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2017 BYB Tigers Prospect #14: LHP Kevin Ziomek will be on the comeback trail in 2017

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Thoracic outlet syndrome ended Ziomek’s 2016 season, but he appears on track to begin his comeback.

MLB: Detorit Tigers-Spring Training Media Day Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s one thing that really throws a monkey wrench into the already sketchy realm of prospect projection, it’s an injury. Lefthander Kevin Ziomek was ranked as high as fourth in the Detroit Tigers’ farm system by FanGraphs last year. Unfortunately, Ziomek’s season ended almost as soon it began, as a host of nagging issues were eventually diagnosed as thoracic outlet syndrome. Ziomek went under the knife in June to correct the issue. As a result, his status this season is still in question. Until he’s back on the mound, with innings under his belt, it’s difficult to know what to expect.

Ziomek is a former Vanderbilt standout, which is one of better pedigrees for a college draft pick. The Tigers selected Ziomek in the third round of the 2013 draft as a control artist with advanced feel and command of a fairly complete repertoire. It was a high-floor selection, with a good chance that Ziomek would get to the majors in some capacity, and hopefully quickly. His first two full seasons of pro ball put his attributes on fine display, as he handled both Single-A ball at West Michigan, and High-A ball with the Lakeland Flying Tigers with ease.

Currently, Ziomek is still rehabilitating, though cautious reports suggest that things have gone according to plan thus far. However, the uncertainty surrounding him hurts his stock significantly as a prospect, so much so that the Tigers declined to protect him in December’s Rule 5 draft. That no team claimed the talented young lefty speaks to how dicey the timelines are for him to even return to pitching. And, beyond the pitcher in evidence before the surgery, there’s just no way to forecast his potential development until he does.

Strengths

Ziomek has a lot to offer as a starting pitcher. He has very advanced feel and command of his fastball, and a complete set of secondary pitches including a plus-flashing changeup that impressed as well. In carving his way through the Florida State League in 2015, Ziomek displayed the excellent strikeout-to-walk foundation of an advanced prospect, and allowed just three home runs across 154 23 innings of work.

Dan Farnsworth at FanGraphs complimented Ziomek’s obvious polish, opining that he is more than your standard soft-tossing finesse pitcher.

He has always been a pitchability first, stuff second prospect, but he’s also armed with a fastball that consistently comes in at 89-93 mph. One contact called his stuff “sneaky” — suggesting Ziomek is more than a finesse pitcher — with plenty of stuff to be a starter in the big leagues if the opportunity arises.

Farnsworth graded Ziomek’s fastball and curve as having above-average potential and even believes his change could become plus, with the changeup and fastball already grading out as average major league offerings. The slider didn’t impress, as its intermittent success was as much about command as the bite on the pitch.

Ziomek throws from a fairly low three-quarters angle and is quick to the plate. His short, quick arm stroke gives him a bit of added deception often described as “sneaky.” His arm angle produces good fade and sink on the fastball. However, it’s tougher to get on top of a quality slider from that arm slot, making it difficult to produce depth and bite. As a result the jury is still out as to whether Ziomek can develop a breaking ball good enough to regularly fool major league hitters.

Weaknesses

Obviously Ziomek’s injury is a big enough weakness to blot out all other weaknesses at the moment. And, unlike most elbow injuries, it’s more difficult to project a return to action. As such, Ziomek’s prospect rankings took a huge hit this offseason. TigsTown was always more cautious than optimistic with Ziomek, and had him ranked just 17th prior to the 2016 season. Mark Anderson explained why.

Unfortunately, Ziomek’s raw stuff has backed up since college and it no longer matches the impressive results he has generated to date. Throughout his season at High-A, Ziomek showed a below-average to fringe fastball that peaked at 92 mph when he reached back for more and his command was off all season.

Where things go from here is tricky to forecast. While successful Tommy John surgery has become commonplace in the past two decades, thoracic outlet syndrome is an unfamiliar beast. The Tigers moved Ziomek from Double-A Erie to Lakeland when symptoms presented themselves after his first outing of the season. Because the syndrome can present with a complex array of symptoms, it’s difficult to diagnose. There were several abortive attempts at rehabilitation over the next two months. It wasn’t until June that Dr. Richard Pearl, a Dallas surgeon, performed surgery on Ziomek.

As Ziomek explained to Mark C. Volain of MassLive, there are a range of degrees to the syndrome, making it all the more difficult to get a bead on a potential return date for him. That uncertainty can be a lot tougher on a young pitcher than a more common elbow injury.

Ziomek passed along the warning from doctors to not look to far into what TOS means for him, as everyone is different.

"They always cautioned us against into looking into it online. It sounds like there's various degrees of this (syndrome)," Ziomek said. "My mom was concerned when looking on WebMD, but there's different degrees. I know I'm in good hands with the Tigers and Dr. Pearl."

With Ziomek’s injury, he plummeted down TigsTown’s prospect list this year, checking in at No. 44. Meanwhile, Eric Longenhagen of FanGraphs is not as put off, ranking Ziomek at No. 17. Longenhagen is also a bigger fan of the slider than some.

The viable changeup and solid slider command allow Ziomek to mitigate platoon issues that might otherwise be caused by his low arm slot. There’s still a good chance for Ziomek to yield some big-league value despite his developmental crawl, assuming he’s healthy.

Jacob’s Scouting Report

Fastball: 55
Curve: 50
Slider: 45
Change: 55
Command/Control: 60

Projected 2017 team: High-A Lakeland Flying Tigers

With Ziomek still rehabbing to recover from surgery, any projection may be premature. Either way, it’s almost certain that his road back will begin in Lakeland. The Tigers moved him there for observation after the initial discomfort last year, and the new medical and training facilities make it the sensible landing point for him. Even if he returns, his health and arm strength are going to be the sole focus. Any finer development is delayed until Ziomek proves he’s healthy enough to return to his previous fast track.