The late-morning desert sun was pushing temperatures toward 90 degrees at the Arizona Fall League as Kyle Gibson began discussing the rising heat -- on his fastball.
Sitting at a picnic table, with his twice-scarred right elbow tucked to his side, the Twins' 2009 first-round draft pick had a hard time containing his smile.
Gibson had Tommy John ligament replacement surgery on his right elbow on Sept. 7, 2011, but now he looks as good as new, if not better. His average fastball velocity has jumped from 89 to 90 miles per hour pre-surgery to about 92-93 mph in Arizona.
"My stuff is the best it's ever been," Gibson said earlier this month. "I feel better than I've ever felt. I have a little bit more on my fastball. Everything's moving a little bit differently, and it just feels a little more comfortable, really."
Gibson, 25, spent the fall re- establishing himself as the Twins' top pitching prospect and was added to the 40-man roster Tuesday. When he reports to spring training next February, he'll be 17 months removed from elbow surgery and a viable candidate to start the season in the big-league rotation -- if the team lets that happen.
As badly as the Twins need starting pitching, General Manager Terry Ryan remains cautious about Gibson.
"Let's keep it in perspective," Ryan said. "Don't get too carried away with, 'Well, he's dominated all these levels.' He hasn't pitched that many innings in the minor leagues [275 2/3 for his career]. So he'll come in and compete for a spot."
Other major-league scouts believe the 6-6 righthander still has the potential to be a strong No. 2 starter on a championship-caliber team -- an ace by the Twins' recent standards, at least. Even Ryan sounds giddy when he starts rattling off Gibson's attributes.
"He looks like they're supposed to look," Ryan said. "He's got the nice frame. He's got a good delivery. He's got a three-pitch mix. He throws plenty hard enough. He can spin the ball, and he can throw his off-speed. He's a good athlete. He's a good kid."
Growing up in Greenfield, Ind., about 25 miles east of Indianapolis, Gibson lived in a basketball hotbed, but baseball was his passion. In first grade, he wrote a paper, stating his goal of playing in the major leagues.
"He was so easy to raise," said Gibson's father, Harold, who helped coach his traveling teams. "He would do anything I asked him. If I told him to hold the bat the wrong way, upside down, he would have been trying to find a way to do it."
Gibson's path toward his goal was not smooth. He fractured the growth plate in his right elbow during his freshman year of high school and required surgery. It was a repetitive stress injury; all those long hours of practice had caught up to him.
The recovery went well, but it gave Gibson and his family a wake-up call.
"We might have been living our life through baseball," Harold Gibson said. "Kyle took on a different appreciation for what was important. He said, 'If I don't pitch another day in my life, it's OK. I've got other things.'
"And I think that's helped him a bunch. Baseball isn't life. It's something he loves to do."
Gibson had two good seasons at Greenfield High School, but he wasn't a prized recruit. He still had growing to do. As a senior in 2006, he was 6-3, 160 pounds. Missouri was one of the few colleges to offer a scholarship, and he wasn't drafted until the 36th round, by the Phillies.
"I was really skinny and didn't really throw that hard," Gibson said. "I think senior year, I was throwing 86-91 [miles per hour], so it wasn't like I was a super prospect."
Gibson chose to attend Missouri, defying his father, who thought he should sign with the Phillies.
"I was so upset with him," Harold Gibson said. "We hardly talked for a week. I said, 'Do you know how many kids would kill to be in your position?' He said, 'Dad, I don't want to go to the minors. I want to go to the majors.'"
Gibson knew he wasn't physically ready for professional baseball. He got taller and filled out his slender frame at Missouri. By his junior year, he was listed as a potential top-10 draft pick.
But his stock plunged late that season, when he developed a stress fracture in his right forearm, about four inches from the elbow. The injury healed with two months of rest, but it caused Gibson to fall to the 22nd overall pick in the 2009 draft, where the Twins grabbed him and eventually signed him for $1.85 million.
The Twins were among many teams that passed on outfielder Mike Trout, who went to the Angels at No. 25 and recently won the American League Rookie of the Year award and finished second in the AL MVP voting at age 21. But the Gibson selection sure looked good in 2010, when he climbed from Class A to Class AAA, going 11-6 with a 2.96 ERA in 26 combined starts.
The Twins invited Gibson to big-league camp in 2011, and he made a good impression before returning to Class AAA Rochester. He seemed a sure bet to join the Twins later that year, but after a strong April, his season unraveled. By August, he was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament. Dr. David Altchek performed the Tommy John procedure a month later.
"I've been really lucky," Gibson said. "The whole process, it almost seemed too easy. The [Twins] training staff and Dr. Altchek's staff laid it out really, really well. And for the most part, I was blessed. I didn't have any setbacks."
Gibson returned to a mound by July and pitched 28 1/3 innings at three stops in the minors, including two games for Rochester. His first two starts in the Fall League were eye-openers: He allowed one run in 10 innings, with 16 strikeouts and no walks.
"I've seen him at his best, before he was injured, and he's similar to that now," said Mike Radcliff, the Twins vice president of player personnel. "He doesn't have the sharpness of the slider that he did in the past, but velocity, approach, remaining in control, usability of all three [pitches], he's about the same."
Close to the goal
The Fall League is considered a finishing school for baseball's top prospects, and Gibson's final four outings were pretty rocky. He finished 3-2 with a 5.40 ERA, but the Twins' biggest takeaway from 2012 is that Gibson has been able to rack up about 75-80 innings, counting his controlled workouts in Fort Myers, Fla.
The Washington Nationals famously shut down Stephen Strasburg this September after 159 1/3 innings, in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. The Twins have hinted they won't let Gibson throw more than 140 innings next year; it's worth noting that his career high for innings pitched was 152 in 2010.
"I don't think you ought to put a strict number on [Gibson's 2013 innings limit]," Ryan said. "I still believe it's more about pitches per outing and how [the innings] accumulate and the way he gets through a particular game and so forth. But we're certainly going to monitor him."
The Nationals were widely panned for shutting down Strasburg, while the Braves were generally praised for how they handled Kris Medlen. In his first year back from Tommy John surgery, Medlen opened the year in Atlanta's bullpen. After moving to the rotation on July 31, he went 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA in 12 starts and finished the year with 144 1/3 innings pitched, counting the postseason.
"I know the Twins have talked about a couple scenarios," Gibson said. "I really can't control any of that. They're going to set my innings limit. I'm not going to have any say in that because if I did, I would say 180 innings, and I'm ready to go."
Gibson said he's ready for anything, even if it means opening another season in the minors. But at some point next year, the dream he wrote about in first grade could come true.