With a swipe of his iPad, Royals manager Ned Yost can cue up footage of an undersized right-hander pitcher expected to join his club in July. As Kris Medlen builds up arm strength at extended spring training in Arizona, Yost and pitching coach Dave Eiland keep virtual tabs on his progress.
“I’ve been getting all the video of every pitch he’s thrown,” Yost said. “Fastball up to 92, 93 mph. Pretty good changeup. Good curveball. He looks really good.”
Medlen, a 29-year-old former Atlanta Brave, left the Royals to rehab in the desert at the start of May. A month later he remains “right on schedule,” general manager Dayton Moore indicated in a telephone interview on Thursday — even if that schedule is somewhat nebulous.
The Royals are reticent to assign an exact arrival date, or even an exact role, to Medlen as he recovers from his second Tommy John surgery.
Medlen will prepare like a starter and continue to build up his pitch count. Once he can last five innings, Moore indicated, he would join one of the team’s full-season affiliates. Moore hopes this occurs “sooner than later.”
The assignment Medlen receives from the Royals — starter or reliever — will be based on what the team’s needs are and how Medlen responds to his rehabilitation workload.
“I just don’t know yet,” Moore said. “I don’t want to speculate, because I just don’t know. We may need somebody in both roles; we may need somebody in one role. And I think he’s capable of performing in either one. We’re in uncharted waters. A two-time Tommy John guy. We’ve got to manage it little by little, and not get too far ahead of ourselves.”
In Atlanta, Medlen displayed startling consistency, no matter the job description. He carried a 2.96 ERA as a starter and a 2.92 ERA as a reliever. Opponents hit .246 against him as a starter; they hit .246 against him in relief. He struck out 7.6 batters per nine as a starter; he struck out 7.7 in relief.
Yet his past gives the Royals pause. A tendon from his right wrist resides in his elbow where his ulnar collateral ligament should be. Dr. James Andrews installed the new tendon last March. The original UCL was long gone. Andrews was replacing a tendon from Medlen’s left hamstring, the product of his first Tommy John surgery in 2009.
When Atlanta declined to tender Medlen a contract this past winter, the Royals pounced with a two-year, $8.5 million offer. The deal makes Medlen an asset worth protecting. He could become a full-time member of the rotation for 2016.
“So we want to make sure that his health and his future is the most important aspect of this exercise, if you will,” Moore said. “So we’re going to be conservative. But we also believe that he has the ability to help us in 2015 in some role.”
With Danny Duffy on the disabled list, the Royals possess a surplus of six starting pitchers. The combined output of Edinson Volquez, who will start today against the Cubs, and Chris Young has preserved the group. Yet the aggregate performance is troubling. The rotation entered Thursday ranked 24th in ERA (4.52), 26th in fielding-independent ERA (4.46) and 26th in strikeouts per nine innings (6.15).
Yordano Ventura continues to meander through a funk-ridden sophomore campaign. The Yankees mauled Jeremy Guthrie for 11 runs on Monday and elevated his ERA to 6.70. Jason Vargas looked sharp in a four-inning return from the disabled list Tuesday, but he still lugs around a 5.16 ERA and has yet to record an out in the seventh inning this season.
As the season progresses, the Royals are expected to explore the trade market for upgrades. But they would prefer to find internal solutions. Medlen starred for the Braves after joining their rotation midway through 2012. He went 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in his last 12 starts, then went 15-12 with a 3.11 ERA a year later.
His future in Atlanta appeared secure, until his replacement ligament snapped on March 9, 2014. The list of two-time Tommy John survivors is small. Earlier this month, Jarrod Parker, once a budding star with Oakland, broke a bone in his elbow as he rehabbed from a second surgery.
Moore understands the potential reward Medlen could be for his club — but he also knows the level of risk inherent in his return.
“There’s no room for error, that’s for sure,” Moore said. “You don’t want any worst-case scenarios. That’s for sure. You just want to make sure you’re putting him in the right role to keep him healthy, and certainly help the major-league team as well. So we’ve just got to look at it when the time comes and not make any advance decisions on what we’re going to do.
“The important thing is going to be that we have a healthy, confident pitcher. And that’s a healthy, confident that can perform and be a productive member of our pitching staff in whatever role.”