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'Forgotten man' Kingham eyeing MLB debut in '17

Prospect finished rehab from Tommy John surgery last year
MLB.com

PITTSBURGH -- Nick Kingham finished the demanding rehabilitation process from Tommy John surgery last year. He doesn't have to look far to find a perfect example for how to handle the next step.

Kingham, the Pirates' No. 10 prospect, has spent the offseason living in the Houston area with Jameson Taillon. Kingham underwent reconstructive elbow surgery in May 2015, 13 months after Taillon's procedure.

PITTSBURGH -- Nick Kingham finished the demanding rehabilitation process from Tommy John surgery last year. He doesn't have to look far to find a perfect example for how to handle the next step.

Kingham, the Pirates' No. 10 prospect, has spent the offseason living in the Houston area with Jameson Taillon. Kingham underwent reconstructive elbow surgery in May 2015, 13 months after Taillon's procedure.

Taillon thrived in his return to action last season, dominating Triple-A hitters then posting a 3.38 ERA in 18 starts for the Pirates. Later this year, they could be reunited in Pittsburgh's rotation.

Kingham, 25, is also training with Taillon at Fairchild Sports Performance in Houston. The 6-foot-6 right-hander watched Taillon improve himself -- physically, mentally and mechanically -- during the grueling, occasionally monotonous rehab process. Kingham set out to do the same.

"I just want to follow in his footsteps and take whatever he did and do it for myself," Kingham said.

Video: NYM@PIT: Taillon tosses quality start in MLB debut 

Seeing Kingham at PirateFest last month brought back memories of the previous December, when Taillon stood in the same spot on the convention center floor and answered many of the same questions.

Taillon offered some advice, Kingham said: "Don't expect too much, but don't be scared, either. Just let your body tell you how far to go, how far to push it, and roll with it."

General manager Neal Huntington has frequently referred to Kingham as a "forgotten man" -- overlooked by outsiders, but certainly not within the organization.

Kingham is hidden on top-prospect lists behind higher-profile pitchers like Taillon, Tyler Glasnow and Mitch Keller. Chad Kuhl, Steven Brault and Trevor Williams beat him to the Majors, working their way up the organizational depth chart while Kingham recovered and rehabbed.

But Kingham is not far removed from being one of the sport's most promising prospects. He ranked 74th overall before the 2015 season, according to MLBPipeline.com, and projected as a future No. 3-type starter. He owns a 3.32 ERA in the Minors and reached Triple-A in '14. If he had been healthy, he might have made his Major League debut late in '15.

As Taillon proved, time away from the spotlight does not necessarily dim a prospect's potential.

"We do anticipate that with continued growth and development, Nick will be able to help us at some point this summer," Huntington said. "Is it September, July or earlier than that? His continued maturation, his development and growth will dictate that."

Video: Top Prospects: Nick Kingham, RHP, Pirates

Taillon made his big league debut early last June. Kingham could be ready sooner this year. Unlike Taillon in 2015, Kingham made his way back to the mound late last season, progressing through the Minors as he worked 46 innings over 10 starts.

Early last year, Kingham was unsure if he'd get in a game by the end of the season. But he pitched in the Gulf Coast League, the Florida State League and finally the Eastern League for Double-A Altoona. He showed little rust against Minor League competition, posting a 2.93 ERA with 36 strikeouts and six walks. He also threw at least five innings in his final five outings.

"Mentally, it was awesome," Kingham said. "Just that reassurance that my elbow is good and secure and strong enough to compete in a game at the upper levels. It's just good to be sure it's going to hold up and take a full game at full intensity."

Having proven to himself that he can still compete at a high level, Kingham entered a normal, healthy offseason. He won't make the Pirates' rotation out of Spring Training, but later this year, the "forgotten man" may give Pittsburgh a reason to remember him again.

"I feel like I kind of nailed everything I wanted to," Kingham said. "Just pick up right where I left off last year coming into Spring Training, keep my foot on the gas pedal and ready to go.

"I'm going to pitch my best and put myself in the best position possible and really make it a tough decision for them not to call me up."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Nick Kingham