The last time Royals’ right-handed pitcher Kyle Zimmer took the mound in Arizona this spring, he rocked, kicked up his leg, and strode forward unleashing a 97 mph fastball that completely overwhelmed Texas Rangers youngster Bubba Thompson.
Thompson, a former first-round draft pick, may yet be a star in the making. Perhaps he’ll take the majors by storm someday. If he does make it without the cruelly tantalizing ups and downs that Zimmer has faced, then Zimmer will likely be one of many to tip his cap and wish the minor-league standout the best.
However, this spring has finally been Zimmer’s time.
By the time the Royals open their season on Thursday afternoon in Kauffman Stadium, Zimmer may be the one overwhelmed by the realization that he had finally made it to the major leagues.
“I’ve had an image of what that would be like since I was two years old,” Zimmer said as camp wound down in Arizona. “That’s been my dream my entire life, so I’ve always thought of it. Sometimes it’s felt a lot closer than other times. Sometimes it’s felt it’s going to be impossible to get there.
“Right now, that picture in my head is a little bit sharper, a little bit more realistic, but it’s still not here. Until it is, until it’s happened — that’s when I’ll take a step back and be excited.”
The 6-foot-3 California native, a former top-rated prospect in the Royals’ farm system and regarded as one of the best pitching prospects in professional baseball, Zimmer and everyone else can see how close he is to making the Royals opening day roster with a spot in the bullpen.
The path he’s taken won’t allow him jump to conclusions, despite his stellar spring. Zimmer allowed one solitary run on eight hits and four walks in 12 2/3 innings, and he struck out eight along the way. Opponents batted .190 against him in a dominant Cactus League performance.
“The closer you get to the end of camp, the harder it is to not think about that stuff,” Zimmer said. “But I am actively forcing those thoughts down. I’m trying to do everything I can to stay in the moment and focus on today and getting outs today, focusing on tomorrow and getting outs tomorrow and then the next day.”
Not long ago looked it appeared as though Zimmer may have crumbled under the weight of expectations.
And even with all signs currently pointing to success, you know Zimmer wouldn’t be human if he didn’t have some lingering doubts.
The Royals’ first-round draft pick in 2012, Zimmer has pitched 259 professional innings and endured four surgeries over the course of six minor-league seasons. Last spring, he thought it was all over when he threw a pitch and, as he described it, his shoulder went with the ball towards home plate.
On the suggestion of the Royals, Zimmer went in May to Seattle, where he worked with trainers, analytical people and biomechanics experts at Driveline Baseball. When he first arrived, Zimmer said he couldn’t even get through the warm-up program. He stayed there and stuck with the “reclamation project.” They rebuilt his body and pitching mechanics from the ground up until October.
Now he’s pounding on the door to the big leagues, a door that seemed to shut in his face on multiple occasions.
“For the better part of six years I was in constant pain, so it’s definitely still weird being able to wake up in the morning and brush my teeth and brush my hair, let alone come and feel like I can pitch in a big-league game every day,” he said. “So if you look at it, big picture, that’s sort of where it’s surprising.
“When I came out of that game last year, last spring, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to throw a baseball again. ... So I’m still not there yet, but it’s cool to sort of realize how far I’ve come and see the fruits of my labor pay off so far, but I’ve still got a lot that I want to accomplish. Step one of that — is making this club.”
And yes, making it with the Royals would undoubtedly make the journey more special. It would be fitting — after all they’ve waited just as long as he has.
“Absolutely, it would mean everything,” Zimmer said. “Everything we’ve been through — it hasn’t just been me on this ride. It’s been the training staff. ... It’s been the medical staff. It’s been J.J. (Picollo). It’s been Dayton (Moore). It’s been Scott Sharp. It’s been all the coaches. It’s been everybody who has invested time and effort into me over the years.”
Moore, the Royals general manager, described his thought process in re-signing Zimmer quite frankly during FanFest. He said, “I would rather have him fail with us than go somewhere else and succeed.”
Last week, Moore downplayed the idea of Zimmer’s history playing into a potential decision to put Zimmer to the opening day roster. Moore clearly wanted to convey that if Zimmer made the club, it would be on merit and the fact that he earned a spot — nothing more.
The tiebreaker in bullpen roster decisions comes down to things like which player still has minor-league options, left-handed vs right-handed, having a pitch that nobody else in the relief corps does, Moore insisted.
“When you sit in meetings with your staff and discuss players, nobody ever says, ‘He’s been with us a long time and he deserves this,’” Moore said. “You know, it’s the major leagues.”
Practicality dictates roster construction has to be calculated and a bottom-line business, but even manager Ned Yost, who can be a curmudgeon at times, showed the smallest glimmer of a soft spot when talking about Zimmer.
At least twice previously, according to Yost, the Royals went into camp with hopes of Zimmer making their big-league roster and making good on the promise everyone in the organization had seen in him for years.
“He’s always been a guy that has given everything that he’s had when he comes to the park,” Yost said. “I mean there were definitely times when you could tell that he was bummed out because he just couldn’t get healthy, just couldn’t feel right, couldn’t get it going and just could never show us what we all wanted and hoped to see from him — which is exactly what we’re seeing now.”