Unfortunately, a series of injuries and control problems kept Kirkman grounded and mostly limited to the complex or short-season leagues for three consecutive seasons. In 2006 and 2007, Kirkman posted a cumulative 8.32 earned-run average with 88 walks in 74.2 innings between the AZL Rangers, Spokane Indians, and Clinton LumberKings.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Kirkman began to turn things around with Clinton in 2008, when he logged a 4.36 ERA in 74.1 innings. He gave up 78 hits, walked just 23, and struck out 58. Kirkman's velocity sat between 88-90 mph for the most part, but it began improving late in the season.
The 6-foot-4, 195-pound hurler opened the 2009 season with High-A Bakersfield, but in a rotation alongside first-round picks Michael Main and Blake Beavan, Kirkman still didn't get much attention. Until the season started.
Kirkman was far and away Bakersfield's ace during the first half, when he went 4-1 with a 2.06 ERA in 48 innings. He limited hitters to a .244 average and fanned 54 batters. More importantly, Kirkman's slider looked like a sharp, swing-and-miss offering, and his fastball ranged anywhere between 91-94 mph–a big improvement from the previous season.
Upon his promotion to Double-A Frisco, Kirkman continued to pitch well, particularly for a guy with relatively little experience. He logged quality starts in six of his last seven outings and ended with a 4.19 ERA in 96.2 innings for the RoughRiders.
On Thursday, the Rangers rewarded Kirkman for his hard work and breakout season with a spot on the 40-man roster. The 23-year-old would have been eligible for December's Rule 5 Draft, but because of his solid low-90s velocity and promising slider, a big league team may have been tempted to stick Kirkman in their bullpen next season.
Kirkman is now one step closer to the Major Leagues, but he still has some work to do. The southpaw's command improved by leaps and bounds during the 2009 season, but it still must improve. Kirkman will also spend the 2010 campaign focusing on making his changeup a more consistent pitch.
Lone Star Dugout caught up with the Florida native after he was added to the 40-man roster on Thursday.
|Kirkman's hard work is paying off. b>|
Michael Kirkman: I knew it had to be turned around from my first three years. I just worked as hard as I could and it paid off. I hope that it's going to keep paying off. I threw strikes, I threw the ball over the plate. I limited the damage when I had to. And I felt like I had confidence in every pitch that I threw.
Cole: Did you feel that this year was sort of a product of building on the momentum you gained at the end of 2008 in Clinton?
Kirkman: Yeah. I definitely built off that '08 in Clinton. I ended up good. I pitched decent throughout the end of that season–the second half or whenever I got there. I carried that confidence into the offseason, worked hard, and took it into Spring Training and throughout this past season.
Cole: It seemed like you pitched pretty well in the second half this season, even though you were throwing far more innings than you ever had in the past. How were you able to succeed at the Double-A level in sort of uncharted waters at the end of the year?
Kirkman: It was just confidence in myself. My first couple of years, when I was hurt and all that, I didn't have any confidence in what I was doing out there. I finally started telling myself that I can do it. Throw the ball over the plate and let your defense work for you.
Cole: From early on in Double-A towards the latter part where you started having more consistent success, did you make any adjustments or changes that helped that improvement along?
Kirkman: No, not really. It's just one of those deals where you go out there and you throw one pitch, and it works. Then you build more and more confidence into what you're doing physically. Mentally, I was prepared for the whole season. I just kept getting stronger mentally.
Cole: Having that high inning total this year, how did your arm feel throughout the season? Did you go through anything like a dead arm period at all?
Kirkman: I felt like there were some outings where I felt like I was throwing 85 up there, and I wasn't. That was actually when I pitched the best. But no, my arm never felt bad. We kept it in shape with a long-toss program. Jeff Andrews kept us straight. He's a great pitching coach.
Cole: Overall, as you look back on the season, is there one area of your game that you're most satisfied with?
Kirkman: My slider has come along, and that is really big. But my fastball command. That has always been an issue with me, since I was eight years old. I'm finally thinking mentally that I can get it down in the strike zone and over the plate.
Cole: You didn't throw your slider last year, correct? I believe it was only a curveball?
Cole: I saw you pitch a number of times this year. It seemed that most of the time you preferred the slider to the curveball, although you had an occasional outing where you threw the curve just as much–if not more–than the slider. Is it safe to say the slider was your preferred breaking pitch this year?
Kirkman: Yeah, I felt like it was a lot more consistent every time out. There were times where I didn't have it, and I had to throw my curveball. I've had confidence in that too–that I can get it over the plate and get outs with it. But most of the time, that slider comes out of the same exact slot as my fastball, and I feel like I have a lot more control and I can put it where I want it the majority of the time.
Cole: Even though you like the slider more, do you plan on still throwing your curveball in the future?
Kirkman: If I have to, yes. I really don't mind throwing it. It's a little more deceptive, I feel, than my slider because it comes up and breaks down. I won't say I'll throw it more than my slider, though. I feel that my slider is my most effective pitch. But it's effective off of my slider.
Cole: I know you threw a slider when you got into the Rangers' system. How long did you have your slider on the shelf, and why did you do that?
