One position has plagued the Royals more than any other since the club began its rebuild: first base. FanGraphs’ wins above replacement statistic bears this out. Since 2018, Royals’ first basemen have tallied a -4.9 WAR, which ranks last in Major League Baseball.
Yes, that is a negative WAR over four-plus seasons. Because apparently, that is possible.
Players such as Lucas Duda, Cheslor Cuthbert, Frank Schwindel and Ryan McBroom have contributed to this number, and to the collective .223/.300/.377 slash line, which is 17 percent below MLB average. This year, it’s Ryan O’Hearn and Carlos Santana who are continuing the club’s streak of futility.
That O’Hearn has remained on the roster is a valid question for another time. Santana’s continued presence, though, remains glaring in multiple ways.
First, there’s the unsettling reality that comes with the $17.5 million the Royals agreed to pay Santana before 2021. Then there is the outrageous context to what Royals first-base prospects Vinnie Pasquantino and Nick Pratto are doing at Triple-A Omaha.
Last week, Pasquantino batted .478 with four home runs and 11 RBI. In 165 at-bats this year through Tuesday, he is hitting .303 with a 1.063 OPS and only 30 strikeouts to 25 walks. Pratto, meanwhile, has a .412 on-base percentage in May and a .831 OPS this season in 143 at-bats through Tuesday.
“Both are ready,” an opposing scout for a division-leading team recently told The Athletic.
If that’s too anecdotal, how about some more metrics: One analyst recently passed along Pasquantino’s batted-ball data. He ranked above the 75th percentile in the International League (and close to the 99th percentile) in the following metrics: average exit velocity (91 mph), max exit velocity (115.3 mph), percentage of hard-hit balls (46.4 percent), percentage of balls hit above 105 mph (15.2 percent), and the list continues.
As justifiable as it is to view the Royals’ first-base situation in concert with Santana’s contract and the performing prospects, it seems especially relevant to also think about the way the Royals brass have spoken for more than three years, beginning in October 2018.
After a season in which the Royals finished 58-104, Moore met with media members and was asked if seeing players perform jump-started the club’s rebuild.
“I think what jump-started the rebuild is we quit talking about the rebuild,” Moore said. “I think when you create a mindset that you’re rebuilding, you somehow build in or make an excuse that it’s OK to lose baseball games. It’s not. I mean, major-league baseball players are paid to win, and we all understand that.”
A year later, after the Royals improved their record to 59-103, the organization underwent massive changes. Late owner David Glass sold the team to an ownership group led by John Sherman. Former manager Ned Yost retired, and Mike Matheny, who had worked for the organization, became the new skipper. The day the Royals introduced Matheny, he echoed Moore’s sentiment from the year prior: “You can’t tell me we’re not going to have a chance to win each day. … I think if you set a lid or an expectation, you’re probably going to live below that and not go over it or surpass it.”
The COVID-19 pandemic’s shortened season led the Royals to promote pitching prospects Brady Singer, Kris Bubic and Carlos Hernández — decisions Moore has since accepted responsibility for — in hopes that they would win. The club finished 26-34.
It did not make the playoffs or come close.
In the offseason, as the club was zeroing in on Santana, Moore spoke with reporters and was asked about expectations for 2021.
Here was his response: “We expect to win next year. What does that look like? Is it going to be enough wins to make the playoffs? We’ll find out. But our mindset is going to be to go out and win every single pitch, every inning, every game. That’s the only way we’re ever going to win another championship. You’ve got to expect to win in all aspects. And trust me, (manager) Mike Matheny and the coaching staff understand that completely.”
The Royals sprang out of the gates in first place, and Santana had a .825 OPS at the end of May. Then, his numbers nosedived, and so did the Royals’ record.
They lost 11 straight. They finished 74-88. Their winning hopes again fell flat…again.
The message from the Royals’ front office ahead of 2022 was similar, and it continued into the season. Coaches did not want to use the word development, even though the team was stumbling toward its current 16 games below .500.
Two weeks ago, the club’s plight resulted in the firing of hitting coach Terry Bradshaw. But even that day, as the Royals’ leaders discussed that decision, both general manager JJ Picollo and Matheny stressed their belief that the club could turn the tide.
“We’re still in this race,” Picollo said.
Meanwhile, Santana, who now has -0.4 wins below replacement in 143 plate appearances this season — which ranks 20th worst among 264 hitters in Major League Baseball who have tallied 100 plate appearances — has continued to play first base almost daily.
The Royals’ reasons for this have ranged widely. The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal recently reported this: “Santana, earning $10.5 million this season, will become a more realistic trade candidate if he gets hot, and the team has two first basemen in waiting, Nick Pratto and Vinnie Pasquantino.”
There is a positive precedent for the wait-for-player-to-get-hot approach as it relates to the Royals, but it involves a player a half-decade younger. Last year, the Royals held on to Jorge Soler, who found his form and boosted his trade value after the Royals flew in special assignment hitting coach Mike Tosar before the deadline.
There is also a negative precedent. In 2019, the Royals kept slotting Chris Owings into the lineup. He posted a .415 OPS in 145 plate appearances before the Royals designated him for assignment.
In this situation, even FanGraphs’ The Bat X projection, which accounts for Statcast data and past performance, projects Pasquantino to produce more at the big-league level than Santana for the rest of the season. So, ultimately, how does this situation make sense in conjunction with the way the Royals have spoken about their hopes?
Maybe the answer truly is that the Royals notice something in their evaluation of Pasquantino that gives them pause, though catcher MJ Melendez had a .581 OPS at Triple-A Omaha when they promoted him. Maybe the Royals now want to play Hunter Dozier at first base to see if they can increase his trade value. Or maybe the Royals, who have been open in their feelings toward service-time manipulation in years past, have their sights set on the date for when a select group of players becomes eligible for the Super Two designation. (That’s when players become eligible for arbitration before reaching three years of service time.)
All of these possibilities raise questions, but maybe the most important one is this: Do the Royals truly feel as if they are still in this race?
If not — if development is currently the sole focus — would Pasquantino, at minimum, not be best served alongside senior director of player development and hitting performance Alec Zumwalt, assisting hitting coach Keoni DeRenne and Tosar at the big-league level the same way fellow top prospects Bobby Witt Jr. and Melendez are?
(Photo of Carlos Santana: Ron Schwane/Getty Images)