Does a rough spring spell trouble for KC Royals sophomore pitcher Kris Bubic?
That five-man KC Royals starting rotation billed all winter as “set” may not be so established after all. Kris Bubic, the most vulnerable to losing a spot, continues to jeopardize his standing with only two weeks left until Opening Day.
Thursday, the lefty who made the jump from High-A ball to the majors last season displayed little of what it will take to stay in the rotation with Brad Keller, Danny Duffy, Brady Singer and Mike Minor. Bubic, just 22, gave up three runs on five hits (including two doubles) in 2.1 innings, an effort that pushed his already-troubling 7.20 ERA to 8.59.
The outing reflects the kind of spring Bubic is having. He’s surrendered eight runs, seven of them earned, in 7.1 innings, and his four walks in that span are consistent with the control issues (a near 4.0 BB9) that marked his 2020 rookie season. Established veterans like Duffy and Minor can afford such Cactus League performances, but not necessarily young hurlers like Bubic who’ve pitched only 10 times in the big leagues. There’s much he hasn’t proven.
Bubic’s struggles aren’t terribly surprising. Absent the Royals’ shortage of starters when baseball resumed last July, Bubic was destined for a season in the minor leagues; the leap from High-A to the big leagues is rare and hard enough without it being forced. Yes, he was 4-1, 2.08 at Class A Lexington, then 7-4, 2.30 at High-A Wilmington in 2019, but A-level hitters are far easier to tame than major leaguers.
Then there’s Bubic’s 1-6 record with the Royals last season. While won-loss records aren’t quite the trusted metric they used to be, they retain some utility position in the game, and losing six times as many decisions than you win isn’t good by any measure.
Also disconcerting is Bubic’s control. He walked 9.9% of the batters he faced in 2020, a number too high even for a rookie, and his four bases on balls in 7.1 innings this spring is excessive.
Manager Mike Matheny will give Bubic every opportunity to turn things around before the Royals cut their roster to the mandated 26-man Opening Day limit. The southpaw should get at least two, and probably three, more chances in Cactus League games, and perhaps a few backfield innings, to demonstrate he’s worthy of a spot in the rotation.
What it will take, of course, is better than what Bubic has delivered so far. The Royals tolerated his 2020 control difficulties, but last season was a campaign well-suited for non-contenders like Kansas City to take longer looks at promising young players, especially hot prospects like Bubic, without harming their playoff chances. But this is a team with much higher hopes for 2021, so Bubic must soon show signs of harnessing his control.
And he’ll need to give up far fewer hits—his current 2.45 WHIP won’t cut it come April. Nor will the .389 average opposing hitters are battering him for.
So, absent improvement, Bubic may head for Northwest Arkansas, announced by the club Thursday as its alternate training site, to work on his game when the rest of the team breaks camp after its final exhibition game. Another inferior outing could make that outcome more likely. (He could also end up in the KC bullpen).
Who might move into Bubic’s slot if he’s bumped from the KC Royals’ rotation?
A suitable replacement for Bubic could be difficult for the Royals to find. Young prospects Jackson Kowar and Daniel Lynch are close, but not quite, big league-ready, and both are having troubles of their own this spring. Ervin Santana has been a study in inning-to-inning inconsistency, and the seven runs he’s given up in nine frames aren’t especially endearing. Jakob Junis has looked good in his two appearances—he’s struck out seven, walked none, and surrendered only a run and a hit in five innings—and might be the best internal candidate to start if Bubic doesn’t.
Even with their new willingness to bring in help from the outside, don’t expect the KC Royals to add any of the remaining unsigned free agents (there isn’t much in that field) or trade for another hurler.
The best result? Bubic needs to improve and make a case for, and not against, himself.
With Opening Day still two weeks away, Kris Bubic has plenty of time to right his ship. Let’s hope he does.