Kirkman: About a year and a half. When Rick Adair was the pitching coordinator and I was struggling–and I was trying to come back–he felt there was no reason for me to have four pitches when I couldn't command one. I bagged it, and it worked for awhile.
Then I started getting the ball over the plate, and this past year, in Spring Training, someone asked me about my slider. I think it was a catcher. I can't remember who it was, but they asked me if I still threw my slider. I said I had it, but I was thinking about reinstating it in the repertoire. And there it went. I started throwing it again.
|His slider was a difference maker this season. b>|
Kirkman: Absolutely. Yeah.
Cole: How long did it take you to get the feel for your slider back after you started throwing it again this past spring?
Kirkman: Not long at all. It's a lot more of a natural hand placement according to my fastball. I feel like it's a lot more natural.
Cole: One of the things you mentioned that I thought was interesting–you said you had your most success when it felt like you were throwing 85, even though your velocity was pretty consistent throughout the year. Do you know if there was a reason behind that?
Kirkman: I think it was just my arm being loose–feeling loose. I wasn't having to work as hard to get that good velo and that good bite.
Cole: I know your changeup was a bit of a focus this year. How did you feel about the development of that pitch this season?
Kirkman: It is so hit-and-miss right now. I cannot get it to be consistent. One game I'll go out there and get three ground ball outs with it. Then the next time around the lineup even, I might hang one and it'll be hit for a bomb. But that's definitely the pitch that I've got to work the hardest on.
Cole: Do you feel that it did improve during this season? And about how many times per start were you throwing it?
Kirkman: When it would work, I would probably throw it eight or ten times–maybe up to 15 if it was working really good and I was getting outs with it. But when it wasn't working, I would throw it two or three times to a three- or four-hole hitter just to show him something different.
Cole: Obviously you're likely going to need to develop that changeup to start in the Major Leagues. I assume your ultimate goal is to start in the big leagues, and if you do, does that kind of provide extra incentive to work on the changeup?
Kirkman: Oh yeah, that's always been my dream. Growing up, I watched Smoltz and Maddux and Millwood when they were in Atlanta. That was always my dream–to pitch in the big leagues and start in the big leagues.
Cole: You had a minor knee surgery pretty much right after the regular season ended. What exact was it?
Kirkman: I had one big tear and a smaller tear in my medial meniscus. They went in, cleaned it out, and I rehabbed for about two and a half weeks. It's good to go now.
Cole: I know that injury became known later in the year. How long had it been bothering you?
Kirkman: It really never seemed to bother me until one day in San Antonio. I put another tear in it, which was that small tear. It kind of bothered me off and on, and they wouldn't let me run anymore for the rest of the season. We had about a month left in the season. I felt like I could've pitched better in my last four or five starts if I had been running, but overall, it really never bothered me.
Cole: Results-wise, after that start in San Antonio, that was probably your best stretch of the year in Frisco. I assume it really didn't hurt your results at all.
Kirkman: Yeah, once you get that adrenaline running, it really didn't bother me. I think there was one time–it was actually in the next game, against San Antonio at home–where [Luis] Durango put down a bunt down the first base line. I went to go after it, and I had to change directions on my right knee, and it kind of popped on me a little bit. But that was the only time I really remember it bothering me at all during the year pain-wise.
Cole: I know your throwing program doesn't start until early December. But tell me what you're doing now to prepare for next season. I know you're probably a little more pumped up about it now.
Kirkman: Absolutely. I want to go to the gym and work out 24-7 right now. But I've just got to make sure I get plenty of rest and eat right. That can help just as much as working out. I'm pumped. I'm just trying to work hard and keep a level head like I have these past couple years. I want to get back after it when they call my name.
Cole: Speaking of that, talk to me about getting added to the 40-man roster today. Who called you, when did they call you, and what did they say?
Kirkman: Jon Daniels called me at about 12:20 this afternoon. I figured what he was calling for, but I wasn't going to say anything until he mentioned it. He called and we talked for about five minutes before he even mentioned the 40-man.
He asked how I was doing, how home life was, and all that good stuff. And then he told me, ‘Congratulations. We've decided to put you on the 40-man roster.' I just lit up. I couldn't stop smiling the entire time I was on the phone with him. I couldn't wait to tell somebody. That's pretty much it.
Cole: This time last year, you were finishing up a half season in Low-A in Clinton. Now you're on the 40-man roster and a big step closer to the Majors. Just talk about what being put on the roster means to you, and what kind of reward it was for this season.
Kirkman: I think it's a result of the work I've put in these past three years. With the tough stretch I had those first two or two and a half years, I was really down. I was getting to where baseball wasn't fun. And you can't play baseball when you're not having fun. It just can't happen.
I had to work hard to get where I was last year, and even harder to get to where I'm at now. If I want to go any higher–if I want to pitch in the big leagues–I'm going to have to work even harder than that. But I feel like it's just a result of my hard work and determination to get back to where I should be. Listening to people has really helped me, too.
Cole: Being on the 40-man, that means you get an automatic invitation to Major League camp. Have you spent really any time in big league camp before?
Kirkman: No, I've never even been a JIC [just-in-case player].
Cole: Well tell me how much you're looking forward to that now.
Kirkman: I think it's going to be a blast. I can't wait. Like I said, I'm ready to go now. I'm pumped.