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03/11/12 2:35 PM EST

Making steady progress, Gibson optimistic

Touted Twins prospect aims to return to mound by August

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- At this time last year, Kyle Gibson appeared on the fast track to the big leagues.

The 6-foot-6 right-hander was coming off a dominant year -- he posted a combined 2.96 ERA with 126 strikeouts and just 38 walks over 152 innings over three Minor League levels -- and was lauded as the Twins' top pitching prospect.

And while Gibson started the year at Triple-A Rochester, there was talk that he could join the Twins' rotation by midseason if he kept impressing down in the Minors.

Gibson did nothing to dispel that notion early in the season, as he entered June with a 3.60 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 55 outings. But he followed that up by going 0-5 with a 6.47 ERA in eight starts over June and July and complained of discomfort in his right elbow.

The Twins originally thought Gibson's injury was just a strain, but an MRI exam in early August revealed a partial tear of the ulnar collateral ligament, and the right-hander underwent Tommy John surgery on Nov. 7.

But Gibson has progressed well since undergoing the operation and is scheduled to throw off a mound for the first time on June 7, with a target return date of Aug. 7.

"When my arm feels good, like it does now, I kind of want to let it go a little bit, but I know in the back of my mind that's really probably not a very good idea right now," said Gibson, the club's first-round selection in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft. "No need to rush it. I don't think that I'm going to get far enough ahead of schedule that it's going to change any dates or anything, so basically my focus is just that I stay on schedule, and when June 7 gets here, be ready and from there, prepare myself to be on the mound in August."

Gibson, 24, rehabbed for four months before he first threw a baseball on Jan. 10. He threw from 30 feet for the first two weeks before progressing to 45 feet, 50 feet and then 60 feet.

Gibson, who will throw on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, is scheduled to move up to 75 feet next week.

"He's doing fine," Twins general manager Terry Ryan said. "He's on a throwing schedule, and everything is going to plan. He hasn't had any setbacks. They keep a pretty good eye on him over there. I saw him this morning, and he's feeling pretty good with where he's at. As I've said before, we anticipate him taking the mound in earnest sometime in late summer."

Gibson, considered the Twins' sixth-best prospect entering this season, has been able to participate in drills with his teammates at Minor League camp -- but with limitations, as he's not quite ready to throw to the bases during pitchers' fielding practice.

But Gibson said he's been working to improve his mechanics, as they got away from him at times last year. One important drill he's been utilizing during camp is the towel drill, where he simulates his throwing motion, but with a sock in his hand instead of a baseball.

Gibson said his troubles last year came when he was trying to make a mechanical adjustment in a game against Triple-A Pawtucket on June 30. The right-hander felt a twinge in his elbow that got only progressively worse.

"One thing that really hurt me last year was that I was opening up a little bit, especially in the stretch," Gibson said. "If you look at my numbers out of the windup, I was just about as I usually am, but from the stretch, it was hit, hit, hit and my control wasn't very good. I didn't get any double plays. I think I only got two all year, which for a sinkerball pitcher is not very good, if you're giving up singles. So that's one of the things I'm working on -- staying closed and coming not quite all the way toward home plate, but close enough to get my sinker working."

And while Gibson came so close to reaching his goal of making his Major League debut last year, he says he tries not to worry about what could have been.

"I mean, it's tough not to, but who knows?" Gibson said. "I can't really get too frustrated with not being called up to the big leagues last year, because I really wasn't throwing real good. I was just struggling. My fastball command really wasn't very good. My offspeed [stuff] was good -- probably as good as it's ever been. But it just goes to show, your offspeed can be really good, but a pitcher like me, I have to work off my fastball. If my sinker's not good, I'm really not going to throw very well. I can look back and say, 'Man, what could have been?' But unfortunately, I just wasn't throwing the ball very well."

So for now, Gibson is trying his best to keep his focus on rehabbing his elbow, and he's trying not to look too far into the future.

"I'm not counting the days just yet," Gibson said. "There's a lot of work to be done and lots of throwing and a lot of strength to get back in my arm before I get up there and can actually do my thing."

Rhett Bollinger is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Bollinger Beat, and follow him on Twitter @RhettBollinger. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.