Catching Up on The Northwest Arkansas Naturals with Paul Boyd

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I got to catch my first ever Northwest Arkansas Naturals game on Sunday at Hammons Field in Springfield, home of the AA Cardinals. I have a few scouting notes on six of the biggest names on the Naturals’ roster that I wanted to share with you guys as we anticipate the arrival of the next wave of Royals. I called Paul Boyd of the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette to get a few of his thoughts as well.

Player #1: Samir Duenez

Samir Duenez finished Sunday’s game 1-3 with a BB, a K, and a run scored. In the first inning, he took the best swing I saw during the entirety of the game and almost took the Cardinals pitcher’s head off. It was a bullet that ended up in CF for a single, and showed exactly why some scouts are absolutely raving over the potential of Duenez. He worked a walk in which he watched a couple of bad pitches flail in the dirt, but ultimately put together a nice at bat to wind up on first. Then in the 8th inning, Duenez expanded his zone, chased a few pitches, and struck out, reminding everyone that, in fact, the young man is still 21 years old. I asked Paul Boyd about Duenez and he mentioned that in addition to hitting well at AA this year, he’s also been excellent at driving in runs. In 532 at bats between Low-A, High-A, and AA last season, Duenez recorded 100 RBI on only 13 HR. That is really impressive considering Duenez started the 2016 season as a 19-year old. For comparison, top Royals prospect Chase Vallot only has 37 RBI on 12 HR this season as a 19 and 20-year old. RBI is a bit of a flawed stat, but 100 RBI as a 19/20-year old is a really impressive feat. Duenez will definitely be a fun player to watch over the next couple of seasons. I would expect him to open the 2018 season in AAA-Omaha. ETA: 2019.

Player #2: Nicky Lopez

Nicky Lopez finished Sunday’s game 1-4, and at times looked a bit like you’d expect a 22-year old prospect to look. He opened the game with a sharp single down the RF line, rounded first base too hard, and was back picked by RF Magneuris Sierra. I thought Lopez had an easy double, but I was okay with him settling for the single, until he didn’t get back to the base in time. It wasn’t a huge deal, but it’s just an example of some of the growing pains that young players will go through in the minor leagues. Lopez came into AA in the middle of a massive hot streak, but has cooled a bit since joining the Naturals, as he hit .263 in July. I asked Boyd about what adjustments Lopez needs to make now to find his early season success again, and he basically said that the pitchers have moved the ball back into Lopez’ court and now it’s his turn to adjust to them. When Lopez came into the league, not many pitchers knew who he was. When you hit the way Lopez was hitting, pitchers are going to find out who you are quickly, and make adjustments in the way they pitch you. Now it’s Lopez’ turn to force the pitchers to readjust to him. Again, nothing abnormal from a maturing prospect. Lopez looked great in the field and I expect him to have some value in the major leagues as a MIF. ETA: 2020.

Players #3 and #4: Pitchers Foster Griffin and Josh Staumont

Foster Griffin started for the Naturals on Sunday, and I broke down that start here. Give that article a look for a better analysis on Griffin. I did ask Paul Boyd about his slider, and Paul agrees with me that sometimes you’re not gonna have your best stuff. Paul mentioned the growing pains of a SP in the minor leagues and sometimes you have to learn how to pitch without your “A” stuff. Boyd did mention that Griffin is a bulldog and you can’t tell that he doesn’t have his best stuff from his emotions on the mound, which is exactly what you want to see from a young pitcher.

Josh Staumont has really struggled with his command in 2017. Staumont experienced some similar struggles last season, and seemed to find an answer with pitching coach Steve Luebber. Staumont was sent to NWA to work with Luebber again this season after struggling in Omaha, and seems to have found a bit of a groove again in AA. After giving up 15 ER in a stretch of 14 IP over 4 starts, Staumont has only surrendered 3 ER in his last 10.2 IP, spanning his last 2 starts. His walks are still up a bit, but the results have been better. Paul Boyd suggests that some of Staumont’s problems are mechanical, which makes sense. Luckily for Staumont and the Royals, Steve Luebber has fixed Staumont before and appears to be helping again. Staumont’s stuff will play at any level, now it’s about commanding the stuff.

