Tommy John's name is in the news so often these days that you'd think he was still taking the mound every fifth day. More than a dozen big leaguers have already had the reconstructive elbow surgery synonymous with John's name this year, among them promising young stars Patrick Corbin of the D-backs, Kris Medlen of the Braves, Matt Moore of the Rays and Jarrod Parker of the A's.
The accustomed attrition of pitchers has been taken to an extreme this year. Several of the game's top pitching prospects have been sidelined as well. Archie Bradley (D-backs) went on the seven-day disabled list Tuesday with a strained elbow, Taijuan Walker (Mariners) has just been cleared to play catch again after battling shoulder issues since Spring Training, and Jameson Taillon (Pirates) went from throwing 94-97 mph in mid-March to Tommy John surgery in early April.
Royals right-hander Kyle Zimmer, the fifth overall pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft and the No. 23-ranked prospect on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 list, has yet to work an inning in the Minor Leagues this season, and he might not do so until June. He didn't throw a pitch in a game during Spring Training, either.
There's nothing wrong with Zimmer, however. He's perfectly healthy, and this is part of Kansas City's plan to keep him that way.
It's unclear if a team has handled a blue-chip prospect who's nearly ready for the big leagues like this in the past. But coming off an 86-win season, their best since 1989, the Royals hope to be playing meaningful games in September and October. And they'd like Zimmer to be a part of that.
"We're not trying to reinvent the wheel," Kansas City assistant general manager J.J. Picollo said. "It's just a decision based on this individual and what's best for the organization. There's not an example or a model we can follow, but with all of the Tommy John surgeries and injuries to pitchers, getting guys through their first couple of seasons is so paramount. Our research shows that most of the injuries to pitchers occur in their first two full seasons in professional baseball, and then after seven or eight years.
"Knowing the fragility of pitchers, it didn't make sense to push him hard early. Pitching with intensity in April would take its toll in September. We really need Kyle to be in midseason form in September."
Zimmer's history in pro ball also helped drive the Royals' decision of how to handle him in his second. A pre-Draft physical revealed bone chips in his elbow, so after working 39 2/3 innings in his first pro summer, he had minor surgery to remove them. Zimmer pitched his way to Double-A by mid-July last year, but came down with biceps tendinitis and made just two starts in August.
When Zimmer began throwing again in December, his arm still didn't feel 100 percent. Kansas City decided not only to give him additional time off, but also to push back his entire schedule.
The beginning of Zimmer's offseason program moved from December to February. Rather than build up his arm strength by working increasingly longer outings during Spring Training, he didn't do much more than play catch and soak up wisdom from veterans in big league camp. When Opening Day arrived, Zimmer stayed at the Royals' training base in Surprise, Ariz., instead of heading to Double-A Northwest Arkansas.
He spent April throwing bullpen sessions, live batting practice and simulated games, and he'll make his first start in an extended spring game next week. He'll throw 30 or so pitches in his first game, and then move to 45 to 60 to 75 during the next three. After he completes the 75-pitch outing, Kansas City will decide whether to give him more one start in extended spring camp or ship him to Double-A.
Zimmer, who has been in Surprise since mid-January, admitted that he's getting anxious to get back on a mound, and he likened extended spring camp to baseball purgatory. Nevertheless, he has bought into the plan.
"Obviously, I have full trust in whatever the organization thinks is best for me personally and for the team," Zimmer said. "I'm 100 percent behind it. The fact that I'm sketched into their plans in the near future is exciting. The time is sort of now in Kansas City, and to be part of that is exciting."
Zimmer has less mileage on his arm than most 22-year-olds, another reason that the Royals want to be careful about piling too many innings on him too quickly. He barely pitched in high school and the University of San Francisco recruited him as a third baseman. He was a full-time pitcher for just two years with the Dons, and he has logged only 148 innings in pro ball.
Kansas City would like to cap Zimmer at roughly the same number in 2014. Other options to do so included shutting him down before season's end, like the Nationals famously did with Stephen Strasburg in 2012, or having him skip starts during the year.
Picollo said the Royals' rotation depth enabled them to take this unusual approach with Zimmer. The club had confidence in its starting five of James Shields, Jason Vargas, Yordano Ventura, Jeremy Guthrie and Bruce Chen -- who combined to go 10-6 with a 3.10 ERA in April -- and didn't believe it would need to count on Zimmer until later in the year.
"The other part of the puzzle is that we felt good about our rotation in Spring Training and didn't have an immediate need," Picollo said. "Because the rotation was in pretty good shape early in the year, we felt like we had this luxury.
"If he pitches like we expect him to, we'll have a fresh Kyle Zimmer in September. He's as important as anybody in the organization for this year and the future, and this just made more sense."