When the Kansas City Royals originally signed first baseman Carlos Santana to a two-year, $17.5 million contract last offseason, it seemed like a fairly smart decision.
Sure, Santana was coming off a shortened 2020 season that saw his power numbers drop and his overall production slip by an alarming amount. Sure, he was set to turn 35 early in the season. Sure, prospect Nick Pratto was already in the pipeline. Nevertheless, the Royals made an investment in a player they'd seen produce at a high level firsthand for years as a member of the Cleveland Indians. Banking on a bounce-back 2021 was deemed a risk worth taking.
Hindsight is 20/20, and it's safe to say that the risk didn't pan out this season.
The Santana experiment got off to a hot start, as he looked like a rejuvenated player through the end of April. In his first 24 games, he had a .506 slugging percentage. Over the next 28 contests, that figure was just .385 but his on-base percentage was a tick below .400. Maintaining world-class plate discipline has always been Santana's forte, and he was flashing enough power to be more than just a solid player for the Royals. He was good.
From June 1 through the end of the season, the wheels came all the way off the wagon. In those 106 games, Santana hit .198 and his SLG was .296. A .583 OPS was dreadful, and his season-long total (.660) was the worst of his career. Santana didn't just hit the wall: he faceplanted right into it and never recovered.
Santana still walked a ton and didn't strike out much, staying true to his brand as a player. The plate discipline was truly impressive, as it has been for years. Many will look at his 19 home runs on the season and assume his power was solid, but that doesn't paint the entire picture. His .127 ISO was the worst of his career and when paired with a barrel percentage in the lower third of the league, it doesn't offer a ton of promise for the future.
Relative to the rest of his career, Santana did post plus averages in exit velocity and hard-hit rate. It's not as if he was unable to make quality contact and drive the ball. When got ahold of pitches, they were driven hard. With that said, that didn't happen often enough and when it did, it didn't result in consistent hits into outfield gaps. Santana doesn't have the power he used to, and the data backs it up.
In his past 218 games (2020 and 2021 combined), Santana has a .671 OPS and 83 OPS+. His batting average over that span is .210, but a .327 on-base percentage depicts a player who still has an elite eye and an innate ability to lay off bad pitches to hit. He just can't do nearly as much damage on good ones anymore. Pending a complete resurgence in his age-36 season, this is who Santana is as a player now. He's a limited hitter by nearly all measures and a very slight plus on defense at first base by Outs Above Average and DRS standards. The value of that player isn't worth $10.5M.
This puts the Royals in a bit of a pickle. Due to the team's investment in him, it's likely that Santana gets a shot to show improvement to start the 2022 campaign. With that said, if he struggles out of the gate, when is the plug pulled? Is it pulled at all? If there weren't other potential replacements in the picture (or soon to be in the picture), the answer would probably be no. Considering the organizational depth at first base and the Royals' alleged desire to contend in the near future, things get interesting.
Hunter Dozier, who is already with the MLB club, has been booted from his third base spot and could spend time at some combination of right field and designated hitter in 2022. His best defensive position is first base so if prospects prove to need some additional seasoning before being promoted and Santana is underperforming, a Dozier-at-first-base solution could be in the cards. The Royals have a pair of first base prospects who project to be ready to go soon, though.
Pratto is one of the Royals' top prospects. He's also coming off a season in which he posted a 155 wRC+ in 61 Double-A games and a 156 wRC+ in 63 games with the Triple-A Omaha Storm Chasers. Pratto's power is legitimate, as evidenced by his 36 home runs in 2021. The only question remaining in regards to him is whether he can continue to cut down on his strikeouts. If he can accomplish that feat, he'll be ready for a promotion early in the 2022 season. That throws another name into the hat at first base for the Royals.
A prospect not enough people are talking about: Vinnie Pasquantino. He may not have the athleticism nor defensive versatility or upside of Pratto, but his bat is legitimate. After clobbering 13 home runs in 61 games at High-A ball, the 24-year-old added another 11 in 55 contests at Double-A. His walk rate is high and his strikeout rate is low. When you combine good power with terrific plate discipline, you get something similar to what Santana was for so many years. Pasquantino should be ready in 2022 as well, but it remains to be seen where he ends up in the field.
This is a long road to a short end: Organizationally speaking, the Royals have too many cooks in the kitchen at first base. With a pair of prospects chomping at the bit to get called up next season, as well as a comparable option already at the MLB level, the pressure is on for Santana to perform. If he can't, the Royals may not waste any time replacing him. Can the team stomach paying a bench bat that kind of money? That remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, though, and that's the fact that Kansas City very well may be faced with a tough decision early in the 2022 campaign.