On a Tuesday last July, Kyle Zimmer lounged inside an Arkansas hotel room and turned the television to MLB Network. His cellphone sat next to him — just in case.
Zimmer, the top pitching prospect in the Royals system, was rooming with fellow pitcher Sean Manaea, and as the MLB trade deadline loomed, the two minor-league players were on high alert. Just days earlier, the Royals had traded for front-line starter Johnny Cueto, parting with three pitching prospects in the deal.
As Class AA Northwest Arkansas prepared for another game in North Little Rock, Zimmer worried he might be next. Then the words flashed on the bottom of the screen.
“We were watching MLB Network, and something just came on the ticker,” Zimmer said. “It said, ‘Ben Zobrist traded to the Royals for two prospects,’ and then we looked at our phones and Sean’s rang.”
In the course of three days last July, the Royals turned five pitching prospects into Cueto and Zobrist, an aggressive gambit that would pay off in October. The trades fortified a roster that was ready to win a championship. A season later, nobody inside the Royals’ front office can question the moves. And yet, as Zimmer arrived at spring training last month, one thing was evident: Many of his old contemporaries are gone now, and the volume of Royals pitching prospects is a little thinner.
All of which makes the continuing education of the club’s best pitching prospect all the more important. The Royals are ready to see what Kyle Zimmer can be.
“He’s a guy we’re counting on in the future,” Royals manager Ned Yost said.
On Wednesday afternoon, as the temperature crept into the high 80s, Zimmer started the Royals’ Cactus League opener against the Texas Rangers. He threw two scoreless innings in a 6-2 loss. As he faced a lineup of Rangers regulars, he displayed the talent that made him a top-five pick and coveted prospect.
Yost said the opening-day assignment had little meaning or symbolism, but Zimmer offered a solid impression, nonetheless. His fastball sat around 94 mph. His curveball displayed its usual bite. He struck out veterans Shin-Soo Choo and Elvis Andrus while throwing 28 pitches, including 17 strikes. When the second inning was over, Zimmer paced back to the dugout and met Yost for a brief meeting near the top step.
“It was all right,” Zimmer said of his performance. “I wasn’t really trying to rare back and let it go. I was just trying to throw strikes and get through the ball.”
For Zimmer, 24, the next month is positioned as a critical juncture in his career. He would prefer to stay focused on today. Once viewed as an enigma, an oft-injured talent who couldn’t stay on the mound, Zimmer has entered camp with a clean bill of health, a fresh right arm and a re-energized mindset. His manager is ready to take an extended look over the next few weeks. Club officials believe Zimmer could be ready to help the big-league team sometime in 2016.
“He’s a gifted guy,” said assistant general manager J.J. Picollo. “I’ve said it many times. I don’t think it’s a matter of ‘if’. It’s just ‘when’. So he needs to take the ball, get into a rhythm, get into a routine, do the things he’s capable of.”
Zimmer is slated to begin the season as a starter at Class AAA Omaha. But club officials are hesitant to tag Zimmer with a specific timetable. Part of that, of course, is because of his history. For years, Zimmer has been slowed by an assortment of arm issues. He underwent an elbow cleanup in 2012 — the same year he was selected No. 5 overall. He threw just 4 2/3 innings in 2014. His 2015 was delayed by the after-effects of minor shoulder surgery.
Club officials viewed Zimmer’s 2015 as a foundational year. He returned to competition in late May and finished the season at Class AA Northwest Arkansas, posting a 2.81 ERA with 51 strikeouts in 48 innings. Based on talent alone, Picollo said, Zimmer could have handled a more challenging assignment. But the organization just wanted Zimmer to finish a year on the mound.
“I think he’s in a great frame of mind coming into this year,” Picollo said.
While the injury history hangs in the air, there is another reason club officials hesitate to put limits on Zimmer: namely, his talent. As the Royals prep for another pennant chase, they appear well-stocked in the starting rotation. But club officials wish to see Zimmer fight to be next in line.
“If he gets off to a good start this year,” Picollo said, “and we need a starter in the major leagues for whatever reason, he needs to be ready for that.”
For now, club officials are content to be patient. Zimmer’s future is coming, whether that be as a member of the Royals’ starting rotation or perhaps a late-season addition to the bullpen. On Wednesday, he took another step forward.
“When is that future?” Yost said. “Is it now? Is in the middle of the summer? Is it the end of the summer? I don’t know. But it was nice to see him get off on the right foot.”