Kyle Zimmer leaned forward and scanned a typewritten puzzle. Tacked onto a wall near the clubhouse entrance, the Royals’ spring schedule is a color-coded, time-coordinated wonder refreshed daily by bench coach Don Wakamatsu. On Thursday morning, the day of the team’s first full-squad workout, Zimmer’s name was nowhere to be found.
“I think my group is throwing live B.P. today,” Zimmer said. “So I might have to switch.”
Zimmer, the organization’s top prospect, has not thrown a pitch this spring. He won’t until later this week at the earliest. A recurrence of biceps tendinitis this winter derailed his throwing program, delayed his Cactus League debut and spurred concern among fans about his health. He is still determined to soak up knowledge in big-league camp. His appetite for instruction is voracious, but his inexperience is vast.
The Royals have ticketed Zimmer for 150 innings and a midseason major-league debut, a tentative schedule intended to cease a cessation of misfortune with pitching prospects. The inability to develop front-end starting pitching has blemished Dayton Moore’s tenure as Royals general manager. A recent crop fizzled: Moore bundled Mike Montgomery with Jake Odorizzi in the trade for James Shields. John Lamb underwent Tommy John surgery in 2011; Danny Duffy endured the same procedure in 2012. Promising arms Yordano Ventura and Chris Dwyer have yet to contribute much in the majors.
Zimmer, a 22-year-old right-hander, could change this narrative. The fifth pick in the 2012 draft, he possesses an optimal frame, 6 feet 3 and 215 pounds, and the type of arsenal that headlines rotations. During his full-season debut in 2013, Zimmer received raves from opposing scouts.
“We had guys tell us he had the best stuff in the minor leagues,” said assistant general manager J.J. Picollo. “Most electric stuff. Biggest fastball. Best slider.”
Yet Zimmer could not finish the season. Soreness in his arm sent him home in August after four encouraging Class AA starts. It was part of a vexing string of ailments: a lingering groin strain his final college season, surgery to remove bone chips in 2012 and now a biceps injury that alarmed Zimmer before team doctors assuaged his fears.
The organization chalks up the litany of injuries to Zimmer’s inexperience on the mound. He converted to pitcher in college and has yet to master the nuances of the position. Members of the organization have spoken to him about tapering back his weightlifting, streamlining his throwing sessions and conditioning his arm to last the long season.
“When he’s on, there’s not a level he can’t play at,” said Jim Brower, who coached in Class A and Class AA the last two years. “It’s just a matter of consistency. It’s not stuff. It’s just learning his body and learning how to get through a season.”
During the recruitment of Zimmer, one phone conversation stuck with Greg Moore, then the pitching coach at the University of San Francisco. He had just finished talking to Kyle. His father hopped on the line.
“Why are you recruiting my son?” Eric Zimmer asked.
The tone was more curious than confrontational. Kyle played third base and stood about 5-10, recalled Dons head coach Nino Giarratano. Zimmer dreamed of playing professional baseball but understood the likelihood he’d be “working a job behind a desk” upon graduation. He considered uprooting from his home in La Jolla, Calif., and attending an Ivy League school.
Moore explained his interest: The coaches admired Zimmer’s intellect and his work ethic. They liked his arm — but only to a point.
“We’re not that smart,” said Moore, now the head coach at Cal State Northridge. “I wish we were.”
Zimmer decided to walk on at San Francisco. He wasn’t ready to ditch his dream of Division I baseball. When he arrived, he found third base blocked by a senior named Stephen Yarrow, who later played in the Giants’ organization. Looking for a way to use Zimmer, the coaches shifted him to the bullpen.
“Before you know it,” Giarratano said, “he just took off.”
As Zimmer added weight and stature, his fastball velocity jumped. He displayed an advanced aptitude for strategy, adjusting the speed on his off-speed pitches and peppering both sides of the plate. He blended two disparate traits, Moore said. Zimmer harnessed “the simple barbarian” on the mound but operated as a diligent researcher off it, querying teammates for advice on his new position.
