In December 2014, the Royals took a flyer on former Braves starter Kris Medlen with expectations of nurturing him back from his second Tommy John surgery. The Royals paid Medlen $2 million last year to complete his rehab and contribute 64 1/3 innings in the second half and the postseason. This season, Medlen will make a base salary of $5.5 million and is a prime candidate to crack the Opening Day rotation.
The theme continued in late January when the Royals signed former Atlanta reliever (and two-time Tommy John survivor) Peter Moylan to a one-year minor-league contract. And last week the Royals recorded a Peachtree Street hat trick when they signed lefty Mike Minor to a two-year, guaranteed $7.25 million deal with a mutual option for 2018.
Coincidence? Not entirely. Kansas City general manager Dayton Moore and his top assistant, J.J. Picollo, both came to Kansas City from Atlanta, and manager Ned Yost spent 12 years as a member of the Braves' coaching staff. He's a Bobby Cox disciple who still talks regularly with the current Braves manager, Fredi Gonzalez.
"Coming from our Braves ties, we know these guys a little bit," Yost said. "I always have my eye on what the Braves are doing. That's the team I root for outside of us, because I was there 12 years. They've got a place in my heart. Dayton is probably the same way. Dayton has an eye for these guys. He knows Moylan and Medlen and Mike Minor. He can see the pitch ability and the stuff they have, but he also knows their character and makeup. That helps big-time."
In the Royals' spacious new clubhouse at Surprise Stadium, Medlen and Moylan sit in a confined space that the beat writers refer to as "ex-Braves corner." They have an enduring bond forged by shared success and suffering from their time as teammates and friends.
During 2014 spring training in Florida, Medlen was borderline despondent over blowing out his right elbow for a second time. He received a pep talk over dinner from Moylan, who was then trying to resurrect his career with the Houston Astros.
"We had a meal, and I told him, 'Listen buddy, this isn't going to end you. You'll come back from this,' " Moylan recalled. "A week later I called him and said, 'You're not going to believe this. I just blew out [my elbow].' "
Medlen and Moylan spent the entire 2014 season putting their careers back together at a suburban Atlanta rehab facility. One day Medlen would do the driving, and the next day Moylan handled the commute. They spent three days a week on arm work, and two more working out in a pool.
"When something like that happens, you can go one way and be depressed, or go the other way and kind of revive yourself," Medlen said. "It helped us to be able to kick each other's asses. It put us in a good spot for the following year."
Two springs later, opportunity beckons in Kansas City. The defending champion Royals are set with Edinson Volquez, Yordano Ventura and Ian Kennedy in the 1-3 spots in the starting rotation, and Medlen will compete with Chris Young, Dillon Gee and Danny Duffy for one of the final two openings. In all likelihood, the two pitchers who don't make the rotation will begin the season in the bullpen.
Moylan, 37, faces a bigger challenge in trying to make the Opening Day roster. Kansas City is loaded in the bullpen with Wade Davis, Kelvin Herrera, Joakim Soria and Luke Hochevar. The Royals also plan to take a look at veterans Brian Duensing, John Lannan, David Huff, Chien-Ming Wang, Ross Ohlendorf and Brian Flynn in spring training.
"I signed here with the full intention of making the team out of spring training," Moylan said. "I know this a great bullpen, I just want to make an impact in spring training and be more than an afterthought when it comes time for them to make decisions. I want them to say, 'What about Moylan? He's done everything right here and thrown the ball well.' I'm older and wiser and I can offer advice to everyone that wants it. But I also feel like I can still compete."
Minor, a former first-round draft pick out of Vanderbilt who was once regarded as an elite MLB prospect, underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder in May and missed the 2015 season. He's currently throwing from a distance of 120 feet, but the Royals have set no timetable for his return and he probably won't be pitching until June at the earliest.
"I'll pitch this year," Minor said. "I just don't know when. The philosophy here is, 'We go one day at a time.' It’s not about how many reps or throws you make. It's about how you feel. It's good for me and good for the front office. They're looking at me to get healthy and help them out a little bit in the second half and then next year -- just like Medlen."
Flashback to 2013, and Medlen and Minor combined to throw 401 2/3 innings for an Atlanta team that won 96 games and a National League East title. Medlen went 15-12 with a 3.11 ERA, and Minor posted a 13-9 record with a 3.21 ERA. Maybe they won't return to that level of success in Kansas City, but the Royals are happy to take a shot. For an affordable price, Dayton Moore is getting the band back together in Surprise.