Examining the battle for the Royals spot starter/long-relief spot

Barring an injury (knock on wood), it seems as if the Royals five-man rotation is pretty set. It is likely that Brad Keller will be the Opening Day starter, and Mike Minor, Danny Duffy, Brady Singer, and Kris Bubic will all be in the mix for the third-through fifth spots in the rotation, though it is anyone’s guess in regard to how manager Mike Matheny will situate the Royals starting staff by the end of Spring Training.

However, the Royals have a surprising amount of starting pitching depth this Spring, especially in comparison to the past couple of Cactus League campaigns. That kind of depth is useful to have, especially after a COVID-affected 2020 where pitching staffs across the league didn’t get the work and innings they usually get during any other season. Therefore, it would not be surprising to see the Royals utilize perhaps a “spot starter” in the rotation, or at the very least, utilize their long relief options more actively, especially in an effort to conserve the innings and health of their starting rotation, especially to begin the season.

Right now, there are roughly about five active candidates competing for that spot starter/long relief spot on the Royals pitching staff. Let’s take a look at each of those pitchers in the hunt, and their chances of claiming that spot in the Royals pitching staff by Opening Day.

Carlos Hernandez

Hernandez is most likely the longest shot of the bunch, as he made his Major League debut last season after not pitching above Low-A Lexington prior to 2020. Before the pandemic, it was speculated that Hernandez was added to the 40-man roster in the off-season mostly to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, not necessarily because he was ready to pitch in Kansas City. However, the Venezuelan-born pitcher was thrust into action last September unexpectedly, and he held his own somewhat at the MLB level despite his lack of experience. For the year, Hernandez struck out 13 batters in 14.2 IP and posted a 4.91 ERA in 2020. Furthermore, he also had a pretty good debut at Kauffman Stadium, as evidenced below:

Hernandez has an interesting arsenal: he sports a high 90’s fastball, and has proven to make batters miss, as he has fanned six in five innings in Cactus League play. However, though Hernandez pumps the heat on his fastball and sinker (they averaged 96.2 MPH and 95 MPH last season, respectively, according to Savant), he still struggles to find consistency with his command. In three appearances this Spring, he has allowed five hits and four earned runs. While he could handle the dual nature of a spot starter/long relief role, his command needs to sharpen a bit in order to thrive in such a role at the MLB level in 2021.

With a 7.20 ERA and 1.40 WHIP currently, it seems likely that Hernandez is destined for a Minor League assignment soon. That being said, his 3.00 K/BB ratio is a promising sign, and the fact that he hasn’t been optioned yet, unlike other pitchers on the 40-man such as Ronald Bolanos and Scott Blewett, also hints that he may be in favor with the Royals coaching staff and front office.

While Hernandez will most likely begin the season in Double-A Northwest Arkansas or even Triple-A Omaha, it is possible that Hernandez could move quickly and be back in Kansas City soon, especially if he can clean up his breaking and offspeed stuff in the Minors once play begins in May.

Jackson Kowar

Kowar has slowly improved this Spring, though his overall number are pretty bad. Kowar did get two innings of work against the San Francisco Giants on March 15th, and did strike out two in two innings of work. He did allow two hits and one run, but he kept the ball in the yard, which was a small victory in itself, considering how rough things have been this Spring. In four Cactus League appearances and one start, Kowar is posting a 9.82 ERA and 2.05 WHIP and has allowed 11 hits, 8 runs, and 2 home runs in 7.1 innings of work in Arizona.

However, when things are humming, Kowar looks like a successful Royals starting pitcher. His changeup continues to be one of the best pitches in the Royals organization, as evidenced in the clip below:

Unfortunately, the rest of his arsenal has been a work-in-progress this Spring. His curve ball has been getting better over the course of the Spring, but his fastball continues to be a hittable pitch, even though it sports some good velocity in the 92-95 MPH range. A big issue for Kowar, not just this Spring, but even stemming to last Summer Camp, has been the release point on the fastball, as it lacks consistency and deception, which makes it easy to pick up from a hitter’s end. Marcus Meade discussed this on Royals Farm Report, and Cody from KC Kingdom also mentioned it after a rough start on March 5th:

I think Kowar could use the extended Spring Training (since the Minor League season does not start until May 1st) and a month or two in Triple-A to work on these fastball issues, since it seems to be really holding him back against Major League pitching so far. Thus, it seems unlikely that Kowar will get that spot starter/long relief spot, unless he can really make a surge in the last couple of weeks of Cactus League play.

