A third-round draft pick’s electrifying 2017 major league debut with the Kansas City Royals is the bright spot of an otherwise unremarkable career. The club has decisions to make about his future.
In late May 2017, slightly more than a full season removed from winning the World Series, and with hopes of contending one more time before free agency was certain to break up the club’s championship core, the Kansas City Royals were in trouble. Mired in last place in the American League Central Division on May 29, the Royals were eight games below .500 and owned the worst record in the league.
Instability and inconsistency plagued a battered starting rotation. Danny Duffy was hurt and would join newcomer Nate Karns on the disabled list the next day. Ian Kennedy, an earlier visit to the DL, was winless. Jason Hammel, signed in the offseason after winning 25 games for the Cubs over the previous two campaigns, had one win and the club had lost nine of his 10 starts.
In dire need of a starter, the Royals summoned Eric Skoglund from AAA Omaha on May 30 and announced he would start against Detroit that night. Skoglund, a lanky 24-year old left-hander and third-round draft pick in 2014, hardly fit the savior bill–he was 2-3 in eight Omaha starts and 13-15 in three prior seasons in the Royals system.
Easing him into the big leagues was not the Royals’ plan–not only was he to start that evening’s game, but he would debut against Tiger great Justin Verlander. Unnerved and undaunted, Skoglund pitched 6.1 scoreless innings, surrendered just two hits, struck out five, walked only one, and at one stretch retired 14 straight batters before yielding to the bullpen to save his, and the Royals’, 1-0 victory.
That gem, however, is the brightest spot of Skoglund’s career. It was his lone win in five rookie starts; he finished 2017 1-2 with a 9.50 ERA, a 5.05 FIP and 2.333 WHIP. He spent more time at Omaha that season and finished 4-5 with a 4.07 ERA, including one game he pitched for Northwest Arkansas to open the year.
Skoglund figured prominently in the Royals’ plans as they began rebuilding the club in 2018. The time was ripe for him to win a job, but Skoglund failed to establish himself in a rotation struggling to find itself. In a season marred by a UCL strain, Skoglund won just one of seven decisions and posted a 5.14 ERA.
The Royals hoped 2019 would be Skoglund’s breakthrough season. But in January, Major League Baseball suspended Skoglund for 80 games for violating its anti-PED policies; Skoglund denied knowing how he ingested a banned substance and expressed remorse.
Skoglund struggled after rejoining the Royals after the suspension, going 0-3 with a 9.00 ERA, 7.36 FIP, and 1.857 WHIP in six starts. He was 3-5 with a 6.04 ERA at Omaha.
Unfortunately, Skoglund, now 27 and a veteran of six professional seasons, has yet to recapture the magic of his major league debut, a night when he faced down and out-dueled one of the game’s greats. The memory of that effort is fading against the backdrop of his troubling major league and minor league records of 2-11 and 20-26.
Skoglund is a pre-arbitration player occupying a spot on the Royals’ 40-man roster; the November 20 deadline for the club to finalize that roster for Rule 5 Draft purposes is only days away. The Royals have decisions to make about Skoglund–should they stay the course and keep him on the 40-man, exposing a more promising player to the draft, or open up his spot? Should they tender him a contract for next season?
Eric Skoglund’s career with the Kansas City Royals is at a crossroads. His masterpiece major league debut against Justin Verlander remains the apex of that career; little else of his six pro seasons suggests a bright future. The Royals have a history of forgiving transgressions of the game’s substance policies and second chances are their norm but, considering Skoglund’s unremarkable six-season performance on the mound, his time with the club may have run out.