Last October, as the Royals took the field against the New York Mets in the opening game of the World Series, Dillon Gee took refuge on a couch in Fort Worth, Texas. He could have been there in Kansas City, he thought. But as the night began, he turned the channel to Fox, heard the voice of announcer Joe Buck, and looked on at a group of old friends.
Gee knew the moment would roil his emotions. For the last five years, he had been a fixture in the Mets’ starting rotation, a sturdy right-hander who logged innings through the lean years. The end in New York came on a Monday in mid June.
With the Mets possessing a wealth of young starting pitching, and Gee scuffling through injury and ineffectiveness, New York designated the 29-year-old right-hander for assignment.
Gee finished the year at Class AAA Las Vegas. He did not receive a September call-up, instead returning home to Texas to watch his former teammates win the National League pennant.
“It was tough,” Gee says. “It wasn’t the best of circumstances, but things unfolded the way they unfolded. They went to the World Series, so obviously they pulled the right strings, I guess.”
With the Mets in the Fall Classic, Gee felt compelled to experience the World Series from his couch. When he didn’t realize was that the hours at home would serve as an advance scouting session for his new team. He was drawn to the Royals, he said. He liked their aggressiveness and camaraderie. He liked the way they found joy in the game.
“I saw the way Kansas City played,” Gee said, sitting inside the Royals clubhouse on Monday morning. “I liked the way they played the game, and they contacted me very soon after the World Series. Just from the get-go, something about it felt like it was going to be a good place to go.”
The opportunity came in early December. Gee signed a minor-league deal and received an invitation to spring training. He will seek to resuscitate his career for the defending world champions. And in a big-league camp overflowing with experienced arms, Gee casts an intriguing figure.
The Royals view him as a right-hander who could challenge for a spot at the back end of the rotation or take on a swingman role in the bullpen. When pitching coach Dave Eiland spoke of Gee this week, he referenced Chris Young, the dogged veteran who became a revelation in 2015.
“He’s a guy that could fit in the bullpen,” Eland said. “He’s a guy that could spot-start or be a swing guy. In the next six weeks, that will kind of shake itself out. But he’s a guy that can do a couple of different things and fill some sort of role, kind of like Chris Young did last year.”
Gee, like Young, does not rely on an imposing arsenal. He is a four-pitch pitcher who pounds the strike zone and trusts in a two-seam fastball and an above-average change-up. The change-up, Gee says, is the pitch that gave him his big-league career.
“I’ve kind of always said I live and die by the change-up,” Gee said.
The pitch was his calling card for four seasons in New York. From 2011 to 2014, Gee made 98 starts and threw more than 600 innings. His best year came in 2013, when he posted a 3.62 ERA in 199 innings. He served as the Mets’ opening day starter in 2014.
“He’s a guy that attacks the strike zone and he attacks hitters,” Eiland said. “He doesn’t pitch away from contact. He’s not a mid-to upper-90s guy, but he comes right at hitters, and that fits our profile perfectly.”
By last summer, the Mets were brimming with young aces, and Gee was expendable. Jacob deGrom debuted in 2014. Matt Harvey returned from Tommy John surgery in 2015. When Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz came along last year, the Mets had little use for another starter. Gee made the decision easy by allowing 26 earned runs in 39 2/3 innings.
“It was bittersweet, obviously,” Gee said of his departure. “I had been there going on five years in the big leagues, and it’s like: ‘I was there during the lean times. I wanted to be there when they were celebrating at the end.’ ”
Four months later, Gee is prepping for a fresh start. When the Royals open their spring training schedule next week, he will be stretched out like a starter, joining a list of arms that includes Young, Danny Duffy, Kris Medlen and prospects Kyle Zimmer and Miguel Almonte.
Gee’s future also could reside in the bullpen. For the moment, he is intent on making a solid first impression.
He spent nearly a decade in New York, and in some ways, the ending stung. Now he’s ready for the next stage.
“I knew it was time to kind of move on,” Gee said. “I knew I needed to get out of there and kind of get a fresh start, and just get somewhere else and show them that I’m still the pitcher that I was the four years in New York.”