Today was a good step in that direction, at least.

Daniel Lynch

I talked about Lynch on Sunday, but much like Kowar, he’s been getting better after a rough start to Cactus League play. Currently, Lynch is sporting a 9.45 ERA and 1.65 WHIP in three appearances and 6.2 innings of work this Spring. In that sample, he’s allowed seven hits and seven runs, amplified by two home runs and four walks allowed in Cactus League play. That being said, Lynch has made up for the hits and walks with a lot of strikeouts, as he is sporting a K/9 of 12.2 and a K/BB ratio of 2.25, which isn’t bad considering the high BB/9 (5.4).

Furthermore, his latest outing against the Cubs also should give Royals fans hope that Lynch is finally figuring it out after working through some difficulties earlier this Spring:

In my mind, Lynch has a better chance than pitching prospects such as Kowar and Hernandez because he’s a lefty, and the bullpen currently lacks left-handed options beyond Richard Lovelady, who hasn’t exactly impressed the past couple of seasons. While the Royals do have three left-handed starters in the rotation (Minor, Duffy, and Bubic), it is not out of the realm of possibility to imagine Lynch fill an early Chris Sale or Garret Crochet role in 2021. The White Sox used Sale in 2010 and 2011 and Crochet last season and most likely this year, in the bullpen in order to get them up at the MLB level sooner, even though their long-term outlook is in the rotation (which worked out for Sale; is TBD for Crochet). The Royals could do something similar with Lynch, as his stuff could play in relief or in the rotation (though the latter is where he would have the most long-term value).

Ervin Santana

The Royals brought back Ervin “Smell Baseball” Santana in an effort to give the Royals rotation depth on the cheap. Santana signed a Minor League deal this Winter and it was one that came out of nowhere, as Santana didn’t pitch for a Major League club in 2020 and only made three appearances with the White Sox in 2019. At 38-years-old, there isn’t a whole lot of upside left for Santana, for this may be his last year in baseball, should he make the Royals club out of Spring camp.

So far in Cactus League play, Santana has demonstrated some decent control, as he is only posting a BB/9 of 1.1 and a K/BB ratio of 5.00 in four appearances and eight innings of work. However, Santana has been hit around pretty easily this Spring, as he is sporting a 6.75 ERA, and has allowed eight hits and six runs in his Cactus League sample thus far. Furthermore, he is not generating a whole lot of swings and misses either, as his K/9 is only 5.6, one of the lowest rates of any Royals pitcher in Cactus League play, according to Baseball Reference.

That being said, Santana did have a decent outing recently on March 9th, which may be a sign that he is finally adjusting to MLB hitters after such a long layoff:

Granted, strikeouts have never been a huge strength of Santana’s over the course of his career, as he has not posted a K/9 over 8 since 2014 with Atlanta. Rather, Santana is known for generating batted balls on the ground, as he has a career GB rate of 40.1 percent, according to Fangraphs. Currently, he is posting a GO/AO (groundouts to assisted outs ratio) of 1.57, which is the 10th highest ratio of Royals pitchers this Spring, according to MLB stats. Thus, while the whiffs aren’t there for Santana, the ability to generate balls on the ground is, and that could be valuable to have as a long reliever or spot starter on this Royals staff.

Jakob Junis

Junis right now seems to be in the lead for this coveted spot on the pitching staff, as even Roster Resource is tabbing Junis as the Royals long relief option on their Depth Chart. Junis so far in Spring Training has made two starts and is posting a 1.80 ERA in 5 innings of work, which also includes seven strikeouts and no walks.

In addition this Spring, Junis has caught the attention of Royals fans with a new cutter, which has generated its share of swings and misses so far in Cactus League competition, as evidenced below:

The big dilemma for the Royals coaching staff is whether to use Junis as a starter or reliever. He has proven to have some value as a starter over his three seasons in Kansas City, as he had back to back 1.5 WAR seasons in 2018 and 2019 before dropping off in 2020, according to Fangraphs. Furthermore, when healthy, Junis can eat innings, as he has accumulated 476.1 IP since debuting in 2017. Lastly, he also has an excellent slider that has made him a decent option at the end of the Royals rotation over the past few seasons:

That being said, home runs continue to be a nagging issue for Junis, and he already has given up one so far in Cactus League play. His HR/FB rate over his career is 15.9 percent, and he saw an increase in that rate in the shortened season in 2020, as it went from 16.7 percent in 2019 to 25 percent last year. Thus, it may be better for Junis to stay in a relief role, as lesser innings and only going through the order once could mean less damage on the home run end.