Player #5: Donnie Dewees Jr.

Donnie Dewees Jr. turned in an 0-4 night Sunday, but man was he impressive to watch. There was a ball hit in, I think the 2nd inning, that looked like a sure fire double in the gap. When I looked down, Dewees was just about camped under it. The kid can absolutely fly and, despite his arm concerns, I think he’s gonna be just fine in CF. Offensively, Dewees has been on fire since early June. Dewees hit a ridiculous .354 in June, after hitting a mere .211 in April. Boyd offered a fair explanation for the slow start by Dewees, by offering that Dewees only had 149 at bats with the High-A Myrtle Beach Pelicans in the Cubs organization last season. He hit .289 in those at bats, but it goes a long way to show the confidence the Royals have in him to let him jump to AA this season after maybe a quarter season’s worth of at bats in High-A. Dewees probably won’t be ready for big league action to begin 2018, but I can see him playing his way to Kansas City after the trade deadline next year if he hits the ball well in AAA. I expect the Royals to bring in someone else to play CF to begin the year, but Dewees is an incredibly toolsy prospect who will turn 25 at the end of the 2018 season. ETA: 2018.

Player #6: Richard Lovelady

Richard Lovelady may very well be the reason that the Royals were comfortable trading Matt Strahm. Lovelady is almost 4 years younger than Strahm, and has better numbers so far compared to Strahm’s minor league career. Granted, Lovelady is almost strictly going to be a reliever, but if the Royals didn’t see Strahm panning out as a starter, they may have a younger and more effective young LHP in Lovelady.

So far in 2017, Lovelady has pitched 52 innings in 33 games to the tune of a 1.73 ERA and 0.88 WHIP with 60 K and 12 BB. That’s pretty ridiculous. Lovelady features a 95-96 mph fastball with some funky arm action that makes his fastball look even faster. His slider is inconsistent, but when it’s on, Paul Boyd suggests that Lovelady is completely unhittable. Honestly, once Lovelady proves to the KC brass that he can throw his slider with some consistency, you’ll see him in the bullpen for KC almost immediately. I asked Lovelady to tell me a bit about the development of his slider, and I think his answer will excite you:

“The slider developed in full motion towards my final 3 weeks in Wilmington. As soon as I got to Arkansas, (Pitching Coach) Luebber helped me develop (the slider) a lot more and get the most out of it. Instead of a small break it turned into a wipe out break. As of today I feel very comfortable throwing it in any count and any situation. I love throwing it.”

That’s exactly what we want to hear from him regarding that pitch. Again, once he gets that slider mastered, he’s going to be in KC folks, very soon.

Lovelady mentioned Steve Luebber, as pitchers Jake Junis and Josh Staumont have also done, as being a big help in his development. I asked Lovelady to expand on the help Luebber has given him to prepare for the next level, and he had this to say about his pitching coach:

“The things Luebber has done to prepare me for the next level are things that will bring the best out of me. Developing my slider more. Fine tuning things in my mechanics. You know, small things that when you’re at the next level and something isn’t right, you know how to identify them. You’ve been told how to fix them if they ever occur down the road so it’s not something you have to worry about. He brings the best out of every one of our guys whether it’s playing catch or just sitting in the dugout thinking about what you would do if you were in this situation. He’s a very smart coach.”

I’ve heard nothing but good things about Steve Luebber. Hopefully he can help get Lovelady ready because the Royals could use some elite help out of the ‘pen. Seems like another Brandon Finnegan situation waiting to happen.

Paul and I both agree that you’ll almost definitely see Lovelady in KC when rosters expand in September, if nothing else but as a lefty-specialist. ETA: 2017.

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