It's a little hard to believe, considering all of the attention it's getting now, but a year ago the image of the Kansas City Royals farm system wasn't quite as glowing as it is currently.
Sure, everyone knew that there was talent.
But sluggers Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer were coming off less-than-scintillating seasons. Pitcher Aaron Crow, after some initial success in Class AA, was about to go into a season-long tailspin. And talented left-hander Danny Duffy had up and retired at the ripe old age of 21.
Things have changed dramatically since. Moustakas, Hosmer and lefty Mike Montgomery are among the top prospects in the minor leagues and are with Class AAA Omaha. Crow has been exceptional working out of the big league bullpen.
And Duffy — after returning last June — is set to make his second Class AAA start Friday night, when the Storm Chasers play their home opener at the new Werner Park at 7:05 p.m. against Nashville.
Duffy, just a cut below Montgomery and Class AA lefty John Lamb on the prospect hype machine, said his time away from the game was about becoming more mature and making mental adjustments.
Omaha pitching coach Doug Henry, who also was the pitching coach for Duffy when he was at low Class A Burlington in 2008, also sees a more focused left-hander.
“He's here,” Henry said. “He's not thinking about stuff away from the field. He's growing up. He's young. He came out of high school (into professional baseball), and this isn't an easy life. He's figuring it out, and he's going to be fine.”
Duffy really wasn't out of baseball for long. He had a minor injury that was going to keep him out for the month of April anyway, and he was back by June 2 and made his first appearance of the season June 28.
Some time at home in Lompoc, Calif., got Duffy back where he wanted to be.
“I knew I wanted to come back a while before I did,” Duffy said. “Watching ‘Baseball Tonight' (on television), and seeing people I had faced kind of lit that fire. Baseball has always been what I was meant to do. I just had to go home for a while to realize that.”
Now 22, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Duffy possesses a fastball that he'll typically run up at 90 to 92 mph and, when he needs it, will sometimes bring in at 95. He combines that with a solid changeup and breaking pitches, and a crossfire delivery that keeps hitters off balance.
“He's got very good deception and very good late life on the ball,” Henry said. “The hitters have trouble picking the ball up against him, and once they do, it's by them. He just needs a little better command of his off-speed stuff, and he should be very successful.”
Since signing for $365,000 as a third-round draft pick in 2007, Duffy has gone 24-13 with a 2.56 ERA and 363 strikeouts in 313 professional innings. He allowed three runs — two earned — on seven hits in his five-inning Class AAA debut Saturday at Albuquerque.
Once he returned last year, Duffy went 5-3 with a 2.74 ERA while pitching at four levels. He spent most of his time with Class AA Northwest Arkansas, going 5-2 with a 2.95 ERA in seven starts and 1-0 with a 1.69 ERA in two playoff starts.
Duffy also went 1-1 with a 2.89 ERA for Team USA in the Pan American Games qualifying tournament, and he pitched 1523 innings in the prestigious Arizona Fall League, where he struggled to an 8.04 ERA.
Duffy said he understands that Class AAA is a big step from Class AA, but he's also confident in what he can do.
“Obviously, the talent level goes up,” he said. “But (the Royals) haven't told me to change anything, other than just to be a little sharper. I got here because I pitched the way I've pitched and worked the way I've worked.”
In his first big league camp this spring, Duffy allowed eight runs on five hits while walking eight in eight innings for a 9.00 ERA.
“I need to repeat my delivery more than anything,” Duffy said. “My stuff is good, but I've just got to get the ball down. And to be consistent, you have to do the same thing over and over again.
“It's not that it's a bad thing to elevate, but if I do it every pitch, that doesn't work.”
Henry said that pitchers who are able to fine-tune their mechanics, to repeat their delivery consistently, are the ones who find success after moving up a level. He's confident that will happen for Duffy, too.
“His stuff is electric,” Henry said. “When he's in the (strike) zone and attacking the zone, he doesn't get hit.”
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