Junis to 'pen, set for high-leverage innings

May 4th, 2021

KANSAS CITY -- Jakob Junis admits he was caught by surprise when Royals manager Mike Matheny sat him down over the weekend and told him he was going to be moved to the bullpen despite four solid starts this season.

With lingering injuries to their bullpen, especially with high-leverage arms like Kyle Zimmer and Jesse Hahn, and not many arms that could take over those roles, the Royals thought it was best for Junis to move back to the bullpen as a high-leverage reliever rather than continue as a starter, opening up a spot in the rotation for top pitching prospect Daniel Lynch to make his Major League debut on Monday night.

“[Matheny] was just straight up,” Junis said before Monday’s game against Cleveland. “He had never had this type of conversation with a player before -- this type of scenario and situation with me throwing well as a starter and moving to the bullpen. But all that was said, all that matters is that I’m not mad about this situation. I’m not going to be frustrated by this situation.”

After appearing out of the bullpen to start the season, Junis posted a 3.80 ERA in four starts, with 24 strikeouts in 21 1/3 innings and dominated hitters with his newfound cutter throughout his starts. The Royals don’t see this as a demotion at all, especially because Junis will likely be pitching in meaningful games and big innings near the backend of the bullpen.

With Zimmer (left trapezius strain) and Hahn (right shoulder impingement) on the injured list, the Royals realized they don’t have a lot of internal options yet to take over in those high-leverage innings.

“We have one guy that’s proven himself to be ready by passing all the tests, and that’s Daniel Lynch,” Matheny said. “Would he be ready to come in and serve in that role? I don’t think any of us believe that’s the right introduction for him. So then it creates an opportunity for Jake. … All that combined creates a great opportunity for us to think outside the box a little bit, give Daniel this opportunity, and also still have the benefit of having Jake available to pitch some significant-leverage innings for us.”

Junis understood the move and that he’ll likely be starting again at some point this season. He emphasized that while he thought he deserves to start, he’s willing to pitch in whatever role the Royals need this year -- which will likely be multiple.

“Knowing that they truly feel like they need me out there to help us win ballgames, that’s a pretty good feeling -- to know that I can be used in multiple spots and I’m pretty valuable to this team in multiple different roles,” Junis said.

Junis, however, had a rocky outing out of the bullpen Monday night when he entered the game to relieve Lynch in the top of the seventh inning and allowed five runs on two homers in a 8-6 loss to Cleveland.

Injury updates

Royals general manager Dayton Moore said Monday that shortstop Adalberto Mondesi (right oblique strain) was progressing well and could go out on a rehab assignment when the Royals go on the road again next week. On Monday, Mondesi was taking part in pregame work with the club, participating in infield drills at shortstop and taking batting practice.

“He doesn’t feel anything in the oblique when he hits right-handed and [goes] max effort defensively with his throws and his fielding and ranging for balls,” Moore said. “That’s good. He has still a little discomfort left-handed, so we’re just going a little slower with that progression. But he’s moving in the right direction.”

Hahn is on a similar progression and will throw side sessions in Kansas City this week before a rehab assignment potentially next week, Moore said.

Moore ‘not concerned’ about Keller

Both Moore and Matheny reiterated Monday that there was no concern about Brad Keller and his struggles to start the season with a 8.06 ERA in 22 1/3 innings and a 2.149 WHIP. Matheny said that Keller’s mechanics have looked “unbelievable” in bullpen sessions between starts, but when something gets off-kilter in the game, it’s snowballed on the right-hander.

In Sunday’s loss against Minnesota, Keller allowed seven runs -- but just two earned -- in 4 1/3 innings. He had two quick innings, but the defense made two errors in the third -- and the Twins racked up seven runs that inning.

“I’m not concerned about Brad Keller at all,” Moore said. “Brad Keller’s the same determined, hard-working pitcher today that he was when we had him for the very first time in Spring Training after the Rule 5 [Draft]. You don’t make it as a Rule 5 pick and stick and have the success that Brad Keller’s had unless you’re special. So I rely on that, and look, as we all know, the Major Leagues isn’t easy. Hitters make adjustments, and at the end of the day, Brad’s got to stay convicted to what he does.

“Guys will tell you, ‘We need to play some better defense behind him.’ That’s not an excuse, but again, if you have a letdown in any one area with your team on any given night, there’s a good chance you’re going to lose. … Brad will get through all that.”

Roster moves

To make room for Lynch on the 40-man and active roster, the Royals optioned right-hander Jake Newberry to Triple-A Omaha and placed left-hander Daniel Tillo on the 60-day injured list as he continues his rehab from Tommy John surgery last June.

The Royals also announced before the first pitch Monday that they placed catcher Cam Gallagher on the seven-day injured list with a concussion after he took two foul balls off his face mask Sunday afternoon. Catcher Sebastian Rivero, who is on the 40-man, was recalled from Triple-A Omaha, and if he gets into a game, he’ll be making his Major League debut.