The more I read about John Lamb, the more I like him.

Though Brandon Finnegan is the familiar name and Cody Reed has the fastest rising stock, Lamb could be the first of the trio to make an impact at the major league level. Royals fans were clamoring for him to get the call-up early this month after Kansas City had lost four straight. If not for a couple of more experienced options, he might well have gotten it.

With about 24 hours having passed since the Johnny Cueto trade broke and slightly less since we learned who the Reds were getting back, there has been plenty time for reaction pieces and scouting reports to come to the light of day. Here’s a rundown of what we know about John Lamb.

Background

Lamb’s pro career encountered some adversity before it even started. As a well-regarded (but not can’t-miss) high school lefty with a good delivery and natural fastball movement, Lamb was high-round material heading into the 2008 draft (he ended up being taken in the fifth round as the 145th overall pick). However, a car accident suffered during his senior year of high school kept him from pitching that summer and kept him from making his professional debut until 2009.

One thing you’re going to hear about Lamb when looking through his past scouting reports is ‘poise’. His competitive but level-headed temperament impressed scouts early on, even when his stuff wasn’t anything extraordinary. In his second professional season—2010—a Pine Tar Press scouting report made note of his clean, repeatable mechanics and composure in the face of a bad start and an incredibly small strike zone. In 2011, Lamb’s feel for pitching was a major selling point in tandem with his advanced (for his age) arsenal.

Lamb’s repertoire coming out of high school was pretty close to ideal for a young lefty—a fastball with natural arm-side run that sat firmly 90-93 MPH out of the draft which he was able to crank up to 94-95 on occasion (which showed up in game action somewhere between the 2010 and 2011 seasons), a changeup which was devastatingly effective because of the velocity differential (77-81 MPH) and similar movement to his four-seamer, and a curveball which had obvious deficiencies (not enough break for how slow it was, chief among them) but could be worked on with the coaching staff.

Needless to say, when he reached Double-A in 2010 (as a 20 year-old) John Lamb shot up the prospect rankings the following offseason. Marc Hulet ranked him fifth in a stacked Royals system in February 2011 (behind Moustakas, Hosmer, Myers, and the legendary Mike Montgomery). Baseball America anointed him the 18th-best prospect in baseball and fourth in the Kansas City system; Baseball Prospectus had him 11th and fifth amongst the Royals. A lot of scouts had him either interchangeable with or slightly better than Montgomery. Overall, only Julio Teheran, Jameson Taillon, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, and Aroldis Chapman were the young pitchers consistently ranked above Lamb.

And then, Tommy John came calling. After starting 2011 decently in eight starts at Double-A (although his strikeout rate tumbled down to 14.8% and his walk rate stayed at 8.7%), he left his May 19 outing and elected to undergo the surgery a couple weeks later. Tommy John surgery has become so routine and young players so consistently come back from it that it’s easy to forget it’s a major operation that can have complications and negative consequences for some.

For Lamb, he was one of the unlucky ones. He returned in time for 13 innings in Rookie-class ball, but (despite pushing his strikeout rate back up to above 23%) struggled mightily. The arm strength—and with it, his velocity—seemed to be gone. Pitchers occasionally lose a couple notches on their fastball immediately after coming back from Tommy John (though, just as occasionally, pitchers gain a tick or two), but Lamb had hemorrhaged MPHs. Worse still, it lasted well beyond 2012 for him.

From a couple 2013 scouting reports, Lamb was only hitting between 86-89 MPH with his four-seamer and occasionally resting as low as 84-85 with it. That diminished velocity, of course, diminished the movement he had on his fastball and rendered his changeup ineffective. The command was still there, allowing him to cut down on the amount of walks he surrendered (4.8%, close to a career-best rate). That largely led to him jumping all the way to Triple-A towards the end of the season.

