When the parade was over, when the afterglow of a World Series championship had receded, Kris Medlen boarded a flight and headed for the quiet calm of a new house in Augusta, Ga. Medlen purchased the house last summer, during the heart of a pennant race. His wife, Nicole, did the legwork and the advance scouting. They closed on it from Kansas City, while Medlen tended to his day job as a right-handed pitcher at Kauffman Stadium.
For Medlen, the offseason setup offered a new perspective and new surroundings. He had previously wintered in Atlanta, his home for five years with the Atlanta Braves. As a result, he knew few of the locals in Augusta, his wife’s hometown. So with three months to kill before the start of another spring training, Medlen slipped into a simple routine: For one part of the day, he would play with his two young kids. For the rest, he would endure grueling workouts and strength sessions.
“I feel like it was one of the toughest offseasons of my career so far,” Medlen said.
There is no more cliche spring training story in baseball than the player who professes to be in the best shape of his life, and standing before his locker on Friday morning, Medlen was not offering such talking points. But for a 30-year-old right-hander entering the second season of a two-year contract, the winter of solitude came at the right time. A year ago, Medlen was returning from his second Tommy John surgery. This spring, he projects as the safest bet to slot behind Yordano Ventura, Edinson Volquez and Ian Kennedy in the Royals’ starting rotation.
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“I think he’s going to have a fantastic year,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “He’s going to be a very solid guy in our rotation.”
As the Royals’ pitchers and catchers took the field Friday morning for the first official workout of camp, Yost remained mostly tight-lipped about the makeup of his starting rotation. Three spots, though, appear to be certain locks, with the newly acquired Kennedy slotting behind Ventura and Volquez.
The final two spots will likely come down to a battle between Medlen, left-hander Danny Duffy and righty Chris Young, and for the moment, it appears that Medlen has the inside track to one of those spots.
“We come into this with an open mind,” Yost said, “but as I sit right here, yeah, I expect him to be in the rotation. We’ll see how it plays out. We’ve got a lot of time before we make those decisions.”
In some ways, of course, the back end of the Royals’ rotation could remain a collection of moving parts. In all likelihood, Yost said Friday, Medlen, Duffy and Young will spend time as a starter in 2016. Duffy, 27, offers the most potential from the left side — but is also an intriguing candidate for the bullpen. Young, 36, is coming off a season in which he finished 11-6 with a 3.06 ERA.
The Royals also added another body to the picture on Friday, signing former Braves left-hander Mike Minor to a two-year deal. Minor, who underwent shoulder surgery last May, is expected to be sidelined until late May or early June. When he is healthy, he could offer a lifeline as a starter or long man in the bullpen. Club officials also still harbor hope that left-hander Jason Vargas will pitch in the big leagues in 2016. But after undergoing Tommy John surgery in early August, Vargas may be racing the clock. The usually recovery time for Tommy John surgery is 12-to-14 months. The Royals are often cautious in their approach to rehab.
“We’ll see how he does,” Yost said. “We’re not going to rush him by any stretch of the imagination.”
As the Royals begin their first World Series title defense in three decades, Yost has a wealth of options for his rotation, and a full spring training to sift through arms. But as camp began Friday, Medlen appeared well-positioned for the battle. When the Royals signed Medlen to a two-year deal before the 2015 season, they did so with 2016 in mind. Medlen was coming off his second Tommy John surgery, and his 2015 season would be shortened by the long rehab. The Royals, though, still believed in the potential in Medlen’s right arm, which had once haunted hitters in the National League.
In 2012, Medlen posted a 1.57 ERA in 138 innings while spending time as a reliever and a starter. A year later, he made 31 starts and finished with a 3.11 ERA. The following spring, his ulnar collateral ligament gave out for the second time, stopping his career once more. The rehab was taxing, Medlen said. Last spring, he was reduced to going through fielding drills without throwing a baseball.
“It was so boring,” he said.
The payoff came in July, when he returned to the big leagues and offered a lift as Kansas City claimed a second straight AL crown and its first World Series in 30 years.
“I knew what he was before he got hurt,” Yost said, “and I saw what he was capable of doing last year.”
In the offseason, as Medlen returned to Augusta, he pondered the year to come. As spring training approached, he made it a goal to earn a rotation spot, a final check point in his return from another arm surgery. But as he conceded on Friday, the goal came with one caveat.
“Going through what we went through last year, and winning the World Series, you have a ton of unselfish-type attitudes in this clubhouse,” Medlen said. “You have a ton of guys who will do whatever is needed to do. Chris Young last year was a big part of that. He would be in the bullpen, start when needed, and just do absolutely great things for our team.
“I’m no different,” he continued. “I’ve had success in the bullpen in my past and the rotation. Coming in this season, obviously, my sights are on a rotation spot. But you just got to out and worry about what you can control.”