In the most recent Royals “mailbag” from December 15th, Alec Lewis of The Athletic suggested that a trade of Carlos Santana would make the most sense for the club, especially with Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez on the 40-man roster, and Vinnie Pasquantino rising up the system (and prospect lists) quickly. Furthermore, Max Rieper of Royals Review also explored the possibility of a Santana deal a bit deeper, as he explored possible trade destinations for Santana, even though the options didn’t look too hot at the surface level:
Hence, it goes without saying that Royals fans may be done with the Santana experiment in Kansas City, even though the former Royals’ “nemesis” (due to his days in Cleveland) has only played one season with the Royals organization, and is still under contract for at least one more season.
With younger and more controllable talent available in the Royals system at first base, and with Hunter Dozier needing to play somewhere defensively other than third base or right field in 2022, it makes sense for the Royals to part ways, even if it doesn’t result in a tremendous return in a trade. Soon-to-be 36-years-old next season, Santana is showing signs of decline as a player, as he has posted sub-100 wRC+ marks in 2020 and 2021, respectively, the only times in his career that he has been under the 100 wRC+ mark for a season.
That being said, while letting go of Santana sounds like an easy decision for Dayton Moore and the Royals, it is still likely that Santana will be back as the Royals’ starting first baseman on Opening Day in 2022, the last “guaranteed” year of his contract (he has a club option for 2023 and that probably won’t get exercised by any club, let alone the Royals).
In this post, I take a look at four reasons why Santana will be back in Kansas City, and why that may not be the worst thing for this Royals club next season.
1. The Lockout Will Delay Any Kind of Trade Negotiations
Right now, both the owners and player’s association are still entrenched in a deadlock when it comes to negotiations, which is not a good sign that this lockout will end anytime soon:
While many still remain optimistic that the lockout could end before Spring Training, it seems unlikely that any kind of trades will happen once the lockout ends. There still is plenty of free agent talent available on the market (especially at first base), and many general managers, including Moore and JJ Picollo, won’t have the time or patience to try to work out a trade, unless it’s a pretty slam-dunk offer, which doesn’t seem likely with a player like Santana.
The longer this lockout continues, the less and less likely it seems that Santana will be traded. Hence, I am not sure that the Royals will have enough time to work out a deal in time before Spring Training, which probably means that Santana is destined to be around come Opening Day.
2. The Royals May Not Want to Take A Bad Contract for Santana
It seems like one possibility for the Royals will be to exchange Santana for a “bad contract” from another organization. However, while that makes sense from a financial standpoint, it presents a whole slew of roster issues for the Royals in 2022 and perhaps even beyond, depending on the player they would acquire.
For example, Rieper in his piece suggested a possible trade of Santana to Milwaukee for Keston Hiura, a former Top Prospect in the Brewers organization who has absolutely nosedived at the plate the past two seasons, but is still under team-control, as he is not eligible yet for arbitration until 2023.
The Brewers do return Rowdy Tellez, but Santana has a better track record than Tellez. Furthermore, Santana could benefit in the move to the more hitter-friendly American Family Field for home games than Kauffman Stadium, and the Brewers, who are starving for an NL pennant and World Series title, haven’t been shy to take on extra money as of late, despite being in a small market, comparable to Kansas City.
That being said, let’s take a look at how Santana and Hiura compared last season, via Fangraphs metrics:
As Royals fans can see from the data set above, even during Santana’s rough season, he pretty much was better in every category and considerably so. Furthermore, Hiura presents the same roster issues as Santana, if not worse. Hiura, who’s most likely position would be a corner infield spot, could block Bobby Witt, Jr. from ascending to the third base position, in addition to Pratto at first base in 2022.
Therefore, while the Royals may be eager to move on from Santana, they will not just trade him for anyone, as there are already a number of roster logjams as it is on the 40-man roster.
The Royals do not need to add another player who could make that situation even more complicated in 2022 and perhaps beyond.
3. The Royals Still Have Walk and Plate Discipline Issues
While Santana left some to be desired in terms of his power (.127 ISO, a career-low) and just overall value (-0.3 fWAR in 158 games played), Santana continued to be a walk machine and demonstrated excellent plate discipline, even if it wasn’t as strong as in years past.
In fact, take a look at the plate discipline data of Royals hitters with 100 or more plate appearances, and see how Santana was far and above the Royals’ most discipline hitter on a BB/K ratio end:
Last season, the MLB average for BB/K ratio was 0.37, and only six Royals hitters were at that mark or above last season.
