There is no doubt that the Royals have been active in terms of upgrading their Major League pitching depth this off-season in preparation for 2021. The Royals did see rookies Brady Singer and Kris Bubic make solid debuts in 2020, and have a system chock full of highly rated pitching prospects (with Daniel Lynch, Jackson Kowar, and Asa Lacy being the cream of the crop). However, that has not stopped Moore from hitting the free agent market to acquire more pitching depth this Winter. Early this off-season, Moore signed former Royal Mike Minor to a two-year deal to help shore up their rotation. And in addition to re-signing Greg Holland, the Royals have also been connected to Cardinals starting pitcher Adam Wainwright, who is currently a free agent.
That being said, not a lot of Royals fans saw the following move coming, as the Royals announced this deal yesterday via Twitter:
Much like Minor, Santana is a former Royal who succeeded in his lone season in Kansas City. Even though Santana pitched for the Royals in 2013, nearly eight years ago, he accumulated 211 innings, and posted a 3.24 ERA, 3.16 K/BB ratio, and accumulated a 2.5 fWAR, according to Fangraphs. The Royals were not able to sign him to an extension that off-season (he rejected a qualifying offer from the Royals), but he helped make the Royals rotation one of the most underrated groups in the American League in 2013 (along with James Shields, Jeremy Guthrie, and a surprising Bruce Chen).
Unable to secure a long-term deal after 2013, Santana signed a one-year deal with the Braves and continued to show the league that he could be a reliable MLB starter. Santana made 31 starts and pitched 196 innings in Atlanta and in the process, posted a 3.95 ERA, 2.84 K/BB ratio, and accumulated a 3.2 fWAR. The solid showing with the Braves led to a four-year, $54 million deal from the Minnesota Twins after the 2014 season.
As a Twin, Santana experienced his share of highs and lows over his four years in Minnesota. Santana only posted a 1.5 fWAR in his first season in the Twin Cities, as he made only 17 starts, pitched 108.1 innings, and posted an ERA of 4.00 in 2015. However, in 2016 and 2017, Santana proved to be one of the best starting pitchers in the AL Central, posting ERA numbers of 3.38 and 3.28 in 2016 and 2017, respectively, and accumulating 392.2 innings and a 5.2 fWAR over that two-year span. Unfortunately, the Dominican-born pitcher suffered a finger injury in 2018, and had to receive surgery that put him out of commission for 10-12 weeks. As a result, he only made 5 starts that season, and didn’t perform well in limited work, posting an 8.03 ERA and a fWAR of -0.5. The combo of the injury and lackluster numbers prompted the Twins to not exercise Santana’s option after the season, and Santana ended up signing a one-year Minor League deal with the Chicago White Sox for 2019.
Unfortunately for Santana, his down season in 2018 carried over into 2019, as he was lit up in only 13.1 innings of work on the South Side. He posted a 9.45 ERA and had a HR/FB rate of 20 percent, which was a career high. Furthermore, Santana failed to make batters whiff in any kind of fashion, as he only posted a K/9 rate of 3.38 and a K/BB ratio of 0.83, both career lows. Thus, it came as no surprise that the White Sox let him go after only three starts, and Santana has failed to stick on a MLB team since, as he didn’t play for a Major League team not just over the remainder of 2019, but also the entirety 2020 as well.
And thus, Royals fans have to ask this question: why Santana and what can he offer the Royals at 38-years-old?
Honestly, Santana was not on a lot of MLB teams’ radar this Winter. After all, he posted negative fWAR numbers in 2018 and 2019, and one has to wonder if the finger injury he suffered in 2018 had an effect on the dramatic drops in performance over that time span. However, even though Santana has not pitched a Major League game since being released from the White Sox, he has turned some heads in the Dominican Winter League with the Tigres de Licey this Winter, as evidenced by the Tweet below:
However, while the counting stats are nice, the biggest development this Winter with the Tigres has been his increased velocity, as multiple sources have pointed out his tick in fastball velocity in Dominican Winter League play:
The new life on his stuff is also evident in the clips available of Santana from Winter League play. Yesterday, Royals Athletic writer Alec Lewis posted a few clips of Santana pitching on his Twitter account:
Granted, he is throwing off-speed and breaking stuff primarily in the clips, but it shows that Santana can still throw with some movement as well as hit his spots, with the latter being something that he was known for as a pitcher at the MLB level. In 15 seasons at the Major League level, Santana has a career K/BB ratio of 2.55, which demonstrates his above-average control as a starting pitcher. To compare, his career K/BB ratio would give him the fourth-best ratio of Royals starting pitchers who have pitched 10 or more innings since 2018, according to Fangraphs.