By his junior year, the Dons understood how special Zimmer was. Injuries limited him to only 13 starts, but still his talent shone. Moore told a story that explained Zimmer’s psyche. After the groin strain, Zimmer vowed to make his final start two weeks later, even though his team was out of contention and his draft stock hung in the balance.
“Kyle,” the coaches told him, “you have a chance to lose a lot of money.”
“I’m pitching in two weeks,” Zimmer responded. “I’ll find a way to pitch.”
To keep his arm loose, Zimmer threw from his knees day after day. He agonized through a standing bullpen session before the start, “grimacing the entire time,” Moore said. When he started his pregame warm-up, a hard rain muddied the mound.
Zimmer smiled, Moore recalled. “And he said ‘I love challenges.’ ”
The courage — and disregard for financial considerations — can be viewed as admirable. But it also hinted at an instinct that needed to be tempered in the professional ranks.
“He had this mind-set of ‘Go, go, go, go, go’ all the time,” Picollo said. “The balance that he’s going to need to find, throughout his career, he’s still trying to find that.”
Team officials say they’ve conducted an extensive analysis of Zimmer’s mechanics and found no red flags in his delivery. Picollo portrayed the bone chips as “pretty typical in a converted player.” He attributed the recent tendinitis to “just wear and tear and things your body goes through.”
“I think having these injuries will serve as a positive in the long run,” Picollo said. “Because you’ve seen the downside of it. ‘OK, if I don’t make these changes, I am going to hurt myself and miss time.’ ”
One morning last week, Zimmer strolled toward Bruce Chen’s locker. His hands were full. He came bearing a Dunkin’ Donuts cup.
“Are you (freaking) serious, Bruce?” Billy Butler called from across the room. “Get your own (freaking) coffee.”
Chen laughed. His back to the conversation, Zimmer sipped from his own drink and smirked. He is the youngest pitcher in camp, born 40 days after Overland Park’s Jason Adam. Zimmer caused a stir a few days ago, when he remarked about learning from “the old guys,” which prompted Shields to commission commemorative jerseys for the pitchers over 30.
Zimmer posed with the veterans for a photo on Thursday morning. He possesses the body of a man, but his face is still boyish. His cheeks bloomed red afterward. The night before, Baseball America declared Zimmer the No. 26 prospect in baseball. In the morning, his teammates reminded him how little that means.
Despite the teasing, Zimmer understands the resources available to him. He mentioned discussions with Shields and Jeremy Guthrie about preseason preparations. Zimmer stumbled pitching out of the stretch in early 2013, so during the first week of workouts, he pestered Shields for tips on holding runners.
As Zimmer moved from Class A to Class AA last year, Brower noticed signs of maturation. Zimmer tailored his warm-up routine and bullpen sessions to be more specific. Zimmer also said he eschewed his typical weight room mind-set of “let’s do as much as we can,” a gantlet of unnecessary, full-body exercises. He stressed more functional drills. This fall, as he crept closer toward a degree in business administration from San Francisco, he worked with a local physical therapist to strength his scapula and rotator cuff.
And still, when he threw during the winter, the discomfort resurfaced. Pitching is violent, pitching is cruel, and pitching is unpredictable. The Royals understand this better than most. A few years ago, Baseball America considered John Lamb the game’s No. 18 prospect. He is still scuffling post-surgery after a deflating season in Class A last year.
Both team officials and Zimmer insist he could have pushed through the tendinitis. But they decided he should not hurry and expose himself to more harm.
“It’s better to have it knocked out now then to have it come back in two months,” Zimmer said.
Instead, he waits. He completes fielding drills. He pockets information from the veterans. He is both a student with much to learn and a talent with much to give.
“It’s been a definite learning curve,” Zimmer said. “But I think I’m definitely starting to pick up on how to actually be a pitcher.”