a batting-practice session that he described as “free and easy,” a performance that piqued his interest. Then Yost headed to another field and saw something similar.
“This is no bull…” Yost said. “It’s hard to separate anybody right now because everybody looks so damn good. I mean, I bounced from field to field to field, and I’ll go to a field and … damn! I’ll go to the next field and watch three or four pitchers … damn! I go to the next one … damn!
“In years past, you’d go and you’d watch a field and you’d watch three or four pitchers, and you’d say ‘Meh.’ You’d go to one and say ‘OK.’ You’d go to another and say ‘Nah.’ ”
In some ways, this is the kind of eternal optimism that permeates every major-league camp. Yet the observation is notable in this sense: The Royals’ crop of young pitching prospects is hardly the envy of the industry. In the offseason, no Royals pitchers were among baseball’s top 100 prospects. ESPN analyst Keith Law ranked the organization’s farm system 26th.
But as spring training began, Royals general manager Dayton Moore sought to push back against that perception. And Yost says he has been consistently impressed by the collection of young arms in camp.
The list of names begins with Staumont and Zimmer, two pitchers with high upside. But in the hours after watching Tuesday’s workout, Yost said Jake Junis, Yender Caramo and left-hander Eric Stout had caught his eye — in addition to a handful of possible reclamation projects, such as left-hander Jonathan Sanchez.
“From Junis to Stout to Caramo to Staumont, these guys are pretty good, man,” Yost said. “Just name them. There’s not one that I’ve looked at and said, ‘Meh, why is he here?’ ”
Yost cautions that live batting practice offers a limited evaluation. But if the Royals’ manager is being overly bullish on this young crop of pitchers, context remains key. The club thinned out its farm system in 2015, selling off pitchers Brandon Finnegan, Sean Manaea, Cody Reed and John Lamb in trades that netted Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist. All four pitchers had some degree of premium pedigree. But after claiming the franchise’s first World Series championship in three decades, the Royals’ front office has few regrets.
What remains, however, is a curious mix of late-round picks and interesting scouting stories.
Junis, 24, is a former 29th-round pick in 2011 who hails from Rock Falls, Ill., 115 miles west of Chicago. Five years later, he turned in a promising performance in 2016, recording a 3.25 ERA in 21 starts at Class AA Northwest Arkansas.
Stout, a 13th-round pick in 2014, offers a similar back story. A native of suburban Glen Ellyn, Ill., he had one Division I scholarship offer out of high school and landed at Butler University. But he climbed all the way to Northwest Arkansas last season and scored a nonroster invitation to spring training.
The list goes on. Eric Skoglund, 24, is a 6-foot-7 left-hander who was taken in the third round out of Central Florida in 2014. Caramo, 25, is a native of Venezuela who has impressed the coaching staff with a heavy sinker. The prospect that one of these young pitchers will make the opening day roster remains somewhat remote. But Moore points to the career trajectory of Matt Strahm, a left-hander who grew up in West Fargo, S.D., before being plucked in the 21st-round in 2012. A year ago, Strahm arrived in camp as a mid-tier prospect. He will enter the 2017 season as key member of the club’s bullpen.
“This time last year, we weren’t talking about Matt Strahm,” Moore said. “He was just a left-hander with a good arm.”
For the moment, the Royals will continue the search for the next Strahm. When the Cactus League schedule begins Saturday, they will lean heavily on their young arms. Staumont, a second-round pick in 2015, will start the opener against the Texas Rangers, while Zimmer will start Sunday. The club will cycle through its collection of young arms in the first three days of games. The schedule offers opportunity for both club and player.
“My goals were to stay unseen,” said Staumont, who finished last season throwing 100 mph fastballs at Northwest Arkansas. “Just kind of watch and really take note on who’s successful and how they get their success.”
For Staumont, his goal of anonymity did not last the first two weeks of camp. But that was inevitable. In the offseason, he was ranked as the top prospect in the organization by Baseball America, a pitcher who could project as a front-end starter or dominant reliever. But in the opening days of camp, Yost sought to offer the following message. The talent pool may be deeper than you think.
“That’s the thing about baseball,” Moore said. “Players emerge, pitchers get better. The one thing about a lot of the statistical analysis, it’s an important part of the game. But you’ve got to factor in. Players are allowed to get better.”