The producers from MLB Network asked him to hop into the camera shot, but Kyle Zimmer declined. He had escaped the purgatory of rehabilitation for a draft party for his little brother in June at their home in La Jolla, Calif. As Bradley Zimmer celebrated his selection by Cleveland at No. 21, the original first-round pick of the family hung in the background of his home.
Zimmer, Kansas City’s top pitching prospect, has grown accustomed to the shadows, even as he summers in a town without them. The temperature here at the Royals complex was merciful on Monday. It did not reach triple digits until the early afternoon. A couple of weeks ago he photographed a thermometer reading 118 degrees, a reminder of the climate during the most wrenching summer of his baseball life.
“You feel like you’re in limbo,” he said. “Just stuck.”
His stay in Surprise may soon end. After missing all of this season because of a strained latissimus dorsi muscle, Zimmer has resumed throwing off a mound and could join one of the organization’s affiliates in two weeks. Once there, he will start games in brief bursts, two innings at the most, perhaps starting as low as Class A Idaho Falls. Rather than waiting for him to build up arm strength to work at a five-inning clip, the organization intends to expose him to live competition before this season ends.
The Royals still project Zimmer as a future cornerstone of their starting rotation and plan to stretch him out after the regular season, most likely in the Dominican Winter League. But he could reach the majors this September as a reliever. After a lonely stay in the desert, the possibility resembles an oasis.
The chances of Zimmer donning a Royals uniform this season sound remote based on his checkered injury history. But assistant general manager J.J. Picollo explained the organization would not rule out utilizing valuable assets in a pennant race.
“It’s realistic in the sense that he’s good enough to do it,” Picollo said. “We don’t want to be short-sighted and have a guy that may be good enough to help us, and not be thinking about it.”
A similar path exists for Brandon Finnegan, the team’s most recent first-rounder. The Royals promoted Finnegan to Class AA Northwest Arkansas last week, and he will taper down his appearances into two-inning spells. A southpaw from Texas Christian University, Finnegan shredded hitters in a five-start stint in the Carolina League.
Jason Adam, a prospect from Overland Park, also moved into a bullpen role with Class AAA Omaha. With the club contending for a playoff spot, Picollo framed these developmental strategies as part of an attempt to aid the organization’s flexibility down the stretch. Their first October since 1985 is within reach.
“If they’re not ready for it, it’s fine,” Picollo said. “They’re young guys, and better days are ahead of them. We’d rather be proactive in our thinking than reactive, and going, ‘Man, we should have had Kyle Zimmer throwing an inning.’ Or ‘We should have cut Brandon Finnegan’s innings back so he’d be fresh in September.’
“We’re trying just to cover our bases.”
When the Royals scripted out this season, they hoped Zimmer would join the rotation by the season’s end. A recurrence of biceps tendonitis last winter delayed his throwing program and kept him out of live action during spring training. His revised schedule called for him to debut in Class AA in late May, until he felt his back tighten up during his second inning of action in a scrimmage on May 19.
“It was painful just to get to the plate,” Zimmer said. “But I didn’t know what it was, so I was just like, ‘I’m going to power through this inning.’ I got through the inning, and the next day I couldn’t throw the ball 10 feet.”
An MRI showed no structural damage to his shoulder but a strain of the muscle beneath it. The team prescribed him two months of rest, a diagnosis that felt like “just a dagger to the heart,” he said. The injury did not scare him, as he knew it was muscular and not more serious, but it still vexed him.
“It was more like a frustrating, ‘Just shoot me,’ kind of moment,” he said.
The setback exasperated the front office, which cannot discern the reason for Zimmer’s apparent fragility. He converted to pitching as a freshman at the University of San Francisco, and some officials believe his body is still acclimating to the stress of his profession. He underwent surgery to remove bone chips after the 2012 season and has been dogged by ailments in recent years.
But his ceiling has yet to diminish. Zimmer was the No. 5 pick in the 2012 draft, His 6-3, 215-pound frame is ideal. Even this summer, as he idled in Surprise, Baseball America rated Zimmer the game’s No. 26 prospect. The Royals fielded multiple calls from other clubs about Zimmer’s availability before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
“If anything, I think I’m just coming out of this stronger,” he said. “I’ve been able to work on my shoulder strength and my mechanics. Mentally, I think this has taught me as much patience as you can get. I’ve just become more disciplined.”
Zimmer followed along at the deadline, aware he might be shipped elsewhere. Monitoring the situation allowed him to break the monotony of his routine. His options for recreation are limited to “a lot of just escaping to find any sort of air conditioning,” he said.
He enjoys golf, but the team discouraged him from indulging in the sport during his rehabilitation. He burned through “House of Cards” on Netflix and skimmed re-runs of “The Office.” The players receive Sundays off, so they try to enjoy Saturday nights in more bustling locales such as Scottsdale or Phoenix.
Otherwise, he said, he spends his evenings counting down the hours until the Royals game can begin. When he arrived in Surprise in February, he hoped to join them in the second half of the season. He never left the complex. At long last, in a couple weeks, he may get to do so, and he may eventually join the group he follows on MLB.TV every night.
“It’s frustrating and exciting to watch at the same time,” Zimmer said. “I feel like I want to be out there. Obviously. It is what it is. The timing will work itself out.”