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Royals Prospect Primer: Arms in focus

Strahm, Staumont rising quickly; Zimmer, Russell hoping to rebound
Josh Staumont was markedly improved after a promotion to Double-A last season. (Northwest Arkansas Naturals)
March 23, 2017

Some players are on the verge of stardom, others are entering a crucial phase of their development and still others are getting their first tastes of full-season ball. With the 2017 season approaching, takes a look at the most intriguing prospects from each MLB organization.Major League-ready: Matt Strahm: LHPStrahm

Some players are on the verge of stardom, others are entering a crucial phase of their development and still others are getting their first tastes of full-season ball. With the 2017 season approaching, takes a look at the most intriguing prospects from each MLB organization.
Major League-ready: Matt Strahm: LHP
Strahm has spent the spring in big league camp and is the latest young Royals arm to rocket to the Majors as a reliever. With that rapid climb comes a familiar debate -- will Strahm be in Kansas City's rotation or bullpen over the long term?

"We have to do what's best for the organization as well as what's best for Matt," said Royals director of Minor League operations Ronnie Richardson. "Matt was able to get a chance to compete out of the bullpen last year, and he did a tremendous job. He was able to handle that."
Strahm appeared in 22 games for Double-A Northwest Arkansas last year, making 18 starts and going 3-8 with a 3.43 ERA and 107 strikeouts in 102 innings. He jumped directly to the Majors and wowed in his debut, registering a 1.23 ERA and 30 K's in 22 innings for Kansas City.

