BRADENTON, Fl. – Nick Kingham sort of becomes a forgotten man in the Pirates’ system. He’s currently rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, but doesn’t have the upside that Tyler Glasnow or Jameson Taillon have, which means his rehab won’t get the attention that Taillon’s received last year. He’s got more upside than Steven Brault, Chad Kuhl, and Trevor Williams, but isn’t healthy like those guys. The combination means that he gets left out of a lot of future rotation discussions.
The Pirates have been conservative bringing pitchers back from Tommy John, going beyond the 12 month recovery time that had become standard in the past. That looks to be the same approach with Kingham this year. He had Tommy John at the end of last May, and will probably be back a little beyond the 12 month mark in 2016. Thus, he likely won’t be in the picture for the 2016 rotation depth.
“I think that’s kind of what we’re leaning towards right now, 12 months pushing up to May,” Kingham said of his eventual return. “I don’t know for sure when I’ll be facing hitters, but I think it’s going to be a little later. Bullpens being hopefully next month. Not full bullpens, just getting off the slope and getting the angle. As of right now, I think it’s leaning a little over a year, but I have no certainty for that.”
Kingham has been in Bradenton for most of the last year since undergoing the surgery. He went home for the holidays in December, but has been here ever since. He has already built up to 120 feet in his throwing program, and now the progression is about building up how many days a week he throws. He got up to 120 feet, four days a week, but is currently in a two-week down period where he only extends out to 90 feet on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
“I think we’re the first group to implement that,” Kingham said of the down period. “They’re always tweaking it, trying to make some stuff different, make it better. Me and Justin Topa are the first ones to really do that progression. I’m a fan of it. It’s nice to have that little break in there.”
Next week, Kingham will go back to 120 feet, and extend to throwing five days a week. He expects to start throwing six days a week around the start of March, with bullpens possibly starting shortly after that. That also might be when he starts throwing his off-speed stuff, as he’s only throwing fastballs right now.
“I’ve only had maybe three weeks of flat grounds, so I won’t start [off-speed pitches] until after I start off the mound,” Kingham said. “I think I’ll stay fastballs until after I throw off the bump a little bit.”
The Pirates typically have their rehabbing pitchers spend time focusing on mechanics or specific pitches as they build back up. Kingham has been focusing on the mechanics, which is a good thing, since he struggled a bit with his control and command in the year leading up to the surgery.
“Just making my arm as efficient as I can,” Kingham said about the focus during his rehab. “Trying to make it repeatable. Just really clean and crisp. Nothing major, just real crisp mechanics is the main focus.”
Since Kingham won’t start throwing bullpens until sometime in March, he will end up being about a month behind the other pitchers in Spring Training. The Pirates have been cautious in the past year with their other Tommy John rehab guys, which means Kingham will probably be on a slower pace in building up with his bullpens, live batting practices, and eventual rehab games. This all makes it unlikely that he’d return at the one year mark or earlier.
Don’t expect him to play a role in the MLB depth during the 2016 season, but don’t forget about him as an option for 2017 and beyond. Prior to the Tommy John surgery, he looked like one of the top options who would have arrived in Pittsburgh in 2015. If it wasn’t for the surgery, he might have arrived in August when A.J. Burnett went down. And that might have put him in line to begin the 2016 season in the MLB rotation. A future in the Pirates rotation is definitely still possible for Kingham, but you can expect the Pirates to be conservative with his rehab in the short-term, in order to preserve his upside for the long-term.