Kyle Gibson’s dream is in reach.
Fully recovered from a reconstructive procedure on his right elbow, the Greenfield-Central graduate will report to the Minnesota Twins’ spring-training home at the Lee County Sports Complex in Fort Myers, Fla., early next week to battle for a spot in the team’s starting rotation.
On Sept. 7, 2011, the six-foot-6 right-hander underwent “Tommy John” surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow.
Shortly after his procedure, Gibson told the Daily Reporter that his goal was to be ready for spring training in 2013 and compete to be one of Minnesota’s five starters.
Five days before he’s due to report to spring training, Gibson has achieved his objective.
“It was my goal in 2011, and I wasn’t even on the 40-man roster. I’m trying to make that goal a reality, for sure,” said Gibson, who lives 15 minutes away from the team’s spring training complex. “If I use the stuff I have and keep getting better, I definitely have a chance. I don’t know what my chances are, realistically.
“But if I focus too much on my chances instead of doing what I need to do, I won’t get my work done.”
After a lengthy recovery process, Gibson returned to the mound on July 10, 2012 for a rehab assignment in a Gulf Coast League game in Fort Myers.
Following his rehab stint, Gibson went on to pitch for the Fort Myers Miracle — the Twins Class A Advanced team — and the Rochester Red Wings (Triple-A) before participating in the Arizona Fall League in October and November.
Between those four 2012 stops, Twins’ Executive Vice President and General Manager Terry Ryan said the 25-year-old Gibson threw about 71 innings.
Gibson said he expects to throw between 140 and 160 innings in 2013.
“He’ll come into major league camp next week with the ability to compete for a spot and we’ll see how he responds,” said Ryan, in his 15th season as Minnesota’s GM. “… I’m not going to make too many decisions until we see exactly where he fits.”
In 2012, the Twins had an American League-worst 4.77 ERA, and their starting rotation was second to last in the majors in quality starts (six innings pitched, three or less earned runs) with 62 and victories in games started (39).
The club brought in right-handers Kevin Correia (4.54 ERA in 10 ML seasons), Mike Pelfrey (896.1 career innings pitched, but coming off Tommy John) and Vance Worley (3.50 ERA in 46 career starts) to add stability to the staff.
Lefty Scott Diamond (12-9, 3.54 ERA) returns after a solid rookie season in 2012.
Nick Blackburn, Cole De Vries, Samuel Deduno, Rich Harden, Liam Hendriks, Esmerling Vasquez and P.J. Walters are also in the mix for a position in the rotation.
Jonathan Mayo, who covers the draft and minors for MLB.com, said it’s likely Gibson will suit up for Minnesota at some point in 2013.
“They have a bunch of No. 4 (starters) in their rotation. I could see the Twins wanting him to start the year at Triple-A to get some innings,” said Mayo of Gibson, rated as the Twins’ fourth-best prospect by MLB.com. “I have to think he’s going to get a long look in spring training. If he looks sharp — I know he works hard in the offseason — and he has enough time removed (from Tommy John), why not?
“…And even if it doesn’t happen right way, I could see a scenario where they send him down to get some work but say, ‘We’ll see you soon.’”
Pre-injury, Gibson rose quickly through the Twins’ minor-league ranks, earning the club’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year award in 2010 while tossing at Fort Myers, Double-A New Britain and Rochester.
He started off at Rochester in 2011 and even pitched at Victory Field in Indianapolis that July. Soon thereafter, Gibson was placed on the disabled list with arm soreness, and eventually he underwent Tommy John surgery.
The University of Missouri product insists the injury no longer weighs on his mind.
“Right now, all the doctors have told me that my arm is as strong as it’s going to be,” Gibson offered. “The trust shouldn’t be a big deal. Throwing in Arizona and Rochester (in 2012) gave me the reassurance I needed.
“It’s time to get back to refining my craft and getting my command to where it needs to be. I need to work on how to pitch, and less on staying healthy.”
Gibson’s fastball — which is back to topping out at its pre-Tommy John speed of 94 mph — was rated a six out of six by Mayo. Gibson’s other two pitches, a changeup and a slider, were given five out six in Mayo’s evaluation.
“When he’s 100 percent, he can dominate,” said Mayo, adding that Gibson’s heater is effective due to its ground ball-inducing sink. “But he knows how to pitch well enough that when he doesn’t have his best stuff, he knows how to have success.”
Ryan further elaborated on Gibson’s pitching toolbox.
“He’s got enough velocity. He’s got a slider that he’s able to strike people out with. He’s got a pretty good feel for his changeup,” Ryan explained. “He’s a good enough athlete. He can control the running game and he can field his position.
“He’s got a sound delivery — one of those nice, free and easy arm actions. It’s all there.”
Thanks to the success of two pitchers during the 2012 MLB season, two schools of post-Tommy John thought have emerged in regards to innings limitations.
Washington Nationals’ right-hander Stephen Strasburg underwent Tommy John in September 2010 and returned to the big leagues a year later. He was 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA in 159.1 innings pitched in 2012 before Washington shut him down on Sept. 7. Strasburg, who is nine months younger than Gibson, had to watch from the sidelines during the National League Division Series as his top-seeded Nationals lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in a five-game thriller.
The opposite strategy was employed by the Atlanta Braves and Kris Medlen.
Medlen underwent Tommy John in August of 2010 and, like Strasburg, rejoined the big-league club in September 2011.
However, the right-hander began the 2012 season in the bullpen, then was sent down to the minors to prepare for a return to the rotation. Medlen rejoined the Braves’ starting staff on July 31 and finished the season 10-1 with a 1.57 ERA in 138 innings, including going 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 83.2 innings as a starter.
The major difference between Strasburg and Medlen is this: Both Strasburg and Gibson are exclusively starters. Fifty-five of Gibson’s 57 career minor-league appearances have come as a starter.
On the other hand, Medlen has pitched in 120 major-league contests, starting 30.
Ryan was clear on where he stood on Gibson’s place on a pitching staff.
“Kyle’s never been a bullpen guy, and I’d be less than enthused about starting to change his role. We’re going to bring him in as a starter, and we’ll respond as we go through this thing,” he explained. “I think it’s more important to get him into a comfortable role — we don’t even know if he could be resilient enough to be able to pitch out of the bullpen. I would not want to risk that.”
Gibson and Ryan are on the same wavelength, though that doesn’t mean Gibson wouldn’t try his hand at relieving.
“From what I’ve heard, since I’ve always been a starter, the plan is to keep me there. But you know what? I’m willing to do whatever it takes to get to the big leagues,” he said. “If it comes up on March 30 that Ryan wants to move me to the bullpen because they think I can do it, I will do it.”
After all, Gibson knows how close he is to getting the phone call every little boy that played baseball dreamed of receiving.
He’d love nothing more than to be introduced with the rest of the Twins on April 1 when they open the regular season at home vs. the defending AL champion Detroit Tigers.
“I’m going to assume that if I do what I need to do…the Twins have said they’ll give me a chance,” he offered. “Hopefully they’ll call my name at the end of spring training.”
By The Numbers
4: Gibson's rank on MLB.com's top 20 Twins' prospects
275.2: Professional innings thrown by Gibson, all in the minors
71: Innings thrown by Gibson in 2012 at four different spots
140-160: Innings Gibson anticipates he will throw in 2013
94: Top speed of Gibson's fastball before and after Tommy John surgery