"Not very many guys from [the 21st] round get a chance to make it and compete at the level with such success early on in his career," Richardson said of the 2012 Draft selection. "We're happy to see him have that success, and whatever role he leads into, he's shown the ability to get Major League hitters out. If you're relieving, if you're starting, the goal is to get Major League hitters out, and he's been able to do that so far."
Loudest tool: Josh Staumont, RHP
The power and life in Staumont's 70-grade fastball make the pitch a double-edged sword that has given the righty his greatest successes and contributed to his struggles. Last season, Staumont led the Minors with 12.2 strikeouts per nine innings pitched but also walked 67 in 73 innings at the Class A Advanced level. Nuke Laloosh he is not, however, as Staumont proved following a promotion to Northwest Arkansas. There, he reined in his command with 73 K's and 37 walks complementing a 3.04 ERA and .232 opponents' average in 50 1/3 frames.
"He started to take hold [of instruction] and really got in a rhythm, and his confidence working with our pitching coach there [Steve Luebber] as well as our pitching coordinator, Larry Carter, he was just really able to consistently stick with his game plan, his approach every game," Richardson said of the promotion.
More quotes from Royals director of Minor League operations Ronnie Richardson »
While the temptation is there to move a pitcher like Staumont and his heater -- which regularly bumps 97 mph and can reach as high as 102 -- to the bullpen with the hope his pitches will play up, he spent most of last year in the rotation. Of his 18 appearances with Wilmington, 15 were starts, as were all 11 of his outings for Northwest Arkansas. In his final four starts with the Naturals, Staumont allowed just four earned runs over 22 innings (2.05 ERA) and struck out 34 with eight walks. In the playoffs, he was even better with 19 K's in 12 1/3 innings and a 1.46 ERA as the Naturals made the Texas League Finals.
Staumont followed his first full season with seven strong outings in the Arizona Fall League.
"He was pitching in very high-leverage games where they were fighting for a playoff spot to the last game, and that's when he pitched his best," Richardson said. "As the competition and the moment began to get a little bit bigger, he stepped up each and every time, and that transitioned over to the Fall League."
At the crossroads: Kyle Zimmer, RHP
It's tempting to list Zimmer as a "Back and healthy" prospect, but the righty's unfortunate track record makes it difficult to proclaim his health until he's able to prove it over the course of a season. This might not be Zimmer's last chance, but Kansas City would like to see a tangible step forward. Thankfully for both Zimmer and the Royals, all parties believe this is the year the 2012 first-round pick comes back.
"We teach our players to control what they can control," Richardson said. "Unfortunately, Zim has had some injuries that have not allowed him to perform at the level he would like to. When healthy, he's been very special. When healthy, he's gone out and competed. He gets after it every day. He's a very tough young man who understands that he's had a few injuries here and there, but he's never lacked the effort. To see him go through the rehab, that's a very trying process for any player because he knows what he can do."
The righty has pitched just 74 1/3 innings since 2014 and had his labrum cleaned up in 2015. Last year Zimmer underwent surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome -- a condition that leads to numbness and weakness in the arm -- after pitching just 5 2/3 innings, and the Royals are hopeful that will be the last piece in a healthy puzzle. When he's right, Zimmer boasts an above-average fastball that can reach triple-digits as well as a powerful curve.
"He's looked great here early in camp," Richardson said. "He's going out there and competing every day. He's sticking with his maintenance programs, and he still has the same upside. But for us to script anything out right now, we've just got to respond and allow Zimmer to continue to get better. He's a tough young man because a lot of guys might not have been able to overcome the injuries and kind of lose sight of what the goal is. For him, he's never lost sight of that."
At the crossroads II: Ashe Russell, RHP
Unfortunately for Kansas City, Zimmer hasn't been the only former first-rounder to scuffle. Taken 21st overall in 2015, Russell debuted in fine form in the Rookie-level Appalachian League that summer, but last year, things went off the rails. Russell battled a mechanical breakdown and lost the ability to control his pitches. In the end, the righty threw just two innings for the Rookie-level AZL Royals. On top of his control issues, he lost considerable velocity last year, going from a prep arm with a mid-90s fastball to scraping the upper-80s. At just 20, Russell certainly has time on his side, but he appears to be entering a crucial phase early in his development.
Shining star: Hunter Dozier, 3B/OF
A surprise pick at eighth overall in 2013, Dozier has justified the Royals' selection. Following a down year in 2015 in which he batted .213/.281/.349 in 128 games for Double-A Northwest Arkansas, the Stephen F. Austin product rebounded in a big way last season. Dozier hit .305/.400/.642 in his return to Double-A and earned a promotion to Omaha after just 26 games. He continued to surge with the Storm Chasers, batting .294/.357/.506 with 15 homers and 36 doubles, the second-highest total in the Pacific Coast League, despite playing just 103 games at the level.
His defensive work continues to improve, as well. Dozier has seen considerable time in the outfield, which is where he may land in the Majors.
"Obviously the results he would've liked to be a little bit better [in 2015], but the processes he took each and every day to be the type of player that he's continued to evolve into has been remarkable," Richardson said. "He's made a commitment to really just staying with a consistent approach and not wavering. If [he] didn't have a good game ... he stuck with his approach."
Dozier earned an eight-game big league cameo last season and, with his continued development in the outfield, should get a chance to challenge for regular playing time in Kansas City soon.
"We believe in Hunter, and Hunter believes in Hunter," Richardson said. "Last year just allowed it all to come together for him, but the process has never changed. Our confidence in him has never wavered. We're just are glad to see that the results are starting to match the potential."

Others to keep an eye on: Ryan O'Hearn continued his power progression last year as a third-year pro with 22 homers between Wilmington and Northwest Arkansas. ... Corey Toups, O'Hearn's teammate at Sam Houston State, was named Northwest Arkansas Player of the Year by the Royals with a .275/.358/.450 slash line in 86 games. … Khalil Lee, a third-round pick last year, could have been a two-way player had he followed through on a commitment to Liberty University but succeeded in the outfield in his debut season in the AZL, batting .269/.396/.484. The offense impressed, but his defense, highlighted by a 60-grade arm, may be his best tool. … Shortstop Nicky Lopez, a 2016 fifth-rounder who was Creighton's highest selection in 17 years, is a well-rounded athlete who could move quickly due to his polish at the plate and in the field.

Tyler Maun is a contributor to Follow him on Twitter @TylerMaun.