The Royals have not been a patient team in a long time. They have finished in the top half of the American League in on-base percentage just three times since 1990, while finishing in the bottom three in the league 14 times. They have never finished in the top half of the league in walks over that time, and finished dead last four consecutive seasons from 2014-2017.
Last off-season Dayton Moore insisted that the Royals needed more “on-base guys”, after the team finished 12th in the league in walks, 12th in on-base percentage, and 13th in runs scored. The Royals brought in veteran Carlos Santana in December, signing him to a two-year, $17.5 million deal, a move that had near-unanimous support around here. The switch-hitting All-Star slugger had led the league in walks in 2020 and had won a Silver Slugger Award as recently as 2019 when he hit 34 home runs with a 136 OPS+. On the other hand, his OPS plummeted to .699 in 2020 as he hit under the Mendoza Line, and he would be 35 in his first season in Kansas City.
At first, it looked like Santana was just as advertised. Through May, he hit .250/.382/.443 with 10 home runs in 52 games, pretty much in line with his career numbers. But once the weather warmed up, Santana went into a deep freeze. After June 1, Santana hit just .198/.287/.296 with 9 home runs in 106 games, the worst in baseball over that time.
The Royals seemingly shopped him at the trade deadline, and there were a few teams looking to add a veteran bat to their lineup. Mark Feinsand of MLB.com reported interest from the Red Sox, but that the Royals “weren’t inclined” to move him. Ultimately, the Royals hung onto Santana while Boston picked up Kyle Schwarber from the Nationals. Santana ended the season with a .660 OPS and 83 wRC+, both career-lows, and his wRC+ was the seventh-worst among all qualified hitters.
Worst hitting season, age 34 or older, Royals history
He still drew walks, and his 86 free passes were sixth in the league and the most by a Royals hitter since 1998. He had one of the highest walk rates in baseball while having one of the lowest strikeout rates. He hit 19 home runs, his lowest total in a full season since 2015, and his .127 ISO was the lowest of his career. His exit velocity and hard-hit rate are consistent with past seasons, but his ground ball rate has crept up the last three seasons.
Santana had battled issues with his left leg during the season, aggravating it on a play on August 23 against Houston that caused him to miss a few games with a hip flexor strain. Santana later told Alec Lewis of The Athletic that the injury hampered his hitting.
“I’m used to playing with injuries, but this one was very difficult,” Santana said. “I wasn’t able to use the back of my leg properly.”
But he never hit the Injury List, and he hit just .161/.254/.220 in 34 games after that point. After the season, the Royals found he had a Grade 2 quad strain requiring platelet-rich plasma injection.
Santana will be owed $10.5 million next season, and while the Royals may be more motivated to trade him now, there isn’t likely to be much of a market for him. With top first base prospect Nick Pratto near ready for the big leagues, Santana will likely move to DH at some point next year. Even then, it might be better to see what younger players like Kyle Isbel, Edward Olivares, or Vinnie Pasquantino can do with those at-bats, or to leave that position open so either Salvador Perez and MJ Melendez can spend days not catching in the lineup at DH.
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