Examining Royals Free Agents

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The full throws of the offseason are here. The Atlanta Braves have won the World Series and had their parade (with former Royals Jorge Soler, Will Smith, Jesse Chavez, and Terrance Gore all earning rings), and now that is fading into the background as the business side of the game creeps to the forefront.

Teams have issued qualifying offers, while both teams and players have picked up and turned down contract options for 2022. Scores more have seen their contracts expire and head off into free agency. Feelings are or will be hurt. Fans will be heartbroken. Bags will be secured for some. Others will find themselves left alone on the dance floor.

Additionally, there is the looming dread of a likely work stoppage once the MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement expires on December 1. That will cast a massive shadow of uncertainty over this offseason, and possibly will interfere with the 2022 campaign. No one has any idea how long or ugly it will be. Regardless, we still will proceed as if the players and owners get their act together and work out a deal in good time.

The Kansas City Royals originally were faced with the painful possibility of parting with franchise icon Salvador Perez, whose contract was scheduled to expire following the 2021 season, but Dayton Moore took care of that by inking Perez to a four-year, $82 million extension on March 21. Of course, he was rewarded with a historic season from Perez:

Additionally, one-year center field stopgap Michael A. Taylor was expected to hit the open market, but he too was extended, signing a two-year, $9 million deal during the final days of the regular season; a low-risk reward for a pedestrian offensive season (a .244/.297/.356 slash line), but a spectacular defensive campaign that culminated in his (very well deserved) first Gold Glove.

That leaves just four Royals, all pitchers, who are on the free-agent market: Greg Holland, Wade Davis, Ervin Santana, and Jesse Hahn. The question is, is it worth bringing any of them back? Let’s take a look:

Greg Holland

The Lowdown: Signed to a minor league deal before the 2020 season, the Royals wondered if their former lockdown closer had anything left in the tank. Turns out he did. After making the club out of spring training summer camp, Holland re-gained his spot as Royals closer in 2020, posting a 1.91 ERA and striking out 31 batters over 28.1 innings. The Royals re-upped him for 2021 at a bargain rate of $2.75 million for the year. It did not go as well.

Holland started the year at the back end of the bullpen, but as his ERA rose, his role diminished, and he finished with a disappointing 4.85 ERA in 55.2 innings. His walk rate nearly doubled from 2020 and his strikeout rate went down. His FIP was a still mediocre 4.82, suggesting that none of his work was a fluke.

The Verdict: Holland will turn 36 years old later this month. Given his disappointing 2021, his lower velocity, and the number of encouraging bullpen arms already in the organization, Holland is likely done as a Royal. His work for the 2013-15 squads will always be remembered and appreciated, and it was great to see him recapture the magic in 2020, but it appears the time has come for the past to stay in the past. I believe it’s plausible that he’ll be in someone’s big-league camp when Spring Training (hopefully) rolls around in 2022, but I would bet it’s not the Royals.

Wade Davis

The Lowdown: After the success of Holland in 2020, perhaps the Royals felt lucky that they could inject new life into another former H-D-H member, as Wade Davis came back to town on a minor league deal before pitching his way onto the Opening Day roster in Spring Training. He even secured the save in a wild Opening Day win (hearing Rex Hudler say “Wader, check please” once more was heart-warming), but that was the highlight of his Royals tenure.

Davis quickly regressed back into the broken pitcher who logged a 9.77 ERA over his final two years (2019-20) in Colorado. With the Royals, he went 0-3 with a 6.75 ERA in 40 outings, with his ERA never dipping below 6.00 at any point after April 30. He allowed three runs in one inning against Minnesota on September 11, before being placed on the 60-day injured list to end the season.

The Verdict: While you could conceivably see Greg Holland earning another MLB shot in 2022, it’s nearly impossible to see that for Davis. At 36 years old with three consecutive rotten seasons under his belt (a combined 8.33 ERA over 95 outings since 2019), it’s difficult to imagine any team being desperate enough to need him.

