Can this KC Royals reliever return to his old form in 2024?

KC Royals fans have not seen Jake Brentz pitch in years. How will he look in spring training?
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There may be no bigger wild card in spring training than KC Royals reliever Jake Brentz.

Fans haven't seen the Ballwin, Missouri native since April 29, 2022 against the New York Yankees. It was the last in a series of games where Brentz did not look like his former self, in the stat sheet or on the mound. Baseball fans know the signs of a pitcher injury, and Brentz was exhibiting them exponentially.

Any elbow tightness is a concern, but Brentz tried to avoid the dreaded Tommy John surgery. Finally in July 2022, after a failed rehab assignment, the lefty went under the knife. The surgery ended his 2022 season early, and was late enough to affect his 2023 availability. Now, heading into 2024, Brentz should be healthy enough for MLB action. At least, that is what the Royals' actions tell fans.

First, Kansas City invested in Brentz to rehab and recover. They designated him for assignment following the 2022 season, then signed him to a two-year deal ahead of the 2023 season. The fully-guaranteed deal paid him $850,000 in 2023 and $1.05 million in 2024. He had a very positive outlook on his future in Kansas City following the deal.

“I want to be a big piece of that bullpen, so that goes into my mindset every day and knowing that’s what I’m working toward,” Brentz said. “I want to come back as strong as I possibly can. … At the end of the day, I wanted to be here. I have a great agency, and we’re working with a great organization. I couldn’t be in a better spot.”

Royals fans should want him here too! Brentz was electric in 2021 when he made his MLB debut. He was a high-leverage pitcher, working 64 innings across 72 games. He has one of the league's best relievers, riding a fastball sitting 95-100 MPH. Plus, his slider was making professional peers look silly, after setting them up with the fastball.

But, the fact is, all of that was more than two years ago. Things have changed in Kansas City, some for worse and some for better. But most fans have likely forgotten the reliever, lost in the bullpen shuffle ahead of Opening Day. It doesn't help that his rehab assignment last season was cut short due to a left lat strain. That is why he is a wild card. Will we see the Brentz of 2021, the one with closer potential? Or will we see the 2022 version, erratic and unable to miss bats?

Some signs point to the former rather than the latter. With all the bullpen turnover this offseason, Kansas City should have jettisoned Brentz if they were worried about his availability and rehab. Plus, Brentz was rehabbing and working out in St. Louis this time last year, showing he was making good progress. Those two points at least offer hope for his status for 2024.

The true test will be to see if the stuff is still there. We saw how Brentz performed when the fastball wasn't working for him, presumptively due to an injury. In his eight 2022 appearances, Brentz posted a 0–3 record and a 23.63 ERA with nine strikeouts. The fastball was all over the place, dipping in velocity while his secondary pitches lacked their usual bite. If those pitches are not back to their 2021 form, then fans should be concerned about Brentz's 2024 outlook.

At 29 years old, Kansas City is the only MLB club Brentz has played for. His minor-league journey took a ton of detours, but when he reached The Show it was dynamite. Here is hoping that Brentz is not only healthy in 2024 but back at 100% on the mound.