Therefore, Junis could thrive as a spot starter/long relief role in 2021. He’s durable and experienced enough to make a start when needed, but the limited exposure and innings in long relief could also minimized those HR/FB rates, as hitters won’t have the ability to adjust to him a second time during a game. Junis certainly deserves a spot on the Royals pitching staff on Opening Day, but it’s hard to justify him as a starter over the other five currently entrenched in the rotation.

A spot starter/long relief role, on the other hand, could be a win-win for Junis as well as the Royals.

Final Outlook

Honestly, this role is going to come down between Santana and Junis, though Lynch could certainly make his case as a dark horse, should he continue to have outings like the one he had on Saturday against the Cubs. Santana may be a good groundball-inducing option out of the bullpen, which may make him a more effective option than Junis, especially if the Royals want a change of pace in the middle innings or for an occasional start. However, Junis’ ability to strike guys out with his slider and perhaps new cutter gives him a sizable advantage over Santana when it comes to determining who can be more predictable and durable over the long term. Yes, groundballs are nice, but the preference should always be to go with the guy who can generate more whiffs.

It will definitely be an intriguing stretch in Cactus League play, as the Royals will give Santana every opportunity to earn a spot on the Royals roster. Currently on a Minor League deal, Santana will need to make the active roster to get a MLB contract, and with Hanser Alberto and Wade Davis likely additions who will need to be added to the 40-man, Santana would most likely need to bump a current pitcher off the 40-man roster by the end of Cactus League play, which may not be worth it for the Royals front office, especially considering Santana’s age.

If I had to make a prediction, I would say Santana doesn’t make the active roster.

For starters, Junis is a better fit for that sixth starter/long relief role, and I’m not sure if Santana would give more value in the regular season than Matt Harvey did a year ago. Furthermore, if the Royals were to bump a pitcher off the 40-man roster, they would be better off giving that spot to either Brad Brach, who’s looked better in a middle relief role this Spring, or even Jake Brentz, who’s thrown heat, even though he’s struggled with control, instead of Santana.

Granted, there’s still some time, so maybe Santana will finish the Spring strong and convince doubters that he is still capable of holding a spot on a MLB pitching staff in 2021.

That being said, I don’t think Santana has much longer to “smell baseball” at the MLB level.

Photo Credit: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

2 thoughts on “Examining the battle for the Royals spot starter/long-relief spot

  1. The cutter is a really interesting development for Junis. Yeah, the first thought is that this makes him a better starter since he has a real weapon to contrast with his outstanding slider. However I really wonder… Compare him to Wade Davis. Wade was “just a guy” as a starter, with two years worth of slightly below average (ERA+) before 2012 where he was lights out as a reliever. After going back to trying to start with the Royals, he goes back to the pen where he puts in a 3 year stretch in the pen that is literally one of the best in MLB history. What made him so much better in the pen? Good question, but increased velocity on his fastball, and his ability to throw that cutter were a big part. I really wonder if Junis could be absolutely lights out as a RP with two wipe out pitches and increased velocity on his fastball.

    But yeah, agreed on the your conclusions- Junis will be the first choice for joining the rotation, and I think he’s probably going to be the 6th starter as we get into May.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I think that’s a great connection to Wade. Granted, I don’t think Junis will be Davis 2.0, mostly because Davis was a pretty touted prospect, and Junis was a late rounder, who honestly, has surpassed his draft value so far, but I think the connection should be noted. Junis’ slider is already a plus pitch. An effective cutter and some added velocity on his fastball in less work will only make Junis a dark horse in the Royals bullpen if not this year, then next for sure.

    And yeah, I think Junis will be in that sixth spot at least for a month because of team’s desires to conserve and protect arms right out of the gate. That’s not bad value to have, and I think Junis can fit that role well, but I am really curious to see what he could do if given an opportunity to be in the pen full time.

    Liked by 1 person

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