SURPRISE, Ariz. -- While Barry Zito has returned from a year of surfing and family time in an effort to resume his big league career in Oakland, a prominent member of the Athletics' 2002 "Moneyball" draft class is making a less heralded comeback attempt in the Kansas City Royals' camp.
Joe Blanton claimed his "heart wasn't in it" after two uninspiring starts with Oakland's Triple-A affiliate prompted him to retire last April. He threw up the white flag on baseball a mere three weeks after the Los Angeles Angels released him in training camp.
But Blanton found that he missed the game more than he had anticipated, and now he's in Royals camp on a minor league deal trying to earn a big league job with the defending American League champions.
Blanton, 34, weighed more than 250 pounds early in his career. But he's in stunningly good shape this spring and reported to Surprise weighing in the range of 215 to 220 pounds. He also pronounced himself emotionally and mentally reinvigorated by a summer away from the game.
"It was nice being home with my family," said Blanton, who is married with three children, ages 5, 4 and 2. "But the window is small. I've done this my whole life. I've put a lot into it, so why not see what's left? I felt like it was almost an injustice to myself to just step away like that.
"I actually enjoy the getting-ready part of it. If I don't mind that, why not just give it one more try and see what happens? It got to a point where I made it not fun for myself. Now I'm trying to make it fun again. If the talent is gone and it's not meant to be, I'll be able to walk away with a clear mind for good."
Blanton is 85-89 with a 4.51 ERA over parts of 10 seasons with Oakland, Philadelphia and the two Los Angeles clubs. He signed a two-year, $15 million contract with the Angels in December 2012. But he was so bad in his only season in Anaheim (2-14 with a 6.04 ERA), the Angels released him last March and swallowed the $8.5 million remaining on his deal.
During his year off, Blanton took an RV trip with his family and spent a lot of time hanging around the pool with his kids. He also followed through on his interest in wine and bought a vineyard in Napa Valley, California. But family outings and post-career pursuits have been put on hold while he tries to stick on Kansas City's big league roster.
The Royals' starting rotation consists of Yordano Ventura, Edinson Volquez, Jeremy Guthrie, Jason Vargas and Danny Duffy, but general manager Dayton Moore brought in Blanton for depth and also signed former Braves starter Kris Medlen, who is rehabbing from his second career Tommy John surgery, to a two-year deal.
Although Blanton might have an opportunity to win a spot as a long reliever or swing man, he is open to pitching in Triple-A ball if the Royals decide to go in that direction.
"You have to look at the last couple of years," he said. "I didn't play in 2014, and 2013 was a terrible year. That's two years of basically nothing -- no good work or no playing at all. So I'm kind of starting back at square one, really."
Kansas City also signed reliever Ryan Madson, who hasn't pitched in the majors since 2011, to a minor league deal with a big league invite. Blanton and Madson spent four seasons together in Philadelphia and were briefly teammates with the Angels, although Madson never pitched in Anaheim because of elbow problems.
The Blanton, Medlen and Madson deals are all low-risk, affordable acquisitions that could upgrade the Royals' staff -- if these pitchers can overcome their injuries and time away from the game and get close to their old form. Moore is equally enthusiastic about the moves because of the professionalism the pitchers bring to the clubhouse and the playing field.
"They've been through the battles before," Moore said. "They know what you have to do to be successful. I'm not saying they're in their primes. But mentally, we know we can trust them. That's important when you're trying to get back to the playoffs and the World Series. You have to have players who come up from the minor leagues or join your team that are men."