In a few hours, 2021 will already be history, as amazing as it is to believe. We entered the year not having a clue what would happen both from a sports standpoint and even just a day-to-day standpoint (thanks COVID), but nonetheless we all made it.
With that out of the way, one of the greatest traditions of the yearly flip of the calendar is making a New Years resolution that you absolutely have no plan on carrying on no later than the third week of January.
However, I do not control anything regarding the fate of the Kansas City Royals and the odds of that changing by the end of 2022 are about the same as you or I dating a supermodel: it’s technically possible, but let’s be real, it ain’t happening. As a result, I will make three New Year’s resolutions that I want the Royals to accomplish this year, in no particular order.
Without further ado, Auld Lang Syne!
Free Up the Logjam at First Base
When the year started, I thought the Royals were doing well. They had signed Carlos Santana to a two-year, $17.5 million deal, which is frankly a fantastic deal for a durable, consistent first baseman who was good for 20-25 homers and 100 walks a season for the previous decade. Yes, he posted a .699 OPS in 2020 and would be 35 years old, but he smacked 34 homers and posted a .911 OPS in 2019. Santana certainly would bounce back to normal, right?
Wrong…Sort of. Well, to be fair the first half, Santana was exactly what the Royals signed him up to be. He played all 89 games before the All-Star break, slashing .246/.368/.421 with 15 homers—all right in line with his career numbers. Contenders wanted him at the deadline, but the Royals were going nowhere and they elected to keep him in their quest to nowhere.
After the All-Star break, Santana slashed .176/.254/.246, a .500 OPS. Excluding a partial rookie season in 2010 and the shortened 2020 campaign, Santana posted career lows in *deep breath* hits, runs, doubles, RBI, walks, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, OPS+, and total bases, while his 19 homers were his second-fewest in a full season (18 in 2012). A really bad second half turned a solid season into a pretty bad (-0.2 bWAR) one. He turns 36 a week into the 2022 season.
Oh yeah, none of this factors in the meteoric rise of Nick Pratto, the 14th overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft. Pratto had a wretched 2019 season in Class A-Advanced Wilmington, batting .191 with just nine homers over 124 games—good for a hideous .588 OPS.
Pratto re-made himself for 2021. Starting the year in Double-A, Pratto was promoted mid-season to Triple-A Omaha and stroked a combined 36 homers and drove in 98 runs in 124 games. He slashed a robust .265/.385/.602 across both levels, raising his OPS exactly 400 points to a stout .988. A player who a year ago was a major question mark now feels like a legitimate option from Opening Day next season.
With that said, if the Royals want to make legitimate progress in 2022, they can’t let one year and $10.5 million owed to a 36-year-old get in the way. I won’t quite go as far to say that Pratto has nothing left to accomplish in the minors after one big year, but all signs point to him being ready to contribute in the majors in 2022.
The Royals can’t let Santana get in the way of that, so once the lockout is resolved and major league transactions are free to resume, objective 1A (and 1B and 1C) should be moving Santana somehow.
Do Something With Hunter Dozier
Hoo boy, did Hunter Dozier have a no-good, very-bad 2021 season. In the first year of a four-year extension, Dozier was firmly in the discussion for worst player in Major League Baseball, with an atrocious -2.5 WAR and an OPS+ of 81 (.680 OPS).
At the plate, he actually had a slightly better year than Michael A. Taylor (76 OPS+ and .653 OPS), but while Taylor was plus baserunner and was a Gold Glove winner in center field, Dozier was a below-average runner and a poor defender (-2.4 defensive WAR) anywhere the Royals put him. Whether it was first base, third base, right field, left field, it didn’t matter. As a result, while Dozier was at -2.5 WAR, Taylor wound up at positive 2.5 WAR—a difference between the two akin to adding an All Star-caliber player.
I already decided in mid-September that it was time for the Royals to cut bait on Dozier. Royals fans on Facebook had a very, very heated discussion about the merits of that argument. That said, Dozier slashed .286/.338/.635 with five homers in 19 games after that article went live, so maybe half the fanbase (very rough approximation) debating about his future in a Facebook group somehow fixed him.
Jokes aside, Pratto is coming. Bobby Witt Jr. should probably start the season in the majors. The Royals will have three MLB-caliber shortstops to find space for. Kyle Isbel is ready for a full-fledged starting shot in the outfield. Simply put, there are too many spots up for grabs for Dozier to start every day.
Maybe give him a month or two to start the season. If he hits like he did in 2019 (.279/.348/.522 with 26 homers and 124 OPS+) then re-assess on which direction to go. If we see more of his 2021 production, then the Royals either need to find a sucker on the trade market or take a $22.5 million bath. Just like the Santana dilemma, if there is serious steps forward to be taken in 2022, the status quo won’t cut it.
Reinforce the Young Pitching
While there is serious promise on the offensive side, most probably agree that the ultimate success of this wave of youth will rest on the fate of the 2018 draft class: Brady Singer, Jackson Kowar, Daniel Lynch, and Kris Bubic. 2021 was not promising to the group as Singer took a step back, Bubic had a rollercoaster season, Lynch never could quite get going, and Kowar’s first 30.1 MLB innings were about as disastrous as one could draw up.
Carlos Hernandez helped soften the blow by coming out of nowhere to post a 3.68 ERA in 85.2 innings, but Brad Keller stumbled to his worst season (5.39 ERA, -0.3 WAR) by a fairly healthy margin and Mike Minor had an ERA north of 5.00, which is not what you want to see from your team’s leader in starts and innings.
Behind them, Scott Barlow, Josh Staumont, and Jake Brentz all were very solid, while Domingo Tapia pitched very well after being picked up off the scrap heap. After that, though, it’s a sea of question marks and unproven arms.
In theory, there’s enough that year that if a decent portion of that group pitches up to their potential, the pitching problem (11th in the American League in ERA in 2021) could fix itself rather quickly. But that’s probably not the responsible thing to do on its own.
I outlined a few reasonable ideas for some pitching help both in the rotation and in the bullpen. Finding proven big league arms that are still productive on the free agent market (again, we’ll have to wait for the lockout to get resolved) would be a prudent move for the front office rather than leave a young rotation to sink or swim with little experience around them, or not enough help in the bullpen to bail them out of jams.
Additionally, if Dayton Moore and JJ Picollo feel like a young pitcher or two has a lower ceiling than the industry consensus, the opportunity could be ripe to pull off a blockbuster stunner to find an established big-league pitcher in the range of a number two or three starter.
The rebuild to 2014-15 was kickstarted by the Zack Greinke trade before the 2011 season and fully put into motion with the Wil Myers deal leading into 2013. Coupled with the Khalil Lee for Andrew Benintendi deal last winter, dangling a couple pitching prospects on the trade market could lead to another move that helps define the next chapter of Royals baseball.
There are any number of things that I think the Royals could or even should do in 2022 to maximize the potential for that season without mortgaging a promising future, but these are the three that should be the top priorities for the Royals brass.
I don’t care if the workout plan or the new diet goes kaput by next week, Royals. Just make sure that these three items get checked off the to-do list next year.
Happy New Year everybody!
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