Does Dozier’s hot finish make Santana expendable to the Royals this offseason?

The Royals fell short 4-1 in game three of the road series against the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday evening. However, a positive of the night was the continued resurgence of Hunter Dozier, who’s posted a .998 OPS with five home runs and 12 RBI in only 70 plate appearances during the month of September. For the year, Dozier is posting a wRC+ of 80, and an overall OPS of .672 to go along with 15 home runs in 506 plate appearances, with his latest home run coming tonight as the Royals’ lone run in the game:

While those numbers certainly haven’t matched what was expected by Royals fans when Dozier inked his extension last offseason, his strong finish to the year does give hope that Dozier can at least end the year with palatable numbers, which seemed unthinkable back in August.

While Dozier has been having a banner September, the same cannot be said for Royals first baseman Carlos Santana, who’s continued to struggle for a second-straight month. I wrote earlier this month that Santana needed to have a strong finish in September to make Royals feel comfortable about him continuing to be the Royals’ first baseman in 2022, even with first base prospects Nick Pratto and Vinnie Pasquantino mashing in Omaha and Northwest Arkansas, respectively. Unfortunately, September has been just as bad, if not worse than his month of August. In 83 plate appearances, he’s hitting .137 with a .437 OPS. While he does have two home runs, which is two more than he had in August, his September OPS is actually 62 points lower than the previous month.

Safe to say, Santana has pretty much been a disaster after the All-Star break, which is further evidenced by his 38 wRC+ and .227 wOBA in 240 plate appearances over the second half, according to Fangraphs splits data. To compare, his second-half wRC+ is 79 points lower, and his wOBA is 117 points lower than his first-half marks.

While the Royals weren’t exactly in the thick of the playoff race at the All Star break, Santana’s struggles at the plate certainly haven’t helped the club over the past two-and-a-half months. If anything, his lackluster recent performance has made Royals fans wonder if Dayton Moore whiffed on “not” trading Santana at the Trade Deadline (though, according to David Lesky of Inside the Crown, it seemed like his trade value may have not been all that high on the market):

Nonetheless, the Royals will have a roster crunch in 2022. Pratto and Bobby Witt, Jr. will be up at some point, whether that’s on Opening Day, or at some other point early in the season. Nicky Lopez and Whit Merrifield should continue to start up the middle at shortstop and second base, respectively, as their production offensively and defensively have merited it. Michael A. Taylor continues to prove that he may be worth extending for a year, especially if it can come on a modest, $3-5 million AAV deal. And while Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares may not be “full-time” starting outfielders, they should have an opportunity to platoon the position for at least the start of 2022.

Which honestly, leaves Dozier as the odd man out. And considering his strong recent performance, and the amount the Royals owe to him over the next few years, he will need to be part of the Royals daily starting lineup in some shape or form next season.

And if this trend of Dozier surging and Santana freefalling in 2021 continues for the remainder of this season, then it is possible that Santana could be the one bumped in favor of Dozier, whether it’s on a part-time or full-time basis in 2022.

As of now, there are a couple of things working against Santana that go beyond his porous hitting at the plate over the past couple of months. The first issue is that Santana is 35-years-old, and will be 36-years-old next April. This season, we have seen Santana start to demonstrate his age at the plate, and that is particularly evident in his wOBA and xwOBA difference in his first season with the Royals.

Take a look at his wOBA and xwOBA numbers since 2015, courtesy of Baseball Savant:

Notice the last column above the gray-highlighted row. That is his 2021 in Kansas City, and it is a career low on both a wOBA and xwOBA end. Furthermore, what’s been concerning is that he’s had a tremendous drop off in xwOBA from 2020 and 2019. The wOBA numbers weren’t great in 2020 during the shortened season, as he saw a 64-point drop from 2019. However, the fact that his xwOBA was 53 points higher than his wOBA gave me some hope that he was experiencing some bad luck, especially considering the xwOBA of 2020 was actually four points higher than his 2019, which was a very solid year for him (.380 wOBA).

Unfortunately, things haven’t turned around as hoped, and even though his xwOBA is higher than his wOBA, it is still really low, especially when compared to seasons past. A key contributor to this decline may be due to his his deteriorating plate discipline, which is reflected in his Swing-Take data from Savant.

Here’s a look at his Swing-Take data chart from 2019, his last full season in Cleveland:

And now, let’s take a look at what that same chart looks like this season in his first year in Kansas City:

Notice how bad his performance is in the heart (purple) and shadow (orange) zones in 2021 in comparison to two seasons ago.

