SURPRISE, Ariz. — Danny Duffy sought out Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo last week. It was a few days before his last Cactus League start, a two-inning disaster against Oakland that solidified Yordano Ventura as this team’s fifth starter, and Duffy had an idea.
He wanted to know whether the team would consider using him as reliever.
“I wanted to feel out how they would feel about it,” Duffy said on Wednesday afternoon, a few hours before the first day of his bullpen audition.
The Royals had pondered the question all spring. For weeks, team officials like general manager Dayton Moore and manager Ned Yost expressed Duffy was best served heading to Class AAA Omaha to work as a starter.
The winds changed as Duffy, the 25-year-old lefty, floundered this spring, and the organization pondered how to actualize his considerable, confounding talent while protecting his surgically-repaired arm. The exact plan has not been decided upon, but their hopes for Duffy have not changed.
“The thing we need is for Danny Duffy to be a productive starter in the big leagues for us,” Yost said. “What’s the best way to do it?”
There were two choices: Omaha or the bullpen. Each is fraught with complications. As a reliever, Duffy loses a chance to soak up innings and keep his arm stretched out. He has never relieved in a big-league game before. There is the danger he will rot from a lack of use. The team also loses a viable option if an injury befalls a member of the big-league rotation.
But as the team assessed Duffy’s case, they settled on a more radical course. They do not feel he will improve as a pitcher without facing the game’s elite. In his start against Oakland, Duffy could not finish at-bats or keep his off-speed pitches low in the zone. If he replicated that type of performance in the minors, team officials said, he probably would experience success and learn little.
“You can have success in Class AAA doing exactly what you’re doing now,” Yost said. “They’re going to swing at pitches out of the zone. If you’re going to have success, he’s going to have to do it up here.”
Added pitching coach Dave Eiland, “He needs to learn how to get big-league hitters out. And the only way he can do that is in the big leagues.”
Duffy was tabbed to pitch four times before the Royals break camp. They did not schedule him to appear in back-to-back games. Yost envisioned utilizing him “in lower-leverage situations until he’s comfortable in his role,” but emphasized Duffy needed to perform well here before he made the team.
To do so, he must alter his arsenal. Duffy will ditch his curveball “for now,” Eiland said. He will focus on his fastball, change-up and slider. His chief competition for the final spot in the bullpen appears to be lefties Francisley Bueno and Donnie Joseph.
One American League scout conceded the obvious: “He’s better than Bueno,” but questioned the long-range consequences. “I still think organizationally they are better if he gets right and gains confidence in Omaha,” the scout said.
Another rival executive sounded more encouraging. The executive praised the Royals for attempting to utilize Duffy’s talents at the big-league level.
“Some of these guys that are high octane, they’re better off not knowing when they’re going to pitch,” the executive said. “Because they sit around the four days in between just dwelling on it.”
Duffy relishes the opportunity. He worked as a reliever in the 2010 Arizona Fall League, and saw two appearances in Omaha last season as he rebounded from Tommy John surgery. He visualized this plan as a way to keep him under the team’s prescribed 150-inning limit and use him in the rotation. He referenced Washington’s infamous decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg in 2012.
“I know I’m going to have a limit this year,” Duffy said. “This opportunity, if it works out, will probably help. It makes sense. I won’t be Strasburg-ed.”
Neither will Ventura, team officials said. Yost projected Ventura to pitch 180 to 200 innings in 2014. The prospect heartened Duffy, who gushed about Ventura’s gifts.
Duffy operated the team’s radar gun during a Class AAA game in Round Rock, Texas, last summer. Twice he clocked Ventura’s fastball at 104 mph.
“The kid’s got the best stuff on the planet,” Duffy said. “Bar none. There’s not a person in the league that has better stuff than Yordano Ventura. He deserves it. He’s going to be a star.”
The Royals once envisioned a similar fate for Duffy. But to get him there, they have chosen a different path.
“Nobody knows how he’s going to respond to this,” Eiland said. “So we’ll see.”