The rehab process is in its 12th month, the final furlongs of a tedious and mind-numbing recovery. One year ago, Tim Collins’ left elbow blew out in the opening weeks of spring training. The damage in his ulnar collateral ligament necessitated surgery. His 2015 season was over in early March.
As Collins, a left-handed reliever, rehabbed in Kansas City during the year, turning witness to a world championship, he set a simple goal for his future. When the 2016 season began, he wanted his left arm healthy enough to make a team.
“My approach through the whole rehab process was to come into spring training to make a team,” Collins said. “Realistically, a rehab assignment is probably what’s going to happen. But obviously, I’d try to come into spring training and try to prevent that.”
The intrigue in Collins’ rehab only serves to offer another wrinkle to a developing logjam at the back end of the Kansas City bullpen. As the Royals piece together a roster framework here in Arizona, they have as many as nine relievers, many with big-league experience, battling for the final two bullpen spots.
Collins, a diminutive stalwart in the Royals’ bullpen from 2011 to 2013, may well be slated for a rehab assignment in early April, removing him from the equation. But a looming roster crunch remains.
Here is the calculus: The Royals’ starting rotation is expected to include Yordano Ventura, Edinson Volquez and Ian Kennedy at the top, with right-hander Kris Medlen, right-hander Chris Young and left-hander Danny Duffy battling for the final two spots. The odd man out, barring injury, is a near lock for the bullpen.
If the Royals choose to begin the season with a 12-man pitching staff, the bullpen spots fill up quickly. The spine of the relief corps is already in place, with Joakim Soria, Luke Hochevar and Kelvin Herrera serving as the bridge to closer Wade Davis. That leaves two vacant spots — and an intriguing list of candidates.
Right-hander Dillon Gee, a former starter for the New York Mets, appears a solid bet to make the club. Gee, 29, was signed on a minor-league deal in the offseason after spending parts of six seasons in New York. As recently as 2013, he made 32 starts and threw 199 innings. Royals manager Ned Yost has said that Gee will be stretched out as a starter during spring training, but he could be destined for a swingman role in the pen.
Beyond that, the list of candidates includes veteran right-handers Ross Ohlendorf and Chien-Ming Wang, left-handers Brian Duensing, David Huff and John Lannan, right-hander submariner Peter Moylan and left-handed prospect Brian Flynn.
“You got to have depth,” Yost said.
Among the pitchers competing, Ohlendorf, Huff, Wang, Duensing, Lannan and Moylan all have ample big-league experience. But it’s the 6-foot-7 Flynn, a 25-year-old graduate of Wichita State, who also appears positioned to make a run at a roster spot. Acquired before the 2015 season for reliever Aaron Crow, Flynn was a sterling performer last spring training before losing a battle for the final roster spot to veteran Ryan Madson, who had no options remaining.
Flynn headed to Class AAA Omaha, suffered a torn latissimus dorsi muscle in his first appearance, and missed the rest of the season.
The reality stung, Flynn said. He was on the brink of returning to the big leagues — then his season was lost. But he returned to pitch in the fall instructional league and came to spring training with a clean bill of health. His fastball, which has been clocked in the mid-90s, touched 94 last fall.
Yost said last week that he will not require a left-hander in the bullpen; he views the presence of a lefty as a “luxury.” In addition, left-handed starter Duffy could find himself pitching in the relief if he does not earn a job as a starter. But if the Royals want another left-hander, and Collins’ rehab stretches into early April, Flynn could offer the most upside as a power lefty in the pen.
“In the instructional league, my velocity was back to where it was before,” Flynn said. “Every thing felt good.”
Then there is Collins, who is still working to meet his goal of finishing rehab before opening day. In the offseason, Collins said, he returned to his offseason home in Virginia, continuing his rehab at Andy Givens Performance, a local gym outside Richmond that specializes in training baseball players. The rehab, Collins said, offered a chance to get away from the everyday grind of baseball, and when he arrived in Arizona this month, he threw his first bullpen session, regaining his “regular civilian” status, he said.
For now, Yost said, Collins will be limited to an “every third day” throwing program, and he could face other restrictions. One example: He won’t throw live batting practice until sometime after his teammates.
There are other concerns, too. His velocity is still coming back, Collins said, but there’s time for that, too. In a few weeks, he’ll hit the one-year anniversary of his surgery.
“I’m close,” Collins said. “It’s definitely a process. I’m really close. It’s a lot of ups and downs throughout the year. It’s more of a mental battle than a physical battle. I’m really close to being where I need to be.”