Furthermore, the 0.50 mark tends to be the indicator for “strong” plate discipline on a consistent basis, and only Santana and Nicky Lopez were above that threshold. While Santana didn’t do much in terms of providing much pop last season, he still get on base, and limited his strikeouts at the plate, which has been an Achilles heel for Royals hitters since 2018.
In fact, let’s take a look at how the Royals have ranked in the BB/K ratio metric since that 2018 season, via Fangraphs:
As Royals fans can see from the table above, the Royals have ranked 26th in baseball in BB/K ratio over that four-year timespan.
With a team full of free-swingers such as Salvador Perez, Adalberto Mondesi, and even Michael A. Taylor, just to name a few, the Royals need hitters who can work the count and get on-base, which is something Santana proved he could do in his lone season thus far in Kansas City.
Granted, the Royals are hoping that Melendez and Pratto, who both demonstrated solid plate discipline in Northwest Arkansas and Omaha last year, can help change that trend, perhaps as early as 2022. That being said, MLB pitchers are much better than Triple-A ones (and considerably so), and there is a risk that the Royals could see them both struggle with high strikeout rates in the initial adjustment, much like Kyle Isbel a year ago.
Therefore, Moore and the Royals may hold onto Santana unless they can find another veteran who can replace his ability to garner walks and avoid too many strikeouts. Considering how dormant the Royals have been in free agency thus far, that seems unlikely, which enhances the possibility that Santana will be back at first base in Kansas City next season.
4. The Royals Need Santana to Boost His Value (Which Will Only Come Through Playing Time)
When looking at his expected wOBA (xWOBA) rolling chart from last year, it is obvious that something went wrong mid-season for Santana, and he just couldn’t recover, which ultimately doomed his overall line.
Take a look below at that chart from 2021, via Baseball Savant:
Notice the huge positive spike in his first 100 appearances, as he was putting up an xWOBA in the .500 range.
Then, after kind of floating around average from about his 200th plate appearance to his 400th plate appearance, he nosedived after that 400th plate appearance mark, as his xWOBA sunk around the .250 mark, which is almost 60 points below the MLB average.
He did pick it up on an xwOBA end around his 550th plate appearance, as he kind of finished the year hovering around league average. However, there didn’t seem to be a lot of correlation on an actual wOBA end, as evidenced by the chart below:
Notice how around 550 PA-on, he was at or above average on a xWOBA end, but over the same number of plate appearances, he was vastly BELOW average on a wOBA end. That difference makes sense when looking at his overall xwOBA and wOBA numbers from 2021, which were .335 and .294, respectively.
That’s a 40-point difference, and a sign that Santana was a victim of some poor batted ball luck. That is further evidenced by his .227 BABIP, which was considerably below the .292 MLB average in that category a season ago.
Thus, the Royals could hope that a full season of recovery and rest could help produce a solid April, which will make him a more desirable trade candidate in May and June, especially if another club is experiencing struggles and/or injury at the first base or designated hitter position.
After all, take a look at Santana’s swing on an 0-2 curveball against the Blue Jays’ Anthony Castro, which he ropes for a double at the K:
Now let’s take a look at how Santana’s swing is looking in September, when he supposedly wasn’t 100 percent and struggling through injury.
He gets a pretty good 93 MPH meatball down the plate from the White Sox’s Matt Foster. And yet, all he can do with it is pull it down the right field line for a groundball single:
Royals fans can tell the swing and power is not the same between those two base-hit clips, which thus explains some of the difference between those wOBA and xWOBA numbers.
The Royals can in trade negotiations point to Santana’s injury and bad batted ball luck until they’re blue in the face. But with first base not a demanding defensive position, and many free agent first base options available, it is likely that other teams will not make the process easy for Moore and the Royals front office, especially leading up to Spring Training.
That being said, if Santana can prove on the field with his bat that he’s 100 percent, and puts up numbers similar to what he did last April, well…that changes the discussion, and teams will be more likely to deal, especially once they see Santana is indeed not “damaged goods.”
A “hot-hitting” Santana is exactly what the Royals need in April and May.
Not only does it make the Royals more competitive (remember, their best months occurred when Santana was mashing) but it also boosts the trade value for Santana. Additionally, it also gives some time for Pratto and even Pasquantino to continue to develop in Omaha and Northwest Arkansas, respectively.
Which, as a result, prevents the Royals from rushing their prized pair of first-base prospects up too soon, as they did with Isbel, Daniel Lynch, and Jackson Kowar a season ago.
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