Jakob Junis remembers the golf carts.
There were dozens. Each seat filled with scouts and college recruiters. They were parked along the baselines of a ballfield in Jupiter, Fla., where Junis, then a senior in high school, spun his biting curveball to some of the best players in the country.
Junis himself was one of the top prep talents coming out of Illinois in the Class of 2011, but he wasn't the main attraction at the 2010 World Wood Bat Association Championships. Evaluators were drawn in a crush to Roger Dean Sports Complex by the combined star power of Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez, Jose Fernandez and Daniel Vogelbach — all teammates of Junis’ on a squad run by former Rockies all-star outfielder Dante Bichette.
“I’d never seen anything like it,” Junis said. “There had to have been hundreds driving around golf carts, going from game to game. It was crazy.”
As he recalled the scene this week at Busch Stadium, Junis chuckled. He might not be a mainstay in the Royals' rotation now if he hadn't fallen in with Bichette and the Perfect Game circuit when he did.
Because it was at this wooden-bat tournament, on a team loaded with future first-round draft picks, that Junis became more than a postscript on a scout’s prospect list. His athletic, 6-foot-3 build and four-pitch repertoire made evaluators swoon. Videos and reports of his performance — Junis struck out six in the championship semifinals, said his dad, Jody — were shared widely.
And it was after this tournament that the Royals’ scouting department sprung to action in preparation for arguably the smartest late-round draft decision the club has made during general manager Dayton Moore’s tenure.
“The one thing we did say about him was he could always spin the baseball,” said Lonnie Goldberg, the Royals’ director of scouting. “That’s an art. He always had that gift to do it.”
But back then, the Royals and every other major-league team had to contend with this: Junis considered himself an infielder first, not a pitcher. He was committed to playing both ways at North Carolina State, but only as a means to becoming a major-league hitter. Junis had only found himself on Bichette’s summer showcase team because he’d proven he was talented at the plate years earlier, smacking a leadoff home run in his first at-bat as an alternate on the team. He was a prolific power hitter in high school, too.
The price tag to convince Junis to let the bat go was high: He reportedly commanded an $800,000 signing bonus.
His stock plummeted. During the 2011 draft, no one came close to matching the bonus for 28 rounds. One team called Junis in the second or third round to gauge his interest, he said, but the club wouldn’t budge on the asking price.
The Royals were the only other team to take a chance, calling him in the 29th round to select him as a draft-and-follow pick.
“He had swagger and he threw strikes,” said Scott Melvin, the Royals area scout in the Midwest region who was the first in the organization to visit with Junis’ family. “That’s probably the most old-school scout as I can be but that’s where you start. … The intangibles were there. He showed ability.”
Junis’ integration into the Royals organization is a reminder of a past collective bargaining agreement, one that prior to the 2012 season did not impose restrictions on amateur draft spending. Teams used to have the ability to continue evaluating players after the draft before committing to negotiating a contract with them.
In one of several tryouts that summer, Goldberg arranged for Junis to pitch for a summer team in Georgia in front of their national cross-checkers and others from the front office. Junis threw four or five innings and showed off the stoic confidence he still employs on the mound.
“I wanted to light the radar gun up, I wanted to pitch good games, I wanted to strike people out, throw up zeroes,” Junis said. “I knew ultimately that was like my tryout. I was either going to raise my stock or I was gonna lower it.”
The process allowed Goldberg and Royals assistant general manager for player personnel JJ Picollo ample time to gather reports and appraise Junis’ talent.
▪ He pitched with an easy motion that required little if any maintenance;
▪ He hurled a nasty breaking ball that would later evolve into a swing-and-miss slider even the best major-league hitters are fooled by;
▪ He looked natural on the mound.
In short, Junis the pitcher was exactly who the Royals wanted to include in their future plans.
“I knew if we could get the funds together, we could watch him a little bit more over the course of the summer," Royals assistant general manager Scott Sharp said. “The ability to watch him over the course of the summer and then put an evaluation on him and see if we could get him signed was big.”
The efforts paid off on both ends. The Royals convinced Junis to bypass N.C. State and sign for a reported $675,000.
And maybe even more importantly, they wrested the bat from his hands and laid the foundation for him to blossom into a major-league pitcher seemingly on the cusp of stardom.
“You looked at (two-time Cy Young Award winner and Indians pitcher Corey Kluber), and he wasn’t a household name,” Royals manager Ned Yost said earlier this month in Cleveland. “But every time he pitches, he pitches really well. He’s got good stuff but not stuff that pops your eyes out like (Astros starter Dallas) Keuchel. These guys win Cy Young awards not only because they got good stuff but they command good stuff.
“What did (Kluber) have to do? Nothing. Just had to continue to be consistent and go out and compete. Junis just has to go out and compete.”
During a season marred by the struggles of Royals pitchers, even an odd six-run, five-homer game against the White Sox on April 26 doesn't change that Junis has become the Royals' most reliable starter. Entering Wednesday’s game against the Cardinals in St. Louis, he boasted the rotation’s best ERA (3.51) and record (5-3). He also averaged the most innings (about 6 2/3) per start.
In the nearly eight years since that Perfect Game-sponsored tournament, Junis has steadily pecked at the idea that he was any sort of undercard. He's become the main event.
"He’s been, in my years of doing this, one of the stories that you really wake up and try to do this for everyday," Goldberg said. "He’s a later-round pick and now he’s sitting in the middle of our rotation and he hasn’t changed a bit. That’s what I think is unbelievable about him. He’s the same (as when we drafted him). He doesn’t vibrate on the mound and I don’t think he vibrates in life."