Danny Duffy is headed for surgery. After an MRI revealed a torn ulnar collateral ligament in Duffy’s left elbow, it looks like Tommy John surgery will sideline the left-hander until next season. A former top prospect in the Kansas City Royals’ farm system, Duffy reached the majors last season. And even though he struggled initially, the 23-year-old seemed to be making progress this year. And now that he’s out for the season, the Royals’ rise to prominence may be put on hold even longer.
The Royals entered the 2011 season having one of the best farm systems of all time. There wasn’t an analyst, a publication or a website that disagreed. And while Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer have already experienced some success in the majors — and Wil Myers isn’t far behind — the Royals have shown just how risky it is to depend on pitching prospects.
Duffy’s injury highlights some of the issues facing the Royals once-prominent farm system. John Lamb also had Tommy John surgery last June and Mike Montgomery has regressed at Triple-A. While Lamb should make his return some time this year — and Montgomery is still just 23-years-old — Kansas City has to be discouraged by the injuries and lack of development.
Of the three, Duffy looked to be the most likely to live up to the prospect billing. He had already reached the majors, and he managed to win a spot in the Royals’ rotation this spring. Duffy’s performance, while uneven, was promising. Though he struggled with his control (14.9%), Duffy punched out batters at a nice clip (23.1%). Duffy’s performance against the Detroit Tigers on April 16, offered promise to what he might become. In that start, Duffy threw 6.2 innings and gave up just three hits, with one walk and seven strikeouts.
But things quickly went downhill for Duffy. He missed a start after complaining about elbow tightness, but he returned to pitch two more games before succumbing to elbow pain during a start against the Chicago White Sox. There have already been some questions about whether the Royals handled Duffy properly. Duffy threw 90 pitches in his first game back after he first complained of elbow soreness — and then he threw 102 pitches in just 4.1 innings against the Boston Red Sox. The Royals didn’t think much of Duffy’s soreness at the time, and they didn’t send him for an MRI. While that may not have changed anything, the decision to forego an MRI at the first sign of soreness is odd considering the Royals’ head trainer admitted that Duffy had a tear in his UCL since 2010.
What’s strange about that revelation is that Duffy was throwing much harder than normal this season. After averaging 93.3 mph on his fastball in 2011, Duffy was throwing 95.3 mph this year. And while it seems logical to assume pitchers with tears in their elbows wouldn’t be able to throw as hard, there is some thought that big gains in velocity could lead to Tommy John surgery. Keith Law has mentioned this theory in the past, sometimes citing Stephen Strasburg as an example. There are differing opinions, of course. Jeff Zimmerman recently posted an article that said pitchers who experience increased velocity don’t necessarily end up on the disabled list more often. Duffy’s injury — and his velocity jump — only complicates matters.
And even if we could prove big velocity increased lead to TJ surgery, we still wouldn’t know whether Duffy’s injury could have been prevented. Since the Royals were aware Duffy already had a tear in his elbow, they probably knew this day would come. So instead of sending him for an MRI at the first sign of soreness, they let Duffy see if he could overcome it. While he was able to put off surgery for two starts, both sides probably knew this was inevitable.
The Royals still have a lot of young talent. Hosmer, Moustakas and Myers look like future regulars — and Salvador Perez is locked up with a cheap extension. But to field a competitive team, the Royals need their pitchers to emerge, as well. With Duffy and Lamb on the shelf, the team needs Montgomery and Jake Odorizzi to start living up to their potential. There’s still a chance for this team to put it together one of these years, but things look slightly more discouraging after Duffy’s injury.