2/25/2014 2:35 P.M. ET
Full speed ahead for Royals southpaw Lamb
Despite being derailed by Tommy John surgery, pitcher is focused on '14
By Dick Kaegel / MLB.com
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- John Lamb walked into the Royals' clubhouse on Tuesday morning with a look of confidence. Lamb felt he'd weathered his first pitching test under the Arizona sun pretty well.
The left-hander had worked one inning in the Royals' first intrasquad game on Monday, giving up back-to-back doubles to Christian Colon and Jimmy Paredes, but also getting three outs on two ground balls and a routine fly.
"It went all right. I just wanted to go out there and throw strikes, and I thought I did a decent job of that," Lamb said. "Other than that, I'm not really thinking much about it, in terms of what happened yesterday."
Lamb is getting good at forgetting the past. He prefers to look ahead because sometimes he doesn't like what he sees in his rearview mirror.
Last year, when Lamb turned 23, he was pitching for Class A Advanced Wilmington. If things had gone as forecast years before, he should have been pitching for the Royals in Kansas City. After all, Lamb once was one of the club's elite pitching prospects.
Look at what he did in 2010. A fifth-round Draft choice two years earlier, Lamb jumped three levels up to Double-A and won the Paul Splittorff Award as the Minor League system's top pitcher. In 2011, MLB.com ranked him fifth among the Royals' top prospects -- behind Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Mike Montgomery and Wil Myers, and ahead of Jake Odorizzi and Danny Duffy.
Good company, indeed. Montgomery, the only pitcher ranked ahead of Lamb, was packaged with Odorizzi and Myers in last winter's big trade with the Rays. Moustakas and Hosmer are Royals regulars and Duffy is among the candidates for the Royals' fifth starting job, a list on which Lamb's name does not appear.
Lamb has been slowly coming back after undergoing Tommy John surgery during the 2011 season. He blames himself for some of his woes.
In a nutshell, when Lamb was a highly-regarded prospect out of Laguna Hills, Calif., things came easily for him and he didn't realize how hard he had to work for success in pro ball.
"Poor eating habits to poor working out. I wouldn't say I was a completely lazy human being or baseball player; I was more baseball-inclined," Lamb said. "I would do anything on the baseball field you'd ask me to do and loved to do it. But when it came to weight-lifting or anything like that, I just never really grasped the importance.
"And I finally got hurt after a long 2010 season. I didn't do anything that winter. I literally came home and did nothing. And that was the same thing I did the winter before and I went out and had a really successful 2010 season. And that's when 'they' -- baseball world or whatever -- started hyping up about me. I was kind of just going with the flow at that point, just kind of riding out whatever I was successful with."
Then came elbow surgery and the long road back. Scott Sharp, the Royals' director of player development, has been watching.
"I think young players in general, sometimes they're focused, sometimes they're not so focused. It depends on the individual," Sharp said. "Sometimes it takes an injury for that focus to become more narrow, and with John I think it has. The good thing is, he is still young, relatively speaking. It sounds like he is focused and all the conversations I've had with him leading up to this year, it's been laser-focus. It's good, it's better to get it at 23 than to get it at 43."
After his surgery, Lamb pitched just six games in 2012 and last year had a bumpy ride with Wilmington, going 4-12 with a 5.63 ERA in 19 games. A-ball proved a tough go for a guy who'd once rocketed up to Double-A.
"I think his focus got off what he needed to do, here and now, every day," said Vance Wilson, his manager at Wilmington. "And I think about halfway through the year, he figured that out. Once he kind of relaxed and did his work, focused on each day individually, his work ethic got much better. Two weeks after the All-Star break, all of a sudden, all right, here's the guy we've been waiting for."
Before the season ended, the Royals sent Lamb to Triple-A Omaha, where he was 1-2 in three starts for manager Mike Jirschele, now a Royals coach.
"I talked to him this spring and he was very excited that he got the taste of Triple-A, and finally looked and said, 'Hey, I'm only one step away,'" Jirschele said. "Which is a good thing for him. He knows it's right there within reaching distance."
Lamb can't count the helping hands in the Royals' organization along the way.
"I love the saying, 'It takes a village to raise a child,'" Lamb said. "I'm very fortunate to have been drafted by the Royals because of their patience with me and what I've gone through -- wow! I feel like I've got everything I need now. It's just how I go out there and use it."
Lamb has to keep throwing strikes, polish up his changeup and regain some of the velocity on his fastball.
"I've been getting a lot of encouraging talks on the side about the velo [velocity] and how it's come back in their eyes," Lamb said. "I don't know. I haven't had a gun on me yet to really see where I'm at. It feels good; I don't feel like I'm holding anything back and to me that's important. That's something I haven't been able to say the last two or three years."
Lamb believes that, just in time, he's discovered the work ethic that will pull him to the Major Leagues.
"I mean, I love this, I love the game, being around the field," he said. "I just feel like I took it for granted and it's been a humbling three years of just trying to get back to whatever I was. To be honest, I don't care about the past, I'm just to a mindset of taking advantage of today. I'm thankful to be here and I'm going to take advantage of it. It's pretty simple now."
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.