Kyle Zimmer has remained among the consciousness of Royals fans for more than six years, but he hasn’t appeared in a major-league game.
He continues to chase that one adrenaline-inducing, career-affirming moment that will serve as much more than a professional milestone. At this point, stepping on the mound in a regular-season game will be the realization of a dream that at times seemed like it had turned into a nightmare.
“It’s easy to talk about it now that I’m feeling good,” Zimmer said during Royals FanFest on Friday, “but there was definitely some deep dark moments there over the past half decade where it was like, ‘Man, how long am I going to do this?’ Setback after setback after setback really wears on you.”
A 6-foot-3 right-handed pitcher and former Royals first-round draft pick out of San Francisco in 2012, Zimmer has thrown 259 professional innings and endured four surgeries over the course of six minor-league seasons (he pitched in just nine games in 2012 after being drafted out of college).
He last threw a pitch in the minors on Aug. 16, 2017, an outing that spanned 1/3 inning for the Class AAA Omaha Storm Chasers. Last year after an underwhelming spring training, he dived into the Driveline Baseball pitching program.
He spent from the first week of May to the first week of October in Seattle, training away from Royals teammates and coaches in relative seclusion. The program utilized strength training, high-speed cameras, sensors, spin-rate tracking and throwing weighted balls.
“I was working as hard as I possibly could for six hours a day or so by myself up there for six months,” Zimmer said. “I just really put everything I had into it. At this point it has paid off, but obviously the ultimate goal is to be making a difference for the big-league club.”
In order to pave the way for Zimmer to devote basically an entire season to getting his body ready, the Royals took Zimmer off the roster in April and exposed a player once viewed as the organization’s top pitching prospect to a potential claim by another team.
Despite the organization taking the calculated risk of losing him, Zimmer remains steadfast in his loyalty to the Royals. He was a free agent this offseason, but chose to re-sign with the organization and will go into spring training on their 40-man roster competing for a spot on the opening day roster.
Royals assistant general manager J.J. Picollo talked with Zimmer in advance of him being taken off the roster. That conversation was as part of the same discussions that included wanting to send Zimmer to Driveline to train. From a business standpoint, being released “made sense” to Zimmer.
“There’s nowhere else I really want to be,” Zimmer said. “They’ve stuck with me through thick and thin and they sent me up to Driveline, covered a lot of the financial cost there. Over the years, everyone has sort of given up on me and they’ve kept believing in me. They were the team that gave me my first shot back in 2012. Ever since I was drafted, Kauffman Stadium is the only place I’ve wanted to pitch.”
General manager Dayton Moore made the distinction between the organization having lost faith in Zimmer’s ability to remain healthy and his talent as a pitcher. Moore stated bluntly and honestly that they’d lost faith in his ability to stay healthy when they made the decision to have him take the season to train and rehab.
“It’s not personal. We love Kyle,” Moore said. “If there’s anybody that can get through it, it’s him because of his positivity, his work ethic, his tough-mindedness. He’s got a lot of good ingredients, but he needed some time off.”
At the same time, Moore and his staff took an aggressive approach at securing Zimmer’s services this fall after he performed well in instructional league. A big part of the reason the Royals placed Zimmer on the 40-man roster was because Zimmer had competing offers, according to Moore.
“I would rather have him fail with us than go somewhere else and succeed,” Moore said. “That’s the play there.”
The Royals bullpen remains a big question mark, and a healthy Zimmer could provide part of the answer.
He said he’d been throwing in the mid 90s regularly this fall. He’d also been throwing three to four times per week, including three-inning stints. He insisted he was not preparing for any specific role as starter or reliever, just preparing up to do whatever he’s asked.
“All the reports are he looks great,” Royals manager Ned Yost said. “I’m interested in seeing where we’re at with that too because when Dayton and I talked about it, Dayton said he looks good. I’m like let’s go for it then. You know, we put enough time and effort into him. It’d be great if it works out for us.”
Confident in both his talent and being able to perform and hold up physical, Zimmer will head into spring training with hopes of capturing that moment which has eluded him thus far and using that as a springboard.
“I’ve never lost confidence in myself, and just knowing that I’m just one good string away from doing what I’ve dreamt of as a kid,” Zimmer said of his motivation. “I mean, I still haven’t thrown a pitch in a big-league game. That’s obviously goal number one, but I still have pretty high aspirations for myself.”