Junis makes a successful return to the rotation

The slider was working for Junis, but that was about the only thing that went right for the Royals on Tuesday. The rosters expand today and the Royals will have to figure out where to play Mondesi.

The calendar still said August, but Tuesday night’s game between the Royals and the Indians sure had the vibe of a September contest between two clubs playing out the string.

Sure, there’s still plenty of intrigue to go around, but if Salvador Perez isn’t hitting dingers, is anyone really paying attention? Playing the role of Perez on Tuesday was Cleveland’s Amed Rosario. All he did was collect five hits, including a first inning inside the park home run, while driving in five. Nothing else was required.

Junis looks sharp in his return

Plenty of credit to starter Jakob Junis, who threw 78 pitches in his return to the majors—and the rotation.

He consistently ran the slider to the glove side and kept it down. The ones that he left up, caught Cleveland hitters off guard…all they could do is watch the pitch for a strike. The sliders down and in the zone were put in play for outs.

The slider was his big swing and miss pitch—five of the 12 swings Cleveland batters took caught only air. They fouled off another three. After the game, Junis expressed satisfaction with the slider:

“My slider was really sharp tonight. Sharper than it’s been in awhile.”

Junis really varied the speed on the pitch, running it from 83 to 78 mph. Here’s one of the faster sliders he threw on the night, a backdoor slider that caught José Ramírez in the third.

Contrast that to one of the slower ones he offered. This one came in at 79 mph against Bradley Zimmer.

That’s kind of a tantalizing pitch, isn’t it? It just kind of floats a little more up there and then dives down and a little to the glove-side.

Junis threw 18 sliders 80 mph or faster on Tuesday. Those sliders had an average spin rate of 2,461 RPMs. The 12 he threw that were clocked slower than 80 mph came in with a spin rate of 2,402. Not much of a difference to really affect the movement all that much, but those slower ones did seem to have a little more float.

That’s a lot slower than Junis has delivered the slider in the past. It confounded the tracking systems, registering as curves. Junis confirmed after the game that he didn’t throw a curve. The slower sliders were by design.

“Salvy came up to me the next inning…he said (the slower slider) had a lot of depth to it. I told him that (Cleveland batters) had seen some good, strike-the-ball sliders and I just wanted one to be over the plate so I took a little bit off of it.”

Junis referenced the slower sliders he delivered in the fifth to Owen Miller and Austin Hedges as where he was particularly mindful to get the pitch in with a little less velocity. It worked with Miller who bit on a slider that dipped out of the zone.

Perez was impressed.

“The slider he has…it’s nice. I’ve never seen a slider like that. That’s pretty good.”

I mean, if Salvador Perez is complimenting your slider…It’s a damn good pitch.

If you didn’t watch the game and just check the box score, you’ll see that Junis was charged with three runs in 4.2 innings. It’s not a great line, but it doesn’t tell the story of his night. The walk in the fifth to Austin Hedges wasn’t good—Junis missed badly on the four pitches he delivered out of the zone—but he was close to working around it before Myles Straw spoiled things by dropping the bat on one of those slower sliders and dropping it just inside the right field line. That ended Junis’ night. When Joel Payamps wasn’t able to get Amed Rosario to end the inning, both those runners were charged to Junis.

While the slider was definitely the star of the night for Junis, his cutter deserves some mention. He was able to work that pitch up in the zone, nicely mixing up the eye level between the two pitches.

The cluster of cutters on the upper edge to the third base side of home plate were delivered to left-handed batters. Junis wasn’t always hitting Perez’s target with the pitch, but when he was missing, it sure looked like he was hitting the edges. Like this offering to Daniel Johnson.

The cutter didn’t get the swings and misses like his slider, but living around the zone and providing a slightly different look, it was still an effective offering.

Junis finished the night with an impressive 38 percent CSW% (called strikes plus whiffs) which allowed him to stay on the attack against the Cleveland bats. It was an impressive return to the rotation and if he can build on this outing, he can be an asset to the Royals in the season’s final month.

Expanding the roster

As noted in Monday’s edition, the time is approaching for Adalberto Mondesi to be activated and join the active roster. Since he was on the field prior to Tuesday’s series opener against Cleveland, it would appear that this will happen today now that the calendar has flipped to September and the rosters officially expand.