After his historically dominant run in 2014-15 (17-3 record, 0.97 ERA, 187 strikeouts in 139.1 innings), it’s heartbreaking to see Davis fall so far. At this point in time, however, it seems inevitable that his next career move will be his last: retirement. There is simply no mildly good reason for the Royals—or anyone—to offer him a contract for 2022.

Ervin Santana

The Lowdown: Another member of the “Blast From the Past” club, Santana, who turned in an excellent 2013 season (3.24 ERA in 211.0 innings) that rejuvenated his career. Following an outstanding 2017, though, he made just eight (poor) starts over 2018-19 before being out of baseball in 2020. Likewise, the Royals snagged him off the scrap heap last winter, and he pitched his way onto the MLB roster, with alright results.

Healthy for the first time in four years and pitching exclusively in relief for the first time in his 17-year career, Santana was relegated to low-leverage garbage relief, going 2-2 with a 4.68 ERA over 65.0 innings in 38 appearances. He wasn’t good, wasn’t bad, he was just kind of there.

The Verdict: Santana was the oldest member of the 2021 Royals, as he turns 39 next month. Obviously, he is in the very twilight of his career. That said, I wouldn’t entirely object to bringing him back. He will be cheap, and market demand will probably be low. Santana is a useful veteran to have in a low-leverage swingman role where he can eat innings in lost-cause games. That role may have been penciled in for Jakob Junis in 2022, but after spending much of 2021 on the shelf or in Triple-A, he elected to hit the open market rather than take an outright assignment to Omaha.

With Junis presumably moving on, bringing back Santana as your last man out of the bullpen/emergency starter role might not seem too far-fetched. I would argue that having a veteran like Santana handle your garbage relief is better than letting a legitimate prospect waste away in the bullpen. Should the Royals bring back Ervin Santana? Maybe. Will they? I wouldn’t count on it, but I wouldn’t rule it out either.

Jesse Hahn

The Lowdown: Acquired from Oakland in January 2018 alongside Heath Fillmyer, Hahn gave the Royals virtually nothing in his first two seasons in the organization, as a pair of elbow injuries limited him to ten total minor league appearances and six ineffective big-league outings in 2019. In 2020, though, Hahn surprised after being called up from the Alternate Site in late August, allowing just one run on four hits over 17.1 innings (a 0.52 ERA) with 19 strikeouts.

Then the injury bug returned in 2021. After five poor outings to start the season (a 13.50 ERA in 3.1 innings), Hahn hit the Injured List again on April 12. He made just three appearances (totaling 1.2 innings) in Omaha upon returning in mid-May, but on May 22, right shoulder impingement shut him down again. As it turns out, that ended his season, giving him three utterly lost seasons out of the previous four.

The Verdict: At 32 years old, Hahn in theory has the most to give out of this group. However, given that nearly his entire four-year stint with the Royals was spent on the injured list, it’s difficult to imagine the Royals having much more patience for him, especially with so many promising pitchers rising through the Royals system.

The Royals could welcome him back on a minor-league deal, with a chance to pitch his way into the majors if he can stay healthy and return to his 2020 form. However, with at least 11 IL stints (including two Tommy John surgeries) during his professional career and no healthy full seasons since 2014, will the Royals even want to offer that?

In Summary

The Royals’ free-agent class is certainly nothing to get excited about, but it does present the Royals a chance to shed some veteran dead weight. Counting Jakob Junis (who technically was not eligible for free agency but elected it after turning down a demotion), the Royals could potentially shed five pitchers, four of whom are over the age of 32, and who combined to occupy $9.55 million of payroll while collectively accumulating -0.3 WAR. Simply put, shedding almost $10 million of below-replacement level production is an easy call for the Royals to make.

Just as important, letting the whole group walk would clear up four valuable spots on the 40-man roster, which at this moment stands at 36 players. The Royals will have some 40-man decisions to make ahead of Rule 5 Draft on December 9. That said, those decisions are worthy of their own discussion, and that will come soon.

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main image credit: Embed from Getty Images

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