KC Royals Projections: The return of Ervin Santana

(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) /

A veteran’s quest to rejoin the KC Royals begins this week. How will he do?

Welcome back to Kings of Kauffman’s KC Royals Projections series for 2021. Between now and Opening Day, our writers are analyzing how various Royals performed last season and predicting how they might fare this year. Up today is pitcher Ervin Santana.

Ervin Santana will return to the club when the KC Royals open spring training this week. Why is not entirely clear (the move was surprising considering the sheer number of talented Kansas City hurlers, and the club had already signed Mike Minor and brought back Greg Holland), but nostalgia probably has nothing to do with it.

Nostalgia-based decision making in the business of baseball, where the margin for error is dangerously thin, is a recipe for disaster. Even when it creeps into front office thought, its only relevance is potential gate draw, which explains why what once was, but probably won’t be again, rarely drives player transactions.

Anyone who believes nostalgia motivated the Royals’ decision to reacquire Santana, who at 38 will be the club’s eldest hurler if he makes the team, didn’t play last year and hasn’t pitched a full season since 2017, is mistaken. Even his detractors would be hard-pressed to find evidence that General Manager Dayton Moore allows nostalgia to burden his personnel-related thought processes; his loyalty to players and nostalgia aren’t to be confused.

And Santana’s short KC stay didn’t generate the deep emotional ties that drive wistful yearning for a player’s return. He spent just one season with Kansas City, going 9-10 in the team’s first winning season in 10 years, a campaign that ended its long contention drought and set the table for two straight trips to the World Series.

The Royals wanted Santana back, but he didn’t accept their qualifying offer and headed for Atlanta, where he pitched with Mike Minor, another 2021 Royal returnee, and posted the rotation’s best record at 14-10. That, his adequate KC performance of the previous season, and an eight-year, 96-win prior tenure with the Angels, made him so attractive to Minnesota that the Twins lured him back to the American League Central with a four-year, $55 million contract.

Santana was 30-25 for Minnesota, including a 16-8, 3.28 ERA All-Star effort that helped the Twins to the playoffs. He led the majors with five complete games and three shutouts.

Post-season finger surgery prevented him from throwing his first 2018 big league pitch until late July; the same finger continued to nag him and he gave up 22 runs in 24.2 innings. The White Sox picked him up for 2019, but he pitched just three times and was 0-2, 9.45 when they DFA’d him in late April. He agreed to a minor league assignment before ending up in the Mets’ farm system for the rest of the campaign.

Santana became a free agent after the season, didn’t pitch last year, and signed with the Royals in late December. The deal preceded the club’s signing of former teammate Wade Davis, who spent part of 2013 in the Kansas City rotation with Santana. Both are now non-roster spring training invitees and qualify as the kind of individual rebuilding projects Dayton Moore can count among his trademarks.

How will Ervin Santana perform for the KC Royals this season?

Santana hasn’t pitched well since his finger issues arose, which clearly hampered his 2018 season, and possibly his 2019 campaign. And he didn’t pitch at all in 2020. If this recent big league past foretells his immediate future, don’t plan on his return to prove triumphant. Indeed,  FanGraphs’ projection (Depth Charts version) for Santana’s 2021 season—a 1-2, 5.50, five-start record—isn’t bright.

What underlies the bleak five appearance projection? Perhaps FanGraphs believes the Royals will find Santana’s effectiveness lacking, or that he isn’t, and won’t be, the Santana of old.

But there is hope. After not pitching in the majors last season, Santana worked in Dominican winter ball for the Tigres del Licey club. Although he didn’t notch a decision in his five starts, he struck out 25 in 20.2 innings; his 11 walks were a bit high, but his 2.61 ERA was excellent.

Keeping up that good work in spring training could land Santana on the Opening Day roster as a spot starter, opener, or long relief man. If he gets steady work, a .500 (or slightly better) record isn’t out of the question.

Don’t be surprised to see Santana back in a Royals uniform when April rolls around. He knows how to pitch.

dark. Next. Ryan O'Hearn is on shaky ground

Ervin Santana will report to the KC Royals’ Arizona training camp this week. He’ll need a good spring to get to Kansas City.