The Royals continue to view former first-round pick Kyle Zimmer as a starting pitcher heading into 2017. Yet club officials remain open to the possibility that Zimmer could help the major-league team in a bullpen role at some point this season.
“Why not?” Royals manager Ned Yost asked.
Zimmer, the No. 5 overall pick in the 2012 draft, is returning to the mound this spring after undergoing surgery last summer to address thoracic outlet syndrome, a neurogenic condition caused by the compression of nerves near the neck and shoulder. The procedure represented the latest setback in a career beset by injuries.
But Zimmer, 25, is hopeful that 2017 will be a season in which his health is no longer a story line.
On Saturday, he made his second appearance of the spring, throwing a scoreless inning while hitting 95 mph on the radar gun. The performance came after he worked 1 1/3 innings in his first spring outing, which made the length of his second outing stand out. As a rule of thumb, starting pitchers spend the spring building up their workload, adding more pitches or innings in each appearance. But Yost said Sunday that Zimmer was limited to one inning because of the number of pitchers still needing work — not because of a potential move to a relief role.
“We want to keep guys pitching,” Yost said. “But at this time, we’re starting to run out of innings.”
If he remains a starter, Zimmer is probably ticketed for a spot in the rotation at Class AAA Omaha. Still, the Royals appear intrigued by the possibility of using Zimmer’s power stuff out of the bullpen. Once a highly touted prospect, Zimmer’s stock has dipped in recent years. But when he is healthy, club officials maintain that he has one of the most dynamic arsenals in the organization.
“We’re looking at him right now probably as a starter,” Yost said. “But can he fit in our pen? Yeah. Down the road? Sure.”
At the moment, the Royals’ bullpen could have just one open spot up for grabs heading into the season. The locks include Kelvin Herrera, Matt Strahm and Joakim Soria, while Mike Minor appears well positioned for a spot if he can remain healthy. Two other slots could be filled by the odd men out in the competition for the No. 5 starter role — a battle that features Nathan Karns, Travis Wood and Chris Young.
For now, Zimmer said he is open to either starting or relieving. But after five years of injuries and waiting, he would relish an opportunity to help the big-league club in any capacity.
“Honestly,” Zimmer said, “I want to do whatever I can to get to the big leagues and help this team.”
Zimmer could also face the prospect of an innings cap after being limited to just 5 2/3 innings last season. If the club opts to ration his usage in 2017, it would not prohibit him from starting. But it could compel the Royals to place him in the bullpen at times to control his workload. Zimmer undertook a similar plan in 2015, working out of the bullpen during the second half of the season.
“I’m comfortable doing both,” Zimmer said. “Obviously, I started all through college and most of my professional career. But there was (a stretch) in 2015 — I came out of the bullpen for like two or three months straight. So I kind of learned how to get a bullpen routine going. It’s sort of second nature to fall back into that.”
For Zimmer, of course, the most important thing remains the health of his right arm. As camp stretches into its fourth week, the Royals are hopeful the positive trends continue.
“We’ve been waiting for him to get healthy, and yesterday was a really, really encouraging outing for us,” Yost said. “He went out, and his fastball was back up to 95 — and a good breaking ball. We’ve been waiting for a couple of years for that.”