The pain is gone now. Perhaps we can start there.
Royals minor-league pitcher Kyle Zimmer can do normal things again, simple stuff like reaching for soap in the shower or putting on a T-shirt. For so long, he says, he would go to reach for something around the house, and there was the pain again, this nagging, sharp, brutal feeling that felt like someone was stabbing him.
“Felt like a dagger in my arm,” Zimmer said. “I was like: “What’s going on?’ ”
This was last summer, and now the pain is mostly gone. Zimmer, the former first-round pick and top pitching prospect, is healthy again, ready for his fifth spring training with the Royals. And if you are reading this story with a healthy dose of skepticism, you are not alone. For close to five years, Zimmer’s career has been beset by injuries, a string of arm issues that have kept the former No. 3 overall pick off the pitcher’s mound. For close to five years, the Royals have waited to reap the reward from their investment.
Zimmer, a 25-year-old right-hander, understands the skepticism. He knows the pain and frustration better than anyone. But after another injury and another rehab process — this time for a surgical procedure addressing thoracic outlet syndrome — he knows this:
“Everything is feeling good,” he said.
For Zimmer, the latest injury came last season, the story as frustrating as all the others. Last February, he had arrived at spring training feeling healthy and encouraged after a normal offseason of training. He believed the injuries were behind him.
He opened camp in strong fashion. He started the Royals’ Cactus League opener. After years of injuries and arm troubles, he appeared set for a career breakthrough. Maybe his first dose of big-league action. Perhaps an opportunity to start in the rotation at Class AAA Omaha.
But then came another setback — and more pain. He remained in Surprise, Ariz., for extended spring training. He was limited to just 5 2/3 innings at Class A Wilmington and Class AA Northwest Arkansas before the pain was too much. All the while, the Royals struggled to diagnose the issue. The MRIs looked clear. His shoulder and elbow showed no structural damage.
Finally, a lifeline came in late July. After visiting two specialists, Zimmer was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a neurogenic issue that is caused by the compression of nerves near the neck and shoulder. The issue can cause numbness in the fingers and acute pain in the shoulder and arm. The syndrome has also afflicted Royals pitchers Chris Young and Luke Hochevar, who was diagnosed shortly after Zimmer and is currently a free agent. The surgical procedure for the neurogenic type of thoracic outlet includes the removal of a rib near the right shoulder and the removal of part of the scalene muscle in the front of the neck.
The diagnosis ended Zimmer’s season, but it also provided a measure of comfort, he says.
“You’re getting MRIs,” Zimmer said. “The MRIs look good. You’re trying to figure it out. Getting pointed in that direction was definitely a big relief.”
Zimmer underwent surgery in early August. The rehab process marked his latest setback. A first-round pick in 2012, Zimmer previously endured an elbow cleanout following his first summer in the Royals organization and a shoulder procedure following the 2014 season. Zimmer was also limited to just 4 2/3 innings in 2014 after suffering a strained latissimus dorsi muscle in his back. In five professional seasons, he has surpassed 70 innings pitched just once, throwing a career-high 108 1/3 innings in 2013.
This time, Zimmer said he spent the first three or four weeks doing nothing, waiting for the pain to go away and the nerves to calm down. Once he regained his full range of motion, he began strengthening the muscles in his shoulder and back and began a light throwing program in early October. He spent most of the offseason in his hometown of San Diego, but returned to Kansas City twice, rehabbing with the Royals’ medical staff for two weeks in December and another week in January. He departed for Surprise, Ariz., last week before returning to Kansas City for a weekend stop at the Royals’ annual FanFest event.
“It’s obviously a serious surgery,” Zimmer said, tracing his rehab process between autograph sessions on Saturday evening. “They’re taking out a rib and some muscles in your neck. It’s around a lot of dangerous stuff. But it’s not actually going into your shoulder joint. It’s not affecting your actual arm. So the rehab for it was a lot easier than, for example, my first shoulder surgery.”
For now, Zimmer expects to be “good to go” for spring training. But it remains likely that club officials will exercise caution with his workload. For Zimmer, this part is reality. When healthy, the Royals believe Zimmer has some of the most potent stuff in the organization. But his health remains the question mark.
On the field, Zimmer will join a collection of young pitchers who will attempt to stand out during big-league camp, a list that includes Matt Strahm, Alec Mills, Eric Skoglund, Josh Staumont and others. Their development will become an important storyline as the Royals attempt to move forward following the death of right-hander Yordano Ventura.
Royals general manager Dayton Moore has said the club will look to a group of internal options to help fill the void. For Zimmer, that means opportunity. In a matters of weeks, we’ll begin to understand if this season can be different. But for now, as the offseason comes to a close, the former top prospect has simple goals for another spring.
Stay healthy. Be on the opening day roster. Put the injuries in the past.
“Make the team out of camp,” Zimmer said. “Obviously, that’s goal No. 1 for everybody. And I think that obviously goes hand and hand with my health. So I’m just doing everything I can to keep my body in the position where I can go out every day and compete — and be able to get some outs for this team.”