At a time when the pitching faults and flaws now plaguing the KC Royals began to take firm hold, one of their winningest hurlers decided to leave. Faced with two choices — accept an assignment back to the minors, or reject it and become a free agent, Jakob Junis chose the latter.
And improved his lot among big league pitchers.
Junis caught everyone's attention in 2017 when as a rookie he went 9-3 in 20 games for Kansas City and tied Danny Duffy for the second-most wins (Jason Vargas won 18) on the last Royals club to come anywhere near even a .500 season.
He won nine games in 2018 to tie rookie Brad Keller for the team lead, and the same number in 2019 to pace the club by himself. But one key factor distinguished Junis' second and third seasons from his first — he lost more games than he won, going 9-12 in 2018 and 9-14 in 2019.
But losing more frequently than he won wasn't the worst of things for Junis. A positive COVID-19 test delayed the start of his 2020 campaign; he pitched only eight times, surrendered 24 runs in 39.1 innings, and finished 0-2 with a 6.39 ERA. And sidelined by two trips to the Injured List in 2021 that limited him to 16 appearances in the majors, he was 2-4, 5.26. That's when the Royals wanted him to return to the minors, but Junis declined.
Jakob Junis improved after he left Kansas City for the National League
Junis became a free agent in early November and signed with San Francisco during spring training. After spending most of April, May and June, and the first half of July, bouncing back and forth from the majors and Triple-A, or on the IL, Junis had a 4.42 ERA, his best since 2018, and went 5-7 over 17 starts and six relief appearances. And pitching primarily out of the bullpen in 2023, he posted the first sub-4.00 ERA of his career (3.87) and went 4-3.
Now, he's a free agent again. Should Kansas City consider bringing him back?
Why the KC Royals might think about reuniting with Jakob Junis
Although he made the decision to leave the franchise that gave him his first shot at pro ball, Junis is a pitcher general manager J.J. Picollo shouldn't summarily dismiss as a potential free agent target. With the Giants, he rediscovered in two seasons some of the early success he enjoyed in Kansas City, and Picollo needs to find pitching help that won't break his club's bank. The Royals know Junis well, and he probably won't command considerably more than the $2.8 million he made in San Francisco this season.
Junis has improved since he last pitched for Kansas City, and the club could definitely benefit from his good control — he boasts a career 2.40 BB/9, a nice number for a team that walked the fourth-highest number of American League batters in 2023.
The righthander would also offer manager Matt Quatraro a nice choice. Junis can start, relieve, open, or even fill a swingman role for the soon-to-be second-year skipper. A hurler that versatile can't hurt a club short on pitching depth.
Should Picollo give Junis a call? Why wouldn't he?