Have Ervin Santana and Jake Brentz earned spots in the Royals bullpen?

It is officially a week until Opening Day at Kauffman Stadium (and I have tickets, which will be my first Opening Day game ever), and of course, the popular story among Royals fans is this: what will the 26-man roster look like on April 1st against the Rangers?

With the Royals 40-man roster currently at 38, it is likely that at least a couple of non-roster invites will be added to the 40-man, as well as, consequently, the active roster, before April 1st. Hanser Alberto appears to be a likely addition, as he is having a torrid Spring, and could challenge for a starting spot at either second base, or even third, as the Athletic’s Alec Lewis suggested in his most recent Opening Day roster prediction article. In addition, Wade Davis hasn’t exactly been the Davis of old (i.e. 2014-2016 version), as he has only struck out two batters in six innings of work this Spring. That being said, he hasn’t allowed a run in Cactus League play, and he offers a veteran presence with Greg Holland that could be invaluable to the younger members of the Royals bullpen. Thus, it will be very surprising if Davis is NOT offered an active-roster spot by Opening Day.

However, two pitchers who have surged as of late are Ervin Santana and Jake Brentz, two non-roster invitees who have strongly made their cases in Surprise that they can contribute to the Royals bullpen in 2021. That was especially on display today in the Royals’ 10-1 victory over the Arizona Diamondbacks, which brought the Royals’ Cactus League record to 14-7.

Brentz relieved starter Danny Duffy in the fifth inning, and went 1.2 IP while striking out two batters and allowing no hits or walks. As for Santana, he posted his best performance of the Spring, as he struck out seven batters and allowed no walks or hits in three innings of work.

Here is a glimpse of Santana’s prowess on the mound against the Diamondbacks lineup:

Thus, with final roster decisions looming for manager Mike Matheny and general manager Dayton Moore, will Santana and Brentz bump a couple of players off the 40-man roster, and appear with the club on Opening Day? Or will they barely miss the cut?

Let’s take a look at both pitchers’ profile this Spring, and what their chances are in regard to breaking camp with club this Spring as Cactus League play reaches its conclusion.

Slow start, but a strong finish for Santana

Santana didn’t get off to the best start this Spring, as he allowed four runs total in his first two appearances for the Royals in Cactus League play. However, after giving up three hits and two earned runs in a March 14th appearance against the Dodgers, Santana has only given up three hits and two runs over his next three appearances and six innings of work. Furthermore, the 38-year-old Dominican pitcher also struck out nine hitters and walked none over the three appearance sample, and has lowered his ERA from a 9.00 mark on March 4th to 5.14, as of today. In fact, Santana has not walked a single batter in the month of March, and overall, he is currently posting a 14.00 K/BB ratio this Spring, which is a pretty remarkable metric.

Even though Santana has traditionally been a starter over the course of his career, the Royals have been utilizing him out of the bullpen this Spring, as he has only made one start in his seven appearances in Cactus League play. That being said, the role seems to have suited him, as his performance against the Diamondbacks demonstrates to the Royals that he can serve as an effective middle-innings option, especially if a starter is knocked out early in a game. In addition, Santana has also showcased a strong ability to generate groundball outs, as he is currently posting a GO/AO (ground out to assisted out ratio) of 1.70, which is nearly .90 points higher than his career average.

And lastly, Lynn Worthy, the Royals beat writer for the Kansas City Star, posted this tidbit today on Twitter after his latest outing:

Thus, after a rough start to the year, and having not pitched at the Major League level in over a year, Santana has emerged as a possible relief option in the Royals bullpen who also has the flexibility to be a long-reliever when needed, especially when Jakob Junis is unavailable. At this point, it will probably come between him and Jake Newberry, who has posted a 3.68 ERA and 10 strikeouts and three walks in 7.1 IP. That being said, Newberry has not faced tough competition this Spring, as his opponent quality score is only 4.4, which is the lowest mark of Royals relievers, according to Baseball Reference. As for Santana, is opponent quality score is 7.9, which is the second-highest mark of Royals relievers, behind only Jesse Hahn, who is expected to be a key late innings reliever in the Royals bullpen in 2021.

Granted, much of Santana’s profile is boosted by his latest start, especially in regard to how it inflated his strikeout metrics this Spring. However, Santana has only gotten better with each and every appearance, and considering the Royals have valued “veteran” presence so far this Spring with Davis, it would not be surprising to see the Royals continue that trend and add Santana to the bullpen to add more “veteran” presence, especially in regard to middle and long relief.

Brentz bringing the heat this Spring in Surprise

Brentz, a Ballwin, Missouri native, bounced around in the Blue Jays, Mariners, and Pirates organization before finding his way to Kansas City in 2019. Brentz posted a 3.38 ERA in five appearances last season, and also posted a 8.4 K/9 and 2.50 K/BB ratio over 5.1 IP with the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals in 2019, according to Baseball Reference. While Brentz had a decent debut in the Royals organization, he carries a reputation for struggling with control, as his career K/BB ratio in the Minors is 1.49, highlighted by a BB/9 of 6.5. That mark is pretty high for a reliever, especially one with a sub-10 K/9 like Brentz.

