The defending World Series champion Kansas City Royals have had a very trying 2016, with a litany of injuries, slumps and starting pitching woes. While the rotation has seemed to stabilize as of late, the team still struggles to put up good numbers from their number five starter each week. Chris Young isn’t the answer. Dillon Gee isn’t the answer. Brian Flynn probably isn’t the answer either, or like the other two pitchers mentioned, has racked up better numbers out of the bullpen than out of the rotation. So who would that leave Kansas City to be their fifth starter? There seems to be a lack of depth in some regards for the spot, but if they really want to be creative there might some solutions to this season-long problem.
One fairly obvious choice would be to shuffle rookie reliever Matt Strahm into the rotation. Strahm has been a starter in the minor leagues but the Royals have been using him out of the pen since his recall. Strahm has shown electric stuff out of the bullpen, combining his 91-95 mph fastball with a slider and a change-up. He also occasionally throws a slurve, which is normally in the 77-81 mph range. Strahm’s numbers this year in the majors have been impressive; 1.80 ERA, 19.8 K/9 and a bWAR of 0.2. Obviously, if he was put back into the rotation his fastball would probably go down a notch or two, but it still can be an effective pitch with his deceptive delivery. Strahm will eventually be in the Royals rotation, so he really wouldn’t be a bad choice to get a test run under his belt this year.
Then there is prospect Jake Junis. Junis started the year in AA, where he put up some impressive numbers, a 3.35 ERA with 18.5 K/BB% and a FIP of 3.32 over 119 innings. Junis was recalled to AAA Omaha within the past week and threw 7 innings of 1 run ball, striking out 7 while walking none. Junis was rated as the 10th best prospect for Kansas City this year and in his age 23 season and has seen an increase in his velocity (92-94 mph, topping out at 96 mph) with a consistent curve and a change-up with good sink. The Royals could be concerned about elevating Junis too fast this season, which is understood. But with September around the corner, a couple of starts at the big league level would be a good way to get his feet wet while helping the Royals get solid innings from the fifth starters spot.
Now we get to the really creative options for the rotation. First, lets start with Mike Minor. Minor is currently on his second rehab stint in the minors for Kansas City, after the first one was shut down for “shoulder fatigue”. While Minor’s ERA has looked better, I’m sure Royals management would be concerned with most of his other numbers during this stint; he has 44 strike outs over 38.1 innings, although the 20 walks in that span would be a bit concerning. There was hope earlier in the season that Minor would be able to contribute at some point and September could be his best shot of helping the Royals out. Minor’s numbers aren’t eye-popping in the minors, but he does have big league experience and could be an upgrade over the options the Royals have thrown out there so far this year.
Don’t like any of those ideas? Well, here are a couple of less likely options that we probably won’t see, but are at least worth mentioning. Kris Medlen has been on the disabled list since May but was scheduled to begin a rehab assignment on Tuesday. Medlen struggled in his 6 big league games this year, posting an ERA of 7.77, with 6.7 K/9, 7.4 BB/9(yes, his walk total was higher than his strike out total), and an ERA+ of 57. Even if we see Medlen this year, I would imagine it would only be a few starts, as his rehab stint will probably cover almost the entire 30 day period.
Also out on rehab assignment is Jason Vargas, who had Tommy John surgery last year. Vargas will begin his assignment at AA and will probably see some work at AAA as well. Vargas’ situation is interesting, since there was some concern that if Vargas started for the Royals this year that they would lose the $6 million insurance coverage of his contract, but it appears it would be maxed out by then anyway. Even so, I’m not so sure we see Vargas this year. It would be about 13 months after his surgery if he pitched next month for Kansas City and I’m not really for sure what Vargas or the Royals would really gain by having him throw in the big leagues this year. In my mind, let him do the rehab assignment and then shut him down until Spring Training. That being said, the Royals could think differently and we could see the Rodney Ruxin look-a-like throwing off a big league mound in September.
So there are some outside of the box options for the back-end of the Royals rotation. At this point in the season, all Kansas City really needs from their number five is 5-6 innings of 3 runs or less and most of us would be appeased with that. With the Royals still of the belief that they can claim a playoff spot, this spot in the rotation becomes even more vital. If the Royals are close to a wild card spot and the number five spot struggles, it could be the difference between playoffs or no playoffs. With the Royals winning the last three series’ and playing like a contending team, now might be the time to take a chance and see what a Strahm, Junis or Minor can do. It could make all the difference in the world.
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