Mike Minor clutched a baseball in his left hand and took his place in the middle of an empty grass practice field on Monday morning. It was just past 9:30 a.m., and as the morning sun hit the Royals spring-training complex, Minor sought to test his surgically repaired left shoulder.
Sixty feet away, Royals bullpen coach Doug Henry sat in a crouch. A member of the Kansas City training staff looked on. Minor toed a white line and began to throw. He did not rush, working smooth and easy, at his own pace.
“Is that 10?” Minor called out.
“One more,” Henry answered.
The workout was light and easy. The moment was by design. When Minor, a 28-year-old left-hander, signed a two-year, $7.25 million deal with the Royals on Friday, he did so with a certain peace of mind.
Last May, Minor, then a member of the Atlanta Braves, underwent major surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. The surgery stalled his career and jump-started his departure from the only team he had ever known.
Nine months later, as he looked for a new home, he was assured by Royals officials that his health status was paramount. His rehab, they told Minor, would not be rushed. The team offered a guaranteed two-year contract as proof of its rhetoric. Minor was relieved.
“When you get that one-year deal,” Minor said, “you’re always thinking about the next year, that you got to perform to get that next contract. Whether the team or the medical staff even puts that pressure on you, you put it on yourself to get back.”
This season, Minor will feel no pressure to perform in Kansas City. Club officials expect him to miss the first two months of the season and offer depth in the rotation or bullpen when his shoulder allows. By 2017, he could be ready to battle for a spot in the rotation. But for the moment, Minor is focused on the health of his shoulder and tapping into the potential he showed during his first years in Atlanta.
“The important thing is to move at a rate that ensures his long-term health,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said.
A former first-round pick in 2009, Minor zoomed through the minor leagues and made his big-league debut in 2010. At his best, he was a rotation stalwart, posting a 13-9 record and 3.21 ERA for an Atlanta team that won 96 games in 2013. But his performance dipped in 2014 as his shoulder began to bark. He recorded a 4.77 ERA in 145 1/3 innings, pitching through shoulder discomfort for most of the season.
The shoulder soreness surfaced again last spring. By early May, he was headed under the knife. By December, the Braves elected to non-tender Minor and let him walk into free agency for the first time.
Sitting at his locker on Sunday, Minor said there were other suitors in recent months. Many were interested in a one-year deal. Some, like the Cincinnati Reds, play their home games in a smallish bandbox. When the Royals reached out to his agent, B.B. Abbott of Jet Sports Management, the combination of a two-year deal and the spacious Kauffman Stadium sold Minor on Kansas City.
“I had other teams,” Minor said. “There were other teams that made offers and had legitimate interest. But it really just came down to me wanting to be here and wanting to get the deal done.”
In his first days in Surprise, Minor found a home on the far side of the clubhouse, in earshot of former Braves teammate Kris Medlen, who signed a similar deal with the Royals last offseason. At the time, Medlen was recovering from a second Tommy John surgery and needed part of the 2015 season to rehab. This year, he will battle for a spot in the Royals’ rotation. Minor sees parallels in their stories.
“With them giving me the two-year deal, they’re basically saying, ‘We want you to get healthy this year, possible help us in the second half with some guys that might be tired,’ ” Minor said. “And then next year, just like Medlen, ‘We want you to maybe be one of those guys in the rotation.’
“So it was important to me to get that second year.”