KC Royals: What’s next for ex-Royal is anyone’s guess

(Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)
(Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports) /

Unless he retires, which seems unlikely, former KC Royals first baseman Carlos Santana will join dozens of his colleagues on the free agent market after the World Series.

What happens to him after that is anyone’s guess.

Santana’s play in the American League Division Series, from which he and his Seattle teammates were heartbreakingly ejected Saturday by Houston, sent the same mixed signals that characterized his 2022 season.

He looked good at times, but bad at others. Santana slapped his second single of the game in the 17th inning of Saturday’s epic ALDS finale and, representing the potential winning run, alertly—and improbably—took second, and scoring position, when Luis Garcia’s errant pitch caromed only a few feet off and away from catcher (and fellow former Royal) Martín Maldonado. It was a risky, yet heads-up, move many speedier players wouldn’t have considered.

But he also struck out twice, once in the ninth with Cal Raleigh representing the winning run at second, and left five runners on base, the most of any Mariner except Adam Frazier, who left six. Santana’s postseason effort—he hit .227 but clubbed the three-run homer that propelled the Mariners back into their come-from-behind, series-clinching 10-9 victory in Wild Card Game 2—was almost as varied in result as his regular season performance.

Probably motivated more by trying to pump up his trade deadline value than by any hope he’d shed a season-long slump, the Royals stuck by him until June 27 when his .216 average and disappointing four home runs, and Vinnie Pasquantino’s hot bat at Omaha, compelled them to ship him to Seattle for two pitchers and summon Pasquantino to replace him.

Fortunately for the M’s, Santana provided much of the punch they sought. He hit 15 homers after arriving in Seattle; the Mariners might have made the MLB Playoffs without him, but he made getting there at least a little bit easier. On the other hand, he hit only .192 after the trade, down from the .216 he managed for Kansas City, his usually good OBP dropped from .349 with the Royals to .293 with Seattle, and his strikeout rate increased and walk rate decreased after the move.

Will the former KC Royals first baseman-DH return for the 2023 season?

His post-trade power resurgence doesn’t guarantee Santana a big league job next season. He’s a player known for hitting home runs and, as his career .359 OBP proves, his propensity to get on base when he doesn’t homer. But he hasn’t hit better than .216 since batting a career-best .281 in 2019.

Assuming retirement doesn’t beckon him into its fold, Santana will probably land somewhere for 2023, even if it takes the combined minor league deal with an invitation to spring training-type deal so often offered to veterans nearing the ends of their careers. Some teams will be looking for players like him to DH and occasionally play first base—although no Gold Gloves are in his future (none are in his past, either) his defense remains adequate.

Don’t, however, look for Santana in Kansas City, at least not in a Royals uniform. He did what the club wanted him to do after it signed him to a two-year free agent deal after the 2020 campaign: he filled the gap at first base until a prospect like Pasquantino or Nick Pratto was ready for the majors. But with Pasquantino now entrenched at first, and the Royals likely to continue their DH-by-committee approach, KC has no pressing need for Santana.

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Expect former Royal Carlos Santana to play next season. Where is anyone’s guess.