I'm throwing this together after listening to Mike Rhyner and Corby Davidson trying to think of where Mike Kirkman came from and how he could have flown under the radar for so long. It reminded me that most folks probably don't know the remarkable story of how Kirkman got from 2005 fifth-rounder out of a Florida high school to 2010 23-year-old big league rookie. As many of you know, it's a story worth telling because it's hard to think of a homegrown Rangers prospect who has overcome more adversity on the road to Arlington than Kirkman has.
Kirkman went into his senior prep season as a marginal prospect, but shot up the charts during that 2005 spring season to become what Baseball America considered a third-round talent as he grew bigger, added velocity and -- as it was reported back then -- gained control of his emotions. Though he was committed to Lake City (FL) Community College (where he might have been a teammate of outfielder Cameron Maybin, the No. 10 overall pick in that year's draft), Kirkman was recruited by a number of NCAA baseball powerhouses including Florida State, Mississippi State, Florida and Miami. The Rangers were therefore probably very fortunate to land him in the fifth round and get him under contract for $163,000.
Kirkman enjoyed a very strong debut season in the Arizona Rookie League, improving each month (4.21 ERA through his first seven appearances; 2.52 ERA through his final six) before going to fall instructionals where he created some buzz. During the spring of 2006, Kirkman was a buzz boy on the back fields, much like Ian Kinsler had been in 2004 and Edinson Volquez had been in 2005. I distinctly recall watching him commanding three pitches with uncanny precision and visiting with Rick Adair about what a huge talent the Rangers had stumbled onto. My notes from that time indicate that Kirkman had a heavy 90ish fastball, a plus 1-to-7 curveball and a slider that he threw for strikes.
During his rookie 2005 AZL season, hitters suffered equally against Kirkman no matter which side of the plate they stood on. Lefties hit .255 against him, while righties hit just .247. He didn't allow a homer all year and he posted a 1.29 ground-to-fly ball ratio while recording 58 strikeouts in 52.1 innings. He entered the 2006 season as a probable helium guy And then the wheels came off. And I do mean off.
At age 19, in his second pro season out of high school, the Rangers aggressively assigned him to Class-A Clinton, skipping the short-season Northwest League. But there was no reason to think that Kirkman wasn't up to the challenge.
He wasn't. Making six starts spanning just 19.1 innings, Kirkman posted a 6.98 ERA in the generally pitcher-friendly Midwest League, walking 24, plunking one and unleashing five wild pitches before being sent out to extended spring training. He re-emerged later in the summer with the rookie-league Arizona Rangers and the control issues that had plagued him in Clinton were even more pronounced. During his second tour of duty in the AZL, Kirkman posted a 13.20 ERA in 15 innings over the course of eight appearances during which he walked 27 and fired off nine wild pitches. He also suffered a hamstring injury that year, but that was a minor concern compared to the borderline Steve Blass disease.
When he reported to fall instructionals after the 2006 season, it was discovered that Kirkman had a minor tear in an elbow ligament, and he was sent home and told not to pick up a ball again until January.
The next spring, things were no better. Kirkman was such a train wreck during the spring of 2007 that his pitches were sometimes sailing 10-12 feet over the catcher's head. Just watching his body language around the back fields that spring was heartbreaking. The kid was utterly lost and appeared to have the confidence level of an abused puppy.
The Rangers eventually assigned Kirkman to Clinton again, only to see him fail once again. He was demoted to Spokane where he posted a 7.00 ERA in nine appearances, walking 25, hitting two and issuing seven wild pitches in just 27 innings of work.
In 18 months, Kirkman had gone from helium boy to total bust.
But he didn't give up.
In 2008, Kirkman made his third run at the Midwest League and, suddenly, he was once again throwing strikes. He was getting hit -- his stuff still wasn't back to where it had been as a rookie in 2005 -- but he was finding the plate again. Over the course of 15 appearances that year, Kirkman posted a 4.38 ERA and walked "just" 23 while fanning 58 in 74.1 innings.
