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Updated: February 16th, 2013 3:13pm
Zulgad: Healthy Kyle Gibson looking to earn spot in starting rotation

Zulgad: Healthy Kyle Gibson looking to earn spot in starting rotation

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Terry Ryan spent this offseason in search of young pitching talent for the Minnesota Twins. The general manager traded his top two center fielders, Denard Span and Ben Revere, to acquire Alex Meyer, Trevor May and Vance Worley.

While these deals signified the fact that Ryan felt the Twins needed a major boost when it comes to young arms, there is at least one near major league-ready pitcher in the system in whom the franchise continues to have high hopes.

Righthander Kyle Gibson, the Twins' first-round pick in 2009, should contend for a spot in the starting rotation after sitting out much of last year. Gibson underwent Tommy John surgery following the 2011 season.

"They haven't really told me anything yet," Gibson said of where he might start the season. "Obviously, everybody here wants to get a chance to break with the team, so that's a goal of mine. That's what I want to do and hopefully I can earn that job and be able to be up here."

Gibson returned to pitch in 13 games with three different minor league teams in the Twins' farm system last year. He was at spring training a year ago but was very limited. This spring things are back to normal.

"I can't even describe it, honestly," Gibson said of no longer being limited. "Just to be part of a team again and to feel like I actually fit in in spring training for the first time in a couple of years. It's been kind of a breath of fresh air not to just be sitting in the training room for most of the day, or not being able to do a lot of the stuff that the team is doing. It just kind of makes you feel like you're part of the activities again."

Best case scenario, the 25-year-old Gibson will be an important part of the Twins' rotation either to start the season or at some point this summer. The Twins will be cautious with Gibson and he almost certainly will have an innings limit put him.

Gibson, though, said that hasn't been determined.

"The only thing I've heard is that it's going to be somewhere in between 130, 150, 160, something like that," he said. "I think that's just going to depend on how I'm feeling, how my arm strength is, how the season is going. There's going to be a lot of factors that go into it. So I don't think anybody is putting a hard number on it right now just because we don't know what's really going to happen."

Gibson, who is 6-foot-6, 207 pounds, made a rapid ascension through the Twins' system after being drafted out of the University of Missouri. He began the 2010 season with Single-A Fort Myers and went 4-1 with a 1.87 earned-run average in seven starts.

This earned him a promotion to Triple-A New Britain, where he went 7-5 with a 3.68 ERA in 16 starts. Gibson finished the season with Triple-A Rochester and had an impressive 1.72 ERA in three starts. Gibson, who in those three stops had 126 strikeouts and only 39 walks in 152 innings, did not get a decision with Rochester but it was clear he was on the fast track to the majors.

Gibson was impressive enough in spring training of 2011 that Gardenhire wanted him to be inserted into the competition for a spot in the starting rotation. That did not happen and Gibson was dispatched to Rochester with the expectation it would be only a matter of time before he got to Target Field.

That expectation proved to be wrong.

Gibson posted a disappointing 3-8 record with a 4.81 ERA in 18 starts. He struggled to pitch deep into games and then in a late June start against Pawtucket he felt a twinge in his elbow. Gibson took a few days off, then made two starts following the minor league All-Star break in mid-July.

He pitched only four and five innings, respectively, and surrendered 11 earned runs on 15 hits and walked five.

The decision was made to find out what was wrong with Gibson. The news was not good: He had a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament. "It was tough but I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason," Gibson said. "I think I got better as a person for it."

Interestingly, Gibson expressed regret about the way he approached the 2011 season, especially when it came to his lack of command.

"I know that's something that really cost me from having an average season to having a bad season, in my point of view," he said. "I think had I had command and had I worked on that a lot better I would have had a lot better results that year. I don't know if I would have gotten hurt. Maybe I would have, maybe I wouldn't have.

"I think I was trying to make adjustments because at the time I was struggling very bad, and I think some of those adjustments caused me to be just a little bit off. I made the mistake of trying to make adjustments in the middle of a game instead of waiting until after the game. But that's part of it."

Gibson returned to the mound late last season and also spent time in the Arizona Fall League, hitting 92 to 94 miles-per-hour on the radar gun. His slider and changeup also appeared to be sharp.

This raised expectations that Gibson was back on track to help the Twins, but nobody wants to do anything to jeopardize that progress. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire expressed caution when asked what the expectations are for Gibson.

"Just get to games," he said. "I haven't sat down with Terry Ryan and talked about that at all. We just started spring training and once we get through spring training, or sometime during the course of this spring training, we'll have a nice plan that probably Terry will be able to sit down and talk to you about it.

"But right now our goal is to get him out there with everybody else, all these guys that are coming off surgeries, and get to the games and see how they are doing once we start playing. Then once we get to the part where we are going to break down and see what we're going to have for the season, then we'll decide on how we're going to handle each guy and he's one of them."

Gibson admits he already has had to slow himself down at times this spring. That, of course, is easier said than done.

"It's hard to do that because I know that to get a job, I have to earn a job," Gibson said. "To pull back the reins is a little tough to do at some points because I understand that I've got a lot to prove. I've got to come out here and not only prove that I'm healthy but prove that I can compete at this level.

"So pulling back the reins isn't the first thing on my mind, but at the same time I have to be smart and realize that throwing a 60-pitch bullpen on the second day isn't the best thing to do. So back it down to 40 and kind of progressively throw more and just make sure that strength wise I'm there and ready to go."

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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