If it wasn’t clear before, the Royals left no doubt Tuesday that they view this year as one for left-handed pitcher John Lamb to re-establish himself as a potential cornerstone for future rotations.
While Lamb was optioned to Class AA Northwest Arkansas prior to a 6-3 loss to Oakland in Phoenix, there is no guarantee that he will open the season at that level.
“What we’ve shared with John from the beginning of spring training,” assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said, “is where he starts doesn’t matter, it’s where he is at the end.
“And how he gets to the end is what matters the most. So if we start him in (High-A) Wilmington, or even if we start him in (Low-A) Lexington, that’s just to get his feet on the ground.”
The Royals also optioned left-handers Chris Dwyer and Justin Marks to Class AAA Omaha, where they are both likely to pitch as starters.
Lamb, 22, was ranked by Baseball America as the No. 18 overall prospect prior to the 2011 season. He was picked by the same publication to its All-Minors teams in 2010.
That was before he underwent Tommy John surgery in June 2011 to repair a torn elbow ligament. A foot injury last summer limited him to just 13 innings over six late-season starts.
Lamb reported no pain earlier this spring — saying he “finally had no issues” — but he never pushed his fastball back to pre-surgery levels. He topped out in the high-80s.
Club officials continue to dismiss concerns at that diminished velocity.
“He’s right on schedule,” manager Ned Yost said. “These surgeries have a timeline. You get hurt, you have surgery, you have rehab and you start your progression back. Generally, you sit out the whole year from the surgery.
“The next year is building back your arm strength and getting your mechanics tweaked. Generally, at the end of this year, he’s going to be as strong or stronger than he was before he hurt his arm.
“He’ll be right back on track, but it will take him a full year to get his feet underneath him.”
Picollo said the club’s only concern is that Lamb might create new problems by pushing himself to regain his velocity. That concern could lead the Royals to start Lamb at a lower level to reinforce the need for caution.
“We’re not ruling out Double-A,” Picollo said, “but we’ve got to feel really good that he’s ready to go to Double-A. We don’t want him to start trying to pitch to the competition if he’s not seeing the velocity he wants.
“We want to put him somewhere where it’s not a true rehab, but where it’s still a rehab mentality to try to give him some time.
“Hopefully, by June or July, we start seeing him hit his stride and finishing strong. And then we feel good about 2014.”