Age: 25 (DOB: 10/23/87)
GULF: 14.2 IP, 2.45 ERA, 16/4 K/BB, 0.89 WHIP
A: 7.0 IP, 2.57 ERA, 7/1 K/BB, 1.00 WHIP
AAA: 6.2 IP, 9.45 ERA, 10/1 K/BB, 1.80 WHIP
Turn the calendar back two years. It's spring training 2011 and the Twins are coming off a second straight division championship. Kyle Gibson is an attention magnet in camp. He's coming off a spectacular pro debut that saw him fly through three levels of the minors, knocking on the door of the majors by September. He's recently been ranked by Baseball America as the 34th-best prospect in ball – 15th among pitchers.
Gibson works his way into a couple big-league exhibitions and the Twins publicly toy with the notion of bringing him north, but ultimately decide to let him gain more experience in Triple-A. There is no room in the rotation for him.
Yep, it was a different time.
The rest is history. Gibson goes to Rochester and pitches decently but begins struggling with elbow pain midway through the summer. In August tests reveal a partial tear of the UCL and, a month later, he undergoes Tommy John surgery.
Fast forward seventeen months. The right-hander now returns to Fort Myers hoping to once again establish himself as the story of spring training. Considering his talent and the statement he made with his performance after returning to competition late last year, it would be no surprise if he does.
We can't glean much from the statistics compiled by Gibson last year in 13 regular-season outings split between rookie ball, Single-A and Triple-A. Twenty-eight innings is too small a sample for any conclusions, especially when many of them are pitched against teenagers getting their first taste of pro ball.
But as you look over Gibson's results, you can't help noticing the strikeout-to-walk ratios. Between his rehab stint and his six starts in the Arizona Fall League, the recovering righty notched 61 whiffs with only 14 free passes in 51 1/3 innings. That's a 10.7 K/9 rate against a 2.4 BB/9 rate. Tremendous.
When Gibson took the minor leagues by storm in 2010, missing bats and limiting walks were both parts of his formula. But his penchant for inducing ground balls is what set him apart. At 6'6", his ability to locate a sinking fastball and sharp slider down in the zone creates an impressive downward plane that prevents opposing hitters from lifting the ball often. If his track record holds, Gibson could put up elite grounder rates approaching 60 percent.
During his appearances in the fall league, his fastball was clocked between 93-95 mph, indicating that his velocity has returned (and then some, maybe).
The nice thing about Gibson is that he's got a relatively high floor. He might not have truly dominant stuff, which is why you'll rarely see him labeled as a potential ace, but his skill set damn near guarantees at least some measure of major-league success. As long as he can stay healthy – and you'd hope the early reconstructive surgery will put him on that path – he seems like as safe a bet as there is to become a steady constant in the Twins' rotation for the next several years.
Twins fans know as well as anyone that major elbow surgery can have lasting deleterious effects on a young pitcher. Francisco Liriano was never quite the same again after undergoing Tommy John surgery as a 22-year-old, and he's hardly the only example. By going under the knife and essentially losing a full year just as he was on the cusp of the majors, Gibson missed out on crucial development time.
Now, he's a 25-year-old with no major-league experience who has logged only 123 innings over the past two seasons combined. And while it's easy to find positives in Gibson's peripherals, he simply hasn't achieved sustained results yet above Double-A. In 23 total starts for Rochester, he has registered a 4.67 ERA and a 1.41 WHIP.
While his performance last season must be viewed as a success overall, one can't ignore that he was knocked around a bit in his two starts at Triple-A, and then struggled after a hot start in Arizona. Gibson hurled 10 innings of one-run ball in his first two AFL starts, but then yielded 13 runs over 13 1/3 innings (8.77 ERA) in his final four, posting an uncharacteristically ugly 12-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Said Gibson of his late skid: "I feel like if I had better command I would really feel good about my Fall League experience, but since I lost my command at the end that was a little frustrating."
Rust from a year off? Fatigue catching up? Simply a rough patch? Or are there more troubles on the horizon for Gibson as he learns to pitch with a new ligament while adjusting to competition at the highest level, which he – unlike most 25-year-old top prospects – hasn't had the opportunity to face at all?
The Bottom Line
By all appearances, Gibson is physically back to where he was before surgery, at which point he was arguably the Twins' best prospect. That he finds himself outside the Top 5 this year is a credit to the advancement of the system since he went down, but also a caution that the return from Tommy John surgery isn't always – or even often – smooth.
[TD’s Top Ten Prospects: #10: Max Kepler]
[TD’s Top Ten Prospects: #9: Trevor May]
[TD's Top Ten Prospects: #8: J. O. Berrios]
[TD's Top Ten Prospects: #7 Eddie Rosario]