Why bullpen help might come to the KC Royals this weekend

Kansas City has a decision to make about Kris Bubic.
Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

While the KC Royals went about setting up tonight's Independence Day series rubber game with Tampa Bay by beating the Rays 4-2 Wednesday evening, Kris Bubic, a staple of the club's rotation since 2019, was busy testing himself in a new role at Triple-A Omaha.

Out of major league action since undergoing Tommy John Surgery early last spring, Bubic is on the third extension of his minor league injury rehabilitation assignment. And on a night that the Storm Chasers set a a new attendance record, Bubic was perfect in his new role as a reliever.

Called on by Omaha manager Mike Jirschele to be first out of the Omaha bullpen to protect the 6-0 lead with which starter Jonathan Bowlan departed after the sixth inning, Bubic retired Iowa in order in the seventh and eighth frames — he started and finished the seventh with strikeouts — before handing the game over to Colin Selby to secure the Chasers' 7-3 win.

It was Bubic's fourth relief appearance since the Royals recently revealed they're transitioning him to the bullpen. And if it wasn't his the last time Jirschele will be able to deploy him out of the pen, it may be one of the last.

Kris Bubic could be close to joining Kansas City's relief corps

Bubic's days in Omaha are probably numbered. His third rehab assignment extension expires July 6 (Saturday); because he's ineligible for another, the Royals must reactivate him the Injured List and do one of two things — restore him to the active major league roster, or option him back to the Storm Chasers. He has one minor league option left.

Which alternative the Royals choose depends on whether they believe Bubic is ready to take a meaningful spot in their big league bullpen. They know he can pitch well, but they need to feel comfortable with his progress.

Fortunately, Bubic isn't entirely unfamiliar with major league bullpen work; while only 10 of his 70 big league appearances have been in relief, he's fared well in the role. He's 1-1 with a 3.29 ERA in those 10 games, nine of which came during the 2021 season when he was 1-1, 3.08 out of then-manager Mike Matheny's pen. As a starter, he's 9-27 with a 4.99 ERA.

What of his recent relief appearances at Omaha? In those four outings, he's surrendered three runs in 6.1 innings for a small-sample size 4.26 ERA. He's struck out six, walked two, and yieded three hits.

Overall, Bubic is 1-1, 2.63 in nine games for the Storm Chasers, so he's performing well.

Does any or all of that mean the Royals will add him to their pen when his rehab assignment ends this weekend? We'll soon find out, but bringing him back soon makes some sense. The club needs relief help now, he's clearly a part of KC's longer-range plans, and he's pitching nicely. But the Royals might want to give Bubic a bit more time at Omaha.

Don't be shocked, though, to see him return to the Royals during this weekend's visit to Colorado, or by the time they get to St. Louis for Tuesday and Wednesday games with the Cardinals.

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