However, Brentz this Spring has not only demonstrated plus velocity on his fastball, but he has also shown a diverse pitch arsenal that has helped contribute to his success this Spring. Here is what Lewis said in a profile on Brentz on the Athletic:

Brentz, now 26, is in line for a big-league opportunity, be it right out of camp or later on. Comparisons aren’t ever fair, but think Josh Staumont from the left side. Brentz’s velocity has continued to skyrocket, touching 101 mph a couple of weeks ago. He’s developed a change-up. And, maybe above all, he’s realized what it takes, from a psychological perspective, to succeed against the best hitters in the world

“‘Who is this guy?’: The rise of Royals lefty Jake Brentz and his 100-mph fastball” by Alec Lewis; The Athletic

So far this Spring, Brentz is posting a 3.24 ERA in 9 appearances and 8.1 IP of work. He also has allowed eight hits, five walks, and 12 strikeouts in Cactus League play, and also has accumulated 4 holds, which makes him an enticing left-handed option in the middle-to-late innings in the Royals bullpen. Furthermore, when watching him on tape, it’s easy to see from the Royals management perspective why they would be so enamored with him and his outlook as a reliever in Kansas City.

It’s certainly tough for left-handed relievers to stick in the bullpen nowadays, especially with the three-batter minimum rule that pretty much eliminates the value of LOOGY’s. However, Brentz has surprised this Spring, and even if he doesn’t make the Opening Day active roster in less than a week, he certainly will be a candidate for a call up soon, especially if the other left-handed option, Richard Lovelady, doesn’t impress early on in 2021.

Who are the odd men out in the Royals bullpen?

The first Royals reliever this Spring that is hurt the most from Santana and Brentz possibly making the roster is Brad Brach, a fellow non-roster invitee who was non-tendered by the Mets this past off-season. Brach seemed to be in the lead early this Spring, as he was posting a 0.00 ERA in his first three appearances this Spring.

However, he had a disastrous outing against the Mariners on March 16th, and followed that up with a pretty mediocre three-hit, two runs-allowed performance against the Diamondbacks on March 20th. Now, Brach has an ERA of 14.54 and a WHIP of 3.46 in five appearances this Spring, and it seems likely that Brach may not make the cut this Spring. While Brach has some playoff chops from his days with the Orioles, it definitely feels like Brach’s career has been on the downswing the past couple of years, and the Royals may be better off utilizing Santana and Brentz as options in the bullpen over Brach.

While Brach may be an easy cut for the Royals, Moore would still have to make room by DFA’ing two pitchers currently on the Royals’ 40-man roster. The two most obvious options may be Scott Blewett and Richard Lovelady, who both have had their fair share of struggles the past two seasons. Blewett made his Major League debut in 2020 during the COVID-affected season, and though he posted a 1.52 FIP and 4.00 K/BB ratio, he also posted a 6.00 ERA and saw hitters post an exit velocity of 92.9 MPH on batted balls, according to Fangraphs.

Unfortunately, Blewett didn’t impress this Spring, as he gave up two hits, two runs, and a home run in 1.2 IP, and thus, it’s possible that if Blewett does get DFA’d, he will still find his way back to Kansas City, albeit in Omaha. It’s hard to imagine that there are a lot of others teams who would be clamoring for Blewett’s services on waivers.

As for Lovelady, his situation is more difficult to comprehend. Lovelady hasn’t been bad this Spring, as he is posting a 2.57 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in seven IP and eight appearances this Spring. While Lovelady has struck out eight batters this Spring, he has also allowed four walks, which has produced a K/BB ratio of 2.00, the exact same as Brentz.

Thus, the Royals are in an interesting dilemma. Do they go with the high velocity upside of Brentz, who can touch 100 MPH? Or do they go with a more proven commodity in Lovelady, who has had his ups and downs at the Major League level since 2019, but has showed glimpses of potential in Kansas City, unlike Brentz, who has no MLB experience. Brentz may have more upside, but he also carries significantly more risk, and it will be interesting if Moore will be willing to be undertake that kind of risk, especially in a year where they hope to compete in the AL Central.

Santana and Brentz have certainly made their case to make the Royals bullpen this Spring. That being said, the Lovelady-Brentz situation may be the most interesting battle during this last week of Spring Training. Both certainly have made their case in Cactus League play, and it will be interesting to see what direction the Royals will go in regard to their left-handed reliever situation in 2021.

After all, Lewis of the Athletic projected that Brentz would make the Royals Opening Day roster in his latest post…

It will be interesting if Lewis knows something that most Royals fans don’t…or if it’s just an educated guess without any insider information.

I guess Royals fans will know for sure in the coming week.

Photo Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

One thought on “Have Ervin Santana and Jake Brentz earned spots in the Royals bullpen?

  1. Good analysis. You never know with GMDM but my uneducated guess is they go with 9 RP to start the season. Santana/Brentz make opening day with either Lovelady or Newberry making the cut w the other traded to the Yankees for Tauchman. The 40 man roster sits at 38. Davis & Alberto bring it up to 40. Blewett (waivers) & Tillo (60 day IL) opens up 2 slots for Brentz & Santana. Although I hope not, Isbel sent out. Tauchman starts in RF.

    Liked by 1 person

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