For all that Kyle Zimmer has been through in a such a short amount of time, he has grown to appreciate the simple things baseball players sometimes take for granted.
Zimmer is a former fifth overall pick by the Kansas City Royals who signed for $3 million out of the University of San Francisco. He put pen to paper less than three days after getting drafted and ceremoniously slipped on a Royals jersey at Kauffman Stadium on June 7, 2012, with the hope of making it a routine just a few years later.
Now, the 23-year-old smiles and loosens his arm as he talks about showing up to a minor league ballpark on a daily basis, playing under lights and simply being in a meaningful clubhouse.
“Right now, I’m just waking up every day excited to get to the ballpark,” Zimmer said. “No matter where that is, I’m going out having fun and doing what I can.”
There have been plenty of twists and turns in Zimmer’s twice-taken road to Double-A Northwest Arkansas.
After getting his feet wet in the Midwest League at the end of his first professional season in 2012, he underwent a right elbow operation to clean out loose bodies and rested over the off-season. He made 18 starts for Advanced-A Wilmington in 2013 before getting a four-start taste of Double-A to end the year, giving the Royals hope that he was on the proper track to contributing in short order despite shoulder stiffness in August.
Zimmer ranked 41st in the Top 101 before the 2014 season and was expected to be in Kansas City quickly, with the ultimate goal of reaching his frontline ceiling. Instead, he’s still looking for that first call-up.
A derailed 2014 season began before the first pitch. Zimmer experienced bicep tendonitis over the winter, and the Royals pushed back his throwing schedule past the beginning of the season. While working to get back to playing condition, he strained his latissimus dorsi muscle in May and was shelved for most of the season. He emerged with short-season Idaho Falls in August and made six appearances.
The Royals sent Zimmer to the Arizona Fall League to catch up on missed time, and it only led to another problem. He experienced a setback with his right shoulder after three appearances and eventually had an operation to remove damaged tissue in his rotator cuff.
The 2015 season provided new hope, but Zimmer quickly ran into trouble when he suffered another setback with shoulder soreness during an extended spring training outing in May. The Royals determined this one to be more minor, however, and he made his competitive season debut with Class-A Lexington on May 29.
“I’m feeling pretty good,” Zimmer said. “I’m just going out there and taking it day by day, and I’m just trying to work on tidying up some small mechanical things. I’m just going out there having fun and feeling good. I’m having a good time.”
“Feeling good” is a big step forward for Zimmer. Aside from a tight shoulder June 6 that dropped his velocity to the upper-80s, he’s pushed his fastball back to the mid-to-upper-90s with the familiar sharp curveball that gave him such a high ceiling.
Zimmer said his stuff and velocity are where they need to be now. It’s a matter of staying healthy and building stamina to get back to a rotation. The Royals have limited his throwing to every three or four days and one- or two-inning bursts since late May. The first assignment, Lexington, lasted nine outings, totaled 16 innings with a 1.12 ERA and 21 strikeouts to six walks. His current assignment, Northwest Arkansas, has surpassed double-digit innings with even better numbers in the difficult Texas League.
“They’re trying to keep the workload down right now as I continue to build up (stamina),” Zimmer said. “Whatever they want me to do, I’m going to do. As long as I’m out there able to throw and compete, I’m just happy to be on the field.”
Zimmer said he greeted the Lexington assignment with excitement to be able to get out of Kansas City’s Arizona complex and play under lights. His current goal is to focus on improving each day without getting ahead of himself. That includes mechanical adjustments to tighten up his drive to the plate in order to have a cleaner delivery by the time he’s able to return to a rotation.
“I’m working on staying on line and through the center of the plate, keeping my front side strong,” he said. “I have a tendency sometimes to get quick and spin off, so staying through the middle and letting it go. My mechanics have been feeling great. I’m just trying to stay with that.”
Zimmer is also trying to stick with a clean bill of health. The Royals want him to prove capable of maintaining it over an extended period of time while slowly ramping up his pitch counts until they determine he’s ready to resume starting. When that occurs remains to be seen, but he’s currently on track by graduating to a return to Double-A and blowing away advanced minor league competition with the same stuff that caused scouts to salivate prior to the 2012 draft.
“Obviously, my goal is to get to Kansas City, help the Royals,” he said. “That’s more of a bigger goal. I’m trying to focus more on the short term and not get too far ahead of myself. For now, I’m taking one day at a time and try to improve each day.”
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