Danny Duffy is 20 months removed from the shock of injury and the agony of inactivity, a prison caused by a torn ligament and subsequent Tommy John surgery.
He is five months removed from the premature end of last season, a restorative but vexing campaign stopped short by a September elbow strain.
Now he is about six weeks away from the start of 2014, a critical campaign on his winding road of development, and “we’ve taken the reins off him,” Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland said.
The early returns have heartened Duffy, the 25-year-old lefty. He rattled off a few reasons for confidence earlier this week: He says he is in the best shape since he was drafted in 2007. His curveball snaps instead of floating. His fastball obeys his command, a critical component for a man capable of unleashing mid-90s heat.
“I feel like I’m definitely ready,” Duffy said. “Judging by my (bullpen sessions) out here. I’ve really been doing well.”
As he returned from surgery last season, Duffy logged 93 1/3 innings, posting a 1.85 ERA in a five-start stint in the majors. Eiland projected he could throw 150 to 175 frames in 2014. When pitchers and catchers conduct their first official workout on Saturday, Duffy will be among the candidates for the final spot in the rotation. His chief competitors are Yordano Ventura, Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis, with Chris Dwyer and Brad Penny also in the discussion.
“We’re getting Danny Duffy ready to be a starting pitcher,” Eiland said. “And we’ll go from there. He’s a candidate for that last spot, along with four or five other guys. And we’ll see where it takes us.”
If Duffy doesn’t win the job, his next step will be compelling. The Royals have yet to decide on a subsequent path, general manager Dayton Moore explained on Friday morning. Duffy could operate as a dynamic left-handed weapon in manager Ned Yost’s bullpen. The other choices to pair with southpaw Tim Collins are Francisley Bueno, Donnie Joseph and Everett Teaford. Duffy possesses a momentary appeal in this role.
Yet Moore reiterated how Duffy is critical to the Royals’ long-term planning, and his success as a starting pitcher is paramount. The organization visualizes Duffy, Ventura and fellow top prospect Kyle Zimmer all part of the rotation in 2015. So a stint in Class AAA Omaha might be more conducive to Duffy’s advancement. There is concern a bullpen stint may heighten his struggles with location.
“The key with Danny is staying under control,” Eiland said. “It starts with the mental aspect, too. Because if he’s under-control mentally, his body will follow. If he gets too excited, too geared up, he gets out of his delivery, and of course the command goes right with it.”
The susceptibility to walks is a considerable concern. That’s why Duffy’s command these past few weeks has been so encouraging. He is in the final stages of re-acclimating to life post-surgery. When he underwent the operation in the summer of 2012, he weighed about 185 pounds. He says he is now closer to 210.
During his rehab, Duffy altered his changeup delivery. In the past he manipulated his arm to add movement to the pitch. The motion added stress to his elbow. His refined changeup is still “very good,” Eiland said, and his curveball will continue to improve.
“It’s nice to look back on it and see how far you’ve come,” Duffy said. “It’s been a long 20 months. I’ve always got to remember this process that it’s been for me. Try to avoid it in the future.”