Jakob Junis, a familiar face to KC Royals fans since 2017, moved on from the club Friday. He made himself a free agent by refusing an assignment to the minor leagues (Twitter link).
Declining the demotion means the Royals put him on waivers, a not-so-subtle message that he doesn’t figure prominently in their immediate major league plans. Because he’s a player with at least three years of service time, Junis could reject the demotion and choose to shop himself elsewhere.
That’s precisely what he did, and it’s understandable under the circumstances.
Junis’ position with the Royals, once solid and secure, had become fragile. An excellent 9-3 rookie season in 2017 seemed to make him an integral part of the rebuild that started in earnest after the campaign. Despite being recalled from Triple-A Omaha seven times, he went 5-1 in nine starts and a relief appearance after the club summoned him for good in mid-August, and his 4.30 ERA was acceptable, especially for a rookie dealing with the constant Omaha-to-KC-to-Omaha roller-coaster.
Junis repeated his nine-victory season in 2018 and 2019. Winning nine games three years in a row isn’t extraordinary, but doing so with bad teams—the KC Royals lost 104 games in 2018 and 103 in 2019—isn’t an accomplishment easily dismissed or minimized.
The second and third nine-win efforts weren’t the same as the first, though. Junis lost 12 games in 2018 and 14 in 2019, and his ERA rose from his rookie 4.30 to 5.24 in his third season.
Then came 2020. COVID-19 shortened the baseball year and snared Junis in its web: he tested positive and didn’t make his first appearance until the second week of the season. Back spasms hit later, Junis never really pitched effectively, and he finished 0-2, 6.39 in six starts and two relief stints.
His stock fell further in 2021. He was 1-3, 5.19 when the Royals sent him to Omaha in early June, but he landed on the Storm Chasers’ Injury List in July and stayed there over a month. Kansas City recalled him Aug. 31 but, after losing a start against Cleveland that night, Junis found himself on KC’s IL the next day with right shoulder impingement syndrome. He didn’t pitch again and ended the season 2-4 with a 5.26 ERA.
Does electing free agency mean Jakob Junis is done with the KC Royals?
That Kansas City backed away from Junis isn’t shocking considering his downward trend and the wealth of talent on the club’s staff and in its farm system. The fact he’s done little to consistently distinguish himself after his rookie season is an ominous blemish on a once-promising, potential-filled career.
Promise and potential, though, represent what might be, not what is. And as Junis’ good fortune turned to misfortune, he’s never reached the “is” that marks the difference between trying to get there and actually arriving.
But the Royals are forgiving and prone to offer second, and even more, chances to prospects and veterans alike, even those who’ve left the club voluntarily or involuntarily. Junis might sign on soon with another franchise; then again, his shoulder and two straight inferior seasons might give other teams too much pause.
So, don’t be surprised if Junis finds his way back to the Royals’ organization. Kansas City’s was a troubled and shaky rotation this season. Whether Brad Keller, Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch and Mike Minor can steady themselves in 2022 is certainly an open question; if too many of those starters don’t, KC might just want Junis around to occasionally fill some gaps.
With the Royals, never say never.
For now, Jakob Junis is no longer a Royal. But will that last?