In April, the Royals seemed headed to a surprise run at contention, but by the end of the season, they were right about where most projections had them - at 74 wins. But how they got there is the interesting part. They had a surprisingly good season for Nicky Lopez, a near-MVP performance from Salvador Pérez, and it was Carlos Hernández that emerged from the group of young pitching prospects to put together the most promising results.
But that was offset by some disappointing performances from players the team was counting on to take a step forward. One bad season does not doom a career, however, and many of these players could bounce back next season. Which of these players do you most want to see take that step forward?
The Royals have 25 million reasons to want Dozier to rebound next year. The 30-year old put up the worst season of his career fresh off signing a four-year contract extension. He had the sixth-worst wRC+ among any qualified hitter. He combined for -21 Defensive Runs Saved between third base and the outfield, tying him for the worst mark in baseball. Overall, he was the fourth-least valuable player in baseball, according to Fangraphs WAR.
Dozier recently opened up about how a thumb injury early in the year got him into bad habits. He made some adjustments and did hit better later in the year, batting .243/.305/.450 after August 1, including a .922 OPS in September. He also had an unusually low BABIP of .276, 23rd-lowest among qualified hitters, suggesting perhaps he hit into some bad luck. His hard-hit rate is back to his 2019 numbers, after it dipped in 2020, likely due to lingering effects from COVID-19.
There is still the question of where Dozier will play. Third base could be filled now by Adalberto Mondesi or Bobby Witt, Jr., and Kyle Isbel and Edward Olivares could get playing time in right field. But the Royals have committed to Dozier, making it likely he will be in the lineup somewhere. Let’s hope he hits.
Kowar was the Royals Minor League Pitcher of the Year and considered one of the top prospects in all of baseball by many publications. He has performed on the big stage before, pitching for the University of Florida in the College World Series. His minor league numbers - a 3.49 ERA with 281 strikeouts in 255 1⁄3 innings - suggested he had little left to prove at that level.
So it was very disappointing when he went out and had the shortest MLB debut by a Royals rookie starter in club history, recording just two outs in the first before being pulled with four runs allowed. Things didn’t improve much in his next outing, with four more runs allowed in 1 1⁄3 innings.
Kowar was demoted and brought back in September with a strong start against Boston in his return, giving up just two runs in six innings. But he gave up 26 runs 19 1⁄3 innings over his next five starts, leaving him with a miserable season ERA of 11.27. The Royals have a lot of pitching prospects, and not all of them will make it, but they could really use all the arms they can get. Hopefully next season Kowar puts 2021 behind him and shows why he was so high on prospect lists.
After playing in 59 of 60 games in 2020, the Royals were hopeful that Adalberto Mondesi had put his injury past behind him. But just before the first game of the season, Mondesi tweaked his right oblique, causing him to miss the first seven weeks of the season. He returned for just one week before landing on the Injured List again with hamstring injury. He returned in June for just three games before suffering a left oblique injury that kept him out until September.
Even when on the field, Mondesi does not seem to be reaching his potential at the plate. Since 2018, he has hit .261/.293/.445, a 94 OPS+ in 1,103 plate appearances. Even as a slightly below-average hitter he can be a very valuable player because of his speed and defense - his per-162-game WAR over that time would be 3.5 rWAR. But his tape-measure home runs tease fans that he could be capable of more.
Time is running out for Mondesi. He is still just 26 years old, but has only two years left under club control. He has likely been forced off his natural position of shortstop by Nicky Lopez, and Dayton Moore has said he can’t be counted on as an everyday player because of his injuries, although he later walked those comments back. Mondesi could be subjected to more of a reserve role in 2022, or he could even be traded for a change of scenery.
Santana hit below the Mendoza line in 2020, but he seemed like a decent candidate to bounce back. He led the league in walks that year, a skill that the Royals desperately needed in their lineup. Through the first half of the season, it seemed like Santana was back to his All-Star caliber of play, drawing walks and hitting home runs.
But Father Time is undefeated. Santana turned 35 in April, and the track record for players at that age isn’t great. After the All-Star break, he hit just .176/.254/.246, the worst wRC+ in baseball.
Santana can still draw walks - his 86 free passes are the most drawn by a Royals hitter since 1998. But his 19 home runs were the lowest in a full season for him since 2015, and his .342 slugging percentage was the fourth-worst in baseball. Maybe he has one more good season in him, but the Royals may regret giving him that second year in his contract.
Who is most likely to bounce back in 2022?