It was only a few years ago when Danny Duffy was one of the most prized prospects in the Kansas City Royals’ minor league system. When he first debuted in the majors in 2011 Duffy had his fair share of ups and downs, but he rebounded nicely in 2012 before suffering a season ending injury that resulted in Tommy John Surgery. Before the injury last season, Duffy went 2-2 with a 3.90 ERA in six starts and 27.2 innings pitched which—compared to the rest of the Royals pitching staff last year—can be considered a solid season for the lefty.
With the off-season acquisitions of James Shields, Wade Davis and Ervin Santana, the Royals’ pitching staff is beginning to take shape and for the first time in a long time, there is legitimate competition to fill out the rotation. For the number five spot in the rotation alone you have Luke Hochevar, Bruce Chen and Felipe Paulino among others. While competition is never a bad thing, it is also interesting to wonder where Duffy or highly touted prospect Kyle Zimmer could fit into this rotation as the season progresses. Without a doubt, if Zimmer or Duffy are ready to go and pitchers in the rotation aren’t performing well, manager Ned Yost will make a move to put either one of them into the rotation if he feels they will improve the team’s chances of winning. It is no secret that there is pressure to win now and it would be silly to think Yost wouldn’t make any move that would make the team better.
As you can see—however—with bringing back pitchers from Tommy John Surgery, the methodology and philosophy for incorporating a pitcher back into the swing of things is hotly debated and always unique. With Duffy figuring to be an important piece in the Royals’ future if they are to succeed and contend for a playoff spot, how the Royals decide to bring him back into pitching at the big leagues will take on an added pressure and its fair share of skepticism. There are many different ways the Royals can approach brining Duffy back in. One way would be to have Duffy pitch exclusively at the minor league level—the majority of which will be spent at Triple-A—until he reaches a level where he can be effective at the big leagues, at which time he will be promoted. Another way would be to ease him back into the rotation by implementing an innings limit similar to the approach the Washington Nationals‘ took with Stephen Strasburg, but how many innings to allow Duffy to pitch would be another hotly debated topic.
The approach that I would recommend—and highly endorse—would be the same approach the Atlanta Braves‘ took with their young pitcher Kris Medlen who was also coming off Tommy John Surgery. Medlen started the season in the bullpen and pitched well during the season in the opportunities and role he was given. Then in August, the Braves moved Medlen into the rotation where he excelled and pitched the Braves into the postseason where he would continue his success. This approach was genius on many levels. Not only did it allow Medlen to regain his form at a pace that was suitable for him, but it also allowed him to gain valuable experience working against big league caliber players throughout his rehab and return to form. This bridged the gap for when he returned to his prominent role—as a starting pitcher—because he didn’t have to adjust to the difference in skill sets of the players he would have been facing had he followed the minor league rehab plan.
There is a time and a place for each pitcher to have a specific type of rehab that is suitable to their developmental and health needs. If the Royals are looking to contend this season, Duffy is going to have to play a large role in that success, which is why his health should be of great interest. I recommend using Duffy out of the bullpen until late in the season when—if the Royals are in contention—the team can reinstate him into the rotation and reap the benefits of a fresh arm ready for the postseason.