Now, the fastball is key because Santana has seen his fastball usage decline dramatically the past three seasons at the MLB level, according to Baseball Savant. After utilizing his fastball 51.1 percent of the time in 2016, his second season in Minnesota, he only utilized it 33.2 percent of the time in 2017, and 30.1 percent of the time in 2018, his last two seasons as a Twin. While he did use the fastball a little more in Chicago, his slider was still his preferred pitch, as he used it 42.4 percent of the time (in comparison to throwing his fastball 41.2 percent of the time). Furthermore, this graph below shows the dramatic dip in fastball usage, as well as sudden spike in Santana throwing the slider, which became his most widely-used pitch from 2017-2019.
Now, Santana utilizing the slider as a primary pitch isn’t a bad thing. However, it can be disastrous when it is paired with a lackluster fastball, which explains Santana’s struggles in 2018 and 2019. In 2017, arguably one of his best seasons ever, his fastball was clocking in at 93.2 MPH. In 2018 and 2019? His fastball only averaged 89.2 and 90 MPH, respectively.
Here is a look at his fastball in 2017:
Now, let’s take a look at the four-seamer in 2019 with the White Sox:
The differences are pretty obvious: his fastball in 2017 is faster in velocity (93 MPH) and has some good tailing movement, which causes the A’s hitter to check his swing. In 2019, that fastball is a lot straighter and lower in velocity (only 91 on the TV, but it’s official velocity was 90.7 MPH), and the Rays hitter was able to line it easily into right center field for a hit.
And thus, the big question will be this: can Santana transition that fastball velocity this Winter into Spring Training in Surprise? When his fastball is humming, not only is it a more effective pitch on its own merit, but it also makes his slider more effective as well.
In 2017, when he was averaging around 93.4 MPH on the fastball, his put away percentage on the slider was 23.4 percent, according to Statcast data. In 2018 and 2019, where he was averaging around 89-90 MPH on his fastball? That put away percentage was 12.5 percent in 2018 and 8.1 percent in 2019. Hence, his fastball velocity will not only be crucial in terms of making his fastball a more effective pitch in 2021 at the MLB level, but it will also have an impact in terms of how his other pitches, slider especially, play against MLB hitters next season.
One key thing to remember about Santana’s signing is that he only signed a minor league deal, which means that the Royals are not adding him to the 40-man roster just yet. And honestly, that is a smart move by the Royals. As stated before, it is likely that there was not much of a demand for Santana, and considering he’s been out of Major League Baseball for over a year, a minor league deal and invite to Spring Training makes him prove to the Royals that he is worthy of a spot on the active roster. The Royals have had some success stories in the past with such a strategy, not just with Trevor Rosenthal and Holland last year, but Homer Bailey in 2019, and Chien-Ming Wang in 2016.
In fact, Santana’s situation feels very similar to Wang’s, who had not pitched at the MLB level for nearly two full seasons (2014 and 2015) before posting a 4.22 ERA in 38 appearances and 53.1 IP with the Royals in 2016, before they released him in September of that year. If the Royals could get something similar out of Santana, then this signing would be a success for the club in 2021.
Even though Santana has the experience, he’ll definitely be in a dog fight for a roster spot in Kansas City, and it would not be a surprise to see Santana begin the year in the bullpen if he does pitch well enough this Spring in Cactus League play. The Royals rotation seems set with Danny Duffy, Brad Keller, Minor, Singer, and Bubic, so an injury would have to occur for Santana to get a shot in the rotation. However, Santana has seen success against AL Central hitters before, not only in Kansas City, but with Minnesota as well, and hopefully, he can find some of that magic from 2017 in 2021, even if it is unlikely.
The Royals are not expecting Santana to have a major impact in 2021. Honestly, he is insurance, or at the very least, a pitcher to hold down the fort at the MLB level until Lynch, Kowar, or even Lacy are ready to debut. And once one or more of those prospects are up in Kansas City, it is likely that Santana’s tenure will be over quickly in Kansas City, much like Wang’s in 2016.
Nonetheless, this signing doesn’t hurt the Royals in the long-term, which is what Royals fans want to see as they try to transition up in the Central division. Furthermore, it could be a nice redemption story for Santana, who will get an opportunity to end his MLB career on a more positive note, nearly two seasons later.