KC Royals: The precarious position of Chance Adams

(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images) /

Once a rising star, a 26-year old KC Royals pitcher may not be on solid ground for the 2021 major league season.

The decline of KC Royals pitcher Chance Adams, once an impressive up-and-coming starter in the Yankees’ system, began late in 2017 when he tried pitching through elbow problems, then worsened after offseason surgery. He floundered with the Yankees, and six 2020 appearances with the Royals didn’t resolve concerns about his future.

No one outside the New York or Kansas City organizations, Adams’ doctors, or Adams himself, know the precise source of his continuing pitching struggles, but the elbow problems may not be a matter of coincidence. The difference between pre-injury Adams, and post-surgery Adams, is profound; his decline is stunning and leaves his status with the Royals uncertain.

Kansas City acquired Adams in a low-risk Christmastime trade with the Yankees last winter, shipping little-known infielder Cristian Perez to New York for the right-hander who spent much of his Yankee system time as a starter. The move fit the Royals’ salvage operation model: evidence of the project’s promise was in the past, not the present.

Adams quickly made a name for himself after the Yanks drafted him in the fifth round of the 2015 amateur draft. He reported to the minors immediately and progressed to High A ball before the summer ended; his 3-1, 1.78 ERA tended to prove New York hadn’t made a mistake.

He went 13-1 in 2016, then 15-5 in ’17, and accumulated a three-season ERA of 2.32. Adams maintained a double-digit strikeout rate and good control…but things began to slip late in the 2017 campaign at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. He suddenly wasn’t as sharp. Bone spurs in his pitching elbow were the culprit and led to offseason corrective surgery.

Unfortunately, control problems surfaced and Adams’ velocity dropped when he returned to Triple-A in 2018. He went 4-5 with a 4.78 ERA (his highest minor league mark), then gave up seven runs and three homers in 7.1 September innings with the Yankees.

Back at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, he won four of eight decisions, lowered his ERA a bit to 4.63, but didn’t solve his control issues. Over seven different call-ups to New York, Adams beat the KC Royals in May for his first (and only) big league win, but still walked too many batters, and surrendered almost a run per inning in 25.1 frames. He became the 40-man roster’s odd man out when the Yanks signed Gerrit Cole after the season and, after being DFA’d to make room for Cole, found himself traded to Kansas City.

Adams made the Royals’ 60-man Player Pool when baseball resumed after its pandemic-driven spring and early summer hiatus, then pitched six times out of the bullpen after making the active roster. His 9.35 ERA in 8.2 innings is a bit misleading, skewed upward as it is by two three-run outings but tempered by three scoreless appearances. He didn’t walk anyone and struck out six. But his fastball velocity was a shade below 92, still down from the mid-to-high 90’s he routinely reached before his surgery.

Manager Mike Matheny typically used Adams late in games with his team well behind. That the Royals called him up, and Matheny used Adams in such low-leverage, low-risk situations, suggests the club saw something encouraging from him at the alternate site, wanted to see if he’d replicate it against big league hitters, and strove to avoid shaking his confidence.

But there’s another possible side to that low-leverage, low-risk coin. Adams was one of the KC Royals’ most recent acquisitions, someone they needed to give a live game look despite the shortened major league season and minor league shutdown. It may be that Matheny and staff chose to merely audition Adams and used him only when the outcome didn’t depend on him.

In any event, Adams may again find himself the odd man out in a roster crunch. The recent performances and reliability of several young Kansas City pitchers exceed his; the Royals have difficult offseason personnel decisions to make and may need to find room on their 40-man roster for new acquisitions, making Adams’ present spot there precarious.

So Adams, a once-promising prospect on a fast track to the big leagues, could be searching for work later this winter. And if he stays with Kansas City, he’ll need to soon show his scoreless September appearances weren’t just outliers.

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Chance Adams is trying to make it in the major leagues. Time and circumstances will tell whether he does so with the KC Royals.