The official addition of Mondesi to the major league squad could pose some major league headaches for Mike Matheny as he tries to fit everyone into a lineup. I completely buy into the idea that a starter shouldn’t lose his role due to injury. But the world—and baseball—just isn’t so black and white. Mondesi’s replacement Nicky Lopez currently leads the team with a .361 OBP and is setting the pace with a 3.4 fWAR. He’s stealing bases at an amazing clip. Most of Lopez’s value comes from the fact he’s playing an exceptional shortstop. According to Fangraphs, he owns a 5.2 UZR which is the best in the AL and trails only Miami’s Miguel Rojas among shortstops. The Fielding Bible has him as +3 Defensive Runs Saved, good for 12th best in the majors. And Baseball Savant has Lopez at +14 Outs Above Average, second-best in the AL and fourth-best in the bigs.

Apparently, the Royals agree. In pregame workouts at the stadium on Tuesday, Mondesi was taking ground balls at third, with Lopez and Merrifield in their usual positions up the middle. According to MLB.com’s Anne Rogers, where Mondesi will play has been at the forefront of some internal discussion.

“I wish I could track the number of hours thought about that,” Matheny said on how Mondesi will be integrated into the lineup and infield. “It’s a legit conversation. We’ve had a lot of legit conversations. We’re not ready to make any kind of public statement on it, but it has been a major topic for a while.

“Internally, we feel good about where we are. But we want to make sure the timing and delivery comes from the right mouth, and is orated properly.”

Mondesi was noticeably taking grounders at third base, with Lopez at shortstop and Merrifield at second base during Tuesday's pregame workouts. And Mondesi participated in early work under the instruction of infield coaches Vance Wilson and Tony Peña Jr.

Five months into the season, I don’t think you can justify moving Lopez off of the shortstop position to accommodate Mondesi. (I can’t believe I’m writing this. Lopez’s season has been simply amazing and will continue to be celebrated in this space.)

I think this is how I would construct a lineup.

  • Merrifield - 4

  • Lopez - 6

  • Perez - 2

  • Santana - 3

  • Mondesi - 5

  • Benintendi - 7

  • Olivares - 9

  • Dozier - DH

  • Taylor - 8

Honestly, outside of the top three and Mondesi and probably Olivares, it’s difficult to care too much about this lineup. Santana has cratered since June. It’s been even worse since the All-Star break. He’s hitting just .179/.242/.255 in the season’s second half. He’s on course for the worst offensive season of his career. Benintendi hasn’t been any better. Since his return from a broken rib in early July, he’s hitting .219/.244/.369.

Every time Hunter Dozier looks like he’s going to make some gains, he hands it right back. Certainly, his wrist injury played a massive role in his first-half performance. On July 20 he was hitting .196/.268/.362. As we enter September, he’s at .204/.273/.355. He’s just treading water. If you want to play him at first base, fine. In that case, Merrifield can move to right and Mondesi can play the keystone. That is probably the right move a couple of times a week to rotate some hitters at DH, particularly Perez to keep him fresh. They could DH Mondesi as well on occasion to keep Emmanual Rivera in the mix at the hot corner.

Mondesi will be joined on the active roster by Jackson Kowar, who was likewise running through pregame workouts on Tuesday at The K. Kowar last pitched August 27 against the Iowa Cubs, throwing 5 innings and striking out seven against no walks.

Thursday’s starter is still listed as TBD for the Royals. If they are going to keep that six-man rotation, here’s how it could stack up going forward.

  • Tuesday - Junis

  • Wednesday - Kowar

  • Thursday - Minor

  • Friday - Bubic

  • Saturday - Hernández

  • Sunday - Singer

Brad Keller, on the shelf with a right lat strain, said during his weekly radio appearance on KCSP that the pain in his shoulder is gone. He can be activated from the IL on Monday, but it sounds like the club will be cautious bringing him back. Rogers wrote on Tuesday that Keller “will be shut down from throwing for a significant amount of time.” Keller, of course, was shut down in September of 2019 due to what was termed “arm fatigue.”

Central issues

  • A’s 9, Tigers 3

Matt Chapman hit a pair of dingers as Oakland roughed up Detroit’s Tarik Skubal to the tune of seven hits and six runs over five innings. The A’s have moved to a game behind the Red Sox in the Wild Card hunt.

  • Cubs 3, Twins 1

Frank Schwindel hit a home run for the Cubs to open the scoring. A Robinson Chirinos triple and Ian Happ dinger added two more. Two teams playing out the string.

  • Pirates 2, White Sox 4

Lucas Giolito walked four in 4.1 innings, but solo dingers from Yasmani Grandal and José Abreu got the Sox on the board early. A bases-loaded walk to Brian Goodman broke a 2-2 deadlock in the sixth and Leury Garcia added some insurance via a sac fly.

Up next

Kowar returns to The K. He will square off against Logan Allen. First pitch is scheduled for 7:10 CDT.