It is not uncommon for MLB general managers to talk about “winning now” in the off-season regardless of how they did the previous season. After all, considering the Winter time is a period of the off-season where not only transactions happen, but season-ticket renewals occur, it’s not exactly in a club’s best interest to overtly say to the public that they are “rebuilding” next season. That has been true recently in Kansas City: even though the club has suffered four straight losing seasons, it seems like every Winter (especially at FanFest), the Royals brass frequently talk about “competing” in preparation for the upcoming season.
To be fair, the Royals have showed some progress over the past year. After back-to-back 100-loss seasons in 2018 and 2019, the Royals went 26-34 in 2020 in the shortened COVID-affected season. With a new owner (John Sherman) and new manager (Mike Matheny) taking over last season, the Royals have been adamant about taking the next step forward as an organization, especially in the AL Central standings. And so far this Winter, General Manager Dayton Moore has backed up his rhetoric, which is a sharp pivot from other AL Central clubs, such as the Twins and Indians, who instead have looked to shed payroll this Winter.
The Royals boosted their rotation by acquiring veteran starting pitcher Mike Minor, a former Royal in 2017 who earned Cy Young votes in 2019 while pitching for the Texas Rangers. Around the same time, the Royals added to their outfield depth by acquiring Michael A. Taylor, who was recently non-tendered by the Washington Nationals. Even though his offense has left a little to be desired over his career in DC, he is a solid defensive outfielder who should give Matheny more options in the outfield, especially important in the wake of Alex Gordon’s retirement.
However, Moore and the Royals made the biggest splash of the MLB off-season so far with this free agent signing, which they announced early this afternoon:
The acquisition of Santana is a particularly huge one for the Royals, especially if they are serious about contending in the AL Central in 2021. Early in the off-season, Moore talked about boosting the on-base percentage of the lineup in 2021. Santana solves that problem perfectly.
Last season, the Royals ranked 26th out of 30 teams in walk rate, and 27th in OBP, according to Fangraphs. As for Santana, he posted an 18.4 percent walk rate, which is nearly 11 percentage points higher than the Royals’ team mark. As for OBP? Despite hitting .199 in 255 plate appearances in 2020, he posted a .349 OBP (which was mostly fueled by his high walk rate). The Royals as a team, on the other hand, posted a .309 OBP, nearly 40 points below Santana’s mark in 2020, and 57 points below his career OBP rate of .366.
Thus, it’s not hard to see why Moore would want to acquire a hitter of Santana’s caliber. And for a two-year, $17.5 million (with only $7 million being paid in year one) deal, it seems like a bargain for the Royals as well, especially when one looks at metrics like this posted on Twitter:
Even though he’s one of the best free agent hitters the Royals have acquired in quite some time, what can Royals fans expect from him, and what kind of effect will he have not just on this Royals lineup, but roster overall?
Let’s take a deeper look into Santana’s signing and profile and what that could mean for the Royals in 2021 and perhaps even 2022.
There’s no question Santana is coming off a down year. According to Fangraphs, he posted a 95 wRC+, which was the first time his wRC+ has ever been below 100 in his 11-year career. While he did play in all 60 games, Santana posted a slash of .199/.349/.350 and a WAR of 0.3. When looking at his Statcast data on Baseball Savant, many of his batted ball metrics from 2020 were concerning as well. He only ranked in the 36th percentile in terms of exit velocity; 38th percentile in terms of hard hit percentage; and 41st percentile in terms of batted ball rate. Those aren’t exactly promising percentile rankings, and it does explain why the Indians weren’t exactly chomping at the bit to give him an extension this off-season.
