SURPRISE, Ariz. — Who’d ever thought that talking about landing correctly on your lead toe or eliminating the bouncing hands ahead of your delivery would be all that exciting?
Actually, a sense of joy can be heard in the voice these days of Royals righthander Keaton Hayenga, who loves talking about those issues because, finally, a two-year recovery from a torn labrum is almost complete and his pro debut appears not far away.
“Oh, it’s nice to not have to focus on the shoulder anymore and instead focus on being an actual pitcher again,” Hayenga said Thursday at the Royals’ facility here. “I hurt my shoulder in April of 2007.”
Hayenga, a 6-foot-5, 180-pounder who turns 21 on July 10, is one of the more under-the-radar arms in spring training, and arguably any spring training here in Arizona. The Royals signed him for $300,000 as their 31st-round pick in 2007 and did so despite Hayenga having suffered the injury two months earlier on a dive into a base.
But that season went by, and then last year went on without him as well, save for a brief showing in instructs in which Hayenga’s fastball was 92-95 when he finally received clearance to pitch.
Now he’s letting it fly and appears appears ready to pitch in meaningful games, although the Royals are leaning toward keeping him in extended spring training.
Not that such a wait would necessarily be a negative. If Hayenga joined short-season Idaho Falls, it would put his family within an 800-mile drive from his hometown in Sammamish, Wash., in order to catch his debut.
“He’s come back here (since instructs) and he hasn’t missed a beat,” Royals farm director J.J. Picollo said. “He’s going to be an interesting guy.”
But first up is Hayenga making slight adjustments, particularly with his plant foot and cutting out the bouncing of his hands when he pitches out of the stretch. It had been used as more of a timing mechanism.
The shoulder, he reports, is not an issue at all.
“It feels really good,” Hayenga said. “I was concerned in instructs if my velocity would come back and I was already throwing a lot harder than I did in high school. So in the process of getting stronger (in rehab), my arm got stronger as well.”
He is also optimistic about a changeup that he says is ahead of his curveball at this point. He’s throwing the curve a few times in bullpens and in games but has yet to get a good feel for it.
“I rarely used (the changeup) in high school, but I feel a lot more confident now than I did before,” Hayenga said. “The issue is trying to show the same arm speed and not try to slow the arm down.”
Overall, they are positive topics considering the long road he has traveled just to pitch again.
“I can’t wait to go play in a league and go play somewhere,” Hayenga said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to pitch in a game.”
A few years ago, any quality arm reaching Double-A in the Royals organization probably would have been all but earmarked to make a whistle stop before being hurried to the majors.
Fortunately for the Royals and two of their prized arms in the high minors, Kansas City now has a much healthier outlook this year with its big league rotation.
That bodes well for righthanders Dan Cortes and Blake Wood, who will be making a return trip to Double-A Northwest Arkansas and may spend most of the year there.
“Let’s face it—every major league manager wants their pitchers to throw a strike when they need to,” Picollo said.
Translated, the Royals are pressing Cortes and Wood to refine their pitches in the Texas League and are banking on comfortable surroundings to help hasten the process.
Last year, Cortes finished 10-4, 3.78 with 109 strikeouts and 55 walks in 117 innings. Wood split the season at high Class A Wilmington, pitching 57 innings, and then got in 87 innings with Northwest Arkansas, where he finished 5-7, 5.30 with 76 strikeouts and 36 walks.
Both showed flashes but also showed signs they are not yet ready. For Cortes, his trouble spot was lefthanders, who hit him for a .285/.396/.455 line, and he also had a habit of speeding up his delivery. Wood, too, has similar issues.
“With Danny, it’s about repeating his delivery and commanding the strike zone,” Picollo said. “In big league camp, his fastball was 95-96. But he’s got to get better command of it.”
Wood, who’s got the heavy fastball and power curve, could really make noise with a return trip, too.
“He’s an interesting guy as well,” Picollo said. “He can make adjustments on the mound. He’s just scratching the surface, so we think there’s a lot more in there.”
Righthander Henry Barrera, a power arm that was added to the 40-man roster in November despite reaching only high Class A Wilmington, is on a throwing program after suffering a sore elbow.
“Ideally he’d break with a club, but we feel like he’ll be all right,” Picollo said.