Can the Royals Replace Ervin Santana?


As the Royals inch closer and closer to the July 31 trading deadline, big decisions will need to be made, as Brian Henry points out here. Beyond the typical question of “Should we buy or should we sell?”, the Royals will need to decide what to do with Ervin Santana. Santana is surely going to be one of the more sought after players by teams needing a boost to their rotation. He is still owed roughly $6 million for the rest of the season, but there isn’t any long term financial commitment. If the Royals choose to hold onto Santana through the end of the year, the best compensation they could potentially receive is a draft pick, so the cost to acquire the 30 year-old right hander shouldn’t be terribly high. Were the Royals to fade a bit more, I would expect to see Santana moved for prospects who could help the organization in the future.

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Even if the Royals are able to hang around the AL Central and/or Wild Card race, the organization could still choose to trade Santana in order to add an impact bat to this punch-less lineup. (I’m admittedly terrible at predicting hypothetical trades, so I’ll leave that to everyone else.) Obviously they’d love to trade other spare parts in a trade like that so they can keep Santana for a stretch run, but the team may make that move because they think they could absorb any loss felt from his departure.

I should start by saying I don’t think there are any pitchers in the organization that could step in and duplicate Santana’s numbers. He’s been nothing short of tremendous. However, if the offense is improved enough after Hypothetical Impact Bat is added, the Royals may not need that extremely high level of performance. Santana’s 2.74 ERA is terrific, but a slightly higher ERA wouldn’t be a death-knell to the season as long as the offensive production increases at a similar rate.

Before looking at other pitchers who could fill in for Santana, I think it is important to note that other current starters could potentially produce at a higher level to help compensate, as well. Wade Davis has been hurt a bit by uncharacteristically bad defense behind him at times, so his ERA could drop. Jeremy Guthrie has gotten a lot of help from his defense, but his poor strikeout and walk numbers certainly have room for improvement. And if he hopes to help offset any loss from Santana leaving, Guthrie simply has to pitch better, especially considering regression has already started to affect his season. Other than that, there are a few likely candidates who would be called upon to step into the vacant spot in the Kansas City rotation.

Will Smith was recently called up to Kansas City as a reliever, but his strikeout numbers as a starter this season in Omaha were impressive (9.7 K/9), and he’s still young enough to develop into a better pitcher than we’ve seen. Smith doesn’t have a Santana-level of ceiling, of course, but he does have potential as a mid-rotation or back of the rotation starter, which is acceptable as long as the guys ahead of him are producing.

Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar are a couple of other bullpen arms who could be moved back into the rotation. I don’t need to tell you how terrible either of those decisions would be.

If the Royals choose to go with someone not currently on the big league roster, they may turn to Felipe Paulino, if he is able to get through his rehab stint without any further setbacks. Paulino struck out over 9 batters per 9 innings and posted a sterling 1.67 ERA last year in his 7 starts prior to undergoing Tommy John surgery. Paulino will need to be added to the 25 man roster after his rehab assignment is complete, and plugging him into the rotation seems to be the most likely of possibilities.

Danny Duffy is currently pitching in Omaha, and is coming off of a start in which he threw 5 innings, allowed 0 runs on just 2 hits, struck out 4, and walked only 1. He’s struggled with his command and pitch efficiency since returning from his Tommy John surgery, but if Duffy is able to string a few successful starts together, the Royals could look to him as another candidate to slide into a vacant rotation spot.

The final, and probably least likely, potential replacement for Santana is Yordano Ventura. Ventura has the highest ceiling of the aforementioned pitchers, but he may not be as ready to contribute to the big league club. I wouldn’t be completely shocked to see Ventura called up at some point this season, but I also think the Royals would prefer he stays in Omaha to continue developing until next year.

I know what you’re thinking, and I agree: those are not the most appealing options to replace a pitcher who has a case to be chosen to the All Star Game.

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But as I said before, the replacements wouldn’t necessarily need to duplicate Santana’s current numbers. In fact, there are some indications that Santana could begin to regress from his sparkling production level. First of all, his FIP is over 1 run higher than his ERA. Granted, his FIP is only 3.78, so a total collapse shouldn’t be expected, and pitching in front of a great defense should help to maintain stronger numbers, but a slight dip wouldn’t surprise anyone. Also, his strand rate is currently at 82.8%, which is 10 percentage points higher than his career average. In other words, Santana’s numbers may not look so irreplaceable if any potentially significant regression comes along.

I would love to have Santana stick around for the rest of the year, help the team to a playoff berth, and be starting Game 2 of the ALDS in Kauffman Stadium. However, this team needs to add some offense, and if it takes trading Santana to get that bat, I think that’s an option the Royals should explore. They don’t have a ton of excellent rotation depth, but they may have enough average depth to get by with an (assumedly) improved offense. Of course, if the team continues to flounder against the likes of Samuel Deduno, the decision to trade Santana will be a much easier one.