Kyle Waldrop was the middle pick among five Twins first rounders in 2004, joining teammates Glen Perkins, Trevor Plouffe, and former Twin Matthew Fox to make up four of the five that eventually carved a path to the big leagues.
Waldrop was the last of the four to reach the big leagues, but it wasn't due to a lack of hard work. Waldrop overcame a debilitating arm injury that cost him the 2008 season to get a well-earned cup of coffee with the Twins during a tumultuous 2011 season for the entire organization. Towards the end of the season, Waldrop sat down in the Twins dugout with Twinkie Town's Brandon Warne to discuss Tennesse baseball, arm injury rehab, and that first time he got the call from skipper Gardenhire to take the mound in the big leagues.
Brandon Warne: Who is Kyle Waldrop?
Kyle Waldrop: Just a guy from Tennessee; born and raise there and kind of a laid-back guy. I’ve enjoyed sports all my life, basically just following what was in season. Baseball was something I excelled in early, and wanted to keep pursuing. That’s me in a nutshell, I guess.
BW: Tell us about your childhood a little bit, whether it’s playing baseball or anything in general.
KW: I started playing baseball when I was five; I was playing basketball at that same time as well. I played both of those through high school, but baseball was something that I think I enjoyed just a little bit more than everything else. I was able to play a bunch of different positions -- infield, outfield, and pitching -- and I really enjoyed hitting as well. I got to do that all the way through high school, as well. It kind of just progressed from there, each year just playing and enjoying it more, getting into summer ball and the more competitive travel leagues when I was 11, 12 years old. I had some great experiences with that, and it was something that was a dream of mine to keep pursuing.
BW: Did anyone make you any offers to play basketball after high school?
KW: No. I actually gave up basketball after my sophomore year. The baseball program at my high school was great; we were nationally-ranked and our coach was outstanding. We had a lot of great players. I felt like I had a better future in baseball, and at the time it was something I wanted to give the whole year too, not just the season. I focused on baseball to see how it would pay off, and fortunately it did.
BW: Did you have any notable teammates or opponents in high school?
KW: Michael McKenry, catcher for the Pirates right now, was my catcher; he was one year ahead of me, so I played with him for a couple years at my high school. I had some pitching duels against David Price’s team there in middle Tennessee during summer ball. Cale Iorg, who is in Triple-A with the Tigers, was another guy around there. Matt Spencer was on my team; he’s in Double-A with the Cubs also. We had a lot of talent in that area, and I’m sure I’m forgetting some. Shoot, we had a lot of talent in the area and we traveled around and saw a lot of good players.
BW: You were a first-round pick in 2004; take us through the scouting process and draft day itself.
KW: It’s hectic. It’s really hectic. I think it was July 1 that was the first day prior to my senior year when colleges could start offering to me. I was kind of a late bloomer growth wise -- I didn’t hit my growth spurt until my junior year -- so I wasn’t as physically mature as most kids. The college thing took shape way before the pros did, so that was where I first got started. There wasn’t a lot of pro interest at the start because I wasn’t as mature as some of the guys, and hadn’t been on the scene for a while.
So, the college thing took front stage for me until I signed in November to go to Vanderbilt. That was hectic in and of itself, dealing with that, but once I got done with that the pro scouts starting coming in doing some of the interviews to gauge my interest to see how interested I would be. But, I was excited just to get the college decision out of the way; I wasn’t even thinking about professionally at the time. Then over the course of my senior year, the pro interest really started picking up because I was having a great year hitting and on the mound. There were some teams that wanted to draft me as a hitter -- an outfielder -- so it was hectic. I was still planning on going to Vanderbilt, but it kind of came up out of nowhere at the end.
BW: So you’re chosen in the first round; were you truly expecting to go in the first?
