The Royals are projected to win 74 games, according to Fangraph’s Depth Charts projections, which would be an improvement upon their 70-win projection back in Spring Training. That being said, while the Royals most likely will see improvement from 2020 in a small fashion, this Royals team will have to make some tough roster and payroll decisions this Winter if they want to become a more serious postseason contender, as Max Rieper of Royals Review wrote about in a recent post:
The Royals will have some flexibility to spend some money, especially with the Royals unlikely to re-sign Wade Davis, Greg Holland, Ervin Santana, Jesse Hahn, and Hanser Alberto this offseaon (all are pending veteran free agents). While it is likely that the Royals will reserve some money for a possible Andrew Benitendi extension, the Royals will probably look outside the organization to boost the roster with a move or two, though at this point, it is yet to be determined if that move will come via trade or free agency.
However, while most Royals fans will gravitate toward looking for a big name free agent or trade to help improve the Royals’ postseason chances in 2022, there are still quite a few tough moves that new president Dayton Moore and general manager JJ Picollo will have to make internally (i.e. arbitration decisions).
And one of the tougher decisions that the Royals will have to make this Winter could center on Jakob Junis, who will be entering his second year of arbitration, according to Fangraphs’ Roster Resource payroll data.
This hasn’t exactly been an easy year for Junis on the mound. Junis had a solid April in which he posted a 3.47 ERA in 23.1 IP over four starts and six appearances total, according to Fangraphs. During the first month of the 2021 season, Junis also posted a 28.7 percent K rate, a 3.86 K/BB ratio, and limited his HR/9 rate to 0.39. Thus, it was not a surprise that Junis not only posted a 2.31 FIP during the first month of play, but also wowed the Royals and Royals fans with his impressive stuff and repertoire, which included a newly-added cutter:
Unfortunately, once May started, things tailed off fast for Junis.
In 9.1 IP during the month, he posted a 9.64 ERA and allowed 15 runs and four home runs, with the latter producing a HR/9 of 3.86. The long ball has always been a problem for Junis since breaking in at the Major League level in 2017, as he sports a career HR/FB rate of 16 percent, which is a pretty high mark.
A big contributor to that issue is that Junis doesn’t sport a fastball with elite velocity or movement, and that’s not a good thing when he throws the pitch nearly 35 percent of the time.
According to Baseball Savant, Junis’ four-seam fastball only generated a whiff rate of 12.8 percent (down from 16.2 percent a year ago) as well as a put away rate of 11.5 percent (down from 20 percent in 2020). Additionally, hitters posted an xwOBA of .460 on the pitch, as well as an average exit velocity of 94.2 MPH on Junis’ four-seamers, which are the highest marks of any of Junis’ pitches this year. Therefore, it’s not a surprise that from May-on in 2021 (he only pitched 6.2 innings after May with the Royals), Junis was getting crushed by opposing hitters, with this home run by Andrew Vaughn at Guaranteed Rate Field being a prime example:
Furthermore, not only did Junis hit a wall performance-wise with the Royals (he was quickly demoted to Omaha after less than 10 innings of work in May), but he also was struck by injury, as he hit the Minor League 7-day Injury List on July 9th. When he returned off the IL in August, Junis was called up on August 31st after spending only a week back in Omaha, and immediately made a start with the Royals in order to help a short-handed starting pitching staff.
Junis’ return to the Kansas City rotation wasn’t incredible, as he only went 4.2 IP. However, he did only allow four hits, a walk, and only three runs. Furthermore, he also struck out six batters, and demonstrated excellent feel on is cutter and slider against the Cleveland Indians at Kauffman Stadium.
Here’s an example of him throwing his cutter on left-handed slugger Jose Ramirez, and getting him to chase a pitch out of the zone and in the dirt:
And though it doesn’t have as much bite as his cutter, Junis’ slider was also effective in this start as well, as he earned four of his six strikeouts on the pitch. Here’s an example of him getting Austin Hedges to chase a slider way out of the strike zone to end the inning:
Unfortunately, right after the start, the Royals reported that Junis injured his shoulder during the 4.2 innings of work and he was immediately placed on the IL due to a shoulder impingement (which has been quite common with Royals pitchers this year). Junis has not pitched since going on the IL, and it seems unlikely that he will return at any point this season.
