Carlos Santana was an above average hitter in every season of the first decade of his career. In his first taste of the big leagues, 2010, he only played 46 games but knocked six homers and walked more than he struck out, slashing .260/.401/.467 for a wRC+ of 141. In each of the next nine seasons, he played at least 143 games, hit at least 19 home runs and never had a walk rate lower than 13.2% or a wRC+ lower than 108.
In 2020, his age-34 season, things didn’t go so smooth, as he hit just .199/.349/.350, wRC+ of 99. However, there were still reasons for optimism. Firstly, it was a small sample of just 60 games, due to the pandemic. Secondly, the walk rate was still excellent, coming in at 18.4%. Thirdly, his .212 batting average on balls in play was well below his previous seasons, suggesting that perhaps bad luck was dragging him down somewhat.
The Royals seemingly favored that optimistic view, as they beat the market and signed Santana to a two-year contract with a $17.5MM guarantee prior to the 2021 season. At the time, the club had posted a losing record in four straight seasons, but believed the time was right to act aggressive in trying to bolster a young core and attempt to open a competitive window.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go according to plan for Santana or the team. Although the walks were still there, as evidenced by his 13.1% rate, his line of .214/.319/.342 only amounted to a wRC+ of 83. The BABIP rebounded, but only slightly, to .227. As for the team, they finished well out of contention with a record of 74-88.
The Royals now have a bit of a crowded infield mix for a few reasons. While Adalberto Mondesi was on the shelf last year, Nicky Lopez took over the shortstop job, pushing Mondesi to third base upon his return. That pushed Hunter Dozier into spending some time at first base and the corner outfield spots. Then there’s the looming presence of top prospects Bobby Witt Jr. and Nick Pratto. Witt should eventually be playing regularly at shortstop or third base, which could push Mondesi into some time at DH, or push Lopez to second, pushing Whit Merrifield into the outfield, which bumps someone else into DH time.
Pratto, however, is a more direct source of pressure on Santana, as he is almost exclusively a first baseman, playing just three games in the outfield last year. Between Double-A and Triple-A last year, Pratto hit 36 home runs with a line of .265/.385/.602, wRC+ of 156.
That crowded position player mix makes Santana a clear trade candidate, given that he has just one year and $10.5MM remaining on his contract. The trouble for the Royals lies both in that they would be trading low on Santana and also that there are other first base options available to those teams looking for one. The free agent market features Freddie Freeman, Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo as the high profile names, along with other options such as Daniel Vogelbach, Brad Miller, Albert Pujols and many more. On the trade front, Matt Olson is widely expected to be traded after the lockout. Luke Voit could be on the move if the Yankees find another option. Even if the Royals want to go the route of including a prospect to help stimulate a Santana trade, they’d be competing with the Padres who are known to be trying to take the same approach with Eric Hosmer.
It might be a challenge to hastily work out a deal during the transaction frenzy that will surely take place between whenever the lockout ends and the season gets underway. Perhaps the best path forward for the Royals is to hold onto Santana and hope that he can get things back on track, either to help the team compete or to rebuild trade value. He was dealing with a quad issue at times last year, which he has now recovered from, but he will turn 36 in April, making it harder to expect perfect health and ideal production going forward. Though late career bounceback campaigns are certainly possible, as Joey Votto just showed in his age-37 season.