KW: Well, there was talk with the Twins. Like I said, I was very set on going to Vanderbilt, and it was going to take a life-changing opportunity to sign me. So, I told a lot of teams that it was going to take a considerable amount of money to take me away from college, because I really valued it that much. So, a lot of teams said, "Thanks, but no thanks; we’ll see you in three years. We don’t think you’re quite good enough, big enough, or strong enough right now." So I told them that was alright, because that was going to be the best thing for me, and I was fine with that. But there were a couple teams -- the Twins and Cubs -- that kept talking to me up until the draft.
There were a lot of college right-handed pitchers that year in the draft (Justin Verlander, Philip Humber, Jeff Nieman, Wade Townsend, Jered Weaver, and Chris Lambert to name a few) and the Twins told me that if some of them slipped and fell, that they’d probably take them. But then, if I was still available, we had kind of worked out a little deal before the draft even happened. I ended up signing for a little less than slot money for that pick, but we kind of worked out things that if I was available at that pick, they would take me. I started seeing all the college pitchers taken early, and started thinking it might really happen, and it ended up happening.
BW: That sounds similar to the Ben Revere situation, where he told clubs that he had to be a first rounder as well. Anyway, so you’re drafted and signed and now you’re a Twin; what did you have to do to adapt to the Twins way?
KW: Well thankfully it was a pretty easy transition; my high school coach, Tommy Farr, was a great coach who really knew pitching - both mechanics and philosophy. So, his philosophy translated well to the Twins’, because it was ‘attack the zone, throw strikes’. Strikeouts are good, but ‘on or out in three’ was kind of what we used in high school and what the Twins used. It was really a pretty easy transition, because that’s what I did. I didn’t try to overpower hitters; I tried to pitch, to attack hitters, throw strikes, and let everything else happen. So, thankfully it was pretty easy in that sense.
The hardest transition for me was doing pitching everyday. I was always playing first base or the outfield on the days I wasn’t pitching, doing everything around the field. Just focusing on pitching was a big difference for me, and sometimes over-thinking it, you know? Because it’s all you think about. You don’t have school to deal with; you don’t have hitting to deal with. You’re just thinking about pitching all the time. Sometimes it’s just kind of hard to get your mind off it a little bit.
BW: You basically cruised into Double-A before scuffling a little bit in the second-half of ‘07, and then missed all of ‘08 with an arm injury. Take us through the struggles in Double-A that initial time, and missing the entire ‘08 season.
KW: The 2007 season started off OK down in Fort Myers; there were some things tightness-wise in my shoulder that didn’t quite feel the same. It never really gave me much pain, but over the course of the season, even before I was promoted to Double-A and when I was there, my stuff wasn’t the same. My velocity was dropping; I was probably sitting 85-86 miles-per-hour. I wasn’t able to throw my offspeed pitches like I used to, mainly because my shoulder was so tight that year that it was causing me to compensate in my mechanics. I wasn’t able to throw the same way, and it was causing all my pitches to do different things. I knew something was wrong, but it didn’t really hurt, so I kept trying to throw through it. Then, at the end of the year, I started having elbow pains. I had the elbow pains because of the shoulder. The elbow was initially what shut me down; I ended up going into the offseason trying to stretch and get looser, but nothing really happened.
Spring training came around, and my elbow was still really bothering me because of my shoulder. They diagnosed it -- I had to go into the shoulder and really loosen things up quite a bit -- that I had about blown out the UCL and almost needed Tommy John surgery. That was something that, over the course of ‘07, just kept getting worse. That’s not an excuse, but in some ways it kind of is, because my arm just wasn’t right that year. It was a struggle to get through that season. Once I found out something was wrong, I had to get it fixed and move on. It was definitely tough at the time, but I looked at it as though it was something I had to get done, and that I was only 21 at the time, so I had time to bounce back from it, but it was definitely a frustrating setback. Guys I was playing with were moving on up the ladder, and it was a year-long setback for me.
BW: Help us understand the rehab process; did you have to alter your mechanics at all?
KW: It was just teaching myself how to throw again. When you take that much time off from throwing, when you pick up a ball again you have to teach yourself how to throw. And teach yourself how to throw the right way! Because I was throwing the wrong way for an entire year. So, that took some time. There was definitely some struggles. The start of that ‘09 season, each day was a little bit different. One day would feel good, and one day wouldn’t feel so good. It was a daily struggle. But, I just had to kinda teach myself some things, and try to go back to what I used to do.