Thus, with Junis’ health in question, and his overall stat line not exactly impressive (5.26 ERA, 12.2 percent barrel rate, 5.76 xERA), it may be easy to think that the Royals should non-tender him. After all, the Royals are currently sporting a six-man rotation in the wake of Jon Heasley’s call up, and they will still have Brad Keller and Mike Minor, both on the IL, under contract in 2022 (well, Keller will be under team control). In addition to a crowded rotation, it won’t exactly be easy for Junis to find a spot in the bullpen next year either, especially with Domingo Tapia and Joel Payamps emerging as dependable options after being acquired via trade during the season (and for cheap as well).
As a result of this pitching depth, Junis seems to be an odd-man out, a replacement-level pitcher who doesn’t really fit the Royals’ long-term plans, especially considering the depth of pitching in their farm system.
That being said, if this year has taught baseball teams anything, it’s that a club cannot have too much pitching depth.
And that should make Junis a valuable commodity worth extending this offseason.
Junis made $1.7 million in arbitration in 2021, which is a pretty modest deal, all things considered. According to Fangraphs value data, Junis was worth 0.5 fWAR this season, which would equate to about $4 million dollars on the market. Thus, the Royals, despite only getting 39.1 IP from Junis this year, still received decent value back from Junis this year. That is not bad for a guy not only making less than two million dollars per year, but a former 29th round draft pick as well.
Most 29th round picks are high school players who end up going to college or they end up being Minor League journeyman. Junis, despite his mixed success in Kansas City over the past five seasons, has at least proven to be more than the latter (he’s pitched over 515 innings at the MLB level).
Junis could be worth a slight increase next season, perhaps in that $1.9 to $2 million dollar-range in terms of AAV. And if Junis is fully healthy and throws more innings next year, his fWAR will also increase, making his modest extension even more of a steal for this Royals organization.
In addition to Junis being worth a possible arbitration bump, he also offers the kind of versatility that manager Mike Matheny values. One thing Royals fans learned during this weird, post-COVID season was that Matheny is not hesitant to rotate pitchers between the rotation and bullpen. He did it with Kris Bubic, Carlos Hernandez, and Jackson Kowar, just to name a few. And thankfully for Matheny, Junis can fit that “hybrid” role perfectly.
Junis may not be a six-plus inning starter by any means. That being said, Junis could be the kind of pitcher who could make a start and go three to five innings, or come out of the bullpen in long relief for two-to-four. The Royals need a pitcher like Junis to help preserve the health of their young starters (Singer, Lynch, Hernandez, Heasley, and Kowar) as well as veteran arms coming off injury (Keller and Minor). He’s not going to be a “crucial” piece of the Royals pitching staff, but he will be a “dependable” one, if healthy (which will be a big “if” and could be the difference on whether he is extended or not).
Picollo (or Moore, whoever has the final call) will have a tough decision to make on Junis, who I am sure is definitely a favorite in the Royals organization, especially considering his late-round draft status. Though Junis never really “stuck” in the Royals rotation, he’s a nice player development story, as he proved that the Royals can find value in the draft, even in rounds where it seems unlikely. That fact isn’t lost on Moore and Picollo, and it wouldn’t be surprising if some of those sentimental feelings creep up in the negotiation process with Junis this Winter.
That being said, the Royals’ goal will be to win in 2022, and does Junis give the Royals’ bullpen or pitching staff in general the best chance to do so?
That’s harder to determine. His four-seam fastball dropped 0.3 MPH this year, and his three pitch mix of a slider, four-seam fastball, and cutter this year generated mixed results in 2021. When the going was good, Junis looked like the Royals’ best pitcher at times.
However, when Junis wasn’t locating…well…he was producing results like this:
I don’t think Junis’ Kansas City days are done just yet. The Royals will need a surplus of arms to compete in the AL Central in 2022, and Junis has proven that he can pitch and somewhat succeed at the MLB level (which can’t be said for some of the pitchers in Omaha or Northwest Arkansas). At the very least, Junis should get an invite to Spring Training to prove that he can earn a spot on the Royals pitching staff. If he doesn’t show improvement in a hybrid role in Spring Training or by late April, the Royals can part ways with him, much like they did with Jorge Lopez, who failed to live up to such an assignment in 2020.
Junis doesn’t have a long leash left with the Royals…
But who knows…maybe he can revitalize himself post-injury, and perhaps embrace a Kris Medlen, Joe Blanton, or Bruce Chen-esque role?
Or maybe that is just wishful, optimistic Royals fan thinking…