Vahe Gregorian

Royals’ Miguel Almonte makes sizzling debut that hints at bright future

Royals pitcher Miguel Almonte throws during Thursday's spring training game against the Rangers in Surprise, Ariz.
Royals pitcher Miguel Almonte throws during Thursday's spring training game against the Rangers in Surprise, Ariz. The Kansas City Star

Spontaneously during a chat in January, Royals vice-president for international operations Rene Francisco broached the name of a prospect on the cusp of being the Next Big Thing for the Royals — 21-year-old pitcher Miguel Almonte.

"This guy is farther along than (Yordano) Ventura at the same stage — throwing the curve ball, throwing the changeup, knowing how to pitch," he said. "This guy is way more advanced (at the same point) than Ventura. To me."

Not just to him, it seems.

In mid-February as he spoke to the Tiger Club of Kansas City, Royals’ general manager Dayton Moore also brought up Almonte.

"He’s probably a name for you to watch in spring training," Moore said.

Even adjusted for any inflation that would be natural in the minds of those hatching what they are developing, Almonte justified that fuss on Thursday, anyway.

Enough so that you might understand why the Royals consider him among an elite handful of home-grown pitchers that will replenish the rotation in the next few years.

With few, if any, jobs really open on the season-opening roster of the defending American League champions, what’s bubbling up ahead might be the most intriguing element of this spring training.

And Almonte is in the eye of that.

Never mind that he is in his first big-league camp and had a 4.50 ERA at Class A Wilmington last season, and forget that the box score of the Royals’ 5-4 exhibition victory over Texas at Surprise Stadium flashes a mixed signal on his line.

Starting the third inning, Almonte’s first pitch to Ed Lucas sizzled in at 98 mph.

Then he zoomed them in at 96 and 97 before he cast Lucas into suspended animation with a 79 mph curveball for a called third strike.

"After the first hitter," manager Ned Yost said, "I was, like, ‘Whoa.’ "

Then after fending off a torrent of upper 90s pitches and another knee-buckling curve, Texas’ Joey Gallo mustered a broken-bat single.

Almonte then hit Michael Choice before he unleashed another demonstration of the predicament of power and finesse to paralyze Jared Hoying out looking.

And after Ryan Rua cleared the bases for Texas with a ball lost in the sun for a triple, Almonte struck out Adam Rosales with high heat.

So Almonte veered off some, yes.

But he was little short of spellbinding, really, as he took another step toward a major league career that even he would have thought was impossible as recently as the day he signed with the Royals in 2011.

That very day, after his tryout at the Royals’ Academy in the Dominican Republic, Almonte had been despondent.

He had walked four batters and retired only one, he recalled Thursday, so he determined that he had failed.

Acting out the scene with a smile, he immediately packed his bags, went to the front office of the complex and asked for his travel money to get home to Santiago.

"They said, `Why?’ " he said, answering that he knew he would not be signed.

But as it happened, the Royals already had decided to sign him.

Told the news, he grabbed his bag and ran back to his room to call his parents.

Somewhere in there, he cried.

That story was new to Royals’ assistant GM J.J. Picollo on Thursday, but he found it to be familiar, nonetheless, an indication of the implications of such moments for prospects.

In this case, it also speaks to a specific hunger in Almonte, who learned after being signed that Dominican Academy field director Victor Baez had seen enough stuff in his bullpen sessions to believe that trumped his jitters on the mound.

"Yeah, Victor Baez — great," said Almonte, who also said Baez was a crucial mentor for him at the academy.

In addition to what was certainly a hope for a more prosperous life for his family and him, the game had meaning to Almonte for many reasons — including his allegiance to the local winter league team, seeing from afar the success of fellow Dominican Edinson Volquez (now a teammate) and a special bond over baseball with his grandfather, Victor.

That’s why Almonte has his name and image tattooed on his arm, why he thinks of him watching every time he pitches and why he bows his head and mists up for long seconds as he tries to describe their relationship before his grandfather died in 2006.

The very fact that he is trying to describe that relationship in English seems to be another telling point about the maturity and intensity of Almonte.

There are any number of reasons that some Latin American players won’t try to speak English with American reporters, and each case is different and thus complicated to understand.

You’d probably need a panel discussion on the topic to do it justice.

But this much seems clear:

Someone eager to take that on, especially as he’s still learning the language and especially in a one-on-one interview with a reporter, has an admirable sense of confidence and desire to grow.

" ‘You have to learn English fast,’ " one friend advised him, " ‘because you’re not scared.’ "

It’s important to him, he said, because anything concerning his growth in the game is.

"You can talk to your friends, your teammates, your managers," he said. "And sometimes you can talk to a fan, an American fan."

Most likely, that still will be later rather than sooner in Kansas City.

Almonte figures to start the season in Class AA Northwest Arkansas, Picollo said.

But what Yost called "dynamic stuff" and Royals officials believe is unusual poise and competitiveness for his age makes for a compelling blend that there’s also no need to put a ceiling on.

"Don’t rule him out for (Kansas City) this year," Picollo said. "There’s no reason to think he couldn’t do that."

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4868 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vgregorian. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com

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