BW: Is that when you transitioned to being a reliever full-time?
KW: Yeah, I was a reliever. They still weren’t sure what they wanted me to do. I think they were planning on keeping me as a starter, but in the first game of spring training there was a freak accident. I took a line drive off my right wrist, and that shut me down for two or three weeks right like that. I wasn’t able to build up my pitch count to be a starter, so kind of out of necessity they kept me in the bullpen to start the season. They told me if I took to it well, and thrived in that role, that they’d keep me there and it might be my fastest way to the big leagues. But, if I didn’t take to the role because I’d been a starter all my career, then I could have gone back to starting. We really took a wait-and-see approach at how it went, and thankfully it went well, so we continued to do it.
BW: The past two seasons you’ve been on Rochester clubs that have struggled; what have you learned about the game of baseball and about yourself as a player, as well as being up here with a struggling Twins club?
KW: You have to go a day at a time. It’s tough when things aren’t going well as a team; you like to win, and it’s fun to win. You like the competitive nature as a pitcher, pitching in situations when you’re winning. You’ve just got to find some self-motivation to get yourself ready to pitch every time. It’s tough, but we’ve got a job to do, and that’s going out and getting guys out. Whether you’re winning or losing, you just have to go out and just try do your job the best you can.
BW: This is your first trip to the big leagues; tell us about your call-up.
KW: It was awesome. Honestly, I wasn’t even expecting it at the time. There were a couple days left in the season; I had everything packed up and ready to go back home to Tennessee. After our last home game in Rochester, I got the call and found out. I was thrilled. It was a crazy couple days, getting everything unpacked and repacked, and coming up here and getting some stuff sent home. It was a dream come true, especially considering how tough the past two years were. I had a pretty good second half in Rochester this year, and I thought about how I would have loved the opportunity this year if it wasn’t to be, because I understand that baseball is a business. I realized how things were, and was thinking about going to play winter ball someplace and who knows what would have happened, because I’d have become a free agent. But that wasn’t the case, and it was a dream come true. It has been an awesome month, and just been a lot of fun.
BW: Take us through your emotions that first time Gardy signaled for you to come out of the ‘pen.
KW: We had a day-night doubleheader that first day, and I was almost hoping to get into the first game, but I think it was the night game I actually pitched in. He told me when I got here to be ready to throw, because that’s what I was here for, and I was. I heard the phone ring, and just tried to take myself through the same routine I went through in Rochester, trying not to change anything up too much. I went out there and had a nice quick first inning like I like it, and then the second inning was good until I was one pitch away from getting out of the inning before everything snowballed a little bit and I couldn’t get out of it. That was frustrating, but I had a blast out there. It happened really quick, and I probably didn’t take too many breaths during it. The game was a little fast that night; I was just a little excited. Thankfully since then, I’ve been able to slow it down a little bit.
BW: What has the game taught you here in the big leagues?
KW: It’s the same game. The guys make adjustments faster, and there are obviously many more guys in the lineup that can hurt you. But you know, it’s still the same game. I don’t need to try to change what I do to get guys out. If I do that, I’m going to really struggle. I got this opportunity for a reason, so I don’t need to change what I do to get guys out. If I do that, it’s just going to be bad. So I just go out and attack hitters and do the same thing that I’ve been doing the last few years.
BW: Any parting thoughts?
KW: I’m just thrilled to be here. I haven’t seen everything Minneapolis has to offer. I’m just kind of staying in downtown right now, but it’s been a blast. Even though the team is struggling, I’m really enjoying seeing all the fans still coming out and supporting us. It’s kind of cliche, but there’s always next year. We’re going to be working hard, and guys will be getting healthy. It’s just been great seeing all the fans, and seeing everybody out here. It’s just been a blast, and getting to know some people and seeing some familiar faces has been a lot of fun.