He started getting some velocity back with a full year at Triple-A in 2014—up to resting around 91-92 MPH, though he would often dip down around 89 when he went deep into games—while refining a cut fastball he had tinkered with before Tommy John surgery and developed further after the operation (to compensate for the loss of his effective changeup). More encouraging still was Lamb getting through 138.1 innings without significant injury and posting a better strikeout rate.

His 2015

As mentioned above, Royals fans were asking for Lamb’s promotion when injuries and poor form were ravaging the MLB rotation. Largely, that was because he’s looked like he has it all back this season. The fastball is routinely 91-93 MPH, but he can now crank it back up to 95-96 when needed. With that renewed velocity (and movement) on the four-seamer, Lamb’s changeup is also back to its old self—he’s showing good movement on it again and great deception, keeping his arm at the same speed and angle as his fastball. The curveball is tighter, with more of Barry Zito-esque feel to it (slow—high 70s in velocity—but good 12-6 movement) and the cutter he’s developed over the past couple seasons adds another average-or-better pitch to his repertoire.

Chris Mitchell at Fangraphs had some pretty encouraging comparables to Lamb’s 2015 performance, belying most people’s ho-hum attitude towards him now. There’s reason to be optimistic when combining his renewed stuff, his comps, and his actual 2015 statistics.

John Lamb has improved upon almost all his deficiencies and it’s showing up: He’s posting near-bests in strikeout rate (25.1%), walk rate (7.6%), WHIP (1.16), strand rate (75.6%), homers per nine (0.67), ERA (2.67), and FIP (3.57) at the highest level he has ever pitched at. Furthermore, being a (former) member of the Royals organization, he’s been pitching in the notoriously hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.

The reputation of the PCL hasn’t troubled him much. He had one of his best starts of the year June 1 in Albuquerque—the most offensively-slanted park in all of Triple-A—going eight strong innings and surrendering just two hits and three walks against five strikeouts. June 23 was an even better outing against a pretty impressive Iowa Cubs team (which at the time included Schwarber as well as Alcantara and Olt), allowing two runs over seven innings but striking out 10 while walking none. His last outing before the trade came against the Oklahoma City Dodgers, giving up one run (a Chris Heisey home run) on four hits over six, walking just one.

Lasting deep into games has been an occasional problem for Lamb this season. He can rack up a lot of pitches in just four or five innings (he has seven outings in 2015 where he’s thrown over 90 in an outing of under six innings, including one 106-pitch performance that was a five-inning stint), so it seems he still has some trouble retiring batters early in the count. From a cursory glance over his game logs, he worked counts full with some regularity.

The (Near) Future

Lamb will report initially to Triple-A, but it seems safe to assume he’ll be the first to pop up in Cincinnati of the three young lefties (so long as Cincinnati commits to stretching Brandon Finnegan out as a starter). Lamb’s poise and command are MLB-ready without question and now that his stuff is close to what it used to be he has the specific set of skills needed to be a serviceable fifth starter.

There’s not a lot of reason to expect much more than that (though, considering the other two players in the Cueto trade, getting a few years of Lamb at the back-end of the rotation is just fine and dandy), but John Lamb’s track record of pitching IQ, poise, and command might hold the potential for something better. As Kiley McDaniel states in his follow-up to the Cueto trade, “one or two out of every ten of these type of pitchers turns into something better than a fifth starter.” Those intangible factors are usually what can elevate a pitcher with mediocre offerings into a mid-rotation workhorse.

John Lamb now has the luxury of not experiencing playoff chase-caliber pressure when he gets his MLB call-up at last. His tumultuous journey through pro ball makes him easy to root for. His once-lofty standing amongst prospects gives some justification to hope for him to be more than a spot-starter/long reliever. His trajectory implies that he’s continuing to improve at 25 years old, after parts of seven seasons in the minor leagues. He’s the good sort of lottery ticket—a player whom the Reds would be happy to have provide depth and has potential to become something better. If he makes good on that potential, this trade becomes a real feather in Walt Jocketty’s transactional hat.