KC Royals Projections: Jakob Junis will hunt for role

Jakob Junis enters 2021 needing to define his role with the KC Royals.

Welcome back to Kings of Kauffman’s KC Royals Projections series for 2021. Between now and Opening Day, our writers are analyzing how various Royals performed last season and predicting how they might fare this year. Up today is pitcher Jakob Junis.

The 2017 roller coaster Jakob Junis rode between Kansas City and Omaha ended in mid-August when the KC Royals recalled him from their Triple A affiliate for the seventh time that season. He’d managed a 4-2 record before that final call, then went 5-1 the rest of the way to cap an excellent 9-3 rookie campaign. Among the Royals’ starters, only Jason Vargas’ 18-11 record was better.

Junis, however, hasn’t fulfilled the promise his first major league season yielded. Although he won nine games in each of the next two years, he lost 12 in 2018 and 14 in 2019, and his ERA increased steadily from his rookie season’s 4.30 to 6.39 in 2020, when he was 0-2.

While the disappointment of his 2020 is due in part to COVID-19 and back problems—he tested positive for the virus in the summer, spent time on the IL getting back into shape, didn’t pitch until the second week of the season, then returned to the Injured List with back spasms—he was rarely effective in his eight appearances. His best start came in an Aug. 7 victory over Minnesota when he gave up two runs, five hits and two walks, and struck out two, in 4.2 innings. Forced to the bullpen in late September, he finished with two scoreless innings.

The righthander’s downturn clouds his immediate future with the Royals. There isn’t room for him in the starting rotation: Brad Keller, Danny Duffy, Brady Singer, Kris Bubic and Mike Minor are the clear front-runners for a five-man setup, so Junis’ starting hopes rest on a possible move to a six-man alternative, or a dismal spring performance from a pitcher already in the rotation. And he’s relieved only six times in 89 major league appearances.

Baseball Reference and FanGraphs projections for Junis’ 2021 KC Royals season

Baseball Reference and FanGraphs don’t foresee a stellar year for Junis. Baseball Reference believes he’ll go 5-8 with a 4.91 ERA and one save, and post a 3.0 BB9 and 8.5 SO9, while FanGraphs  (Depth Charts version) predicts a 6-6, 4.73, 2.58 BB9 and 7.94 SO9 effort.

What kind of 2021 season will Jakob Junis actually have for the KC Royals?

How Junis performs this season will depend primarily on what role he fulfills for Kansas City. Because the rotation appears stabilized and set, he probably won’t begin games unless he opens, spot starts, or becomes a regular swingman. If the current starting five holds up, Junis’ highest and best use may be as a long man out of the pen, although he may find himself pitching anywhere and any time within manager Mike Matheny’s “best matchup” bullpen philosophy.

In the end, don’t expect a great season from Junis. He’ll appear in a variety of roles, won’t start regularly, and will approach or slightly exceed a .500 won-loss record. His control will remain good and he’ll fan his share of hitters, but he isn’t going to shine in any significant respect. “Serviceable” will best describe his 2021.

Jakob Junis once looked like he’d be a mainstay in the Royals’ rotation. Those days are probably over, but he can still contribute out of the bullpen.