Kyle Zimmer

Spring Training Questions: Where Does Kyle Zimmer Fit?

Spring training is a time to find out answers, but if you’re searching for answers, it means there are questions being asked. That’s what I’m here for. Last week, we investigated what the Royals could do with Cheslor Cuthbert. This week’s question centers around one of the most electric arms in the organization…when healthy. Kyle Zimmer seems like he’s been in the organization as long as just about any of the core players, but he hasn’t thrown a single pitch in the big leagues.

In fact, he hasn’t thrown many pitches in the minors either, so there’s a legitimate question in camp.

How does Kyle Zimmer work with the 2017 Royals?

Before I get into the Zimmer discussion, let’s make one thing abundantly clear. Every single mention of Zimmer comes with the caveat we’ve said a million times – “if healthy.” I just wanted to get that out of the way because it could have been pretty uncomfortable to repeat that for however long this article ends up.

Of course that’s the biggest question with him. In Zimmer’s career so far, he’s had shoulder issues, elbow issues, hamstring issues and probably more. He was a first round selection in 2012 and even pitched some that year in both rookie ball and low-A ball and yet he’s still only thrown 222.1 innings across five minor league seasons. Last year, he threw a whopping 5.2 innings before there might have been a ray of light shone on his issues when he was diagnosed with Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Now, after that surgery, he’s in big league camp feeling healthy and confident. Health is good.

Because here’s the thing: when healthy, Zimmer might be the most talented pitcher in the organization. Yes, I know Danny Duffy exists. Yes, I’m well aware of what Kelvin Herrera brings to the table. And don’t worry, I’ll be back to Herrera soon enough here. What Zimmer can do when he’s on the mound is electric. Another question is what his stuff will look like when he does actually pitch, but we won’t get an answer to that question for at least a few days, so until then, we’ll assume he’s still really good.

I know what you’re thinking. Great, but where does he fit?

That’s a good question. It’s why I asked it to start this piece. To me, if Zimmer is capable of taking the mound and his stuff is where it once was, the only place he should be is in the big leagues. Zimmer is now 25 years old. He was born a mere three months after the late Yordano Ventura who threw 547.2 innings for the Royals. The time is now for Zimmer to be a member of the big league club, and I think he will be.

We won’t know for a little while if he’s still even capable of being a starting pitcher at any level. I suspect he will, but we don’t have that answer definitively. Given that, as well as the fact that he’s thrown 74.1 innings in the minors since the start of the 2014 season, I think Zimmer’s place for 2017 (at least to begin) will be in the bullpen. And that will answer one of the overarching questions on this Royals team because if he’s part of the bullpen, I do believe it can return to the dominance we’ve grown accustomed to when watching the Royals.

It’s understood that most pitchers see their stuff play up a notch when moving to the bullpen from the rotation. It’s why guys like Wade Davis were average to below average as starters but beasts as relievers. The difference with Zimmer is that I think he could be a beast as a starter right now as well but is (theoretically) moving to the bullpen because the Royals want to ease his workload. In my opinion, Zimmer has two plus-plus pitches in his fastball and his curve along with two other pitches (slider and changeup) that will most definitely work as a starter but aren’t excellent offerings. Out of the bullpen, he can focus on the fastball and the curve and be a dominant force to be reckoned with in relief.

As a guy who has been developed as a starter, there might be questions about whether or not he can handle the workload of a reliever, and I think that’s fair when you combine that with his health concerns. It’s worth noting that he spent a good portion of the 2015 season working as a reliever, so he’s at least familiar with getting hot at different times. He also never pitched on back-to-back days, so that would be a new role for him and maybe one he never actually experiences at the big league level.

But think about what kind of back of the bullpen the Royals could have on days where Zimmer was available to pitch. Ian Kennedy could go six and give up two or three runs. The offense could work to scratch out three or four runs to take a one-run lead into the seventh when the Royals could deploy their new trio of Zimmer, Matt Strahm and Herrera. That is three power arms who have differing styles to end a game. That’s almost not fair to opponents.

There’s space in the bullpen for him too, especially considering the injury to Brian Flynn. As it stands now, the Royals have Herrera, Strahm, Joakim Soria, Chris Young and one of Nate Karns and Travis Wood ticketed for relief. That leaves two spots open. I believe that Peter Moylan will earn one of those after he earned Ned Yost’s trust during the 2016 season, but that leaves one more. Sure, it could eventually go to one of the non-roster guys, but Zimmer is more talented than all of them. Chris Withrow would be my other favorite to make the roster, but he has a 6/1 opt out date, which allows the Royals to keep him as inventory.

There are certainly other options for Zimmer, which I’ll list in the order of what I think is the likelihood they occur:

  1. He gets hurt again. The TOS surgery wasn’t a cure-all and he continues the trend of never pitching a full season healthy.
  2. Zimmer could start the season in the minor leagues. I’m not sure if he’d work as a starter or reliever because the Royals would definitely want to keep an eye on his workload. If this was the case, he’d be one of the first up to the big leagues in the case of either injury or ineffectiveness.
  3. He wows the Royals so much in spring training that they carry him as a member of the rotation. I don’t think this is especially likely, but given his talent, I wouldn’t put it past him or the team. The issue, as I’ve said already, is workload. He almost assuredly can’t be counted on for 20 starts, let alone 33.
  4. The Royals get offered a trade that they can’t refuse and Zimmer is sent to another organization. This isn’t happening, but I suppose it’s possible.

As I mentioned last week, roster questions have a way of working themselves out, so that’s why I think Zimmer opening in the bullpen or being hurt again are the two most likely outcomes. We’ll learn a lot more about Zimmer, his place on the roster and the Royals bullpen as the next few weeks of spring training unfold.

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