The news that Danny Duffy likely needs Tommy John surgery to repair his torn ulnar collateral ligament is, sadly, not surprising. Not because he complained about elbow pain a few weeks ago and had trouble commanding the ball the last few starts, but because he's a young pitcher. These things happen to pitching prospects, regardless of talent, but in the case of the Royals, there always seems to be something keeping their pitchers from developing.
That isn't meant to pin blame on Kansas City for Duffy's injury. Rather, let's take a look back at their pitching prospects under current general manager Dayton Moore. Unless you just ate, in which case, avert your eyes:
Unless you're a serious prospect lad or lady, chances are good you only recognize a few names on that list. It's comprised of every top 10 pitcher, ranked by Baseball America, that the Royals had from 2007 through 2010 under Moore. It's a bit misleading, in the sense that rank within one's own organization is relative, but just the same, not one of these pitchers has turned out in a way the Royals hoped they would when they were originally acquired. (And if they did turn out as expected, then the Royals are doing it wrong.)
Luke Hochevar was the first-overall selection of the 2006 draft, a year after the Dodgers took him 40th overall. When the Dodgers selected him, many felt that 40th overall was a good spot for him, and that the Royals had gone after an arm that wasn't going to be a front-line starter with the #1 pick in the draft. Kevin Goldstein's "Perfect World Projection" on Hochevar from 2007 reflects this:
Few saw Hochevar as a true number one starter, even when he was drafted last year. Most scouts who saw him this year didn't lower the projection on him too much, though, still seeing him as a number two or three in the end.
Hochevar has failed to even become a mid-rotation arm, with a career 79 ERA+ over 620 innings. He's now 28, and the most positive development in his major-league career thus far is that he survived for 198 innings in 2011. Or, rather, the Royals survived 198 innings of Hochevar.
Aaron Crow is another pitcher who the Royals drafted a year after he failed to sign elsewhere. They snagged him at #12, but like Hochevar, this might have been overzealous. Goldstein on Crow:
Crow's changeup is a below-average pitch that he seems to have little confidence in. His mechanics are not the prettiest in the world, leaving some to wonder if he profiles better as a closer. He looked rusty this spring and in the Arizona Fall League, as his slider didn't have the same bite as it did during his Missouri days.
Chances are good a closer wasn't the most talented player left on the board just 12 picks in to the 2009 draft. To Crow's credit, he's developed along that path after struggling as a starter in the minors, and has been very good as a reliever over parts of two seasons for Kansas City. The Royals need starters, though, and like with Hochevar, it hurt for them to reach with such a high draft pick.
This is magnified by the problems had by the pitchers they didn't reach on in the draft. Mike Montgomery, after making it to #1 in the system for 2010, has pitched poorly in Triple-A. To be fair, he's all of 22 years old and in the PCL, but the loss of command for someone who formerly counted that among their strengths is alarming. Then 20-year-old John Lamb had his development knocked off course by Tommy John surgery after eight starts last year, and has yet to return to the mound in 2012. Duffy reached the majors before either of those two, but now he's set to lose a year due to his elbow.
It's not abnormal for pitching prospects to fail to develop, but here are five starters -- an entire rotation's worth -- who have all gone off course. The reasons are different, be they over-drafting, mechanics better-suited to relief, injury, or in the case of Montgomery, the disappearance of something that made you so good. It hasn't helped that none of their other pitching prospects were able to beat the odds and become more than what was expected of them, either.
Blake Wood ended up in relief. Billy Buckner is now 28 and in Double-A for another team. Brian Bannister's tight-rope act worked until it didn't. Many of the pitchers acquired in trade to make up for this -- Vin Mazzaro, Sean O'Sullivan, Kyle Davies -- either were never very good to begin with, or didn't become change of scenery types as was hoped. Felipe Paulino might stand alone as an effective pitcher Kansas City traded for under Moore, especially if Jonathan Sanchez continues to do Jonathan Sanchez things.
Not all hope is lost, of course. Montgomery, Lamb, and Duffy are all very young, and there's plenty of time for them to turn it around, even if the latter two need to wait until they're healthy to do so. Jake Odorizzi, acquired in the Zack Greinke trade, has looked excellent at Double-A as a 22-year-old. That's nearly a full rotation there, and it's an inexpensive one with a high ceiling. There's still time to break this cycle, but with the way things have gone for years, it's hard to stay positive about Royals pitching.