KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A man in purgatory can only practice so much patience, so upon his release from extended spring training Kyle Zimmer asked Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo about the destination of his car.
Zimmer had already received his assignment to Class A Lexington, but he figured his stay there would be brief. Should he ship his ride, he asked Picollo, to the team’s Class AA affiliate in Northwest Arkansas or the Class AAA club in Omaha?
“Zim,” Picollo told him, “send your car to Lexington.”
So Zimmer, the 23-year-old right-handed prospect, disembarked for Kentucky and the South Atlantic League. In his 2015 debut, he completed 1 2/3 scoreless innings in relief for the Legends. His fastball touched 97 mph and his curveball was “solid,” Picollo said. He resembled the pitcher the Royals selected fifth overall in 2012, the pitcher they cast as a cornerstone of their future before a slew of arm problems slowed his ascension.
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Zimmer underwent an elbow cleanout after the 2012 season. He strained his latissimus dorsi muscle last May and pitched only 4 2/3 innings in 2014. He toyed with hitters in the Arizona Fall League until his shoulder barked once more. The Royals hoped a minor operation to remove damaged tissue from his rotator cuff would grant him a clean bill of health for 2015.
But Zimmer felt soreness in his shoulder during an extended-spring outing on May 1 and the club suspended his throwing program. The team’s medical staff deemed the setback a minor one. As they contemplated how to utilize Zimmer in 2015, they decided to release him into the wild of competition, rather than keep him cooped up at their complex in Arizona.
“We’ve got to get this guy off the ground,” Picollo said to describe the organization’s thought process. “So how do we get him off the ground?”
The Royals began Zimmer in Lexington, where he will pitch as a reliever. This does not represent a change in his future role, Picollo said, but rather a way to increase the adrenaline for Zimmer, who has already proved capable of handling Class AA and Class AAA hitters.
Zimmer could remain with the Legends for two weeks. He will pitch every three or four days, gradually building endurance. The organization deemed this a better strategy than herding Zimmer in Arizona until he expanded his pitch count to cover five innings.
“Let’s just let it play out,” Picollo said. “Let his arm dictate where he’s going to go. Maybe that relieves him a little bit. Maybe it relieves us a little bit. But maybe we’ll get some production out of him this year.”
As Zimmer accumulates innings, he will rise through the affiliates. He would likely resume starting when his pitch count is appropriate.
While Zimmer embarks on live competition, another high-profile pitching prospect remains grounded in Arizona. Sean Manaea, the left-handed first-round pick from 2013, is now expected to join an affiliate by the third week of June, Picollo said.
Manaea dealt with an abdominal strain during spring training. The team expected him to join Northwest Arkansas by the end of May. But Manaea recently tweaked his groin, which reset his throwing program. Manaea dominated Class A hitters in the second half of 2014, with a 1.45 ERA in his last 11 outings. But he is considered raw despite three seasons at Indiana State, and the Royals will take their time with his development.
Some rival evaluators view right-hander Miguel Almonte, who has a 3.82 ERA for Northwest Arkansas, as the best of the club’s pitching prospects. Brandon Finnegan, last year’s first-round pick, just joined the rotation in Omaha. That group has been anchored by former top-flight prospect John Lamb, now 24, who spun eight scoreless innings on Monday to lower his ERA to 2.74.
Yet some within the Royals organization still rate Zimmer as their most gifted arm, with ability on par with current rotation leader Yordano Ventura. Like many Royals officials, Zimmer has been exasperated by his inactivity in the past two seasons, unable to contribute despite his obvious talent.
With this approach in 2015, the Royals hope to break the cycle and end Zimmer’s chronic history of nagging arm issues.
“He fully expects to pitch in Kansas City this year,” Picollo said. “And I think sometimes that can get in the way. He’s thinking so much about that, and not living in the present. We’re trying to get him out of that.”