On a September day six years ago, Matt Strahm slipped his baseball equipment into bag, joined his parents in a family car and prepared for a 10-hour drive through the quiet of the heartland. The family was headed to a baseball showcase event at the University of Kansas. Linda Strahm had paid the money, filled out a form and registered her son for the event. Matt Strahm figured he had little to lose.
Strahm was just beginning his senior year at West Fargo High School in North Dakota. He stood 6-feet-1 and 153 pounds. His fastball topped out in the high 70s. He yearned to play college baseball, but in that moment, his best offer was from Jamestown University, a tiny NAIA school just two hours from his hometown.
“It was like an open signup,” Strahm says. “I was there for three hours; then we packed it up and went home.”
Six years later, it is an early morning in early March and Strahm is standing inside the Royals clubhouse here at spring training. He is 24 now, a little taller and a little thicker, a left-handed pitching prospect enjoying his first trip to big-league camp. One night earlier, he had thrown two scoreless innings against the San Diego Padres, impressing Royals manager Ned Yost with a sharp breaking ball and an expeditious pace.
“There’s a lot of things to like about him,” Yost would say. “His stuff is really good.”
In the last 12 months, few Royals prospects have seen their profiles rise as much as Strahm’s. A year ago, he was coming off a 23-month break stemming from Tommy John surgery. In 2016, following two prospect-heavy trades last July, he ranks as the organization’s eighth-best prospect, according to Baseball America. Strahm is likely slated for the starting rotation at Class AA Northwest Arkansas, his next stop after a breakout season in the low minors.
Yet Strahm has already defied the conventional wisdom of baseball prospects. On that day in Lawrence in 2009, he caught the eye of a pitching coach from nearby Neosho County Community College. Strahm had only one criteria for his college destination: He wanted go as far south as possible. His options, however, were somewhat limited.
“I wasn’t even our No. 1 (in high school),” Strahm says. “There were two kids that threw a lot harder than me.”
One week after the showcase, a Neosho coach called and offered a spot in the program. Strahm was ready to pack his bags again. The decision proved wise for both camps. In two seasons, Strahm would sprout three inches, pack 30 pounds onto a slight frame and see his velocity spike. When he committed to Nebraska during his sophomore season, his fastball was sitting in the lows 90s.
The skillset caught the eye of the Royals, who took him in the 21st round in 2012. That summer, he began his career in rookie ball, heading to Idaho Falls. But that winter, as he began working out for his first spring training, his elbow began to bark. At first, Strahm says, he was diagnosed with a stress reaction. But after a lengthy rehab, team doctors discovered that the ulnar collateral ligament in his left arm was stretched out.
He underwent Tommy John surgery during the second half of the 2013 season and missed nearly all of 2014 as well.
“It was frustrating,” he said.
After a long rehab, he returned in 2015 and had immediate success. He posted a 2.08 ERA in 26 innings at Class A Lexington before finishing the season with 83 strikeouts and 19 walks in just 68 innings at Class A Wilmington. He was added to the 40-man roster this offseason, a move to protect him from other teams in the Rule-5 draft. He arrived at spring training last month, ready to tackle big-league hitters for the first time.
“He attacks,” Yost said. “He competes. He doesn’t look like, to me, that he’s nervous or out of his element.”
When the Royals traded for Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist within days last July, the club was forced to part ways with a collection of high-end pitching prospects. Left-hander Sean Manaea was sent to the Oakland A’s in the trade for Zobrist. Left-handers Cody Reed, Brandon Finnegan and John Lamb were shipped to the Reds for Cueto. The deals were invaluable in October, the final pieces for a World Series championship. They also served to thin the Royals’ pitching depth in the upper minors.
The house was not totally gutted, of course. The club still possessed top prospect Kyle Zimmer and hard-throwing right-hander Miguel Almonte, who received a callup last September. But beyond that, the organization’s best young arms largely resided in the low minors.
Into the void stepped the left-handed Strahm, whose fastball can occasionally touch 94, whose breaking ball can confound hitters, who has continued to burnish his credentials in the early weeks of this spring training.
“Those are the kind of kids that will make you feel good about your depth,” Yost said. “A lot can happen. He can have a great spring. But those are the kids that make you feel good about your depth down the road.”