Tim Collins could not remember the exact hitter he was facing, but he knew the pitch. It was a curveball in the fifth inning of the Royals’ 13-2 victory over Texas in their Cactus League opener. Collins thought it was a strike. He also noticed the sensation of tightness afflicting his left elbow afterward.
As Collins continued to work, the feeling did not depart. It developed into soreness as he continued his outing. After facing four batters, Collins left Wednesday’s game with trainer Nick Kenney. A preliminary diagnosis by Kenney revealed soreness on the medial, or inner, portion of his elbow.
“I just didn’t want to take it any further,” Collins said. “It’s early in spring.”
The team hopes Collins can undergo an MRI at a local hospital by Thursday morning. Until then, manager Ned Yost was unable to provide updates on either the severity of the injury or a timetable for Collins’ recovery.
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“We don’t even know what it is yet,” Yost said inside his office at Surprise Stadium. “So we’ll re-evaluate it tomorrow. And when we get a better idea what it is, then we’ll set a protocol. But right now, we don’t have any idea what it is.”
The ding loomed as the lone blight on a otherwise cheery day. The first six Royals batters of the day scored as Eric Hosmer, Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios boomed back-to-back-to-back home runs. The lineup walloped big-league pitchers Colby Lewis and Yovani Gallardo. The defense did not commit an error.
Yet in March, the results do not matter. The injuries do. Despite Collins’ troubling season in 2014, the Royals still committed to a $1.475 million contract with him for this coming season. He could serve as both a useful contributor and a reason to send Brandon Finnegan to the minor leagues to prep as a starter.
The Royals have yet to decide on Finnegan’s fate. He could still force his way onto the big-league club, if the team prefers he take that route. But with Collins healthy and contributing, the Royals would have more freedom to let Finnegan develop, rather than utilize him in the majors.
One reason for comfort is the club’s level of depth. Five spots in the bullpen are most likely filled. Collins and Louis Coleman were considered among the favorite for the next two slots. This camp features a bevy of intriguing southpaw options, including 6-foot-7 former Marlin Brian Flynn, sidewinder Joe Paterson and recent addition Franklin Morales.
Yost has indicated he does not necessarily require a southpaw in his bullpen. His desire for a left-handed specialist is not profound. Yost has no fear in letting set-up men Wade Davis and Kelvin Herrera to face left-handed hitters. Yost appears to have a similar trust in Jason Frasor and Luke Hochevar.
In the past, Yost also trusted Collins to face right-handed hitters. Collins lost that faith in 2014. His body betrayed him. He suffered a flexor strain in his elbow in April. He spent portions of his summer rehabilitating a back strain in Class AAA Omaha.
Collins returned to contribute in October, but his full-season numbers were still bleak. He appeared in only 22 games, posted a career-worst 3.86 ERA and a career-worst 1.36 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Pitching coach Dave Eiland sensed an unforeseen tentativeness in Collins.
“Timmy early on was almost trying to be too fine, too perfect,” Eiland said. “And a lot of times when you do that you lose your aggressiveness. You fall behind in counts. That’s never good.”
To Eiland, Collins attacked hitters upon his return in October. The club hoped that quality would carry over into the coming season, even if his command will always be somewhat spotty.
On Wednesday, Collins threw only one first-pitch strike, and nine strikes in 17 pitchers. He surrendered a leadoff double to catcher Carlos Corporan. After outfielder Leonys Martin worked an eight-pitch walk, Collins called catcher Francisco Pena to the mound. Kenney and Yost soon met the group there, and Collins left the diamond.
Inside the clubhouse, Hochevar, a victim of a torn ulnar collateral ligament last season, asked Collins what happened. Collins pointed to the inside of his left elbow as he left the room.
“This is something you want to definitely jump on before you really get into the thick of things,” Collins said. “It’s early enough to have stuff like that. So it’s not something that I wanted to continue and try to battle through in spring training. right now, you just want to stay healthy.”
Collins maintained a level of calm as he spoke. He wore a white protective sleeve over his left arm. The severity of his injury should emerge later this week. The effects on the Royals roster should follow.
“We’ll see what it is,” Yost said. “I’m not going to go gloom and doom without knowing what it is.