The KC Royals signed free agent Carlos Santana two Decembers ago, hoping his proven big league power, knack for getting on base and solid defense would be just what they needed at first base.
But over a year later, the deal hasn’t, and isn’t, paying the kind of dividends the Royals anticipated. Counting his 0-for-3 effort against Cleveland Thursday night, Santana is hitting .053 this season and .209 since becoming a Royal. His .315 OBP in the same period stands in stark and troubling contrast to the .366 mark with which he arrived in Kansas City.
The nagging hip injury that appeared to arise after the 2021 All-Star Break contributed to Santana’s disappointing performance: he was hitting .246 with a Santana-like .368 OBP and 15 home runs before the Break, but turned in a .176 average, .254 OBP and only four homers after it.
The injury explains part of Santana’s disappointing and troubling performance, but can’t excuse the entirety of it. He seemed healthy enough in the Cactus League this spring (he hit .364) and has played every one of the Royals’ six regular season games; nevertheless, he’s 1-for-19 this year and hitting a weak .167 since the All-Star Break.
He has yet to homer or drive in a run this season.
So, what to do with Santana?
The KC Royals are sticking with Carlos Santana so far this season, but why?
That manager Mike Matheny continues to pencil Santana’s name on his club’s lineup card— he’s scheduled to bat fifth and play first base against Detroit tonight (Twitter link)—proves a change at first isn’t imminent.
It’s a course the Royals are almost forced to follow, at least in the short term. Who would play first instead? The alternatives are there, but not presently superior.
Nick Pratto, the clear heir-apparent to the position, is having problems of his own at Triple-A Omaha, where despite three homers he’s struck out 15 times in 38 at-bats and is hitting .184. Getting back in the groove is a prerequisite to recall.
Vinnie Pasquantino is also struggling at Omaha—he has no homers and a .226 average.
Ryan O’Hearn? Yes, he can and has played first, but since his rookie season of 2018 hasn’t hit well enough to play regularly.
Ryan Dozier? He, too, knows first and has played the position well, but he’s the club’s primary DH.
Salvador Perez? No, no and no. A move from behind the plate to first base may occur in the future, but that future isn’t near.
And there’s another consideration. This is Santana’s contract year, the final season of the two-year contract he signed to become a Royal and one due to pay him $10.5 million for 2022. Players owed that much, especially veterans like Santana, get every chance to prove their worth.
That’s not the only contract year consideration. At 36 and burdened by a bat showing signs of decline, Santana isn’t a realistic extension candidate—he’s a trade candidate, instead, meaning Kansas City should make every effort to move him before the expiration of his contract renders moot any question of getting some kind of return for him. But the Royals can’t afford to bench a player they’re shopping—taking Santana out of the lineup instantly diminishes what remaining value he may have.
But all things considered, including his prolonged slump, should the club surrender, DFA Santana and choke down that $10.5 million salary?
Not yet. That time may come, but it isn’t now, not with Pratto fighting things so much at the plate in Omaha. The club’s most practical short-term option is to play Santana, hope he breaks out soon, and try to find a reasonable suitor when he does.
And that may be painful.
For now, expect the Royals to stick with Carlos Santana.