SURPRISE, Ariz. — Whatever it might seem, given the visceral reaction in some quarters, the Royals didn’t surrender every blue-chipper from the upper levels of their stocked farm system last December in their big deal with Tampa Bay.
Left-handed pitcher John Lamb, still just 22, ranked as the game’s No. 18 prospect prior to the 2011 season by Baseball America after jumping three levels the previous season.
Then came Tommy John surgery midway through that year on his potent left elbow, which cost him the better part of two years. Now, he’s back in big-league camp, pain-free and ready to re-enter the fast lane reserved for elite prospects.
“With his arm action and the way the ball comes out of his hand,” pitching coach Dave Eiland said, “I can understand why (people were so high on him). I haven’t seen him compete yet, but he has the arm stroke and the arm action that can’t be taught.”
Lamb hasn’t yet regained the low-to-mid-90s velocity of his pre-surgery fastball, but it’s coming. The pinpoint control that once charmed scouts shows every sign of returning. And best of all, he has a new low-stress curve that is better than ever.
“That’s the pitch I blew out on,” he said. “I distinctively felt a pop. I’ve always struggled with my curveball in terms of consistency and release.
“Once I went through this surgery and all of this process that came with it, I needed to find a curveball that wasn’t going to stress my arm. Coming in after this long offseason, one of the coaches showed me a grip that … it’s just coming out the right way.”
It was, exactly, what he was looking for.
“I don’t care how hard it is or how much it’s breaking.” Lamb said. “All I care is it’s not hurting my elbow right now. And it’s not, but … it’s breaking a lot more than I’ve ever had a curveball break. And it’s a lot harder than I’ve ever thrown a curveball.
“I’m very happy and pleased with where I’m at right now. I’m just trying to dial things in.”
This is a trimmer Lamb than the 20-year-old who helped form the vanguard of the club’s current youth movement two years ago in big-league camp. He has dropped nearly 40 pounds, to 197, over the last 14 months.
“I’m more athletic,” he said, “and I feel better. I had just fallen into some bad eating habits. I’ve had a couple of times when I fell off the wagon and started gaining weight. It’s been a learning experience for me.”
Lamb said he doesn’t believe the weight loss will lead to a decrease in velocity – no small thing for a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery and needing to reestablish his fastball.
“Sure, I look across the room here (in the clubhouse) and see some older guys who are thicker,” he said. “But when I see Ervin (Santana), that’s definitely a help for me to see you don’t have to be big and strong. You just have to be strong.”
“When I look at the game, I don’t care how big anybody is really as long as I’m strong enough to go out and compete. That’s all that I think matters.”
While Lamb will draw scrutiny this spring, he is, in all likelihood, just logging time at big-league camp until he is optioned to Double-A Northwest Arkansas – which is where he was in 2011 when everything went wrong.
But make no mistake; it is a real look. The Royals see him as someone who could come quickly once he shakes the rust accrued from pitching less than 50 innings over the last two seasons.
“Our hope is he has a solid year and makes every start this year,” said assistant general manager J.J. Picollo, who oversees the club’s scouting and player-development operations.
“If he’s in the minor leagues all year, it’s hard for those guys to get past 150 innings in a five-month season. So, I really think 150-160 innings is the probably the most he could go, and it’s within the parameters of what he would need to do coming off surgery.”
A best-case scenario could produce a late-season look in the majors – especially since Lamb is already on the 40-man roster. More likely, is he’ll come to camp next year with a real chance to pitch his way onto the club.
It was Lamb’s anticipated recovery that helped make it easier for the Royals to include Jake Odorizzi and Mike Montgomery in that blockbuster deal that sent mega-prospect Wil Myers to Tampa Bay for James Shields, Wade Davis and Elliot Johnson.
“There are no limitations on (Lamb),” Picollo said. “We just want him to get his arm strength back. So far, we’ve been pleased.”
Lamb is past the point of throwing pitches and bracing for pain. The new curve eased that worry tremendously.
“I definitely believe in my ability to go out and throw the ball over the plate,” he said. “Throwing a strike is not necessarily the hardest thing for me. It’s more so putting the ball specifically where I want in the strike zone.
“I’m going to be really hard on myself on that question. That’s just what I need to do to be successful. In terms of pinpoint control, I’m definitely not there yet. I felt pretty good about it at the end of the year last year. I did start to get decent command of my pitches.
“But right now, specifically, I’m worried about health. That’s it. Everything else will take care of itself.”
Those health concerns aren’t just with his rebuilt elbow; there was also a troublesome tendon on the outside of his left foot that surfaced last July when he appeared ready to get back on the mound for regular duty after rehabbing his elbow.
“I was feeling good,” Lamb recalled. “I’m working outside and doing a lot of mechanical drills for pitching. I’m up on the mound. I’m doing some pause stuff at the height of my delivery, and I guess I was just putting too much stress to my left leg.
“That was tough dealing with that. I’m not going to lie. I would not wish that upon anybody. I was mentally so set with my arm. I was excited to get back out there and go after it. Then, nope. Hold on. You’ve got another month or so.”
That also prompted the Royals to reevaluate.
“We got to a point where we knew we couldn’t get him to 75 pitches,” Picollo said, “because his legs weren’t going to be in good-enough condition to do it. We would have liked to have him make eight-to-12 starts, have him built up and then rest.
“When he missed that month (because of the foot injury), he lost innings and starts. But the clock, as far as his rehab counter, kept going. We don’t like them to throw more than 15 months in a row.”
The Royals shut down Lamb after just 13 innings over six starts to enable his body to recover in time for spring training. Fast forward to now. Lamb is scheduled to start Wednesday in an intrasquad game and pitch Sunday against Texas.
“Day by day when I go out and throw,” he said, “it’s feeling good. I’m not trying to air it out and blow out right now. But at the same time, you do have to put the elbow through some stress to be able to trust it and go out and compete.
“I went through my valleys a while back. I’m not at the bad part of this rehab process. It feels good.”