Guardians facing dilemma as McKenzie’s struggles continue

6:05 AM UTC

KANSAS CITY — The Guardians have a starting pitching problem and Triston McKenzie is at the center of it.

There’s no hiding it. McKenzie has not been able to get past the third inning in three consecutive starts. It’s also been eight outings since the last time he reached the sixth.

This time, in the Guardians’ 10-3 loss to the Royals on Friday night at Kauffman Stadium, McKenzie gave up five runs on five hits and three walks in 2 1/3 innings.

“Kind of similar to what we’ve been seeing. Just the command,” manager Stephen Vogt said, when asked what he saw with McKenzie. “Really battled. Really struggled.”

We all know that McKenzie missed nearly all of last season with shoulder and elbow troubles. He had a partially torn ligament in his throwing elbow that could’ve required surgery, but he opted against it. When his velocity was low, it was easy to be concerned that this ailment was trickling into 2024.

But now that McKenzie’s velocity seems to be back, it’s not as simple to point the finger at his medical history. If you ask him, he says he’s fine. But when Vogt was asked about McKenzie’s health on Friday night, his answer wasn’t as encouraging.

“We’re not sure,” Vogt said. “Obviously, we’re putting our heads together to try and help him every day, and he’s working and trying to get it going, too. But we got some things to figure out, for sure.”

So, what does this mean?

The Guardians have a move to make in the coming hours. Gavin Williams’ rehab assignment should be expiring on Saturday, meaning the club has to activate him from the 60-day IL.

It’d be easy to place McKenzie on the injured list to clear space for Williams on the roster and in the rotation, assuming there is something going on that could warrant an IL stint. If not, there are other possibilities Cleveland would have to consider.

One of those would be optioning the fifth-year veteran McKenzie to Triple-A Columbus. He has one option remaining and this could be the best way to get him to be able to reset and work through these issues without having the pressure of keeping his team in first place.

Or McKenzie could simply remain with the big league club and either continue to be part of the rotation and figure these problems out on the fly or move to the bullpen and see if that changes anything. But this doesn’t seem like the most practical choice for a team that can’t afford to keep having short starts and unreliable pitching options.

Friday was the same story for McKenzie as it has been for most of the season: He couldn’t keep the ball in the park (two homers allowed) and he issued more walks (3) than innings pitched (2 1/3). He leads all Major League pitchers in both of these categories.

“Not commanding the zone early on,” McKenzie said of the problem against Kansas City. “I thought I did a good job of kind of working my way around it in the first couple innings and then in the last one it just kind of got to me.

“I was behind a lot of guys and they were able to put good swings on pitches when they were in there, ahead in the count.”

Over his past seven outings, McKenzie has watched his average fastball velocity jump from 89.7 mph to 92.6 mph. But in that same span, he’s gone 1-2 with an 8.26 ERA (28 1/3 innings and 26 earned runs, including 13 homers).

“Extremely [frustrating],” McKenzie said. “I think no matter what the velocity is, I think the hitters in the league are very good. So if I’m not able to get ahead of guys, regardless if it’s 94, it’s got a lot of carry or whatever the numbers are, they’re good hitters and they’re able to hit.”

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The Guardians are on the clock to figure out how they’re going to get Williams on this roster. It wouldn’t be surprising if McKenzie is the person moved in order to make this happen. But while they’re balancing these decisions, they also have to figure out how to turn things around by Saturday to avoid their first four-game losing streak of the season.

“This is a really important series for us,” Vogt said. “A great start to the road trip in Baltimore and then we’ve hit a little snag right here, but hopefully, we get right back after it tomorrow.”