Searching for rotation help, Royals turn to reliever Matt Strahm

Kansas City Royals pitcher Matt Strahm delivered in the eighth inning during a game earlier this season against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.
Kansas City Royals pitcher Matt Strahm delivered in the eighth inning during a game earlier this season against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo.

Their starting rotation beset by injuries, their minor-league options limited, the Royals will turn to an intriguing pitcher to fill out their rotation: Reliever Matt Strahm.

Strahm, 25, will make his first career start on Thursday night against the Los Angeles Angels, replacing rookie Eric Skoglund, who struggled in consecutive outings after a terrific debut. Royals manager Ned Yost revealed the decision on Tuesday afternoon, before a series opener here at AT&T Park, outlining a decision that could have long-term ramifications for the club’s rotation.

Strahm spent much of his minor-league career as a starting pitcher. The Royals believe he has potential in the role. The injuries to Danny Duffy and Nathan Karns — in addition to prospect Miguel Almonte battling shoulder tightness at Class AA Northwest Arkansas — offered the team an opportunity to stretch Strahm out and take a look, Yost said.

“He was going to be a starter eventually,” Yost said. “We just kept looking at the options. When Almonte got hurt, we just don’t have any other rostered options that are ready. You can always put him back in the bullpen. Let’s look at it and see: Maybe we can have a Duffy-type situation.”

The case of Duffy offers the most appealing scenario. A fellow left-hander, Duffy began the 2016 season in the bullpen before injuries forced him to the rotation. He stretched out during the season and experienced a career breakthrough, using a slider and a simplified approach to reach his potential. The situations, of course, are not perfect analogs. Duffy had already experienced great success as a starting pitcher in 2014. Strahm’s major-league experience is limited to 44 innings in 41 relief appearances across the last two seasons.

“A little surprised but obviously really excited,” said Strahm, who received the news Tuesday. “I like starting. I like relieving. But whatever they ask me to do, I’m going to do. And Thursday is the day to go start, I guess.”

Strahm, a 21st-round pick out of Neosho County Community College in 2012, posted a 1.23 ERA in 22 innings in 2016, delivering an electric debut out of the bullpen. He entered the offseason as a possibility in the 2017 starting rotation. But the acquisitions of Karns and Jason Hammel filled holes and the club had a greater need for help in the back end of its bullpen.

Strahm battled command issues during the opening week of the season, leading to a demotion to Class AAA Omaha. But after a short stint back in the minors, he returned to the Kansas City bullpen and logged a 2.08 ERA with 16 strikeouts in 13 innings in May.

But then Duffy went down with a strained oblique and Karns’ arm soreness lingered, and the Royals used rookies Skoglund and Jake Junis to patch together the rotation. In the ensuing weeks, Yost and general manager Dayton Moore discussed how to proceed with Strahm. After undergoing Tommy John surgery early in his career, he returned as a reliever in 2015 before transitioning to a starting role at Class A Wilmington. In 2016, he recorded a 3.43 ERA while mostly starting at Class AA Northwest Arkansas. The performance earned him a callup in late July. Strahm has not started a professional game since.

Yost said the emergence of Mike Minor and Scott Alexander as reliable left-handed arms in the bullpen made the decision easier. Minor, a former starter in the Braves system, moved to the bullpen after shoulder issues nearly sabotaged his career in 2015 and 2016. He could return to starting at some point, but for now, club officials do not want to risk his good health. A free agent after the season, he is also positioned as an intriguing trade asset if the Royals remain out of contention in July. Strahm, meanwhile, is young asset under club control who has the potential to be a cheap rotation fixture moving forward.

On Thursday, Strahm will be on a pitch count of 65 to 70 pitches, Yost said. Barring some unforeseen development, the club will likely commit to a handful of starts as he stretches out to 100 pitches.

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