Zimmer heads into pivotal 2020 season healthy

February 16th, 2020

SURPRISE, Ariz. -- As you might expect, this Spring Training is massively different for the mindset of right-hander .

After years of arm and shoulder surgeries, and endless rehab assignments, Zimmer spent much of 2018 at the renowned Driveline Baseball performance training center. Essentially, it represented his last chance at saving his baseball career.

At Driveline, Zimmer reinvented himself physically and mentally, and in 2019, for the first time since being drafted in the first round by the Royals in 2012, he arrived at camp last season completely healthy. And Zimmer was so impressive -- hitting the gun at 97-98 mph -- he went north with the team for the first time.

Statistically, Zimmer’s 2019 season was mostly unremarkable. He had a 10.80 ERA in 15 appearances for the Royals and a 4.33 ERA in 37 outings at Triple-A Omaha.

But Zimmer made it through an entire season healthy. And that meant everything.

Now, Zimmer comes into camp with a different philosophy. He isn’t concerned about health. He just wants to prove he can pitch well enough to earn a spot on the 26-man roster.

“I’m just a lot more relaxed,” Zimmer told MLB.com. “Having a full season last year, I got to take a deep breath. Last five or six seasons, all I’d worry about was health. Everything was centered around that.

“Last year I got here and I felt I had so much to prove, not only to myself but to friends and family and the organization. I was carrying this big weight on my shoulders that, ‘Hey, I can do this after this long road of injuries. Watch me.’

“I was able to prove that and stay healthy and compete. Results-wise, it was a little up and down. But that was about learning how to navigate through an entire season. I’d never done that before and you just have to experience it to know. Now I know.”

Zimmer will have his work cut out for him this spring. There are 39 pitchers in camp -- the most ever under general manager Dayton Moore -- and there are only a few spots open in the bullpen.

The back end of the bullpen, with closer and setup men and is set. Right-handers , who is out of options, and , both shifted from the rotation to the bullpen specifically to improve the overall unit. López is a lock to make the team, and if Sparkman can hit 96-97 on the gun in shorter bullpen stints, he's close to it.

Veterans and are signed to Minor League deals, but there is a sense among the coaching staff and the front office that both would almost have to pitch their way off the 26-man roster this spring.

Theoretically, that could mean seven of the eight bullpen spots already are filled.

That might leave Zimmer battling with numerous other candidates for that final spot, though a lot can change throughout camp.

“There is definitely a lot of competition here,” Zimmer said. “But I just want to prove I can help this team. I’m confident I can do that.”

Luckily for the Royals, Zimmer, who had been thought to be out of options after 2019, was given a fourth option by MLB this winter because of his injury-riddled career.

“[Assistant general manager] Scott Sharp called me in the offseason and said I got an extra option because of all the previous injuries,” Zimmer said. “My first three years of options were burned and I basically didn’t even pitch. So I get that extra option now.”

Former Royals pitchers such as Brian Flynn and John Lamb also got fourth options for the same reasons. Having that option this year gives the Royals some leeway -- they don’t have make a do-or-die roster decision with Zimmer at the end of camp. He could start the year at Triple-A.

“I’m not thinking about that all that much,” Zimmer said. “I’m just trying to show them I belong here. I have all the confidence I can help this team.”

So far, new manager Mike Matheny has been impressed with Zimmer, and also sees a slightly different pitcher in 2020 than from last season.

“I saw every game he threw in Kansas City and in Omaha, too,” said Matheny, who was a special advisor last year. “To me, he’s in the middle of his progression. He is still at a pivotal point. But he still has options, which makes it great for the organization.

“You look at it, last year was so huge for him. I told him what a huge deal it was for him to stay healthy. He knows that. But I noticed that last year his whole focus was on mechanics. If that’s all you’re thinking about, you can’t [control your command]. I think for so much of his season, he was focused so much on mechanics and staying healthy, it was really hard for him to control location. The stuff is there.

“Now, he isn’t thinking so much about mechanics. He can just go out there and compete, knowing he will stay healthy. There’s just that little bit of difference in how pitchers finish their pitches when you have confidence. I see that with him this spring. I’m excited to see him make that next step.”