Burlington rotation well poised for 2nd half

Despite finishing the first half with the Midwest League's second worst record (30-39), the Bees' rotation is stocked with interesting prospects who seem well positioned to improve upon their first half numbers. RC was in Burlington earlier this month, and we caught up with several of the Bees' pitchers, as well as pitching coach Doug Henry, to discuss their progress.

  • Matt Mitchell, the Royals' 14th round pick in last year's draft, broke camp with the Bees just after turning just 19 years old in March, and he has been in Burlington all year. Mitchell in 2007 was named the Arizona Royals' Pitcher of the Year, and the 6-foot-2 righty finished the 2008 first half with solid numbers, going 4-5 with a 4.10 ERA and 46 strikeouts (and just 11 walks) in 59.1 innings pitched.

    RC caught Mitchell's outing versus the Clinton Lumber Kings on June 1. In the game, Mitchell held the Midwest League's best offense to just two hits and one run in seven innings pitched as the Bees prevailed, 3-1.

    "I was just able to keep my fastball down and hit my spots, and my defense played great behind me," said Mitchell.


    Mitchell's been steady all season for the Bees

    Mitchell, like most young pitchers in the Royals' organization, throws a fastball, curveball, and changeup. His fastball velocity sits in the mid- to upper-80s, but it has good movement and he locates it well. His curveball was inconsistent but effective, keeping the LumberKing hitters off balance throughout the game.

    "The curveball is the one pitch we really need to keep stressing with him," said Bees pitching coach Doug Henry. "It's coming along. He just needs to learn to pound the strike zone with all of his pitches."

    Mitchell nodded in agreement when asked about his curveball, which is the pitch he feels needs the most work.

    "It's coming along pretty well," said Mitchell. "[Doug Henry] and I have been working on it quite a bit. I'm starting to throw it a little harder, so it's breaking sharper. I just need to get more consistent with throwing it for a strike when I need to."

    One pitch that doesn't seem to need much work is Mitchell's changeup. Henry said that the change is Mitchell's best pitch, which he throws with very good deception. Mitchell agreed, although he did express the need to use it more often.

    "I could probably throw a few more, but as long as I have a second pitch that I can show them, offspeed wise, I think I'll be all right," said Mitchell.

    Henry also praised Mitchell's competitiveness on the mound.

    "He's a gamer," said Henry. "He's a battler out there, and he's going to come right at you."


  • Alex Caldera was selected one pick before Mitchell in the 2007 draft, and he had an even better first half. Indeed, with a 3.21 ERA and 69 strikeouts in 75.2 innings pitched, Caldera led all Bees pitchers with more than five starts in all three categories. Like Mitchell, Caldera's fastball sits in the mid- to upper-80s, and he's able to throw strikes with it.

    "[Caldera's] got just a under average fastball, but he knows how to locate it," said Henry. "He's got a decent changeup, and he can throw his breaking balls for strikes pretty much anytime he wants to. At this level, that should lead to success."


    Caldera had a rough outing when we saw him, but the Royals are pretty high on him

    Unfortunately, Caldera had one of his few bad outings when RC saw him on June 2, getting roughed up for 9 runs on 13 hits in just 4.1 innings against the LumberKings. Henry remained upbeat, however.

    "He had a rough one [June 2], but he's throwing the ball well for us," said Henry. "He knows what he can and can't do, and he doesn't try to do anything extra. He just goes out there and attacks the strike zone. The other day he was just getting the ball up, and he was probably facing the best offense in the league, and they did what good hitters do. They put bad pitches in play pretty hard. He's going to be fine. He's throwing the ball well."

    Indeed, Caldera seems to have bounced back nicely from that rough outing, surrendering just four earned runs in his last three starts, spanning 16.2 innings (2.16 ERA).


  • In mid-May, the Bees welcomed their two highest pitching draftees from the 2007 draft, Sam Runion (2nd round) and Danny Duffy (3rd round), who were promoted after spending the season's first month and a half in extended spring training. When we spoke with Farm Director J.J. Picollo during spring training, he said that both Runion and Duffy were probably ready for Burlington, but they were held back just to work on a few more things. We asked both pitchers what they worked on in Arizona.

    "The curveball has been a big project for me. Basically I was just working on my offspeed stuff, trying to throw that for a strike and get it a little tighter," said Runion. "I was just trying to get on top of it, and stuff like that."

    Duffy told us he worked extensively on his fastball command and on repeating his delivery.

    "Also, I worked on getting my offspeed pitches down even more," said Duffy. "That was basically what I needed to do to get here, and it got a lot better down there."


    We noticed Duffy tends to hump up his fastball when he's ahead in the count

    RC saw Runion pitch on June 3, and Duffy the following day. Both pitchers threw well and earned victories against the tough LumberKings, but it was clear that both still have work to do. Runion's curveball was very inconsistent, and he had difficulty throwing it for strikes, although he had excellent command of a low-90s fastball that still sat at 91 mph in the sixth inning.

    "Runion's curveball we've got a lot of work to do with, and he'll admit it too," said Henry. "He's got a decent changeup, but his fastball is his strength. He can locate it pretty good, and he's got very good movement on it. He's throwing a four-seam fastball, but it's got two-seam movement on it. It gets a lot of ground balls."


    Runion's curveball definitely needs work, but he's got tremendous upside and a live arm

    In his outing on June 4, Duffy surrendered just one hit in 5.2 shutout innings, although he struggled mightily to command his fastball, which sat in the upper-80s and topped out around 91 mph. His command improved a bit from the third inning on, and his breaking ball was sharp all game. Henry had his own take on Duffy's progress.

    "'Effectively wild' is a way to put it right now," said Henry of Duffy. "He's learning how to pitch. He's got a very good arm, very good life on his ball, and a very good curveball. The thing with him is that I have to make sure he keeps his confidence up. The first couple of outings, he came up here and I don't think he was sure what to expect. But he's going to be fine."


  • The Bees also got a boost earlier this month when Daniel Gutierrez returned to the club. Gutierrez was out for over a month while rehabbing a sore elbow in Arizona, but the 6-foot-1 righty may have the best upside of any pitcher on the staff.

    "He's got big league stuff," said Henry. "That guy, as long as his arm's healthy, he should…you know, you don't ever want to say he's a ‘can't miss,' but he's got very good stuff and very good poise on the mound. If he hadn't gotten hurt, I don't think he'd still be here. I think he'd have definitely been up in Wilmington already."


    Gutierrez, when healthy, could be one of the top five pitching prospects in the Royals' organization

    In the meantime, Gutierrez is working his pitch count back up by piggybacking with Runion. Since his return, Gutierrez has made two three-inning appearances, surrendering two runs while striking out eight batters and walking none. On the season, the 21-year-old Gutierrez has a 2.52 ERA with 33 strikeouts in 25 innings, and opponents are hitting just .213 against him.

    "I think in the next couple of years, as long as his arm's healthy, you're going to see some good things out of him," said Henry.



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