In the shadow zone, he’s 19 runs worse, and in the heart, he’s 14 runs worse than a couple of years ago. Seeing that kind of regression should be hard for Royals fans as well as management to stomach, especially since he will be earning $10.5 million in 2022, which will be the second-highest AAV on the Royals next year as of this moment (only Salvy’s AAV is higher).

Dozier has gotten a lot of grief this year, and on a swing-take basis, that vitriol from Royals fans has been justified. In 2021, Dozier has a minus-20 run value, which is pretty lackluster (and that is putting it mildly). However, it is interesting to take a look at Dozier’s run value in the middle (i.e. more hittable) areas of the strike zone, and see how it compares to Santana.

Here’s Dozier’s swing-take zone chart via Savant:

As you can see, Dozier is a lot worse than Santana in the waste and chase areas, which is not surprising considering that Dozier’s chase rate (30.1 percent; 30th percentile) is far worse than Santana’s (22.6 percent; 82nd percentile). That being said, Dozier has been actually better this year than Santana in the shadow (four runs better) and heart zones (four runs). Thus, it’s not surprising that Dozier finally passed Santana after tonight’s game in not just batting average (.214 to Santana’s .213) but OPS as well (.672 to Santana’s .667).

While Dozier was given an extension this offseason, he is only slated to make $4.75 million next year, less than half of what Santana will make in 2022.

Thus, it may be in the Royals’ interest to shop Santana this offseason, and not just on a lineup and on-field end, but on a financial one as well.

It will not be easy shopping Santana this offseason, especially considering the rough past couple of months he’s had in Kansas City. Santana can still draw a walk, and relatively speaking, he can minimize strikeouts as well (which was really refreshing for the Royals back in April and May). However, for a middle of the order hitter, he doesn’t barrel balls all that well (57th percentile), and his whiff rate of 22.1 percent is actually a career high. Furthermore, his defense, once a strength back in his Cleveland days, has regressed mightily in Kansas City, as he ranks in the 26th percentile in outs above average, according to Savant.

Santana has only one more guaranteed year after this season left on his deal as he will only have a club option in 2023 (which most teams, including the Royals, will probably not exercise). Thus, it seems like any club thinking about trading for Santana would be taking a huge risk, especially considering his age and declining skills. That will make it harder for Moore and new general manager JJ Picollo to deal him this Winter, and considering their playoff aspirations in 2022, the Royals most likely would keep Santana before giving him away for nothing, just to clear space on the books.

That being said, Moore and Picollo would benefit from moving Santana off the roster sooner rather than later. First all, the move would open first base for Dozier, who would be a good fit there defensively (his OAA at first is 2, by far his best mark, according to Savant), and his bat may suit the position if it can be around those July and September levels from this year.

While Dozier wouldn’t necessarily be a bad fit at designated hitter (where he’s been at mostly the past couple of week), the Royals will need to keep at-bats clear in that spot for Salvy, who could spend more time at DH in 2022, especially if MJ Melendez makes the jump to the MLB level next season. In addition, if Dozier struggles and plays his way out of the lineup, Pratto could replace Dozier at the first base position, which would help the Royals get a start on “assembling” their “roster of the future” at the Major League level (for Witt, Jr. undoubtedly would follow him as well as Melendez).

Dozier is hitting well again, which gives hope that he’s on the way to maybe being at least an aggregate of his 2019 and 2020 self, which I think all Royals fans would be okay with (honestly, Dozier’s extension isn’t all that bad when you look at the AAV over the duration). Furthermore, Pratto and Pasquantino could come up and handle the first base position at the MLB level in 2022, even if they may go through some growing pains as rookies. They wouldn’t be mashing at Triple and Double-A if they weren’t legitimate offensive prospects:

However, it will be harder for Dozier to get reps at first base, and the double “P’s” to get shots at the MLB level if Santana is still in Kansas City in 2022.

I get that the Royals may not have a lot of options now. Maybe the Royals will give Santana a couple of months to boost his trade value in 2022, and then trade him in June when the iron is hot.

But Dozier’s hot streak is making Santana more expendable than ever…

I just wonder if Picollo and Moore will have the courage (and ability) to trade him before next season.

If they are able to make such a deal by Spring Training, then Royals fans will know the Royals are indeed a changed team under their new general manager.

Photo Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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