There was hope. Not much. Kirkman's 2008 season wasn't enough to put him back on the prospect map, but he was lingering on the periphery of the radar.
And then 2009 happened. Served up to the pitching hell that is Bakersfield and the High-A California League, Kirkman put up unthinkable numbers.
In a stadium -- the euphemistic nomenclature of Bakersfield's "Historic Sam Lynn Ballpark" never fails to make me giggle just a bit -- and a league (the southern division of the Cal League is nothing but bandboxes) that crushes the confidence of dozens of pitching prospects every year, Kirkman blew the thing up. In eight appearances spanning 48 innings, Kirkman posted a 2.06 ERA, punching out 54 and walking 18 while allowing just one homer.
Nobody does that in Bakersfield. Nobody. And coming from a guy who only 18 months earlier had clearly lost all confidence in himself, it ranked among the most incredible things I've ever seen in my decade following Rangers prospects.
In an interview with LoneStarDugout.com's Jason Cole, Kirkman cited an interesting source for helping him get back on track:
"I started watching Cliff Lee pitch, and I started watching video of him and video of me. I was comparing myself to him. One thing he did is he shortened up his front arm and it let him get through the ball rather than having to go around himself to get to the plate. That really, I think, is what turned me on."
That spectacular Cal League performance earned Kirkman a promotion to Double-A Frisco in June of 2009. The morning he was set to make his debut in the Texas League, I sat down with Rangers minor league pitching coordinator Danny Clark to talk about the re-emergence of Kirkman as a major prospect. Clark beamed while talking about the quiet lefty:
"I’m more excited about Michael Kirkman than any pitcher we have right now from the standpoint of everything he’s gone through to get here. The command issues, injuries. He got sent back to extended a few times. Gotta give Keith Comstock a lot of credit for what’s happened with Mike for all the work they put in back in Surprise over the past couple of years.
"The big thing about Mike is that he doesn’t back down. He’s a quiet competitor. He’s a country boy and doesn’t say a lot. He’s not going to go out and draw attention to himself, but you lead the Cal League in ERA and strikeouts and that gets you plenty of attention.
"We’ve always seen the fastball velocity which is plus for a lefty starter — 92 to 94 — but he’s got total command of it right now with the plus breaking ball that he’s throwing for strikes. I’m a big Kirkman fan. Couldn’t be happier for him."
Kirkman's tenure in the Texas League was solid, but not quite as spectacular as his blitzkreig through the Cal League. He battled and fought more than he dominated, but he finished up with a respectable 4.19 ERA in 18 appearances spanning 96 innings, striking out 64 while walking a slightly disturbing 43, raising at least some suspicion that his control issues might not be entirely behind him.
Nonetheless, Kirkman's 2009 season was good enough to earn him a spot on the Rangers 40-man roster over the winter, and he rolled into the 2010 season with a somewhat surprising assignment to Triple-A Oklahoma City, where he stamped himself as an elite prospect at age 23. In 131 Pacific Coast League innings, Kirkman struck out a league-leading 130 hitters and posted a 3.09 ERA, which stands as the third-best mark in the league.
Kirkman has a classic starter's assortment -- four-seamer, two-seamer, curveball, slider, cutter, change-up -- and has above-average velocity for a southpaw. While his control is no longer an issue, his command remains a minor one and he must continue to hone it in order to achieve his upside as a solid number three starter in a good rotation.
Kirkman will be in the mix for a rotation spot next year, but for now, he's taking the ball and running with it towards a spot on the Rangers post-season roster. For those of us who have followed Kirkman's story over the past five years, it damn near brings you to tears to see him killing it out of the Texas bullpen right now. His is probably the most improbable ascent through the system that you'll ever see and a glowing testament not only to Kirkman himself, but to the Rangers' player development system.