Kyle Zimmer wore a Royals cap and jersey to Kauffman Stadium for the seventh game of the World Series in October. The reason Zimmer, the club’s first-round pick in 2012, was stuck in the stands and not on the diamond was apparent to any onlooker: His right arm was in a sling.
The day before, Zimmer underwent an operation called a debridement to remove damaged tissue from his shoulder. The surgery served as the ending to an exasperating season for Zimmer, who threw only 4 2/3 innings, waylaid by a succession of shoulder injuries. The Royals framed the surgery as something of a positive outcome with Zimmer. At least now they knew what was ailing.
Four months later, Zimmer strolled out of the minor-league clubhouse at the team’s complex. He has called this place home for almost a calendar year at this point. He is once again restarting the process of fashioning an escape. Zimmer said he will throw his first bullpen session since surgery on Sunday. He hopes to be ready for regular-season games by May.
Kansas City projects Zimmer could contribute to the big-league club at some point this summer. They expressed a similar view last year, only to see Zimmer slowed by a latissimus dorsi strain. He never fully recovered. On the mound, he said, “felt like someone was just like stabbing me every time I threw.” He worked as a reliever with Class AAA Omaha for a brief time and wowed observers in the Arizona Fall League. But his shoulder continued to bother him.
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The team hopes the surgery removes this sensation. Their hopes for him still remain sizable. Some within the organization believe Zimmer possesses more talent than Yordano Ventura, their probable Opening Day starter. Baseball America ranked Zimmer as their No. 75 prospect before this season. The Royals believe if he is healthy, Zimmer can devastate opposing hitters.
“It’s not a matter of ‘If.’ It’s ‘When,’” said assistant general manager J.J. Picollo. “When is the right time? He’s going to have to pitch some in the minor leagues this year.
“We do think he’s going to help the big-league club. I know in his mind he feels that way. Our evaluators feel that way. Our coaches feel that way. Our front office feels that way.
“He’s just better than all of our guys. He’s the best guy in our system.”
Zimmer sat down with The Star on Tuesday afternoon to talk about his rehabilitation, his relief after surgery and his plans for 2015.
So what are you able to do at this point?
“I’m throwing, long-tossing. I threw on flat ground today. And I get off the mound on Sunday.”
That’s the first time off the mound since surgery?
“Yeah … I’m excited. It feels amazing. Finally got it taken care of. I’m just excited to finally get going.”
No player ever hopes for surgery, but it must have been encouraging to actually find the root of what was ailing you all last year.
“It was awesome. Obviously, it was like ‘Alright, here we go again, another 12 weeks of rehab.’ But knowing that we took care of what was bugging me and knowing that it was just a minor little cleanup, knowing I would be good to go afterwards. … And now, throwing and feeling that is pretty cool.”
How do you feel now as compared to this time last year?
“Just from the onset last year, I could tell it was still there. But I was just thinking I could fight through it and get over the hump. Every now and again, it was just bugging me and bugging me throughout the year. Like when I went to Omaha, it was still bugging me. But I was able to throw through it.
“And then, I came down here, I was throwing in the Fall League, and I was throwing well, but it was still just biting at me. And finally we just figured out we needed to do something about it to move on.”
Was it painful?
“Yeah, it sort of felt like someone was just like stabbing me every time I threw. Different days were better than others. I couldn’t get into a consistent groove to be able to throw through it. So I’m glad it’s behind.
“So now I’m on the normal throwing progression as everybody else. I’m just three weeks behind, or so.”
You were in big-league camp last year. Was it hard to not get invited back?
“I mean, all my buddies are over there. I still see them every day. I talked to J.J. and Dayton (Moore), and they sort of explained it. I’m in rehab still. I wouldn’t be pitching in games. So there’s no real point. It would be cool to be over there. But I understand completely. It’s just I’ve got to focus on getting back on the mound and getting healthy. It doesn’t really matter, honestly. In the long run, it’s just about being healthy and being able to be there when you end the season, not when you start it.”
What was it like being there for game seven?
“I don’t remember much of it. I was about 24 hours off the surgery table. I just remember it being loud, and getting cold, and being pretty loopy.”
So from there did you come right back down here for rehab?
Did you get to go home at all?
“Yeah, I got to go home for five days for Thanksgiving, and then two weeks for Christmas. So that was a good change of pace.”
But otherwise you’ve basically been doing Surprise living.
“Been doing it.”
Have you grown to like it out here?
“Not really. You can only go to Walmart so many times.”
How trying has the mental part of this been?
“It’s been tough. It’ll test your patience. But I think I’ve finally gotten over that hump. I’m just one of those guys that really just wants to go out and get it, and go, and push harder, and get there. And taking a step back and realizing that strategy doesn’t always work, and just allowing the recovery and everything to come to me, instead of having to go out there and get it myself.
“Just taking a step back, and really just trying to enjoy every day and coming to the field. Which isn’t the easiest thing to do in the middle of July. But all my buddies are out here now, and I’m throwing again. So I’m really excited to take that next step. Get back on the mound. I’m looking forward to this year.”
Have you had to change any part of your routine since the surgery?
“Not tremendously. I think last year I was changing stuff. I wasn’t lifting upper body as much as I used to. Because I used to really be a big weight-lifting guy. I sort of backed off of that. But now that it’s really fixed, and I’m not feeling any discomfort at all, I’m able to get back into my lifting routine and my normal throwing routine and everything else I was doing before this started barking at me. So it’s nice getting back to the way I was before this injury.”
How did you like working out of the bullpen last year?
“I’d really never done it. I’d come in in college on my bullpen days, like get an inning of work, close a game out during the week, instead of (throwing) a bullpen, a couple times. But that was really my first time coming into real games and doing it.
“It’s a rush. It’s a lot different — the adrenaline. You get up, and you get hot. And you’re full bore. And then that’s it. Versus like settling in, taking three or four innings to get into that groove. But it’s cool. It was definitely differently.”
Did moving up to Omaha and succeeding there make you more confident that when you’re healthy, you rise quickly?
“I try not to think about, as much, when I’m going to be there or when I’m going to be promoted or who’s ahead of me or stuff like that. I just try to focus on that day and the game and having fun. I never lost confidence in myself.
“I pitched well in Omaha. I pitched well in the Fall League. So I’ve proved to myself that when I can be healthy, I can be who I think I can be, and get guys out at any level. It’s just a matter of being healthy, staying healthy and then whenever that time comes, I know I’ll be ready to go up and get outs.”
FROM THE STAR
1. Alcides Escobar (and Kendrys Morales) reported to camp on Tuesday. Blair Kerkhoff wrote about Escobar’s performance down the stretch and a winter spent on baseball diamonds across the globe.
2. Sam Mellinger wrote a column about Mike Jirschele, who hasn’t lost sleep over his decision in game seven.
3. Mike Moustakas also discussed the necessity for hitting the other way to beat the shift.
4. I conducted a chat. We discussed the Royals. Here is the transcript.
5. Here is our daily video dispatch from Tuesday afternoon.
HERE IS SOME ROCK MUSIC
“Dancing On My Own” by Robyn.