However, Santana did rank in the 85th percentile in expected weight on-base average, as he posted a .360 mark in that category a year ago, and that should carry some hope that he was “unlucky” in 2020, if one wants to be optimistic about Santana’s outlook, as suggested by David Lesky of Royals Review:
Another promising sign for 2021 is that Santana continued to be pretty elite when it came to not only drawing walks (98th percentile). In addition, he also remained solid when it came to not swinging and missing (77th percentile in whiff percentage) and strikeout rate (79th percentile). While Santana will be 35-years-old at the start of 2021, which may concern some Royals fans, plate discipline and batting eye are skills that remain stable with age. And thus, the fact that Santana is so elite in those two areas is a good sign for the Royals lineup, especially since Royals hitters have tended to be a free-swinging bunch in the past few seasons.
Thus, it will be interesting to see what kind of production the Royals will get from Santana over the next two seasons. In some ways, it may be hard to imagine that Santana will duplicate his 2019 campaign, a year where he posted a 4.4 WAR and 135 wRC+ and earned his first and only All-Star berth. That being said, the former Indians standout will provide a sturdy amount of production in the middle of the lineup, and could be an ideal two hitter in the lineup considering his ability to get on-base. Furthermore, his projections seem promising, as Craig Brown of Baseball Prospectus and Royals Review pointed out Santana’s Steamer 2021 projections in a recent Tweet:
If the Royals can get anything close to that kind of production from Santana next season, then this Royals lineup could be a sleeping giant in 2021, especially in the American League. The Royals with the addition of Santana should be set 1-6, and the idea of Franchy Cordero breaking out, and perhaps Taylor and Nicky Lopez breaking out could make this lineup even better as well in 2021.
Santana wasn’t great defensively, according to Statcast OAA data, in 2020, as he was two outs BELOW average at first base. However, in 2018 with the Phillies, he was 9 outs ABOVE average, which included a +6 OAA at first base. And thus, even though he has struggled the past couple of seasons in Cleveland, Santana has showed signs of being elite in the past. Hence, it’s not out of the question to think that he could be at least slightly above average at the first base position again in 2021, especially over the course of a full 162-game season.
The acquisition of Santana, however, should move Hunter Dozier back to third base, which will be an interesting development. Dozier seemed to be a decent option at third base in 2019, as he finished as a runner-up in the All-Star voting at the position. That being said, even though he posted a 124 wRC+ and 3.0 WAR in 2019, his defense at third received mixed reviews, as he was 5.7 runs BELOW average, according to Fangraphs’ Def rating. While his Statcast OAA was slightly better (he was one outs below average at third in 2019), it didn’t seem good enough to keep him at the position, as Moore acquired Maikel Franco to man the hot corner in 2020. However, with the acquisition of Santana, and the non-tender of Franco, an opportunity has opened up again for Dozier to move back to third, and it will be intriguing to see if Dozier’s defense will improve now that he has gotten a second chance at the position.
Of course, Dozier will not be the only Royals who could possibly move positions in 2021. There is considerable depth in the outfield, and if Cordero, Edward Olivares, or perhaps even Khalil Lee or Nick Heath break out, then it’s possible that Whit could slide back to the infield, especially if Lopez continues to struggle with the bat at the Major League level. Furthermore, it seems likely that either Ryan O’Hearn or Ryan McBroom will be a roster casualty, and it will certainly be a battle this Spring between the two when it comes to which one will emerge as the designated bat off the bench.
It is a different off-season in Kansas City from the past few few seasons. Yes, the rhetoric has not changed much (i.e. they’re looking to compete). However, the actions feel different from the last three Winters. Even the Moore Fox Sports interviews feel different from off-seasons past, even though owner John Sherman and his willingness to spend (unlike David Glass) may be the culprit:
The Royals aren’t settling for one-year lottery tickets on guys like Billy Hamilton, Chris Owings, or Franco like in the past. Yes, Minor, Taylor, and Santana had rough 2020 seasons, but they showed incredible aptitude as players as recently as 2019. The Royals wouldn’t have gotten players of that caliber the past few off-seasons, which goes to show not only how serious Sherman, Moore, Matheny, and the Royals are when it comes to winning, but how the view of the organization has changed from the outside as well.
Players want to come to Kansas City.
Players believe they can win in Kansas City.
And if Royals fans don’t believe that after the Santana signing…well…I don’t know what else to tell you.